I have tried to get her to play so many times, but it always ends with “Yeah, but how do I win?”
It’s a common refrain in our apartment, something that has become a bit of an inside joke. I’ll spend hours in front of a screen looking at out-of-date textures and chatting with my brother over voice chat about how best to design our umpteenth “new” base. I show off the observatory, the ore processing room, the portal chamber, and while these things look pretty and have cool redstone gadgets, she’ll smile and fake a “cool!”
I was having a discussion with some coworkers the other day about what would be the most remembered game of our generation, as Pac-Man was to our parents, and Minecraft, developed by the Swedish company Mojang, topped the list. If you don’t know someone who plays it, you don’t get out much or your friends are lying to you. With over ten million copies sold, odds are you’ve bumped into your fair share of creeper victims. Its appeal is widespread. History classes are using it to help students recreate Roman architecture, merging play with learning in a way unseen since Oregon Trail and Number Munchers.
Sandbox is the new shooter, and more games are integrating elements of the genre, to great success. The game Kerbal Space Program, in early development by Squad and in open testing, allows the player to develop a space agency from scratch, sending out probes, landers and manned capsules into a mock solar system, complete with accurate physics. While less fantastic than Minecraft with its creepers, zombies, and dragons, Kerbal Space Program enjoys the thrill of discovery and a broad community that ranges from aeronautic engineers to Trekkies like me.
No “winning” is a fantastic business model. Blizzard Entertainment showed this with World of Warcraft in 2005. While you and you nine best friends can defeat the most difficult boss encounter, there is no “end.” No one has done everything or obtained all the loot yet, and that game has been out for the better part of a decade. So ten million people fork over fifteen dollars a month for the opportunity to do more, because it never stops.
Even without a subscription structure, which Minecraft and KSP lack, the free advertisement of players posting pictures and videos of their creations online funnels thousands, even millions to your game. The open-ended format of each of these games allows for discovery and education to take the place of quests, loot, and win conditions.
And deep down, we humans love to explore. Minecraft generates the world dynamically, randomly putting together the pieces as you move further out into the world. And it’s huge. You could walk in one direction for years and never reach the end. In fact, this guy is trying, for charity. In KSP, the appeal of getting to a new planet, landing in your capsule and planting a flag, and zipping around in a rover is matched only by the satisfaction that you designed and flew the rocket, capsule, and rover and piloted them all yourself.
For a generation that grew up on LEGO and K’NEX, now we get to revisit those same worlds of imagination in the modern digital sphere. There is no limit to the number of pieces we own anymore; we don’t have to keep asking for new sets for Christmas. For a price that’s a third of the cost of the next stale Call of Duty game, we have
hours years of possibility. Where I settle for norse-style cities and grand fortresses, others have created 8-bit computers and 3D printers.
But the openness of the game doesn’t stop at the vanilla offerings of the producer; both Minecraft and KSP have extensive modding communities, amateur programmers who create add-ons for the game to add features. There are mods for Minecraft that add machines, new ores to hunt for, new enemies, RPG elements like magic spells, and even nuclear power. KSP has mods that add resource gathering to enable the creation of moon bases to allow for the creation of space-faring civilizations. The decision of Mojang and Squad to allow for modding, though they don’t see a dime directly, generates untold riches because more gameplay means more word-of-mouth advertisement, and as any executive will tell you, that’s the dream.
So no, you can’t “win,” but the gameplay itself is victory. In these worlds, you are a god, and the only limitation is your imagination, or exhaustion, whichever comes first.