perfectly spherical

Game Design In Theory

I Can Swing My Sword, My Diamond Sword (MLHRWM, Part 2)

☰ Table of Content

Diamond is powerful.

Everyone knows this. The diamond sword and pick are as iconic as Steve and the Creeper. Efforts to cosplay as Steve inevitably involve some diamond armor. The game is practically built around diamond as the god-tier equipment.

Let’s talk about why this sucks. (This is a continuation of part 1.)

It Made Sense At The Time

because, when Minecraft was first developed, three important things were true:

  1. The game was primarily NOT a PVP game. In fact, for a long time it didn’t have multiplayer at all.
  2. Diamonds were an endgame item, and there was no content in the game that required diamond armor for you to be viable during it.
  3. Nobody had learned how to stripmine for diamonds yet.

Here’s why that shit’s important.

Balancing for PVP is hard.

And it’s even harder when there’s options to simply upgrade your character before the fight begins. Note that upgrades before the start of the fight are the ones that break balance super hard–this is because balancing is not about an even playing field so much as it’s about making players earn their victories.

Because of how Minecraft’s equipment works–because the only options are “better sword” or “worse sword”–and because it’s not really viable to have better swords lying around the battlefield without a significant amount of effort on the mapmaker’s part…well, the PVP scene is kind of up shit creek. Sure, you can trade “better sword” for “more armor”, or trade “sword” for “bow”, but at the end of the day the entirety of Minecraft’s gear system is built around straight upgrades, not sidegrades.

And the thing is, this design was totally fine back when the game was single-player. In a single-player setting, straight upgrades make a lot of sense! You don’t have to care about the computer feeling like they simply never stood a chance, so you can afford to go all-out with power scaling. And the game was originally not combat-focused at all, combat was mostly a resource drain, so having a single weapon type with a few tiers made sense too. The trouble is, as we saw in part 1, Minecraft has no creative direction, and the designers don’t want to make any really drastic changes to the way the game works, so we’re stuck with those straight upgrades even as the game refocuses toward combat.

Power Creep is a bitch.

And Minecraft has fallen prey to it. Because Mojang’s popularity came from adding new content–and because Microsoft, smartly, recognized that new content was a big deal–and because everyone already has prot4 diamond plate…we get power creep. Each new piece of expanded content promises new challenges, which means that now we have a giant pile of content that’s balanced around you already having diamond. If this sounds familiar, it’s because World of Warcraft had this problem too.

So now the player’s expected to grind for diamonds, because there’s not really any other option for lategame content. If you want to get involved in Pillager raids, deepwood mansions, the Ender Dragon fight, the Wither fight, Beacons, Elytra, Chorus fruit, Shulkerboxes, Lingering Potions, or any of the blocks that are only available in the End, then you’re gonna have to have some high-tier diamond equipment, buddy.

Power Creep drives player strategy.

As time went on, and diamonds became more valuable, players started putting more and more effort into finding diamonds faster. Now it’s possible to have diamonds within an hour of starting a world.

Needless to say, this completely trivializes all tool tiers below diamond. Add in the fact that diamond equipment is expected for so much of the game’s content, and at this point, the game’s content starts at diamond.

But wait, there’s more!

Not only is diamond powerful, it’s also easier than many options that are less effective. Take, for instance, potion-making–my favorite bugbear. In order to craft a Potion of Harming, you must:

