Like most indie devs, I'm a bit tired of hearing about Minecraft at the moment! I thought I would collate my thoughts on it in order to put the issue to bed.
I'll be viewing everything through a commercial lens rather than focussing on the design, although in this case I think the two are almost symbiotic.
We've all seen the outrageous sales stats and conversion rate which dwarf almost anything out there. You'd need to look to big MMO's like Runescape to find a comparable performance; here are some interesting benchmarks.
This game is destroying commercial games with much bigger development budgets and much bigger marketing spends - why? I've got six reasons...
3. Demonstrable depth
4. Easy to buy
5. Creates viral material: stories, videos, cross-branding
6. Tipping point
Here we go with the breakdown...
Here are some things that I believe are unique to Minecraft:
- Building system
- Multiplayer building
- Survival mode: enemies, dynamic terrain, day/night cycle...
- Crafting system
That's practically the whole thing!
I'm sure you could come up with games which do one of those things in a slightly similar way, but I certainly haven't seen anything which combines them before.
Let's just accept for now that Minecraft is a very unique proposition; I honestly believe that to achieve the same level of viral success, you'd have to come up with something equally remarkable.
This is why I don't think anyone should jump into indie game development: it's one field where the execution of a concept really does matter above almost everything else. And it's incredibly crowded - hundreds and hundreds of indie games come out each year and there is only one Minecraft.
So, what can we learn from its design? We need to be pursuing niches and innovating; giving gamers something they can't get from anything else. Sounds a bit trite really, but Minecraft has just proved the validity of this.
The trouble is that this is incredibly hard to accomplish: the only way to do it is to explore your own ideas and become accomplished and dedicated enough to execute them.
This is the best guide to that process I've ever read in any creative field.
I'm not denying, by the way, that it's possible to make money in the style of some social gaming compaines: targeting something that's already demonstrably successful, copying it and then marketing it heavily. However, I believe most indie devs are trying to simply maximise the money they can make from their own creative output.
Friction is simply defined as a force which resists the playing of a game: it's a function of the number of things you have to do before you're allowed to start playing.
Minecraft has virtually no friction.
Here's how many steps it takes me to play Minecraft from the posting screen where I'm typing right now:
1. Google Minecraft
2. Click on the number one Google result
3. Click "single player"
[Wait five seconds]
4. Click in the window
That's actually about the same amount of effort required to launch a game I already own from Steam on my own computer (providing I don't already have Steam open)!
Once the game is running, there's no tutorial to sit through and I can immediately use the most conventional way of interacting with a 3D space: WASD and the mouse.
I try the left mouse button and I bash a hole in the terrain - that's fun. I'm having fun faster than in almost any other game I can think of. Now I try the right mouse button and I realise I can add blocks: a different kind of fun emerges. The complexity of what I can do just with those two actions is now revealed to me.
Minecraft is the most frictionless game I know, even surpassing some very simple Flash games. You don't have to enter your name, watch an advert, wait for a page to load: you're just playing straight away and your first actions are fun.
I have a theory that Wolfenstein and Doom were such massive hits at the time partially because moving around in those games is fun. Go and play Doom now and scoot around a level and you'll see what I mean.
3. Demonstrates depth
Here's the real Minecraft paradox and the reason it destroys simpler games in sales terms: all this outward simplicity is continually implying complexity.
What's the first thing you see on the Minecraft website? A video of a rollercoaster made using the in-game building tools. Immediately, you know that you can build almost anything you can imagine, including machines.
In fact, you probably encountered Minecraft through someone telling you a story about it, or showing you a video of some ridiculous baroque structure: you know it's incredibly complicated off the bat.
The Lego analogy is a great one: the boxes for Lego products always had brilliant huge constructions on them; the Lego TV adverts always showed over-the-top animated vehicles and complex buildings. It was all about potential, but when you got your hands on it, all you wanted to do initially was just stick blocks together.
This factor of demonstrable depth works very well for things like MMO's - immediately, you'll see other characters with fancy equipment, or monsters you can't beat, or places you can't go straight away: the game is constantly shoving depth at you and saying, "Look at all this you can have if only you play longer / pay money."
4. Easy to buy
I found it initially very vexing that the Minecraft website is so terrible at upselling the paid version of the game. It's REALLY hard to find a feature comparison list between the free and paid stuff: in fact, you have to go to the Minecraft wiki to do that.
Here's what the website itself says...
50% off during Alpha! Pre-purchase now.
Minecraft is a game about placing blocks while running from skeletons, or something like that.
Initially, when I first went the Minecraft website, I didn't really read everything and clicked "In browser". You're then presented with...
"You need to purchase the game to play infdev"
I had no idea what "infdev" is. However, the general impression that there's more to be had as soon as you buy is definitely presented.
What's missing though, is the specifics. Even the FAQ doesn't have them!
Someone wrote: Q: What do I get when I buy the game?
A: A flag gets set on your account on minecraft.net, allowing you to download the full game as many times you want, from any computer in the world. Note that nothing physical gets sent to you, the game is distributed digitally only.
To get any information on this, you have to click on the graphic in the top-left, and even this doesn't give the full picture.
