With over nine million downloads so far and more online players than Call of Duty: Black Ops, it’s fair to say that Minecraft has been a success on Xbox. Despite some reservations from veterans of the PC version, which is a year ahead in terms of updates and feature sets, it has managed to capture the imagination of console owners – many of whom might not even realise what they’re missing from the computer-based original.
My sons certainly don’t care. Aged four and six they talk about Minecraft constantly, planning what they’ll build and how to avoid monsters – they need my help to craft and navigate their inventories, but the fact that we can all take part together on a single screen, means that we’re able to share the freeform creativity. It’s certainly making a change from Lego Indiana Jones 2.
With the game’s continuing success in mind, and with an update on the way, I wondered if 4J Studios, the Scottish studio responsible for the console conversion, were content with how the project was faring; do they feel thes is a faithful port of the PC original?
“Well, our aim for the game isn’t really to directly port the PC version to Xbox,” corrects studio director, Paddy Burns. “Notch made it very clear that the game on the Xbox is not ‘Minecraft’, it’s ‘Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition’. Having said that, we are aiming to get as many of the features from the PC version as possible into the Xbox version – but only where they make sense.”
Sense and sensibility are the guiding factors in the project so far. One of the key bugbears brought up by fans of the PC version is the Xbox version’s limited world. While Minecraft on the computer can generate new landscape and resources indefinitely, console owners are restricted to a 1024×1024 block surfacespace – you can walk from one side of the map to the other in one of the game’s days.
“Minecraft on the PC is pretty much a game without limits,” says Burns. “If you want to lay down thousands of TNT blocks and trigger one to set them all off, you can. Of course, this is likely to put a bit of a strain on the PC, and may cause some frame rate drop. To ensure the game on the Xbox achieved our aim of 60fps, and didn’t crash when lots of TNT exploded, we have had to apply parameters.
“We have set a limited world size, due to memory requirements and having to run the server and clients on the same console, and we had to tailor the world generation to our world size so that we didn’t end up with hills sliced at the world edges. We’ve changed the generation so that as we approach the limits, the terrain veers toward sea level to look more natural. We’ve changed mob spawning to apply limits, and also to initially spawn the peaceful mobs closer to players when they enter the world in order to make things more interesting when spawning in.”
I wonder though, if console gamers are as concerned by the finite playing area. Years of exploring RPGs and contained ‘sand box’ action adventures has taught gamers to expect and appreciate a limited world map; it provides a sense of purpose and clarity – you know exactly how much there is to discover, and you make the most of every new discovery. “We are hearing complaints from people who play the PC version and are used to walking off in a direction for days,” says Burns. “But we’re also hearing from others who like being able to find their friends in their worlds without trudging for days at a time.”
In a sense, Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition has become a console game, not just in terms of its new platform, but in terms of the experience it provides. Add in the simplified crafting menu, the drop in/drop out networking and the four-player split screen and you have a structure that’s much more recognisable to people who grew up playing Final Fantasy and Grand Theft Auto rather than, say, Sim City or for that matter, Infiniminer. The game is being re-invented for a whole new audience. As Burns explains, “I think mainly due to the ease of starting a multiplayer game, we’re seeing a lot more drop in/drop out play happening on the Xbox, and we are getting a lot of great feedback from families sitting down together in the living room and playing the game in splitscreen. It seems that the simplification of the crafting system, and the tutorial, is making it a lot easier for the younger family members to understand and play.”
Part of what 4J Studios is doing now then, is adding to that user-friendliness, bolstering this sense of becoming a console product. This is going to come out over incoming updates. For example, apparently lots of Xbox players have asked for a coordinates system so they know where they are on the map, are able to record the positions of houses and caverns, and know how deep they’re mining – which is crucial in the search for rarer minerals. “We’re adding this display to the in-game map, and that will be in the bug fix patch coming soon,” says Burns.
So how is the update process coming along? “We’re currently working on a bug fix update which will address as many of the issues reported in the bug list on the Xbox section in http://www.minecraftforums.net as possible,” says Burns. “We’re also adding in a few features that people are asking for. In parallel, we have an update in early testing to add the features from the Beta 1.7.3 version of the PC game, and after that we’ll be focusing on the big update to the Beta 1.8.2 features. Beyond this, we’ll be continuing to update to the newer PC version features, and will also be looking at what new content specific to the Xbox 360 we can add.”
Beta 1.7.3 adds a couple of interesting new tools, namely pistons and shears – and 4J is extending the tutorial section to explain how pistons can be used in conjunction with mechanisms like levers. But it’s the 1.8 update that most will be looking out for. As Paddy mentioned to Official Xbox Magazine, this is a major step-forward, adding the Creative Mode (for free access to resources and the power to fly) as well as new enemies and features. “I think the new biomes, villagers and new animals are the things I’m looking forward to,” says Burns.
I did wonder though, how the conversion experience has been for any Minecraft fanatics on the 4J team. Has it deepened or destroyed their love of the game? “It’s always interesting porting a game’s source code and learning from the bottom up how it works – and it is a good way to learn what’s possible,” says Burns. “But in many ways, it spoils the game for the programmers. One of the first things we did was build a debug interface to allow us to add whatever we wanted to our inventories, stop time, start environmental effects, etc. This makes for much faster porting and testing of features, but means we hardly ever play the game the way it’s supposed to be played…”
It’s interesting because there’s a question mark over whether anyone ever plays Minecraft in the way it’s ‘supposed’ to be played – and if that did exist, surely it has changed again as soon as the franchise has come into contact with console technology and console gamers. I thought perhaps there had at least been an attempt to stamp down on some of the more eccentric elements of Minecraft lore – for example, the fabled existence of the ghostly Herobrine character. I remarked to Paddy about a message that sometimes appears on the Minecraft XBLA menu screen, suggesting that Herobrine doesn’t exist and isn’t in the game. “I have to correct you there,” says Burns. “The title page doesn’t say there’s no Herobrine, just that we might have removed him…”
Some things never change then – including the continuing sense that the ‘real’ Minecraft exists somewhere between the intentions of Mojang and the imagination of its players.