Monthly Archives: September 2010

Not to be covetous, is money; not to be acquisitive, is revenue.

Last night, having passed through the tutorial turnstile at the entrance, I pushed my head through the heavy curtains draped across the doorway leading to Runes of Magic’s circus tent and peered around at the main show. Runes of Magic is definitely its own game, from the intriguing dual-class system to its pick’n’mix revenue model, there is enough here to make it stand out from the obvious point of comparison, the everyman’s point of comparison: World of Warcraft. Runes of Magic, and games like it, are always going to have a great deal of difficulty standing out against WoW, they are but small carnivals pitched on the borders of a vast amusement park, corporation concrete and polished chrome, whose rows of streamlined rides, safe but sterile, stretch all the way to the horizon.

As such, the smaller carnival games need to put on a grand display, to draw-in their customers, convince them to roll up, roll up and witness the wonders of their world, to see the bearded ladies and lizard men and midgets, to show them that lion tamers and trapeze artists can still hold sway and bring joy in this age of homogenous techno-marvels.

But it’s the danger that any entity risks when it becomes so large that it has difficulty defining its own boundaries: in presenting a clean, clinical, wart-free experience World of Warcraft risks losing any sense of character, with nothing to really challenge players the game becomes a processing facility, paying customers are injected at one end, and desensitised burnt-out husks are ejected at the other. I think Wrath of the Lich King came dangerously close to this with the relative trivialising of heroics and raiding; their error being, I believe, in confusing accessibility with difficulty. But Blizzard is in the process of renovating the amusement park, rejuvenating old rides to get people interested in them again as well attracting new customers, and at the same time they’re probably reviewing the layout of the park in a strange inverse reflection of the process that real life amusement parks go through. Disney World and the like are optimised to keep the flow of people moving between rides so that no one ride becomes overwhelmed, exits from rides will lead people to other rides or, more likely, shops where they can spend even more money with the park. World of Warcraft currently has this down to an art, and it turns out that it’s actually the wrong philosophy for a subscription-based MMO. What they need to be doing is keeping people on the same ride for as long as possible before sending them off to the next. As evidence, very few players come even close to getting the World Explorer achievement by the time they reach the end of the game because the streamlined system carries them on a rapid current that encourages them to not explore the banks of the river, but instead stay in the fast running waters, until the sudden and unexpected plunge over the waterfall of progress into the churning pool of raiding at its end.

For me the problem with Runes of Magic was that it tried so hard to pull me in that I found myself overwhelmed by the experience, and as a consequence it teetered on the edge of driving me away. I couldn’t help but compare my first levels in the game with those of WoW because the two games share similarities that have been pointed out by numerous other commentators already. Graphically and mechanically Runes of Magic is like looking at WoW through a hall of mirrors, everything is brighter, louder and more in your face, while being twisted into strange caricatures of the original. At best amusing, at worst confusing. It’s not that Runes of Magic is particularly difficult to get to grips with, it’s more like culture shock. Like a naive tourist from the West, comfortable with their cavernous shopping malls – those sanitised glass and tile cathedrals to the Gods of consumerism – visiting a heaving Arabian bazaar, totally unprepared for the personal, intimate, rustic, ritualistic orgy of acquisition. Neither shopping experience being right or wrong, you understand, just a matter of local culture or religion. Everything in Runes of Magic seemed to pull at me and attempt to barter for my attention. The system messages were perhaps the most stark, so long were they that they couldn’t simply be flashed up on your screen and then left in your chat log should you wish to review them again at your convenience, instead a scrolling stock-market-style ticker bar appears towards the top of the screen, and the full message is scrolled slowly along, thus giving the game time and space to present the hard sell for the item you ‘need’ to buy in the store to participate in the latest seasonal event.

In a way, what we are experiencing is The Cathedral and the Bazaar for MMO revenue streams, the Amusement Park and the Carnival, as it were.

