perfectly spherical

Game Design In Theory

My Love-Hate Relationship With Minecraft, Part 1

☰ Table of Content

Minecraft is kind of a big deal.

It’s one of the most popular and most profitable games of the 2010s. It lost the status of Most Popular Ever to Fortnite, but it’s still going strong, with a rabidly loyal fanbase and new content constantly on the way. Its simple premise of a world that can be built and broken on a whim drove it to the height of pop-culture awareness early on, and pretty soon it started getting things like monsters, survival mechanics, dungeons, villages, more monsters, more ways to fight those monsters, new dungeons, new treasures, new bossfights…

Sounds like a healthy game, right? Well, it is. It’s also got a design philosophy that’s best described as “schizophrenic”.

Why That “Kinds Of Fun” Thing Mattered

You can trace Minecraft’s development from start to end, and find roughly three phases:

  1. The Indev/Infdev/early Alpha phase, before the survival mechanics were added.
  2. The late Alpha/early Beta phase, where the game started leaning more on settling in one place.
  3. The post-Microsoft phase, which was marked by higher production values and a heavier focus on combat.

In phase 1, the primary form of fun in the game was Discovery, with a dash of self-driven Challenge in the form of building things. This is a good time to mention that each of those types of fun can have subtypes; self-imposed building goals are not the same kind of Challenge as a test of combat prowess suggested by the game.

Playing Minecraft in the early alpha days was something else. Food, rather than being a necessity, was something you stockpiled for combat; wheat was more valuable than pork, because pork wasn’t really stackable. None of the food items were, because all of them were–essentially–raw, instant healing. Swords were carried because you expected to run into monsters when you left your house, not because you were expected to hunt them. Your “bed” was a set of wool blocks you set into the floor of your room, with slabs to suggest a bedframe. You had no map; the clouds and the sun were your compass, and if you got lost, that was fine. Technically, you had a compass that would point to your spawnpoint, but who cared about that? Wandering was the norm.

Then came the food changes, and in hindsight, the food changes were the place where everything started to go wrong. For whatever reason, it was decided that your character would now get hungry. Health no longer came from eating directly; instead, you regenerated health slowly as long as your food bar was above a certain value. You could now stack food, keeping massive stockpiles of any kind of meal. Life became a bit harder, sure, but it was a new challenge, and we were all so very excited to have new content–there were new foods coming, new ways to supplement the food supply. We got real, actual beds, which would let you avoid the dangerous night and would set your spawnpoint so that dying no longer meant being lost in the wilderness. We got a map, so that we could track where we had been, and weather, and taller grass, and pistons. We got a fix for the Far Lands bug, just in case anyone travelled that far out.

But what we didn’t really pick up on was that the game wasn’t about exploration anymore. Lost in the excitement of all this new content was a shift in the way Minecraft was played–with the new food requirements, and no real way to heal up quickly, going on a long trip suddenly took a lot more effort and planning. All of a sudden, exploration became a risk. You would respawn at your bed, sure, but you’d have wasted a lot of food and time. You couldn’t guarantee that you wouldn’t get ambushed while waiting to heal up, or run out of food. It stopped being about Discovery, and became more about another kind of Challenge–the Challenge of survival.

Of course, you could still travel. But a nomad’s life was no longer simple or indefinite. I know it sounds silly to talk about Minecraft Beta version 1.8 as if it were some kind of flight from Eden, as if it were the death of innocence. But in a way, it was. More and more of the game’s mechanics were focusing around picking one spot and settling there.

And Then Microsoft Bought It

Approximately half a year of bugfixing passed between Beta 1.8 and the full release. On the day that the full release happened, Mojang also announced that they had been bought by Microsoft.

What’s interesting is that, after 1.0 released, the focus changed again. Beta was built around the challenge of surviving and creating a thriving base camp, but the full release started pushing for new content. Microsoft, wisely, recognized that part of what drew players in was the promise of more content in the future; so they delivered. They added new kinds of villages, new kinds of blocks, new kinds of critters, new biomes, a new bossfight, those Godforsaken Baby Zombies why did ANYBODY think that was a good idea–

Look, the point is, updates after 1.0 started to look like expansion packs. Most of the early ones were primarily about creating new stuff to find, but over time, the focus drifted away from “Look at this cool new structure/biome” and “Check out this new way to get this thing that you couldn’t before”, to “Look at this cool thing to fight”.

The challenge shifted again. By this time, players had gotten used to the food challenge. Now they were being faced with the Combat Challenge. Mojang gave players the threat of starvation; Microsoft gave them a flying monster that explodes things, gives you Boneitis, and is immune to melee attacks for the first half of its fight and regenerates constantly in the second half.

What’s Your Point, Exactly?

The point is that the game’s target audience has changed dramatically. Minecraft went from being that game where someone built the Enterprise at scale for funsies, to being a game where you fight armies of undead using your enchanted diamond sword. And this change in focus led to Minecraft’s design feeling, well, unfocused. There are design decisions that made sense at the time, that have been kept around for over a decade because they made sense at the time, which no longer make sense because the game’s just not the same anymore. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some shit that was a bad idea from the get-go; don’t get me started on rare drops (not until the next part of this series, anyway). But there’s also definitely decisions that aged like spoiled milk. Take, for instance, the way food worked in 1.8: You grow it, you eat it, it fills up your hunger meter, it slowly regenerates your health until it dips below 80%(!?).

Now consider that in the context of modern Minecraft’s focus on combat. There’s entire chunks of the game that are inaccessible unless you can survive a fight. There’s no way to increase your maximum health, there’s not a lot of options for immediate healing, but you can regenerate! Slowly. Thankfully, health regen was changed a little while ago to work faster if you have a full hunger bar and some extra saturation from eating all that food, but 1) there’s no reason to let your hunger bar dip below 80% and 2) the best foods in the game, steak and pork, both recover 40% of your bar and give around 4 and a half hearts’ worth of regeneration, so in practice you eat a steak and recover half your health, just like it was before Beta 1.8. Just, you know, slower. And sometimes you can’t heal up because you already ate recently, so you have to run and jump around until you feel hungry again.

Contrast that with something like Breath of the Wild, where food instantly heals you and sometimes grants a buff. Or Valheim, where eating a variety of food increases your max health, and eating regularly makes it increase more. Or pre-beta 1.8 Minecraft, where food just instantly healed you and took up a lot of inventory space, so that you could immediately recover from your wounds if another zombie walks around the corner. All three of these systems are way better for combat-oriented games because they either give the player an option that keeps them alive reliably, or give them an option that lets them prepare for future combat in a meaningful way.

Meanwhile, the hunger mechanics currently in Minecraft are built for a game where you’re spending more time farming than fighting. As a result, Minecraft’s combat-centric new content feels harsh and unforgiving, because there’s not really a good way to recover from damage, and the healing you do have is unreliable at best. You just have to suck it up, grind for prot4 diamond plate, and deal. This is what I mean when I say that Minecraft’s design is schizophrenic: It’s full of decisions that would make perfect sense on their own, or in another game. But because those decisions are in Minecraft, it sucks.

It’s A Series!

The next several parts of this series will be deep dives on specific mechanics and why they suck. I’ll leave you with a quote from G.K. Chesterton: “We must hate the world enough to change it, and yet love the world enough to think it worth changing.” I’m not writing this because I only hate Minecraft; if I only hated it, I would not play it. I am writing this because I love Minecraft, and love what it can be, and hate that it falls short.

Check out part 2 here.

Update: 2021-06-22

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