What Minecraft Is

Today Mojang, the developers of Minecraft, announced that they have been bought by Microsoft for 2.5 billion dollars. Two point five BILLION.
As the entire Internet is saying right now: Wow. If you’d like to say that word out loud with me, say it nervously. Almost whispered. Notch and the other founders of the company are more fantastically wealthy than ever now, and by some accounts the Swedish government will be getting a cash injection of around two billion dollars from the tax paid on this one deal. Those are good things, if slightly weird. But Minecraft’s future is uncertain now, and it’s not hard to see how Microsoft could potentially spoil it. Microtransactions? A crackdown on YouTube videos? An Xbox-exclusive sequel? I wouldn’t put any of it past them.
Of course, they might not do any of these things. They might keep Minecraft just as it is, release charming little free updates every now and then, never change the fundamental formula. They might. What I’m writing now doesn’t have to be a eulogy to the game that was, and that’s why this post is titled “What Minecraft Is”.
It might stay this way. It might. But the future of Minecraft’s development has never been more uncertain. If I wasn’t worried, I wouldn’t now be trying to document what this game means to me at this moment in time, in case some day I find it’s become something less.

I first played Minecraft very early in its development history. I would guess this was some time in the second half of 2009, because I remember playing it while I was in Germany. It was still browser-based back then. The world was a tightly-constrained area, a small cube of grass and dirt and rock, just hovering in empty space. There was mining, but no real crafting as such – just the ability to pick up and place blocks. And it was already fun. I would go down into the caves underground, dig up as much iron as I could find, and return to the surface to build a fort out of it. I’d slaughter all the pigs I could find to collect mushrooms to eat to restore my health, and hold out as long as I could against the skeletons that came to siege my base in the constant daylight. Every time I died – and it never took long – I’d generate a new world and start from scratch. That was fun for a while, and then I took a break to play other games.
I next came back to Minecraft in September 2010. I’d come back from the year abroad and I’d just started my final year of university. The game’s popularity had spiked to such extraordinary levels, its authentication servers couldn’t cope with the masses of players constantly trying to connect. Notch, the lead developer, responded by switching authentication off for the weekend, effectively making the game temporarily free for anyone to play. Inevitably, this caused even more people to buy it when the free week finished.
 It had changed a lot since I last played it. Now there was a day and night cycle, and the monsters only came out when it was dark. You could build tools and forge sand into glass and create architectural works of utter beauty. I mean, I couldn’t, but people in general could if they had talent. Me, I built an eight-foot-high illuminated sign that spelt out the word “ARSE”. It was a start.
And because the surface area of any given Minecraft world was several times that of planet Earth, you could go exploring. You could set off to see what was over the horizon, and if you got lost, you might never make it back. At least, not without dying and losing all the tools and resources you’d collected. That’s a unique kind of tension, and an exciting one.
 
 

Originally written 20 September, 2010
I’ve been working on building a nice little home for myself today. Dug it out of the side of a cliff, made one wall out of solid glass and panelled the rest with wood and cobblestone. Very rustic, very pleasant. Very satisfying to build, but it’s a long way from my spawn point, which I’ve long since lost.

I finished most of the building work about an hour and a half ago. The secret passageway to the outside still needs some work on it, but I was bored of cutting down trees so I decided to take the (in-game) day off and go on an adventure.

Normally when I’m travelling to new places I place a string of torches to guide me home, but it didn’t really seem worth it this time. I was only going to see what was over the next hill; all I had to do was remember which direction I was travelling and turn a full 180 when the sun reached its zenith.

But then I saw The Mountain.

It was huge. It stretched out far beyond the draw distance, into the clouds. It was practically begging me to climb it. So I did, and I planted a sign at the top to show Nature just how well it had been conquered. On the way down I even found a fantastic little valley, absolutely invisible except from above, with flowers and a single tree growing in this isolated mountain meadow. It was like Shangri-La. So I had to go and have a look.

And then I realised I didn’t know where I was.

“No problem”, thought I, “My house is right on the edge of the sea. All I have to do is follow the coast and I’ll get there eventually. It can’t be that far.”

So I picked a direction and started following the coast. Now I was leaving a trail of torches. Getting lost this time seemed an unthinkably horrible option, but it wasn’t yet midday. I was convinced I’d make it back to home base before nightfall.