Personally, I don't know if this has a positive or negative impact on upsell. Usually, people are very keen to want to know exactly what they're getting when they buy something, but the actual purchase decision itself is made emotionally. Maybe this factor actually works in Minecraft's favour?
I heard a talk by Jagex, the creators of Runescape, who said that many of their paid users bought a premium subscription despite having experienced hardly any of the content in the free version. The upsell was just about them loving the game and abstractly wanting more. I think this is certainly happening with Minecraft.
Now, it definitely helps that a lot of the information about the amazing Survival mode is out there in the public domain, and I'm not recommending anyone obfuscate the details of their paid version, but just why people want to buy your game is definitely something to bear in mind. People want to own the experience and undergo it as fully as possible; they want to strip out all of the stuff around it and just get the full thing. They often don't care about exactly which bullet points they are getting.
One final and very important detail before we move on: the buy button.
All of the time you're playing the free online version, there's a huge button that says BUY NOW at the top of your screen. How many game demos have you ever seen where there is a button on the screen at all times allowing you to buy the game?
I'd say Minecraft's price of 9 euros is at the "nobody can argue with this" level: it's perfect for a potentially mass market product. I don't think this price point is appropriate for all games by any means, but it certainly eases the doubt of exactly what you're getting when you buy Minecraft!
5. Creates viral material
Back to design now for a second.
Here are some things Minecraft allows you to do:
1. Create anything and show it off to people
Just today, I've seen two examples of art made with Minecraft that have been shared around on the internet. One was in this Kotaku post, the other was this amazing video of the Starship Enterprise...
Having some kind of building system, or an ability to create machinima in your game makes for an unbelievable amount of viral content. See also Garry's Mod.
2. Tell stories
It's very hard to tell stories about certain genres of games, and if your game allows for this, it's a major advantage. AAA games try to do this with linear experiences ("Oh, that bit where the lobster comes out of the cupboard? Wow, that made me cry"); whereas generative games like Dwarf Fortress try to do it with the random combination of elements.
3. Experience random chaos
I'd include Minecraft's hilarious multiplayer mode in this: again, the Garry's Mod comparision is there. Also, this...
Random dramatic events that are easy for outsiders to understand? Instant viral material.
6. Tipping point
Finally, I don't think anything has demonstrated the tipping point as effectively as Minecraft. There is a point which it is possible to reach with a good enough game that it will almost literally start selling itself. Only a tiny, tiny percentage of all games will get there, but it is a good and noble target!
I always struggle with the tipping point as an idea: it seems to just be a huge elaboration on "success breeds success", and thus not particularly helpful.
I do think reaching that point has been helped by Notch's approach as well. Although he hasn't been proactive at all with PR or marketing, he has been fairly responsive and has now hired a "business guy" to help him out with all of the necessary tasks required to maximise his success. He does come across as a friendly, humble guy who is just trying to make a great game: thus he interviews well and people symapthise with him. The simple, unpretentious website also smacks of a "good guy" indie creator, and I think this helps the purchase decision.
Nicholas Lovell makes a very good point about social proof which is linked to this. Social proof is roughly summarised as this idea: "If a lot of people have bought something already then it must be good". I'd read Cialdini's Influence if you have any interest in that idea - it's an essential book for anyone involved with selling anything. Oh and while you're at Amazon, pick up Predictably Irrational as well.
If I were going to select three key factors behind Minecraft's success I would choose the following...
- Extremely deep
- Easy to buy
We've only recently seen the massive explosion of Minecraft media, so I think the "viral" quality I mentioned earlier is slightly less important than those top three. I rate its depth as more important than the simplicity of its first few moments, simply because a promise of depth can motivate players through a difficult beginning (see Dwarf Fortress). I even rate depth as more important than originality: it's what gets people talking.
I don't think everyone should try to aim for mass appeal titles like Minecraft, and I certainly don't think anyone will have any significant success with a clone.
My point is that there are some aspects of it which should genuinely have an impact on developers, and some which have to simply be discounted as Minecraft Magic! I'm certain Notch would attribute a lot of his success to luck, but luck only comes about when you are as good at executing great ideas as he is.
I hope indie devs will try to learn intelligently from Minecraft's success, rather than...
1.) Assuming their next game will do as well
2.) Copying its design
3.) Pairing its business and pricing model with unsuitable titles
4.) Being discouraged by it
It's great to see another indie doing so well; this only serves to make people more open to indie games and to buying them direct from developers.
What does it mean for Mode 7 Games and Frozen Synapse? The kind of games we want to make are very different to Minecraft, and certainly will appeal to a smaller market...but that's ok - we want to stand out!
We're going to stick to our guns and stick to the genre of games we're interested in. At the moment, we're looking into ways of making sure that people get to hear about Frozen Synapse as much as possible.
Having adopted a strategy of asking people to pay for the beta that has worked very well for us, we're not about to do a U-turn on that, but we're definitely thinking hard about how we will present the game after launch and try and get it out to the wider market.
Finally, I think Minecraft has vindicated our decision to try and make a deep, fuller indie game with a big single player and multiplayer component. Having struggled a lot with that decision, we're now ready to lock the design of the single player and simply get on with building it - it's very exciting. We hope people appreciate just how much content we're going to put into the game and hopefully success will follow next year when it comes out.