The carnival is growing in popularity, and even the bigger developers such as Turbine are packing up their shows and taking them on the road, opening themselves up to a much wider audience that couldn’t otherwise have justified the expense of travelling to them. The show in the main tent is free to all, but doesn’t last long. You can go back as many times as you like, but it starts to get repetitive after a while. However you can experience the vast array of mad and magnificent side shows, for a price. The problem for the carnivals up until now is that they had to be brash, shout loudly, and flaunt young girls in their chainmail underwear, just to get the attention of the people taking their regular vacation to Warcraft World, and this can often be enough to put off those potential new customers, unaccustomed as they are to the in-your-face tactics of the ringmaster or bazaar shopkeeper. With Turbine moving into the arena things are perhaps set to change. They have an established name behind their travelling show, and they don’t need to be quite as brazen with their sales technique, it’s a more subtle sell than other games in the market, and although you should have no doubt that they are constantly trying to sell you things, a game like Lord of the Rings Online does not beat you around the head with it from the very moment you set foot in there. There’s a fine line to be trod when it comes to the pick’n’mix model of MMO revenue, convincing people to take in the main show and not driving them off is the first part of this, and it’s an area where I think games such as Runes of Magic struggle, but where established games that convert to this new revenue model can excel. The outcome of this is potentially a samurai-like double cut on Turbine’s part, where they introduce a large population of comfortable subscribers to the ideas of a pick’n’mix model, while at the same time introducing the pick’n’mixers to the idea that an accomplished top tier game can exist comfortably within their sphere of the MMO market, thus forcing other developers in the free to play market to raise their game.

Luck never gives; it only lends

How much randomness do you like in a game? Do you prefer the intellectual cut and thrust of Chess, a domain where Lady Luck holds no thrall, or do you like to test your favour with the gods through the medium of dice in Snakes and Ladders or Ludo (“Fucking Ludo”, to give it its full title)? Perhaps a mix of skill and chance works best, such as in Backgammon or Poker, or KiaSA Industries newest offering: Luda-Chess™. It’s just like normal chess, but you have to roll a 6 before you can move each pawn; all the wacky family fun of Chess with the deep strategy of Ludo!

Greg Costikyan gave a fantastic presentation at GDC Austin last year, “Randomness: Blight or Bane?”, reaching the conclusion “If randomness dictates outcomes, many players will find the game unsatisfying. But there are times when a degree of randomness plays an important, and useful, role in a design.” In MMOGs randomness is sometimes to the fore, typically in loot drops; perhaps pages from a book, or a lovely sword with a 5% chance of dropping from a boss (and a 99% chance of being rolled on by the rest of your party), and much as we might curse Lady Luck’s digitised cyber-counterpart Lady RNG when we miss out on that shiny trinket we still line up for another pull on the mob-lever of the slot machine dungeon. It’s an accepted form of randomness. In the combat that resulted in the loot-piñata-boss spraying forth his bejewelled intestines there was probably also plenty of randomness going on, in to-hit rolls and damage and crits, but enough rolls over enough time with little enough variance for that not to be the decisive factor in the combat. Maybe you get a bit lucky as a DPS character with a few extra critical rolls to nudge yourself up the damage meters slightly, maybe a tank gets unlucky and doesn’t block as many attacks as they’d normally expect, it keeps things interesting. What you don’t get is a boss who rolls a d6 every ten seconds, on a 6 instantly kills a player and on a 1 accidentally punches himself in the head for 1/6th of his total health; that would be Bad Random.

I’ve been thinking about randomness because I bought Blood Bowl on Steam the other week when it was on sale for less than a fiver. After a few games getting the hang of the rules I’m two games into a league campaign and I’ve decided it’s brilliant and rubbish, an excellent tactical sporting simulation and a foetid pile of badly thought out random goblin droppings. This might have something to do with my triumphant 3-1 victory over an Orc team in the opening game of the season being followed by brutalisation at the hands (and tentacles) of a bunch of Chaos Warriors, much of the difference seeming to come from dice rolls.

Almost everything you do in Blood Bowl, apart from moving, needs a dice roll; attacking other players, moving through tackle zones, throwing and catching the ball, even picking the ball up from the ground. In the first game things went swimmingly, I knocked a couple of his players out of the game quite early, didn’t suffer any serious casualties, and pulled off a couple of lovely moves (if I say so myself) like tackling the opposing ball carrier a few squares out from my endzone, scooping up the loose ball, chucking it down the sideline with a pinpoint pass, and sprinting in to score myself the next turn. The second game I finished with five players on the field, the other six in various states of injury and death, and featured such glorious triumphs as failing to pick the ball up from a kickoff, and an attempt at recreating the sideline pass of great victory from the first game that resulted in the ball squirting out of the thrower’s hand, off the pitch, and coming straight back in the hands of an opposing player. By some miracle the game actually finished in a 1-1 draw, due to the AI opponent either just being rubbish, or more likely properly roleplaying a Chaos coach almost entirely unconcerned with minor points of the game like “the ball”, but with at most eight or nine players available for the next round of the competition, two of those with stat damage from injuries, the longer term prospect don’t look good.

