I have to admit, I am not much of an indie gamer. I spend most of my time with the big-budget mainstream titles in my research. There is a reason for that, but it isn't the point of this article. What is important is that Minecraft managed to get my attention, partially due to its intensely addictive fun, and to the buzz its created within the gaming/blogging community. I'd like to address the game and its context a little here.
Firstly, why is this thing so fun that around 500,000 people have parted with their 10€ to play an alpha release that would have been known as a demo five or ten years ago? The reasons aren't that hard to grasp, and have been documented in a few places already. There is the intense feeling of agency: the player is able to affect this world in deep, meaningful ways relative to the complexity of the world itself. This world doesn't have a narrative or social structure, it only has a physical presence. So, the physical interactions the player can have with every block of space, whether filled with material or not, is akin to being a small God in a simple universe. Every square block is offering its existence to the player to be tampered with, shaped and molded into something greater, offering no resistance and bending to the will of the creator.
This is a powerful feeling, and demonstrates the rule of agency quite nicely. Many AAA games are far richer in content, but that content is out of the player's reach. Whether it is the physical landscape or architecture, whether a vehicle, a door, or an NPC, these rich pieces of the gameworld are impervious to interaction. The player can't do anything to them. These parts of the gameworld simply do not care about the player. Every part of the Minecraft world does care.
The second feeling is combined with the above to generate a strong feeling of presence. Tele-presence one might call it in the parlance of the late 90s game scholarship. The feeling is wonder. Many games generate this feeling: my first and most powerful feeling was stepping to the crest of the first hill in Ashenvale in World of Warcraft and realising for the first time just how big Azeroth was. Minecraft's world is also big, but like anyone's first experience with an MMO, it is mysterious. Not only is the randomly generated geography a necessary mystery--literally no one can give you a map of your own private rendering of the world--but the game's rules are also mysterious. There is no tutorial, there are scant usable websites online; you have to figure a lot out yourself.
I explore this concept of mystery with my students, asking them to imagine what it would be like to play a new sandbox/RPG game with a large explorable world without the benefit of the internet. We imagine those heady days of the early Ultima Online explorers or WoW noobs (prior to their discovery of WoWHead or QuestHelper) where the experience was genuine exploration and discovery. Sometimes the discovery was of bad things, fear and death, and other times it was the discovery of a winning strategy, a place to hide, or simply something of such surprising beauty one could only stop and star in wonder. These were the days when players didn't know what they were looking for when they went looking. Perhaps they had a quest objective, but they didn't know exactly where that objective would be found. They certainly didn't know what would happen to them along the way.
Our current playing experience for many games is characterised by a deluge of pre-release publicity, beta-testing and websites. The world of WoW is so thoroughly indexed online that something as real as a 'delicious chocolate cake' will bring up WoW references in Google before an actual cake recipe. This gazette of what any particular game contains, from plot points and characters, to gameplay mechanics and mechanisms, strips contemporary games of one of their intrinsic pleasures: discovery and wonder.
This is a noted key differentiator between two player types, in Bartle's terminology, the Explorers and Achievers. Broadly, the Achiever positions himself outside, atop the game in a dominant posture, to act on the game system and master it. An Explorer will position himself within the gameworld, coming to it through the fiction rather than by mastering the game's rule set. Of course these are the two extremes and a continuous spectrum of actual players exists in between. The Achievers, however, have the dominant position in the general discourse of vidoegame play. They are the ones who both establish and prioritise the conceptions and definitions of 'playing well' or even 'playing right.' These players are the ones who most readily substitute numbers for experiences, in scores, achievements, levels, etc. Explorers, on the other hand need to describe their adventures in qualitative, not quantitative terms. Their concern is with the journey, not the numerical representation of their efficiency, nor their rank amongst others. Playing as an Explorer becomes increasingly difficult when the ubiquitous internet fills our heads with so much information--what is there left to explore once we know all there is to know?
That is the final, fatal Catch-22 of any designed gamespace. Our brains are constantly learning what the game has to offer us, whether it is an innovative mechanic, an NPC's personality, or the lay of the geography. We cannot experience the discovery of the same thing twice. The sadness with which this author is filled having realised he has 'worked out' what there is to see in Minecraft is a perfect illustration of Raph Koster's problem with learning: "The destiny of games is to become boring, not to be fun." Eventually, we learn the game and it has nothing more it can offer us. This works both for single-player and multiplayer comepetitive games. Koster's example is tic-tac-toe which even most children can work out the dominant strategies for, but can be applied to much larger games--to which most competitive players of StarCraft can probably attest.
The point here is that the initial pleasure of Minecraft relies very much on its great undiscovered. Once found, the feeling that this potential creates in the player vanishes, and yes, there is not a lot to the game other than that. This has little or nothing to do with Notch's intentions--as has been said many times now, this game is not a complete picture. Even if it were, though, it demonstrates the dominant Achiever mentality that exists in (the writing) gamer culture. 'So now what?' is the question of someone who hasn't appreciated the experience for its own sake. We have become far too accustomed to walking away from games with a medal, a notch in the belt, or some other trinket to prove that we have 'finished' it, that we expect all games to have a 'finish.' What about: "Well that was fun."? Games, and videogames in particular, do not require a resolution, dramatic or goal-oriented, to be enjoyable. Is it the fault of Lego that having built the model helicopter all the player is left with is a model helicopter? Or is it the fault of the player for not having enough vision to realise that he can either play with that helicopter or dismantle it and build something else? In Minecraft we don't even have to dismantle our previous creations to build something new.
You're meant to like the playing not the award you receive for having played.