Minecraft has now sold over 70 million copies and is the biggest-selling oneman game of all time. Where next for the Swedish behemoth?
No one expected that the dominant game of the early 21st century would be a retro exploration game from a shy, obscure Swedish developer. But then, Minecraft surprises everyone who plays it. You start in on it, and it seems a bucolic little world you’ve dropped into. It’s a joy to run around punching animals and trees for a couple of hours, and marveling at all the stuff you’re collecting.
Then the sun starts to set. And it seems very, very dark without it. If you’re a big wuss, you’ll crank up the gamma on your screen, but that doesn’t help much when the daytime farmyard noises give way to creepier sounds. Distant hisses and groans can be heard all around you. You can see things moving between the trees, and before you know it, there’s a strange snicker behind you. You turn to see what looks like a walking hedgerow for a second before it explodes. You’re badly hurt, and you need to find shelter while you heal up. But there are groans all around you, which turn into humanoids walking relentlessly, aggressively toward you. Running in the dark, you fall into a hole in the ground, possibly the one from which the creature exploded, and a whole new array of items are in your inventory —bits of wood and stone. Using the crafting panel, you hurriedly make a workbench, and with the workbench, you then make a pick. You start digging. That’s the classic Minecraft experience we all know. But it’s set to change, and change fast. Microsoft’s purchase of Minecraft and its developer, Mojang, has worked like Disney’s purchase of LucasArts—it’s rejuvenated a muchloved project that was in danger of getting stagnant. Many new projects are coming, which are expanding Minecraft in familiar and unfamiliar directions, and we’re going to take a closer look at them all. Rather amazingly, considering it started development in 2009, basic Minecraft still receives updates every few days. That’s because when it was deemed finished in 2011, way before the creator Markus ‘Notch’ Persson left, he handed over development to Jens Bergenstern, who originally worked on two other Mojang games: Cobalt and Scrolls. Jens has led a small development team building on Notch’s work for the last four years. So, if you don’t know, the game now has an ending, where you fight a giant Ender Dragon. This is located in a new airy region, The End, which has End cities, End ships, and strange beasts called Shulkers that are disguised as blocks and make the player levitate. It also has the Nether, an underground world of lava, horror, and pigmen, that you can only get to by building an obsidian portal, but which allows you to travel between distant areas of the overworld much more quickly. Players can craft a huge amount of new stuff, and can fly, sail, teleport, and map everything automatically as they go. The game has been heavily improved, too, including differentiation into five modes. There’s traditional Survival mode, where you have to fight off monsters, explore the world for resources, and deal with thirst and hunger. Creative mode lets you fly and do anything you want with limitless resources. Adventure mode has you play on a map made by another player, where editing the world is extremely limited, but you can explore it. Spectator mode makes you invisible and able to move anywhere in the world by flying. And Hardcore mode is a version of Survival mode, where the difficulty level is set to Hard and the map is deleted when the player dies, or if everyone on a server dies. Most significantly, the team released an update enabling Realms in 2013. This was a server-hosting system that enables players to run server multiplayer games easily, without having to set them up by themselves. Unlike the existing servers, Realms is inviteonly, can host a maximum of 10 players, and doesn’t support user-made plugins. Realms also has an interesting optional feature, where players can replace their server-saved world with two different types of map. The first is a permanent replacement, where you can use an established map template or an adventure map built by the community. The second is for mini games, which are temporary replacement maps, and change the game entirely. These range from a version of Solitaire, to a version of Bomberman, to a version of Platoon, and are all fun and original.“Realms is also going to come to Pocket and Windows 10 soon!” Mojang’s lead Minecraft Pocket developer Tommaso Checchi told us. “After a beta that was very well received a long time ago, we’ve been pretty silent on it, but finally we’re working to reintroduce Realms as soon as possible. It’s very important to us because Pocket players don’t even have dedicated servers (yet) or true online play, so it’s a way for them to play together when not in the same room.”Of course, traditional multiplayer is still there as well—it wouldn’t be the same without the large public servers that allow players to recreate the entire Game of Thrones world, or build the USS Enterprise, or create working microcomputers in-game.
Users of Microsoft’s new Windows 10 (we say new, but it’s an upgrade to Windows NT via Windows 7 and 8) will have noticed something strange about the games setup. Sure, the usual Solitaire is there (though Minesweeper is sadly absent), and it’s heavily upgraded, but it’s part of the new Xbox gaming application. And all official gaming on Windows 10 is meant to go through this always-online application. Similarly, existing users of Minecraft can go to the Mojang website and get a code, which they can put into the Xbox gaming application on Windows 10, and download the Minecraft Windows 10 Beta. And if they do, they’ll find something very strange—because it’s not the same Minecraft we know of yore. Now, of course Minecraft has been on other platforms—from the PlayStation 4 to the iPhone, there’s a version of Minecraft for it—but the Windows 10 Beta is unusual. Firstly, you can only play it when you have signed in online. Secondly, it hasn’t been built on the original Minecraft, but on the Pocket version. Mojang’s Checci, who runs the Pocket development, tells us why it’s just a beta. “It’s doing OK, but there is a lot to fix. People have complained about the UI not being PC friendly, and some other omissions, like key remapping being missing, and we’re working on that stuff, which unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to work on before. But the good news is that it’s a beta, so it will improve over time!”Pocket Edition has been around since 2011, and is actually the biggest selling version of Minecraft, having sold over 30 million copies by January 2015. It’s available on iOS, Android, Smart TVs, and Windows Phone. The latter is significant, because Windows Phone is now Windows 10, which explains why that’s the version we’ve got on Windows 10—though you can, of course, still run the original Minecraft on Windows 10 instead, for the moment. There are big limitations to this edition of Minecraft. It doesn’t support modding, and would be harder to mod even if it did, being built on C++ rather than Java code. It only allows you to play with seven other players— compared with a theoretical cap on original Minecraft of 2,147,483,647. It’s also not up to the same feature level as original Minecraft, with the team endlessly playing catchup. However, it does have the bonus that it supports a good range of inputs—Xbox controller, keyboard and mouse, or touch, because Windows 10 is going to be running on all those platforms.“Eventually, we’d like it to reach feature parity with the original Minecraft, and gain some modding support, while remaining able to play with Pocket Edition, and Xbox too when that gets Windows 10.” Yes, that’s a reminder that the Xbox One user interface is undergoing a substantial redesign to look like Windows 10, so that every platform— console, PC, and phone—looks the same. So that’s three separate editions of Minecraft out there, all running on different code and being developed in parallel by three different teams: core Minecraft, by Jens Bergenstern’s team; Minecraft Pocket Edition, by Tommaso Checchi’s team; and Minecraft Console Edition, by 4J. There are two more editions we know of that are incoming: Minecraft Story Mode and Minecraft Hololens Edition.