You can buy re-rolls for your team, and certain player skills mitigate dangers by allowing you to re-try or ignore certain results, but at the start of a campaign with a raw team it seems like randomness is the main factor in dictating outcomes. Of course there are strategies and tactics, websites and forums full of them, but with decisions based on a d6 there’s always a significant risk of failure; even a simple action like an agile player picking the ball up with no opposing player anywhere near fails if you roll a one, leading to the best laid plans of Skaven and Men ganging aft agley. This might just be sour grapes after a particularly bad mauling, perhaps I just need to buck my tactics up, and (possibly) excessive dependance on dice rolls apart Blood Bowl is rather fun. I think it could be a different experience against another person, where you could at least gloat over their critical fumble, or curse at their flukey luck if they pull off an improbable long bomb, against a CPU opponent it’s just the random numbers laid bare and maybe a bit of canned commentary.

That rather chimes with something from Keiron Gillen’s Ludo “review”:

“At a core level, especially when played with friends, everything’s fun in multiplayer. Stating the obvious: the most important part of multiplayer is the multiple players. This is where a worrying amount of a multiplayer game’s merit comes from. Is this actually a good game, or are these just good players? By which I mean, not actually anything to do with the commonly accepted idea of whether someone is good at the game – but whether they’re actually good to play with. That’s the only sort of “good player” which ever really matters.”

Have I Got MMOnews For You

Slashdot reports on Panasonic’s sixteen-finger hair-washing robot:

“Panasonic has developed a hair-washing robot that uses 16 electronically controlled fingers to give a perfect wash and rinse. The robot, images of which were distributed by Panasonic, appears to be about the size of a washing machine. Users sit in a reclining chair and lean back to place their head in the machine’s open top. Two robot arms guide the 16 fingers, which have the same dexterity as human fingers, the company claims.”

The rumour that when a keyboard was placed in the open top the unmodified machine put out 5.5k DPS in most World of Warcraft raid dungeons is unfounded at this time. Observers did admit that the rinse cycle meant that the keys were surprisingly free from the usual residual levels of Cheetos, Mountain Dew and omnifarious bodily fluids, however.

To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present very few people have reached this level.

Age of Conan has a bonus levelling system where you earn levels while your account has an active subscription. This pool of levels can then be spent on any character over level thirty to increase their overall level. You accrue levels at a rate which is comparative to the amount of time you would have otherwise had to spend actually levelling the character, and, as mentioned, it can also only be applied to a character that has already reached level thirty, something which doesn’t take a huge amount of time but is a suitable barrier to people rolling up a level one character and then boosting it up to the end game without any experience of the class whatsoever.

I was indifferent to this scheme, where some bloggers and forumites had railed against it I couldn’t see the problem; other players using it wouldn’t affect my game in any way – by the time it was released there were already enough level-capped characters to mean that the PvP game would be unaffected – and if I chose to skip content and get to the end game it was exactly that: my choice.

Now I’m actually starting to see that it could be quite a good thing in a mature game where players have already reached the level cap, perhaps multiple times. I’m currently in the middle of an alt dilemma in LotRO, having three characters that I really want to play but finding myself having a hard time playing any one of them, knowing that if I play one of them then that is time that I’m not playing the other two. Playing alt roulette and investing small amounts of time in each character is not an option either as I will be constantly repeating the same content (since they’re all close in level) and thus the sense of character progress – one of the primary factors for playing MMOs in the first place – will be greatly diminished, to the point where it’s very easy to burn out.

I’m also seeing quite a few posts amongst World of Warcraft blogs concerning people taking the time to level alts in the pre-Cataclysm lull, but with their hearts not really being in it and a vast majority of them discussing whether the levelling game in WoW is really relevant any more, and even worse, pondering whether they want to bother with the levelling game in Cataclysm, something that I would imagine Blizzard is banking on players wanting to do in order to keep subscription numbers ticking over while they get on with implementing the level eighty five end-game properly (you’re not expecting a comprehensive end-game on release, are you? Really?).

