Rise and Shiny: Minecraft

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Rise and Shiny: Minecraft
Minecraft screenshot
We all know what Minecraft is, right? Well, just in case you have not played it for any number of reasons, let me explain. Minecraft is a sandbox defined by primitive-looking graphics, mining, building by using a massive set of LEGOs, multiplayer interaction, and modding. Lots and lots of modding. I bought it for only 10 bucks way back in its first or second beta, and all I can remember about those first few hours in the game was how high my pulse rate got, and then the buzz I felt when I first heard a pretty song play as the moon rose in the sky. Playing Minecraft for the first time easily goes down as one of my top 10 most thrilling gaming moments.

Flash forward well past those betas and Minecraft has become an empire. There are Minecraft toys, clothing items, building sets, and all sorts of real-life tie-in merchandise. It's a popular game on both console and PC and has bridged the age gap between millions of gamers. But we don't talk much about it on Massively. Why? Well, it's not an MMO.

Or is it?

Minecraft screenshot
I've been happy to avoid covering Minecraft because I didn't think it was an MMO. Sure, we cover non-MMOs all the time, a subject that we have to revisit every once in a while in order to clarify our stance. I cover pseudo-MMOs and even single-player games as long as they have some sort of connection to MMOs. I might use a single-player title to show off a cool system or mechanic that I would like to see in an MMO. Minecraft, however, felt so segmented and instanced that it just wasn't worth covering. Not only that, but as with World of Warcraft, there are other sites in our network that do a bang-up job of covering the hugely successful sandbox.

But now, Minecraft developer Mojang is hyping Realms, a new service that will essentially allow players to rent servers to play on in small groups. The mobile version of the game is brilliant in many ways, especially for its ability to let players on different devices instantly join each other across a wifi connection. On top of all of that, players can always rent a server to host upwards of hundreds of players.

I joined up with one of these "massive" servers this week. My hosts were Split Infinity Radio, a cool batch of DJs who stream free gaming music and who opened their blocky doors to me. They run a free Minecraft server that hosts over 60 mods (player-created game-adjustment packs). You can go over to their community page to find out how to join up! Generally, the game hosts around 60 players, but without all of the mods burdening the server, it could probably host closer to 200.

I think that qualifies as massive, and persistence is definitely present in Minecraft.

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While I had an incredible time on the server and will likely to continue to play on it in the future, having "successful" players already in the game gives new players an upper hand that sort of robs them of those initial wonderful feelings I got when I first played. I'm all for helping new players, but I couldn't help but wonder this week whether multiplayer Minecraft -- MMO or not -- is the best way to start off in the game.

The brilliant thing about Minecraft is how accessible it is. Its basic version can run on a primitive laptop. When my two Minecraft-obsessed nephews visited recently, one played on my large gaming machine while standing a few inches away from the monitor, and the other was able to play on a much weaker laptop that we keep on the kitchen table.

The game is easy to play as well. All a player has to do is dig, dig, dig his way into the ground, and as he digs, he gathers materials that can be used to make other items. Within minutes a player can have a nice, protective mine going in the side of a mountain. Give that same player a few days and he will have dug a palatial rock-palace. Give that player another few months and he might come out with a blocky, full-scale version of the starship Enterprise. During my week on the Split Infinity Radio server, I dug out a cool marble palace in the jungle. The game creates a random playing area that will often feature many different biomes like jungle, snow, desert, or forest. I'm still deciding which is my favorite.

Split Infinity Radio also hosts a Minecraft server web page that updates players' location in real time. You can chat with the rest of the server through the web page, and the map will even update automagically as you build something. I was able to watch the browser-based map update as I built my fortress. It wasn't exactly state-of-the-art, but it was mesmerizing all the same.

The other players seemed a bit cautious around me, allowing me space and freedom to build without their input. One particular player named Multibox helped craft a cool front porch and left me a lot of goodies inside a chest but eventually left me to my blocks. That made me wonder whether players were able to grief each other, but the server was obviously policed pretty stringently, as everyone remained very friendly.

Minecraft screenshot
There are settings for each Minecraft server, like death penalties and building modes, which the server admin can tweak. The server I was on hosted so many mods that I kept coming across items or creatures that I had never seen before. This meant that my old guidelines for playing Minecraft didn't apply. I couldn't leave a one-block gap in a wall anymore, for example, since because of the Mo' Monsters Mod, there were creatures small enough to slip through! Thank goodness that crafting glass windows was easy enough. If a critter did get through and I was killed (and it did happen while I was AFK), then my items dropped where I died. If I took too long to get back to them (and I did), the items disappeared. I lost a fantastic assortment of tools when I died!

Is Minecraft an MMO? I still sort of say no because of its lack of officially hosted massive servers. Of course, after playing on a massive server for a week, I have to say that Minecraft can be an MMO, depending on the host. It's definitely persistent, it's certainly massively multiplayer, and it obviously has many of the same RPG-like systems that we see in MMOs. I think I'll change my stance on the game's definition.

Next week I will be jumping into Rusty Hearts, an action-based side-scrolling MMO from Perfect World Entertainment. It's been a while since I played, so I'll be joined by Perfect World's Mark Hill at 4:00 p.m. EST right here on our livestream channel!

Each week on Rise and Shiny, Beau chooses a different free-to-play, indie, or browser-based game and jumps in head-first. It might be amazing or it might be a dud, but either way, he'll deliver his new-player impressions to you. Drop him an email, comment, or tweet!
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