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[Comments] (1) Game Roundup: Minecraft Edition: When I was a teenager the hot game in my BBS circle was ZZT, a top-down game about running around a grid and collecting things. ZZT came with an editor that let you fill up the grid with characters from the IBM extended ASCII character set. Some characters had special meaning to the game: π was a tiger which, like the tigers in In Watermelon Sugar, would hunt you down and eat you. (Also like real tigers, I guess.) ⇿ was a slider, which could be pushed left or right, but would never move up or down. And so on.

The hot game in my circle today is Minecraft, a 3D game about running around a grid and collecting things. I played the beta a while ago and exhausted the game's non-obsessive-compulsive possibilities, but I picked it back up when I discovered that people have been making and sharing custom Minecraft maps in a way that strongly reminds me of the ZZT days. In honor of the impending release of Minecraft 1.0, I present an overview of the custom map scene, with links to my favorites and commentary from a game-design perspective.

I got all these maps from the Minecraft forums. If you go there you'll see lots of people posting maps, advertising in the title the number of downloads each has received and the genre of the map. ZZT's game mechanics gave rise to certain genres: RPG, slider puzzle, the nebulous "adventure", and so on. Minecraft's mechanics have given rise to significantly different genres:

Survival: The genre that's the name of one of Minecraft's game modes. In this genre, you're put into a situation and you have to do... whatever you want. It's like playing Minecraft on someone else's map. Usually they've constructed some cool things for you to explore, or constrained your access to resources in some way, or at least created some arbitrary challenges like "build 64 bookcases". For me, all the memorable instances of this genre fall into the subgenre of:

Survival puzzle. (My term, it's lumped in with [SURV] on the forums.) In vanilla Minecraft, you have easy access to unlimited amounts of dirt, grass, water, wood, and stone, which can be crafted into unlimited amounts of food and basic tools. In a survival puzzle map, severe constraints are put on these inputs such that you have to figure out unusual ways of reaching certain desirable spots in the game world (cool-looking cave) or in the crafting graph (useful pickaxe).

The best pure survival puzzle map is Skyblock. ("500,000+ DOWNLOADS") Skyblock dominates this genre to such an extent that any new entry in the genre will be derided as a Skyblock ripoff. That's because it's very difficult to come up with a new survival puzzle. Survival puzzles depend very heavily on the implementation of Minecraft: facts about what inputs you can craft into what outputs, and facts about the environment. Facts that you can't change without modding. This is where the differences between Minecraft and ZZT begin to emerge.

Your best bet is to either come up with a totally new survival puzzle, or to combine the puzzles popularized in Skyblock with some fun pure-survival content. The Pit does the former, and the Complete The Monument genre (q.v.) does the latter.

Adventure: Unlike with ZZT (and games in general), the "Adventure" genre is very clearly defined. In an Adventure map, you have to go from one place to another, and you are not allowed to place or break blocks. In other words, the game stops being Minecraft, and becomes a 3D platformer with awkward controls and blocky graphics.

I've played a couple Adventure maps that showed off really impressive designs, notably Deep Space Turtle Chase (requires a mod that remakes Minecraft as a world made of spaceship components) and this Indiana Jones trapfest where you should probably just watch the video. But prohibiting the game mechanics that Minecraft does really well, and relying solely on its mediocre platforming, is a recipe for boredom. Specifically, my boredom.

There's a subgenre of Adventure called Parkour, which I haven't even tried because it requires very precise jumps, and I can't do that. Parkour is popular enough to rate a top-level genre on the forums, but it operates under the same constraints as Adventure, because if you could place blocks there'd be no need for very precise jumps.

Complete The Monument: My favorite genre, pioneered by the excellent Super Hostile series, and spread by the fact that the Super Hostile author put up a "toolkit" full of useful idioms to copy-and-paste into your own CTM map.

Basically, CTM turns Minecraft into Zelda. To win the game you need to collect a bunch of identical things (blocks of different-colored wool, generally). You explore an overworld until you find some dungeons, and at the end of each dungeon there's one of the identical things. If you're smart, while you're in the dungeon you can usually score an upgrade to your equipment (the Survival Puzzle aspect).

Turning Minecraft into Zelda works great! It leaves the building/crafting mechanics alone, it gives some goal-direction to the aimlessness of vanilla Minecraft, and it gives the creator a chance to show off some cool designs. Unlike Zelda, CTM games tend to be brutally difficult (it's called Super Hostile for a reason), but a little strategic cheating always works if the fun starts to fade. In addition to Super Hostile I've enjoyed the Twisted Logic series, the Forgotten series, the Corrupt Lands series, and Timetoslide's maps. See? Lots of series, just like Zelda.

If I were twenty years younger I'd be making Minecraft maps right now. Instead I'm the age I am, but I did have an idea for an arthouse Minecraft map: "Return To The Town Of ZZT". I'd build ZZT screens in Minecraft, making those stereotypical ANSI-yellow borders out of glowstone. I'd fill those screens with all the awful cliches of ZZT design: the broken slider puzzles, the "X of ZZT" naming convention, the talking trees. And it wouldn't matter because everything would be one block tall and you could just jump over the obstacles.

Except... I don't think the awful cliches of ZZT design can even be implemented in Minecraft. ZZT had a simple object-oriented programming language. In Minecraft if you want a programmable computer you have to lay out the circuits yourself. ZZT made it easy to display messages to the player. The Minecraft maps I linked to above are covered in little signs, 60 characters to a sign, worse than Twitter. A long message will be stuck on a wall with a grid of 9 or 16 signs!

The ZZT level editor was designed to make games to share with people, and Minecraft is designed to make an environment to walk around and enjoy. The genius of Minecraft is that the level editor is the game. But writing code isn't really a game, it's work. So instead of programming stupid games with ZZT, kids are building roller coasters and pixel art and Skyblock ripoffs with Minecraft. Clearly it's not Minecraft's job to be a programming environment, but this feels like a step backwards.

I'm giving some thought to minimal additions to Minecraft that would give players more scope for programmer-style creativity, without changing the nature of the game. I'll post my ideas in a separate entry.


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