Telltale Games has established its credentials over the past 10 years. Starting as a bunch of exdesigners from LucasArts, it’s made itself known as the specialist studio creating digitally-distributed episodic adventure games, mostly from famous licensed properties. Now it’s working on Minecraft. Telltale’s background is working on extensions of old LucasArts series, such as Sam & Max and Monkey Island, but it has also worked on adventure game series based on movies, such as Back to The Future and Jurassic Park, comics such as The Walking Dead and Fables, and TV series like Game of Thrones. It was when it started working on a spin-off of the Borderlands series of co-op shooting games that it realized it could do a Minecraft game—and Mojang was delighted. So is the Mojang team excited that someone else has got their hands on Minecraft, finally? “Yes!” said chief word officer, Owen Hill, when we spoke with him. “Seeing new interpretations of the Minecraft world is a great thing for us, whether they come from a piece of machinima, a music parody, or a narrative-driven video game.”Although the project was only formally announced in December 2014, it’s been going on in the background for quite a while, according to Hill—as far back as 2012. “Telltale Games have had their hands on the IP for some time now, though we’ve worked closely with the studio to ensure Story Mode is something that’s going to be fun for both new and existing players.”The story, ahem, of Minecraft: Story Mode seems very traditional. The protagonist is Jesse, a newbie player who sets off with his friends to find The Order of the Stone—four adventurers who slew an Ender Dragon, one of Minecraft’s newer end bosses—in the hope of enlisting them to prevent the destruction of the video game world. Players will travel throughout the Minecraft world, including to The End and the Nether, in a game that’s very similar to Telltale’s previous work, such as awardwinning The Walking Dead, but also draws much from the 1980s, a golden age of PG-13 films. The tone, according to Job Stauffer, Telltale’s director of communications, should be reminiscent of The Goonies or Ghostbusters, but with Telltale’s branded hard choices—you will have to make decisions to leave friends behind—even if it’s not as violent as the studio’s Game of Thrones or Wolf Among Us titles. The cast is an interesting mix, including Paul Reubens (aka Pee Wee Herman), Corey Feldman (The Goonies, Gremlins), John Hodgman (Coraline, The Daily Show), Ashley Johnson (What Women Want, Avengers Assemble), and Martha Plimpton (The Goonies, Parenthood), with either comedian Patton Oswalt or actress Catherine Taber as Jesse (depending on which gender you choose). Billy West (Futurama, Ren & Stimpy) acts as a narrator. Minecraft: Story Mode is going to consist of five episodes, initially, and the first should be out by the time you read this. It’ll be on all the consoles, PC, Mac, and mobile phones.
Microsoft’s Hololens is an experimental project, designed to compete with the wow factor of the forthcoming VR revolution. Revealed at GDC in 2014, it consists of a headset connected to a powerful computer, much like the Oculus Rift. The difference is that this is augmented reality, not virtual reality, so the headset isn’t opaque but transparent. Its big trick is detecting your location and head position, and overlaying what appears to be a 3D image in the room, which moves as you move. Essentially, it makes you hallucinate. So, of course, the killer app Microsoft has demonstrated for it is Minecraft. In the E3 demo, players got to look at a beautiful 3D representation of the world they were playing with—the detail was astounding: smoking chimneys, wandering tiny cows. In this “reality” mode, the player was limited to voice commands tied to their point of focus— so looking at a cow and saying “lightning strike” would zap the poor bovine beastie. There are problems. The simulation only works in the center of the headset’s visual field, so as you get closer to its adorable world, it disappears at the edges of the headset. And while it looks amazing, it’s more challenging to play, so a second, more interactive version was accessed via an Xbox controller and a separate Hololensprojected screen on the wall. Was this just a demo or something we’ll get to play one day? “It’s definitely meant to be a full product,” says Checci. “In fact, it’s based on the Windows 10/Pocket edition from the start, so it will also be compatible with those versions when it comes out.”Minecraft is also due to arrive on Facebook’s Oculus Rift platform, using the Windows 10 edition, early next year. We’ve got very few details on that, but it’s guaranteed to be working in true 3D—presumably, given the prep from the Hololens work, that’s relatively easy. That’s all we know is coming to Minecraft in the near future—beyond the Minecraft movie, which is still in pre-production. Unless Mojang’s Owen Hill knows anything else? “Of course, we’re still focussed on maintaining Minecraft, and there are lots of exciting things to come, but the studio is packed with talent, so who knows what we might create in the future?”.