Would a levelling pool such as the one Age of Conan has implemented benefit World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online veterans? If you could spend the first thirty levels getting the hang of the basics of a class, making sure it suits you, and then spend levels to skip to the end game, would you? For me, I like the journey as much as the end game, if not more, but sometimes I just want to skip to the end. If I had a limited pool of levels to use then the choice would need to be made with some consideration and not just on a wanton whim; tie those levels in to an active subscription as Age of Conan does and you have a rudimentary system of offline levelling akin (on a basic level) to EVE’s skill system which rewards veterans who have kept their subscription active. Would that be a bad thing? The system is much more finite than EVE’s incredibly expansive skill system, and so the idea of simply “playing offline” to level shouldn’t be a problem, after all, once you’ve hit the level cap you’ve not a lot of options other than to start playing or quit. It shouldn’t affect skill too much either: as many WoW raiders bemoan, most players reach the end game at the moment without having much group experience at all, and the end game in many of the current crop of MMOs seems to be where people start to actually learn their class with respect to team play. If nothing else it can be used as a method to smooth over the levelling run where it becomes too steep, allowing you to nudge your character through the pain barrier and give yourself a second wind before the lactic acid of the grind causes your MMO muscles to burn out; rather than driving players away, it could help keep players in the game where they otherwise might have burnt out and left. Certainly there will be that group of players who blow their entire pool of levels on boosting arbitrary abandoned alts to the level cap, still finding themselves bored and quitting, but I put it to you that these people would have quit anyway and would not represent the norm or majority.

The levelling game of mature MMOs is often seen as nothing more than a one or two month subscription extension before the real game starts for its loyal player base, many of whom already have characters at the level cap. Perhaps it’s worth rewarding those players by giving them a little freedom and choice in which characters they play and how.

Freedom and choice in an MMO? I must be new around here.

Adopt, adapt, improve

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale is proving to be quite a hit, flipping the usual RPG tropes by casting you as the owner of a shop selling items to bold adventurers, and of course successful games inspire others to tread in their footsteps (or, in the case of Zynga, mug them, steal their shoes, paint them a different colour and claim they’re their own), so you should soon be able to look forward to:

A Questgiver’s Tale: you play the role of an MMO quest giver, cast into the world with nothing but a giant punctuation mark to hold over your head. In Typing of the Dead style gameplay, you must type out some random hard luck story while adventurers stand in front of you, jump up and down and run in circles, and repeatedly click on you to try and make you talk faster before ignoring everything you said and looking up your name on a wiki to find the exact co-ordinates of the quest location. As you gain levels you acquire new abilities such as “Wander Around In A Random Pattern And Laugh When The Adventurer Goes Back To Where You Were But You’re Not There Any More” before finally getting the ultimate power, “Demand The Adventurer Keeps You Alive As You Inch Painfully Slowly From One Point To Another Aggroing Every Monster Within 6 Miles On The Way Not To Mention Spawning Nine Specific Ambushes Just As It Looked Like There Might Be A Chance To Recover Some Mana For Ten Seconds”.

A Trash Mob’s Tale: Dungeon Keeper let you play as an evil overlord sending minions to do your bidding, but what if you were one of those minions? In A Trash Mob’s Tale you get to fling yourself at adventurers you have absolutely no chance of defeating again and again and again and again and again, dispensing a couple of copper pieces or some lint when they inevitably smite you. The goal is to try and make the heroes discount you as a threat and try and just run past you, at which point you follow them, gathering similarly ineffectual allies along the way until either you get bored or the adventurer is delayed by something allowing you to mob them. Higher level abilities include the Heel Nip movement debuff, and the ever popular Stealth tree which culminates in the Bugged Invisible Mob uber-power.

A Class Trainer’s Tale: After mastering every aspect of your chosen class, you realise that the amount of money you can make battling dangerous foes pales in comparison to the rewards of training. Start by answering an advert on an obscure satellite channel: “Tired of your current job? Want to be your own boss and set your own hours? Why not become an Adventurer Instructor!” Perform a valuable service by offering observations such as “You know when you cast that Fireball 2 spell? Do that, but *more*. There. You know Fireball 3 now, that’ll be ten gold.” Eventually you can work your up to the ultra-lucrative Respec market, where you charge the adventurer for hitting them over the head with a hammer until they forget all their skills, then charge them again to teach them different skills! (Or almost exactly the same skills, but with one slightly different one because they clicked on the wrong thing that one time.)