But I didn’t. I realised I was in totally unfamiliar territory, just as night was falling. And I was running out of torches. Seeing a group of mobs up ahead, I ran for the nearest cliffside and dug a cave for myself to hide in. I’d left myself a tiny hole to stare out of, for psychological reasons as much as anything, and from where I hid I could just about see one of my torches, burning in the distance. My nightlight.

I could hear the monsters all night. They knew where I was, and they were all around me. They couldn’t get to me and I couldn’t see them. It was like having the entire population of Hell under your bed: fucking frightening.

The next morning I dug my way out and ran for it. Only a spider had survived the sun’s rays; my slowly-degrading iron sword made short work of it, but I couldn’t kill many more mobs before it wore out. Nothing to do, though, but to keep pressing forwards.

I completely ran out of torches about half-way through the second day. Lacking anything else to prove I’d been here, I started leaving stone steps behind me so I’d at least be able to see something by daylight. By chance, I stumbled upon a natural cave on a tiny peninsula, and knew it was my only hope. I ran blindly into the darkness, and- yes! At the end of the tunnel I could just make out a vein of coal. More torches! I felt like a god.

Night fell again, and still I didn’t recognise my surroundings. I started swimming out further and further from the coast, hoping to find shortcuts around the bays and awkward cliffs surrounding me. I’d scaled that mountain well over an hour ago. Where in all hell was my house?

Around midnight, I saw light up ahead. My heart sank. I’d come round in a complete circle. I was hopelessly, irretrievably lost.

No, hang on a minute. I’d stayed on the coastline all the way, at sea level. I hadn’t placed any torches up that high. Could it be…? Yes! It was the edge of one of my old beacon trails, and it would lead me straight to one of my old safe houses, deep inside a mountain. It was pretty basic- I’d long since moved all the tools and chests to my home base- but I didn’t care. It had doors. I was so happy I slaughtered a cow on the spot in celebration.

But… well. This game may have low-fi graphics, but its sound effects are terrifying. As I danced around the cow’s dead corpse, I heard a TWANG! to my left. Another one, almost immediately, to my right. I might have possibly screamed out loud at this point, not really realising what was going on. I hesitated for an unforgiveable moment as I tried to place what the sound was.

Oh, yeah. Someone was shooting arrows at me.

I ran like buggery in what looked like the right direction. Another arrow TWANGed into the ground behind me. Found the safehouse. Slammed the door behind me. Didn’t dare look around to see if I’d been followed.

There are things outside, and I’m not moving until they’ve been burned away by the sun’s purifying light.

And then tomorrow, I’m going on another adventure.

I haven’t ever really stopped playing since. I’ll sometimes leave it alone for a few months, but something always calls me back eventually. I played on the Rock, Paper, Shotgun multiplayer server for a while and spent most of my time just wandering around marvelling at everyone else’s megaprojects. That got me thinking, and thinking, and thinking, and eventually, I set up a new server with some university friends and we made megaprojects of our own.

Yes, that’s a Nyancat to the right. It has a complex electronic circuit hidden behind it that plays the opening bars of the theme tune when you press a button.
All of this was before the game was “finished”, as well. When the version 1.0 release finally came out in November 2011, I started a new world again – all to myself, this time – and went exploring. I found a mountain range crisscrossed by rivers and bays and lakes, and I built a village there. When I ran out of room, I built another city inspired by Soviet and Gothic architecture about twenty minutes’ walk away, and when that was done, I started a riverside hamlet as far away in the other direction, and a Wild West-style town so distant I only know how to get there by travelling through the Nether, the parallel universe that compresses space and time. It might also be literally Hell.

I’ve been working on that world for nearly three years now, and I just keep tinkering and building and exploring. The stuff I create in there doesn’t mean anything to anybody else – most of it will never even be seen by anybody else – but it’s mine, and it’s special to me. And every single Minecraft player out there, however many tens of millions there are now, has a similar story. Entire planet-sized spaces, entirely their own, for people to share or to keep to themselves and to express themselves in.
Minecraft is special. It is sometimes achingly beautiful. Played alone, it’s lonely in a serene, reassuring kind of way. Played with friends, it’s hilarious. When you’re trapped in a cave somewhere, with your supply of torches running low, and you hear a spiders’ nest up ahead, it’s terrifying. When you come back home from a journey to another continent, and that music fades in, it’s heartwarming. When a Creeper explodes and destroys your home and belongings, it’s heartwrenching. That’s what Minecraft is.
Is that worth 2.5 billion dollars? If you can put a price on it at all, yeah, I suppose so. I just hope it stays this way. 
I mean… it might.