Game Reviews,  The Lazy Designer

Minecraft – Everything a RPG Should Not Be

While RPGs seldom are on the cutting edge of visual quality (unlike shooters) there’s always been a continual player expectation for improved graphics. Over the past decade or so there’s been a push towards realism and a higher visual fidelity — resulting in an escalation of costs to develop large-scale RPG projects.

And then a game like Minecraft comes along.

Minecraft has dreadful graphics. I know several people who won’t play the game because of the low fidelity ‘art’. Yet clearly, given its impressive sales, there are many more who do not care what the game looks like (or possibly they even play it *because* of the way it looks).

But this is hardly the only RPG* expectation — or maybe even the most important — that Minecraft “breaks”.

(*Some people do not consider Minecraft an actual RPG… and in many ways it definitely is not, at least not anymore. Based on the number of Minecraft clones, it can better be considered as its own gaming genre. But I suspect Minecraft initially captured the attention of a subset of RPG gamers because it offered appealing RPGish features: continual exploration, building & ownership, difficult combat, progression, and crafting.
What it does not offer is story — or any significant story. But aside from that it has many of the ingredients an RPG has… it just throws them together in an odd way.)

Where it really breaks the mold from modern RPGs is the sheer lack of giving a heck whether you die or not. If you die, you lose your equipment (unless you find your way back to where you died) and you lose a significant amount of your progression. I think it gets away with this partly because it is relatively easy to get back to your previous levels, but death can still be a significant setback in Minecraft. Yet, it doesn’t stop people from playing it. Often, it makes them play more of it (not that I’ve ever stayed up till 3am to make my way back to where I died on the other side of the world to recover my precious equipment).

I could not imagine pitching an RPG that offered such huge consequences for death. But because death is meaningful players take it seriously(ish). I stash my most valuable equipment safely and try to travel by day and rest at night. If I find something really cool (say a boatload of diamonds) I take care in returning home with my loot. I have many emergency shelters built around the world in case I need a temporary base during exploration. I have an elaborate Nether-transportation system for short-cutting between areas in the real world. The harsh death system creates fun gameplay.

And then you have the obscure crafting system (and its sibling system, enchantment). Without the online wiki to guide me I’d have no idea how to build most things in the game. I know the titles I’ve worked on that used crafting tended to have in-game recipes and the like which took most of the guesswork out of the crafting itself. It just seemed somehow wrong to make the players do the dirty work of keeping track of components. But yet it works in Minecraft.

Combat and progression are also weak compared to most RPGs. Fighting is mostly reflex based with a handful of statistics affecting damage and protection. There’s very little depth to the character’s personal progression (and really the character you control is mostly incidental… it is the stuff he collects and builds that matters). And there’s some bloody difficult battles in the game! Yet I don’t mind running around fighting to gain levels, and I don’t mind the lack of progression or special abilities or the like.

I suppose this is because there’s so much else to do… so much else to find. The game is fun to explore (once you get over the graphics bar). There’s such a variety of terrain and hidden dungeons and witch huts and giant ice towers. The first time I ran across some of the major features, I was thrilled — a desert temple, a village, a herd of horses. Because the world constantly generates itself there’s always something new to see… and in my single-player game there’s still a lot I have not yet discovered. So in this regard, I think there’s an opportunity for other RPG makers to take a look at the core, compelling elements of Minecraft exploration and build on them. When you have a game that people want to play just to look around and check things out, you’ve sank a tenacious hook into them.

Yet there’s an even bigger hook that Minecraft uses. Its strongest feature (in my opinion) is certainly the construction element. I enjoy being able to dig blocks and then use those blocks to build other structures and I’ve built a host of bases across the world, each different and each serving a purpose of its own.

I won’t even touch the multiplayer element. Personally I hate playing online, for most games, but I do have fun with the kids (the rare time they let me play Minecraft with them anymore). I have more fun watching the kids play Minecraft with their friends. The things they have built, and the “Minecraft stories” they construct are beyond fascinating. And here the building aspect gains even more power. Not only do the kids like creating things together, they also like exploring a copy of my single-player world, and bringing their friends through all my bases… kind of like an online tour of “dad’s world”.

I know I’ve mentioned it before but I really think that Minecraft will influence the kinds of games the next generation of gamers will enjoy — and what they will expect from their games. Minecraft’s obscure take on features, like its low quality graphics, I believe will be a longevity boon. The game’s not going to get any uglier looking over time. (This may actually make it timeless… a game that is still played ravenously a decade or more from now… we’ll have to see.)

Yes, I apologize, I’m talking about Minecraft again/still. I don’t have much to update… though I have sold a story recently, which I’ll talk about once we get closer to publication.
I’m also consulting on a game, part-time stuff but it is eating into my writing and blogging and game dev time (just as I was starting to figure out some cool stuff in Unity!!) On the Lazy Designer front, edits continue on Book 5 and I’m nearly done the rough draft for a Unity tutorial.

Have a great weekend!

Also, here’s some game dev stuff, I’ve been reading:

Former lead designer at BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights). Creator of Raiders of the Serpent Sea.


  • Jesse Garboden

    I played minecraft so much I burn’t my self out. The game right now is just stupid. Too many options and too many things plus my computer doesn’t like it anymore.

  • Jesse Garboden

    I got the game when it was still in beta 1.4. It had limited things which made it good then as they increased what you could do with it. This made it boring. Too many options in a game can make it boring.

  • James Paten

    Hi Brent,

    I was beginning to think the arctic Canadian weather had swallowed your house whole! Glad to see you’re still alive and well. :)

    If you don’t mind me asking, what kind of game are you consulting for?

  • Brent Knowles

    Ha ha. Just super busy. I invent too much work for myself.

    I don’t believe the game I’m consulting on is announced yet, so I’ll just say it is a RPG. It is a very interesting project; I’m impressed with how much they’ve implemented in a rather short period of time.

    Hope all is well with you.
    – Brent

  • James Paten

    Thanks Brent! I am curious to see what the project is.

    I also am interested to see the more “punishing” RPG aspects of accepted by gamers in games like Minecraft. And I think you touched on a very important aspect of why it doesn’t feel so punishing – because of the amount of things to do, the player doesn’t often feel “stuck” by these challenges.

    This is where I think many RPGs run into problems – with most RPGs being nearly all combat focused, the combat mechanics can dominate the flavor of a game. If they are too punishing, the gamer can feel punished. Yet in a game like Minecraft, dying is rough, but the player can do a number of activities instead of fighting that make it seem like just one facet of a deeper game experience. Instead of a game where combat occurs as the primary solution to most situations, where the gamer is constantly confronted (and even perhaps trapped) by such hardcore mechanics.

  • Brent Knowles

    Yes, definitely.

    Games that offer multiple player activities, certainly feel less punishing than single-activity games. And these are generally the types of games I enjoy more — and go back to more often. I may even become bored with one type of activity, but the other activities keep me interested enough to keep playing the game.

    Thanks for the comment!

    – Brent

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.