Game DNA: Minecraft

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Shared February 16, 2014


With 14 million copies sold, Minecraft is now the 3rd best selling PC game of all time.

Not too shabby, considering it was originally the work of just one person.

Love it or hate it, Minecraft is a phenomenon. Its accessible mechanics mean that in the beginning, all you need to know is punch trees: get wood.

So where did Minecraft's concepts spring from - and why has it proven so popular?

Mining is far from a new mechanic in games: indeed, it's been present ever since the golden era of arcade gaming.

1982's Dig Dug sees the player oust subterranean pests from their garden, carving tunnels in alluvia as they progress.

It was possible to lure a hapless pooka down a tunnel you created, and then dig underneath one of the strategically placed boulders to crush them.

Later that year, Mr Do! offered similar gameplay, with a focus instead on collecting fruit dotted about the level.

Boulder Dash in 1984 was particularly influential, kicking off the once very popular 'rocks-and-diamonds' genre.

Similar to the earlier puzzle game Sokoban, your moves must be carefully considered - with boulders responding to gravity, it's possible to dig yourself into a corner.

Your goal in this game is simple: dig tunnels, avoid enemies and environmental hazards, all while collecting diamonds. Sounds familiar!

More recently, boulder dash clones have fallen out of favour - but every once in a while, digging, drilling or mining makes an appearance as a mechanic.

Dig Dug successor Mr Driller! in 1999 offered more in-depth excavatory exploits, with cutesy graphics and bright coloured blocks through which to burrow.

Mining for resources was the focus of flash game Motherload, originally released in 2004 - and the slightly prettier Super Motherload, released for the PS4 last year.

You start on the surface of Mars, with an agile mining craft yours to control - and your goal is to extract minerals from beneath the earth.

The deeper you venture, the more valuable ores you'll uncover - but you'll find yourself depending on the upgrades available to progress.

It was the combination of digging and exploration in Motherload that inspired the development of a game that would prove particularly important to Minecraft's conception.

In Infiniminer, mining is the name of the game: a team-based multiplayer dig-em-up, in which red and blue race to collect minerals from the cube-based terrain.

The game's popularity was cut short by a source code leak: and the resultant wave of hacked clients killed off the game's development.

Nevertheless, it had significant impact - as Infiniminer is perhaps the closest living relative to Minecraft: it directly inspired Notch to create his cube-based game, and also one of its key traits: a randomly-generated world.

The social aspect of its survival multiplayer is perhaps what made Minecraft so incredibly popular: while the game's world is engaging enough when played solo, the addition of other players - friends, foes or otherwise - can make it even richer.

In this aspect, Minecraft borrows from MMORPGs: not only in the online sense, but with some of the other trappings of earlier RPGs as well.

Early MMO games like Everquest and Runescape set the standard for role playing in shared spaces, in a time before World of Warcraft had taken hold.

The crafting mechanics in Minecraft can trace their lineage back to such games, as they introduced these mechanics into the multiplayer space.

Minecraft's collective building - in which you create worlds with an avatar in a virtual world - have roots in games like Linden Lab's Second Life, which paved the way for social creation in 2003.

Players are able to create 3D objects and skins for their avatar to wear and interact with, and with a fully realised economy, some have even made a living from their creations.

However, Minecraft has far greater appeal to the younger generation: its simplicity and accessibility a key asset.

It's often compared to a digital version of Lego bricks: with simple elements combining to make grand structures, whether building solo or more collectively.

It's little wonder the game has found success - while many of its elements can be traced to other titles, and some, like Infiniminer, have huge resemblance - Minecraft has a certain charm that few games can match.

From a simple idea, Minecraft has blossomed from a retro-style indie cube-miner... into a multi-million copy block-buster.