Minecraft’s plucky creator has just hit the big million — that’s a million purchases, not bucks. I’ve made money as a modder in my day, and I can with no small amount of envy say that he’s on top of the modding world right now, and good for him. I love to see modders pull off these wild indie games and colossal total conversions. They’re the exceptions to the usual rule that modders and one-man design teams are amateurs who never finish what they start. How cool is it that Nehrim was up for RPG of the year — not just mod of the year? How awesome to see multiple Ultima games reinvented in the Dungeon Siege engine, Sins of a Solar Empire skinned Star Wars-style, and NWN community mods licensed and sold by BioWare itself?
And yet, between its mid-’90s graphics, unoriginal sandbox, and antique gameplay, Minecraft-the-game didn’t compel me in the least.
I’m a compulsive modder. By that I mean I usually start modding the game before I finish it the first time around. In many cases, I never finish the original game at all (I’ve still never completed Bloodmoon or Shivering Isles, yet I’ve sunk thousands of hours into both Morrowind and Oblivion and consider them among my favorite games). Every half a year or so, I get the urge to dig into the mods for one game or another, to go on a downloading binge and update everything, to get my game in perfect shape. For the TES games, it usually takes me several days of work, more if I have technical difficulties. For games like the Sims, I have a nasty habit of spending weeks organizing and downloading, such that I don’t usually want to play by the time I’m done (for the Sims 3, I finally tried to beat that OCD behavior by only updating hacks and avoiding my old marathon download frenzies). In World of Warcraft, I’ve underperformed in groups because I was fussing with my UI, a UI that likely took me a week to set up in the first place. In SWG, I hated the interior of my house so much that I set aside a week of play to retexture it, which turned into a huge texture pack I made available for everyone. Spore is dangerous too, as it encourages a second tier of modding above content creation: Sporecasting, which is basically a tool to let you create lists of other people’s mods.
So I do understand the feeling of compulsive modding. I totally understand why people lose sleep and call in sick to work to play sandbox games for two weeks straight. It’s just that Minecraft iself is so… mundane.
Minecraft is fugly.
Morrowind is a very old game by today’s standards, but it can be made to look quite beautiful with the correct meshes, textures, and shaders. Oblivion holds up very well with very little work, and even a cartoon like the Sims has a certain aesthetic charm. Minecraft, on the other hand, is really quite ugly and relies almost entirely on nostalgia for a mid-’90s “sprite” look that’s practically a retro fad. We love indie things. We’re fond of the early internet. So everyone wanted a piece of Minecraft, especially before it truly took off. Look how hip and retro we are. Look how we’re supporting indie developers and rejecting the mainstream!
I won’t say that graphics are everything or that I never play older games for nostalgia. But this isn’t an older game, and if your graphics are poop, you really have to offer something else that’s special to compensate. Everyone’s been afraid to call Emperor’s New Clothes on Minecraft. I’m doing it.
Minecraft is inhibited.
An ideal modding sandbox has to have the right gameplay. Minecraft’s survival mode can best be summarized as “mine for materials, build stuff, get owned by monsters at night.” It’s primitive, meager, and unengaging, particularly in contrast to Bethesda’s heavily moddable series of TES and Fallout games, which actually support dozens of fleshed-out systems. If I really want to play a game that I can also mod, I’ll toss a few gigs of houses and crafting mods into Oblivion and get it out of my system. I’ll run around and explore dungeons, slay monsters, go shopping, pick herbs, decorate my house, steal from castles, assassinate royals, and complete quests. For example, I’m currently playing through a TES4 housing mod that allows me to bake, sew, bathe, feed a dog, tend a garden, start an orchard, make wine and ale, make butter and cheese, care for and butcher livestock, make paper, make dyes, spin wool, do the laundry, make pottery, cook dinner, wash dishes, grind wheat, make tea, paint, chop wood, light fires, craft tools, use a smithy, pack a picnic, go fishing, and on and on. It is, quite simply, spectacular, and it’s just one of thousands of mods for one tiny and optional part of the game.
By contrast, Minecraft is pretty damn bleak.
Minecraft is rudimentary.
I’ll give props to Minecraft for having an in-game sandbox mode and editor. Most moddable games (TES3 and 4 included) don’t do that, opting instead to provide a near-clone of the developer toolset to allow modders to really dig in to the guts of the game. Granted, the learning curve is steeper (although, if I can do it…). You can’t just log into Morrowind and throw together a copy of the U.S.S. Enterprise — it can be done, but it would take time and practice to make something that’s a notch above amusing-for-30-seconds-in-a-YouTube-video. But other games do have in-game editors, far more robust ones than Minecraft’s. The Sims games in particular are famous for elaborate in-game editing modes. Yes, players were in the Sims over a decade ago building replicas of the U.S.S. Enterprise and more. And what about Spore? Have you seen the insane creatures and vehicles and buildings people build in Spore?
Minecraft has accessibility, and that’s probably why it caught on so quickly with gamers who aren’t normally into modding, who have no idea how enormous the world of mods really is, who go gaga over an unfinished pre-alpha of an StarCraft II mod because they have no idea how common such mods are, and to whom the Sims games are considered girly or taboo. But the downside of accessibility is limitation, and Minecraft’s editor is unfortunately hampered by the very simplicity that makes it so novice-friendly.
Minecraft’s also not finished.
And because of that, I don’t want to knock it too much. Now that the Minecraft guru is loaded up with his millions, he can fund a studio, texture artists, meshers, UI designers, and so on to make Minecraft a truly awesome game. And hopefully he makes something else too, because the Minecraft craze isn’t going to last. Do you know anyone still playing? I sure don’t. The frenzy has lulled because even modding novices crave more at some point. Maybe Minecraft will bring all of those people into the wider world of addons and construction sets and making aliens that look like something other than penises in Spore. I hope so, because that means more mods for me to download! New people in my hobby is a win-win.
But I have my doubts. My Minecraft pals all moved on to Wurm Online, the sandbox MMO that inspired and is effectively the base game for the standalone mod that is Minecraft. For all that Minecraft allowed players to connect their individual realms, the social aspect is lacking. Most modders mod single-player games, but they don’t do it quietly — they do it to share. There’s a multiplayer aspect to modding that comes from showing off your mod to thousands of people and convincing them to download and try it and offer feedback. Minecraft just didn’t fulfill that need.
Am I a modding snob? Very possibly. But my time is precious and my compulsions many, so I have to be picky for my own sanity. And right now, ceteris paribus, I just can’t see the wisdom in playing such a limited eyesore of a game when I could mod something much more robust and lovely and still have a full-fledged game when I’m done.