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Minecraft - Sandboxes Are Awesome

I, like many, many others of recent, have jumped on the Minecraft bandwagon, and have begun playing what may well be the greatest success in the history of independent game development. Spurred on by a couple of posts at Penny Arcade and a pretty excellent narrative review at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the game has sold around 11,000 copies in the last 24 hours as of this writing, and something like 100,000 in the last two weeks. That would mark it as a success for a commercial, major studio PC game, but this is a game that's still in alpha, selling for 9 euros, and developed solely by one man. That means that one person has made a million dollars in the last couple weeks, and is a multimillionaire off of this game. It boggles the mind. But in a good way! And Notch, as the developer is known online, is deserving of every last euro.

But enough about the hype and success and all of that surrounding the game. The game itself is a sandbox affair in which there's no specified point, nor a discrete end - other than death, which you can come back from. You're dropped into a randomly created world composed entirely of blocks, which are roughly a cubic meter each, and look like an 8 bit game gone 3D. There might be blocks of sand along the beach, dirt blocks after that, perhaps with grass tops, gravel or stone on the sides of cliffs, blocks of wood that make up trees, blocks of leaves, and maybe some blocks of cactus. As you wander the land, you'll find objects that aren't blocks (but still look delightfully blocky), like flowers, mushrooms, pigs, sheep, and cows. The randomly generated terrain, which can be as large as eight times the surface area of earth, will contain natural features, like waterfalls, mountains, lakes, and deep caves. As the title indicates, mining is a key part of the game, and as you delve into a cave, or perhaps dig one yourself, you'll find iron ore, diamonds, gold ore, coal, and redstone ore.

Mining is only half of the title and game, and the other half is the all important crafting. When you're first dropped into the wilderness, you have nothing, By breaking down some wood blocks, you can craft yourself some planks of lumber. Just drop it in the 2x2 crafting grid, and each wood piece will make 4 lumber. Four pieces of lumber in the box creates a workbench, which gives you access to a 3x3 grid. Put 2 lumber in the crafting box, one above the other, and you can create sticks. Put two sticks in the middle of the grid, one above the other, and then put some lumber atop them, and you can craft a wooden shovel. A row of lumber up top makes a pickax, and an upside down L shape makes an axe. With these tools you can harvest blocks far faster, and eventually work toward better tools made of stone, iron, or diamond. 8 stone with a hole in the center makes a furnace, which you can then use to turn iron ore into iron, gold ore into gold, sand into glass, and raw pig meat into delicious pork chops. There are around 100 crafting recipes in the game, from the useful - bows, arrows, flint and steel, torches, signs, armor - to the cosmetic - bookshelves, paintings, glass - to the hilarious - mine carts (also known as roller coasters), jukeboxes, and complex simulated circuit boards.

While the game doesn't have an expressed point, there are two implicit points: survive, and build. The game goes through day to night cycles. During the day it is, obviously, easy to see and harvest and otherwise get around in the world. During the night, however, it's much more difficult to tell what's going on around you, and, more importantly, monsters come out. Zombies, skeletons with bows and arrows, and creepers, who explode when near you, all generate on the map during the night - and in the dark parts of caves. The game has a number of difficulty levels, but in all cases it's fairly unforgiving. If you die, you lose all of your equipment, and have about five minutes to make it back and recover it.

Thus there is impetus for the other part of the game: building. You need some shelter at night. Though, really, building is the whole point of the game. It's like a 3D, computer version of legos where you're given an infinitely deep bin of blocks. Your first shelter will likely be some crude sod hut that protects you from zombies and contains a chest, workbench, and smelter. Eventually, though, you'll graduate to a stone house with torches and windows and a door, and then you'll start to think big. A tall wizard tower with a spiral staircase built atop that mountain with the huge overhang and the solitary twisting tree. A fortress carved into the face of that mountain. A glass tunnel that runs twenty meters underwater between the basement of your beech house and the tower you built on the island across the bay. A temple of doom hewn from the rock in a huge cave below ground, complete with twin lava and water falls.

The game is still in alpha, and while stable and full of plenty to do, there are occasionally bugs and missing features. Multiplayer, in particular, is in an incomplete state. Water doesn't quite work like it does in single player, there aren't any monsters, and you can't kill anything or die. Still, it's a blast to jump into a server with a couple friends and jointly work at carving a monumental three story castle into a mountain. The game is rife with discovery and incredible moments, and they're all the better when shared with others. One of my friends, for example, was intent on adding another little chamber to our enormous castle, so he started digging down, only to find himself in free fall for a couple of seconds. When he finally hit ground (which would have killed him, had it not been the buggy multiplayer), he looked up, the light of the entrance above him a tiny speck, the walls of the cavern around him distant. He had accidentally broken into a massive underground chamber, full of iron and coal and diamond, and which soon shall be full of a temple of doom as well.

Minecraft is an incredible game, every bit worth the 9 euros, or 13 dollars that roughly works out to. It taps directly into that portion of your brain that wanted to build the best fort ever as a kid, or that is daydreaming about building a tree house mansion. It's one huge, delightfully blocky sandbox that you can craft into whatever you want, and it is just as fun as that sounds.

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