Star Trekkin’ across this Middle Earth.

Next time you look at the blanket of night sky draped over Middle Earth, remember that up there, somewhere, a few of those stars are actually starships looking down on you from their geosynchronous orbits.

At least, that’s my theory based on how quickly all those Dourhand dwarves appeared, and out of nowhere, while I was making my way through their fort to kill their leader. I mean, my Hunter isn’t exactly a sloth when it comes to the wholesale slaughter of the agents of Mordor, and yet I had barely made twenty yards of progress through their ranks before there was a gentle hum and tinkle-whine of transporter signatures, and four Dourhand dwarves appeared on the path from where I had come, leapt over the corpses of the dwarves I had only recently killed, and started attacking me.

Put on your handcrafted tin hats (journeyman Paranoia crafting level required, part of the Conspiracy Theorist profession set), because this strange teleporting business leads me to believe that Middle Earth is being infiltrated by various warring factions from outer space. They do, however, seem to be following some sort of directive instructing them to blend in with the natives, but they give themselves away from time to time when they use their advanced technology to cheat their way to victory. All I’m saying is to keep your eyes open, and your wits about you, and be suspicious of elves with bowl cuts who make strange V-shaped gestures with their hands, and uruk-hai with unusual bow-shaped battle blades shouting “Kplah!” as they charge into battle…

KiaSAcast Episode 7

For those of you who are not monitoring our podcast RSS feed or stalking us on the Twitterverse, brace your main hats and hang on to your sails, because we’re pleased to announce that it’s time for KiaSAcast episode seven.

In this episode we talk about Minecraft. A lot.

This episode of the podcast includes:

– Introduction

– Minecraft, including::

     – Mining

     – Crafting

     – Miningcraft

     – Minecrafting

     – A treatise on the philosophy and spiritualism of Sri Aurobindo

     – We possibly mention Minecraft once or twice too…

Download KiaSAcast Episode Seven

Don’t Get Shafted: A Beginner’s Guide to Minecraft

No idea what to do in Minecraft? Don’t punch a chicken with some sand, just fire up a new world and follow this handy guide to get yourself safe before your first nightfall, brought to you in glorious Pictovision[TM]:

The sun rises over a pristine new world. This is a good time to put Morning from Grieg's Peer Gynt on the stereo.

The first thing you want to do is find a tree. If you’re not sure what you’re looking for, here’s How to Recognise Different Types of Trees From Quite a Long Way Away:

Number one: the larch

If you’ve ever seen a documentary about industrial-scale logging you’ll know what you need to do to harvest the wood: walk up to the tree (using the traditional W, A, S, D keys for movement) and punch it with the traditional left mouse click. To keep punching it you don’t need multiple clicks, just hold down the button, otherwise you’ll get through about four mice just in this tutorial.

I'm a lumberjack, and I'm OK

Congratulations, you’ve punched a log out of the tree!

Is that your giant ham-like hand, or are you just pleased to have wood?

Walk over it to pick it up, then punch another log out of the tree. And another! Stand underneath the now-floating trunk and look up to harvest the rest, trying not to think about what force is holding it up.

I cut down trees, I wear high heels...

What to do with all these logs?  Press “I” to open your inventory:

I've got wood, as the bishop said to the actress

Drag the logs into any of the four squares labelled “Crafting”:

Planks for the memories

Wine? Fishes? Loaves? Ah, planks of wood. I think I'm starting to get the hang of it.

The box on the right, with the arrow pointing to it, contains the potential results of your crafting. Drag something out of here back into your inventory to actually make it; in this case one log becomes four planks, as you have several logs you can click in the results window several times to stack planks up rather than dragging four at a time.

Next up, advanced crafting. To produce an item in Minecraft, you lay raw materials out in the Crafting window in a shape representing the item you want. Let’s try a speedboat!

All right, maybe that doesn’t work in a 2×2 grid. But what if we put a plank in each square… Left click to pick the stack of planks up, then a single right click on each crafting square will drop one element of a stack in there:


Drag the table down into your hotbar:

Congratulations on purchasing your Hellraiser puzzle box. Please solve to unleash hell.

