This was never going to be an easy conversion job – if such a thing really exists.
With its vast community, its seemingly constant state of renewal and its synonymity with creator Markus ‘Notch Persson, Minecraft isn’t so much a game as a sort of monstrous cybernetic superstar. How will this endlessly iterating Java program be crushed into the restrictive casing of a console release?
To slightly misquote the Texas Chainsaw Massacre tagline: what will survive and how much will be left of it?
A little known developer based in Dundee reckons it has the answers. Set up seven years ago by former staff at defunct Scottish developer VIS Entertainment, 4J Studios has become something of an expert in conversion projects; or more specifically, Microsoft conversion projects, having brought Rare titles Banjo Kazooie, Banjo Tooie and Perfect Dark to XBLA.
When the subject of translating Minecraft to console came up, Microsoft put forward 4J for the project. “I visited Mojang at the end of April 2011,” says chief technology officer, Paddy Burns. “I questioned Notch in detail about the software architecture of all the different parts of the game– I wanted to get a high level understanding of what it would take to convert to the Xbox 360. At the end of the grilling, Notch said: ‘That was great! No one’s ever asked me questions like that!’ I then put a proposal together showing what we would do, how we would do it, and a project timetable.”
The questions worked, 4J Studios was assigned. Quickly, it became clear that the technical feat of converting from Java to something Xbox could handle wouldn’t be the key issue. “Well, clearly there are challenges inherent in bringing a product from one programming language to another, but we’ve worked through that pretty effectively,” says Burns. “The real challenges have been in dealing with an open-ended game built to run on current PC architectures. The Java version can create an endless world if you have the physical and virtual memory to handle it, but this just isn’t possible on the Xbox.”
So what has this meant in practical terms? “We have had to set a limit on the world size, and have worked hard to reduce all the memory requirements in the game in order to increase the size of world we can have. We altered the landscape generation to tail off to ground level around the edges of this world, to try to make it more natural looking. This doesn’t mean to say the worlds aren’t big – they’re huge –, it’s just that they’re not infinite.”
Apparently, changing the code to be more suited to the Xbox 360’s multiple cores has also been a challenge. One major step has been to get the world generation segmented so that it runs across cores, allowing for faster calculations. “I’m glad to say that the original Mojang source code was pretty tidy to start off with,” says Burns. “Thankfully, it didn’t have any Swedish comments, so we had no trouble understanding it!”
The interface too, has been completely re-worked. The subtly and expansiveness offered by the mouse and keyboard combination has had to be re-thought for the tyranny of the joypad.
“Mojang and Notch were involved in the design change discussions early on,” says Burns. “We all went over to Microsoft in Redmond to discuss these with the Microsoft team. Notch was very keen to ensure that we avoided anything that made the game crafting tedious to play with the Xbox controller, but gave us free reign to propose solutions.”
The team’s solution has been to treat Minecraft like a regular shooter, putting action buttons on the triggers and allowing users to swap easily between selected objects and the inventory via the shoulder tabs. It promises to be a fluid, intuitive interpretation.
The sense of usability will also extend to tuition. Mojang doesn’t need to provide instructions with PC Minecraft – the game has a supportive community and lots of online help. But 4J Studios can’t release an Xbox version like that.
“We’ve spent a lot of time creating a tutorial area for the game, along with an area to show what can be done,” says Burns. “As well as the initial training of the player, we display details about the items and block types in the game the first time you come across them. This ranges from displaying what a block type is, to explaining how to use a minecart.
“We’ve also changed the crafting interface to show what you can make with the ingredients you have, and which ingredients you are missing for the items you can’t yet build. We worked hard to make changes, leveraging feedback from players to help us refine the system, and we’re proud of what we’re delivering.”
The structure of the game will also be retained – over time. Apparently, the Xbox version will be launched with just the Survival mode, but the Creative and Hardcore options are coming with a later update. It also seems that console owners will benefit from the regular updates we’re used to with the original title.
“Everything from the PC game will be there,” says Burns. “However, we will be running behind the current version for a while. Once we get the Xbox version out, we will be working on updates to add in new functionality from the PC game.” When I ask if there are facets of the console hardware that have allowed the team to think about new, original features, he doesn’t dismiss the idea out of hand. “It’s certainly something we will be looking at for future releases,” he hints.
As for multiplayer functionality, it’s in there. Burns says the team has devoted a lot of time to the networking elements of the game, but won’t elaborate on that for now – an announcement is due at the end of the month. I ask whether owners of the Xbox version will be indoctrinated into the wider Minecraft community.
“They’ll be supported by Mojang in the same way as the PC and Pocket Editions are supported,” confirms Burns. Pushing for more details doesn’t get me far, but it seems that social networking will be a feature: “We have added the ability to post screenshots from within the Xbox game to Facebook,” says Burns. “We hope to expand on that side of thing in the future.”
So, encouraging stuff then. It seems 4J Studios has taken a clear-headed approach to the project, re-calibrating the controls and reining in some of the environmental excesses to make for a smoother console experience. It’ll be fascinating to see how the game takes advantage of the Xbox Live service for multiplayer, as well as Achievements – we’ll have more on that soon. Of course, XBLIG is crammed with titles that have taken the block-building recipe onto the console already, but none offer quite the same featureset, or the same sense of an evolving platform.
To put it bluntly, they’re just not Minecraft – and it could be that this conversion really, honestly is.
Minecraft is launching on XBLA in the spring.