  1. Gather enough iron for a couple buckets. (Ideally, about ten buckets.)
  2. Gather enough lava to produce a Netherportal, and then hope to god you don’t misclick while casting the obsidian frame. Alternatively, if you have diamond, you can hold leftclick for a whopping two and a half minutes and gather the obsidian yourself, although it’s incredibly easy to fuck this part up (and the consequences range from “another 15 seconds of holding M1” to “death by lava”)
  3. Light the portal and venture to the Nether.
  4. Find a Nether Fortress, which is easiest if you know the arcane logic of the worldgen system (IIRC they’re easier to find on the East/West axis, as if direction makes sense in this hellish world)
  5. Hope that the Nether Fortress generated a Blaze spawner.
  6. Fight the Blazes, which are hellish freaks that fly around and spit fireballs in 3-shot bursts. Actually one of the more interesting monsters to fight, because they actually have tells for their attacks.
  7. Did any of those Blazes drop a Blaze Rod? No? Minecraft’s insanely tiny drop chances fucked you over? Hope you got enough in you for round 2~!
  8. Finally, you got a Blaze Rod. Now you need to stockpile several more. Hope you didn’t break the spawner like you do with every other spawner in the game, you silly goose.
  9. After that, you need to go find Nether Wart, which only grows in a specific room that sometimes generates in Nether Fortresses, and nowhere else. Remember to grab some soul sand, which is only useful for growing Nether Wart. It is not explained why this plant does not occur naturally.
  10. Now you have to get back home. Hope you didn’t get lost on the way here, compasses and maps don’t work in the Nether even though it explicitly has a north and south.
  11. Now you craft a potion brewing stand. You’ll need blaze powder to fuel the thing, and spider eyes for ingredients. Did you throw out all your spider eyes because they have no other use and poison you if you eat them? HAHA GUESS YOU’RE FARMING SPIDERS FOR A WEEK
  12. Start with Netherwart, then a Spider Eye, which gets you a potion of poison. This is technically more effective than the potion of harming, but it can’t kill and it doesn’t have any effect on most of your enemies.
  13. Now you need fermented spider eyes. You’ll need sugar and a brown mushroom, specifically a brown mushroom, and by the way these items also have no use outside of this recipe because mushroom soup and cake became useless around the time all other food items became stackable. Brown mushrooms are also frustratingly hard to find and nearly impossible to farm.
  14. Now you’ve got three Potions of Harming I, which do 3 hearts of damage. You cannot even kill a single monster with this. You’ll need Glowstone Dust to convert them into Potions of Harming 2, which do 6 hearts of damage.
  15. You doofus. You buffoon. You absolute moron. Did you just drink a potion of harming? Did you actually think Minecraft would give you a usable item right out of the gate? No, you need to combine it with Gunpowder to make it a splash potion, because we didn’t have enough rare drop chances in this recipe yet.
  16. Now you can throw it at a monster to do 6 hearts of damage. Except if it’s a zombie, skeleton, or other undead, because those guys get healed by this potion. Also the damage has falloff based on distance, so unless you get a direct hit you probably aren’t doing that much damage. Oh, and three potions take up 3 inventory slots, in a game where the only way to expand your inventory is to defeat the final boss, nail a trickshot with an enderpearl, then fight a special monster and hope that it drops one half of the items you need to craft the only inventory you can carry with you.

Contrast with diamonds:

  1. Go to Y=15.
  2. Start digging. If you see bright cyan, you’ve struck paydirt.
  3. Each block drops at least one diamond, guaranteed.
  4. Combine 2 diamonds with one stick to get 3.5 x 1500 = 5250 damage over the lifetime of the sword. It takes up a single inventory slot. It can be enchanted to hit even harder, or to lose less durability with each swing, or to recover durability with XP.

Mojang, and Microsoft after them, have this weird obsession with making things hard to get for no good reason. Flint is like a 10% drop chance out of gravel, has no other crafting recipe, and you need great big mounds of it to mass-produce arrows. Things like Elytra and Shulkerboxes are locked behind the final boss of the game, and the Beacon is locked behind a bonus boss and a giant pile of resources. Enchantment is, itself, locked behind access to diamond. Dragon’s Breath, the item you need for lingering potions, requires you to resurrect the final boss, then pull out a bottle and grab some of its fire breath while it is trying to kill you.

But diamonds are easy, have always been easy, and have way more damage output than a bow or a potion will ever have. Diamond armor gives 80% damage reduction by itself in a game with no real anti-armor options. Diamond tools have 3x the durability of iron ones. There’s very few things that you can’t do with the item that doesn’t require you to do anything special to get it. That’s the problem. On top of balancing the game’s content around diamond, Minecraft has balanced all of your other options in such a way that there’s no point to them. Why waste time with interesting and complex things like potion-brewing when you can simply stripmine for a while and get endgame equipment out of it?

Go back to Part 1 and read my theory about why Minecraft is so broken. Or read Part 3 and learn about that ungodly low drop rate.

Update: 2021-07-27

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