To select items in your hotbar, either use the number keys “1” to “9”, or spin your mouse wheel up and down. Select the crafting table, so you’re waving it around in front of your face, find a suitable flat surface, and right click to place the table there.

Table for one, sir?

Right click on the table you’ve just put down, and instead of the paltry 2×2 crafting grid you get in your inventory you’re presented with a majestic 3×3 grid. That’s a whole… errr… several new possible ways to combine items!

Now we’re going to do some woodwork. Just imagine us as the woodwork teacher overseeing you, missing a couple of fingers from an obligatory power saw accident in the past. If you run short of raw materials at any point, just run off and punch another tree or two into logs. Pretend they looked at you funny.

Right then class, lesson one: sticks. What is it, Simpkins? Yes, we’ll get onto making a spice rack later, but we’re starting with sticks. Put two planks on top of each other:

What's brown and sticky?
Wine? Fishes? Loav... oh, I see!

Two planks give four sticks, rods, poles or batons. We’re not sure if there’s universal Minecraft nomenclature, but half the fun is making up the names yourself.

Now, what can we make with rods and planks? How about a couple of rods to form a handle, and then on top of those some planks, as a sort of blade or cutting edge…

Take your pick

Now we’re cooking with gas! Or digging with wood… One of the two. A wooden pickaxe! Some other recipes you can try at this point, see if you can figure out the layout for the materials:
Axe (makes cutting down trees much quicker): two rods, three planks
Shovel (make short work of sand and earth): two rods, one plank
Sword (for chopping vegetables, shaving, getting stones out of horses’ hooves etc.): one rod, two planks

Once you’re kitted out with some tools, it’s time to go exploring! You’ll want to bring your crafting table with you, so put your pickaxe on the hotbar, select it, and hit the crafting table with the pickaxe until it goes “pop” and transforms into an easily portable cube. Pro tip: the same technique works when packing a suitcase to go holiday, just keep hitting it with a pickaxe until it’s more easily portable.

Is that a pickaxe in your hand, or are you just... oh it is? Never mind.

Now it’s time to start systematically pillaging the world of all its natural resources. You can dig up sand or dirt with a shovel, or chop into stone with the pick. What would be really nice is some coal; if the random terrain generator is being kind there might be some nearby, or you might have to hike around for a while. It’s not absolutely essential, but what you’re looking for is grey blocks with black speckles:

Old King Coal

Hit the coal with your pick until a piece pops out into your inventory; there might be a whole vein you can dig out. As you’re digging, you’ll notice a green bar appear on your pick that slowly goes down, turning amber then red:

Workin' in a coal mine

Once the bar is gone, so is the pick; while you still have it try harvesting a few stone blocks, then when you need some new tools try the same crafting recipes as before, but using stone blocks instead of planks.

By now, the sun may be sinking lower in the sky. We don’t want to be stuck outside in the darkness, because They Come At Night… At this point you might like to indulge in a cocktail we like to call “A Big Hole Dug Out Of The Side Of A Hill”. For this you’ll need a hill, and some digging implements. Firstly, dig into the side of the hill:

Dig for victory!

Then, dig a bit more:

Room with a view - OF DOOM. No wait, I think that's just grass

We’ve dug out a square room, but don’t feel compelled to do the same shape. Let your imagination run wild! You could have a square, a rectangle, a rectangle with different dimensions, a sort of L shape…

Now it’s probably getting a bit murky, so if you were fortunate enough to find some coal earlier, pop it on the end of a rod in your crafting window to make a torch:

Coal Onna Stick

Pop a torch on the hotbar, select it, point at the wall and right click for illumination:

Let there be light!

If the sun has set and it’s dark, there might be some strange scritching sounds or moaning outside. And in the game, ah! Fortunately zombies and spiders and long legged beasties aren’t very good at tunnelling, so take some of the stone you’ve been digging out, pop it on the hotbar, select it, point at the open doorway and right click to wall yourself in:

Trapped in a box by a zombie nutjob

What are you going to do while stuck underground, waiting for the sun to come back up and drive the evil creatures away again? Well, you’ve got a crafting table, why not pop it in a corner, and see what sort of items you can come up with:

Is that a crafting table in the corner of your room, or are you just... this one doesn't work.

For example, six planks of wood like this…

When is a jar not ajar? Wait, I told it wrong...

Much easier than always having to dig through a wall to get out, and you can see when the sun comes up! Don’t worry, zombies can’t open doors.

Time to relax and whip out the ol' giant ham-fist, if you know what I mean.

So there we go, tools and shelter. It’s a bit pokey, though, why not expand a bit? Maybe get a bit of a multi-level effect going with a mezzanine, or dig deep down to try and find more minerals, or just wait until sunrise and go exploring again (just remember where you left everything, or take enough stuff with you so it doesn’t matter). It’s your world now! Well, this five foot square corner of it is, the rest belongs to the monsters. Better grab your pickaxe and get to work on that.

Thus it can be seen that mountains are full of riches

The first question I asked Melmoth about Minecraft was “Why am I punching a chicken with some sand?”

He’d extolled its virtues to me, see, so I’d figured “what the heck”, grabbed it, launched straight into a single player game knowing nothing about it. Tutorials are for the weak! I landed on the beach of a blocky world, jumped around a bit, found some trees and some roving livestock, clicked the mouse button causing my blocky hand to flail around a bit, picked up some sand, and attacked a chicken with it. Had no idea what was going on, so I asked Melmoth what I was supposed to be doing. And he explained.

I don’t know whether to praise it to the heavens, or warn you off in case you get hooked as well and never emerge.

Of all mines of treasure, one’s own is the last to be dug up.

What is Minecraft? I keep trying to answer the question rather than just bringing you a post droning on and on about my latest ‘adventures’ in the game, which would essentially boil down to things that were fun and exciting for me at the time but would probably sound painfully tedious to an outside observer. I could probably try to spice things up, weave a yarn of daring-do and madcap escapades, but at the end of the day I have to relent and simply admit to myself and to you that I spent a large part of my free gaming time over the weekend digging a sodding great big hole in the ground.

And yet… and yet that’s not what I was doing at all. For I was adventuring like I haven’t done in an MMO or RPG for a long while. Properly adventuring. I started off with nothing, in a strange new land, and all I knew was that At Night The Monsters Come. So it was that I started wandering about the land looking for shelter, and although there were defensible hills and caves, I was unarmed and unarmoured and knew I wouldn’t stand long against a concerted attack by monsters. I could see the sun slowly making its way across the sky. Time was already running out, and I’d only just entered the world. I was Robinson Crusoe against an army of darkness, what was I to do?

“I know you’re scared; we’re all scared, but that doesn’t mean were cowards. We can take these skeletons, we can take them, with science.

Time to get crafting. I’ve spent more time crafting in Minecraft in the six or so hours that I’ve played it than in any of the grind-bound craptacular churn-fests that are found in WoW, LotRO and others of that ilk. At a basic level this is how we build things the Minecraft way: you smash things to get raw materials, you put the raw materials in your 4×4 (9×9 if you’ve built a crafting table, which is one of the first things you should do) crafting panel, and depending on the pattern of the items and which items you use, you craft an item. Instantly. As in bing! Done. Whoomp there it is. Drag it in to your inventory and use it straight away. Stacked multiple amounts of raw materials in the crafting panel? Then you can just keep dragging copies of the crafted item out until you run out of the right balance of raw materials.

But how do you make things? What are the patterns? Ah, now you’re exploring again, now you’re both crafter and explorer in one. The subtle idea is that, in a general sense, items are formed by a pattern of raw materials that vaguely resemble the object to be crafted; once you get the hang of the first few objects that you’ll need – a crafting table, a pick-axe and a torch – you can make a secure shelter, and once you’ve done this, you can experiment at your leisure with various patterns. If you know how to make a pick-axe, for example, then it’s quite easy to see how you could change that pattern slightly to form the shape of an axe, and sure enough you will be rewarded for this intuition. The simple joy and exultation that was had when m’colleague cracked how to make a storage chest is hard to express; the same happened when I discovered how to make a door so that we no longer had to block up the entrance to our cave homes with stone each night and then dig ourselves out in the morning. Yet the patterns were very basic, and once you knew them it seemed hard to understand how you hadn’t worked it out for yourself, and sooner. The crafting in this game is simply brilliant, and I’ve barely even scratched the surface of it. Why not? Because I’ve been scratching deeply beneath other surfaces.

What do you do in a world where the only rule is that At Night the Monsters Come? At daybreak you run around the landscape, you explore, and you try not to get lost: there is no mini-map or map to start with, if you run off and lose your way, you may never get back home and will lose everything and have to start over; I may have done this. You chop up trees for lumber, you kill any wildlife you can find for its meat and hide and wool, and in all too short a time the sun begins to set and you run back to your home, block the entranceway (or close the door if you’re sophisticated) and you wait until morning. What is there to do in the meantime? Well, you can craft, which is brilliant but only gets you so far. What you can do is smash things. You can smash anything with the right tool. So you can hollow out this hillside hovel, and you make room for yourself and your rapidly expanding inventory of items. You learn how to make glass and you put windows in so that you can actually see when night has turned to day and it is safe to venture out. And as you are mining out your home you find iron ore and coal and other items, and you learn to make a forge, and you discover how to smelt things, and you realise that you can replace your wood and stone tools with metal ones that last longer and work faster; so you dig deeper.

The Dwarves dug too greedily and too deep. You know what they awoke in the darkness of Khazad-dûm… shadow and flame.

In your digging you will discover underground caverns. I found one recently that had a waterfall cascading down the inside of it, and after marvelling at it for a while I realised that I couldn’t see to the bottom of it. So I dug stairs around it in a spiral and lit it with torches, and I dug deeper and deeper following this waterfall, eventually reaching the bottom. I found rich veins of valuable stone there, most of which I have no idea what to do with yet. That’s when I heard the low murmur of zombies, and the rattle of skeletons, and the cry of… something, I know not what. And so you learn to make a sword, and armour, and a bow and arrows. And you go back to where the monsters are, deep beneath the land, and…

What would you do? The choice is yours. You don’t have to kill them. With skill and a little luck you could wall them in, create a zombie petting zoo five hundred feet beneath your home. You could try to fight them, or you could build a trap using the fast flow of water from the waterfall. You could climb to the top of the hill your home is set in and dig down, channelling the sunlight deep down into the ground and burning them all to a crisp. You could avoid them altogether and dig somewhere else, perhaps go outside and divert the course of the nearby river so that it flows past your front door, just for the hell of it, or to irrigate your crops – if it interests you that’s all that matters. You know deep down though, in your dwarven heart, that deep in the ground, where there are monsters, there is also gold.

I feel I haven’t played enough of Minecraft to do it justice yet, but I wanted to try to express my rapture – and I think that is the word I want to use – at just how much this game has captured everything I think is missing from MMOs at the moment. Adventure, exploration, invention, free will, exhilaration, joy, panic, horror, defeat; all these emotions and more, from a ‘simple’ game with basic graphics and no real rules or restrictions at the moment, other than At Night the Monsters Come.

Minecraft is currently in its alpha release stage and runs on Windows, OS X or Linux, being that it is Java based. As of yesterday evening the game was still free to download and play due to the Minecraft registration sever collapsing under the weight of people trying to order the game. Eventually the registration server will be fixed and you will be required to order the game in order to access the alpha. When I purchased the game it cost about $13, or £8, and gave you access to the alpha client, the final version of the game upon its release, plus any expansions and content released thereafter. Personally I’d pay that for the game as it stands, which is incredibly stable and relatively bug free considering it’s an alpha. Multiplayer is currently in development too, and various rule sets and game modes are also planned, so as far as I can see the game is only going to get better.

As a final small endorsement I would just say that Mrs Melmoth, someone who has resisted all attempts by me to get her to join in with my various MMO escapades for these many years, has been hooked on the game all weekend, and I’ll be purchasing a copy for her as soon as the registration server is back up. She is not a gamer and hates first-person controls with a passion, but she is getting used to them because she enjoys the game and wants to play it. She especially does not like trying to kill monsters, so she doesn’t; I don’t think she’s killed a single monster, and yet she has a house that has multiple levels, one of which has a room that has two walls entirely made of glass looking out upon an overflowing volcano which lights up the night sky. She took me up there and showed me last night, and I couldn’t work out whether I was mostly proud, overjoyed, or envious.

Simply put: Minecraft is a game that allows you to dig deep, as deep as your imagination will take you.