Why Minecraft Works (Design Concepts)

Jan 31, 2011

Why’s This Here?

I don’t review games. But I do study games, and to that end, I have an interest in dissecting them to figure out what makes their designs work.

Since discussing a game’s features requires no specialized skills or background knowledge, it seemed suitable to share here as a Beginner post.


If you already know Minecraft, skip ahead. If not, here is some information to give context to the rest of this entry:

  • The world is made entirely of 1-meter cubes.
  • Any of those cubes, except bedrock at the very bottom, can be removed or moved, enabling the player to reshape the world.
  • As far as the player can wander in any direction, more terrain will be randomly generated.
  • Day/night cycles pass.
  • Aggressive enemies spawn when and where it’s dark.
  • Underground there are cave systems with lava, iron ore, diamond, and a few other minerals.
  • Above ground there are trees, hills, animals, streams, oceans, cliffs, sandy beaches/deserts, etc.

First-time play tends to go something like this:

  1. The player spawns with no supplies.
  2. Punching trees drops logs, which can be used to create a workbench, a weak wooden pickaxe, and a few other basic supplies.
  3. The wooden pickaxe can be used to break stone, which can be used to make stronger stone tools. Stone pickaxes are then used for coal, iron ore, etc.
  4. Coal and wood are combined to make torches, which cast light to prevent enemies from spawning in otherwise dark areas.
  5. Combinations of materials produce a variety of other objects.
  6. The player dies a few times, learns a few things, tries out a few different kinds of projects. Time passes.
  7. The player then builds the Taj Mahal, or something very much like it.
  8. The Tetris effect kicks in, causing the player to have Minecraft dreams.

My Narrow Experience

My first two weeks with Minecraft were entirely in single player; my next two were exclusively in multiplayer on a small server (~12 regular players) with a cooperative, non-griefing community. For a day or two in between, I briefly explored huge servers.

By no means are my design observations below intended to be comprehensive. There are so many different ways to play, and in multiplayer, so many different communities to play with.

Here is what I managed to extract from my experiences with the game:

What Works

Price Because online play in Minecraft takes place entirely on user-hosted unofficial servers, rather than massive centralized data centers as is now the norm for MMORPGs, there is no ongoing subscription cost. It requires only a one time payment to purchase the game – and for ~$20, a fraction of how much typical games cost.

One-Size-Fits-All Minecraft supports players with many different preferred styles. Whether you’re into building houses in The Sims, fighting monsters outside in Zelda or Diablo, fleeing zombies within narrow corridors in Resident Evil, exploring vast landscapes in Oblivion, gaming alongside others in your MMORPG of choice (complete with the politics/leadership that entails), maintaining/trading crops in Farmville, chatting in the social community in Second Life, sharing videos with the creature creating community of Spore, or designing things with basic electronics as a hobby, all that and more happens here. Some games let the player “play any way they want” by giving them 3 ways to approach a fight: stealth, guns blazing, or hacking/trickery. Here you can pretend you’re in Lord of the Rings, then find yourself doing interior decorating or building calculators an hour later.

Modest interior decorating.
Paintings are pre-made.

Open-Ended Minecraft allows a range of commitment. The lack of structured objectives means the player is free to travel light, coming and going in short increments to explore and adventure, or to set about gathering materials and laying out massive projects. This flexibility in possible session length makes it very easy to lose track of time – intending to hop in for 15 minutes to reap crops, then sticking around for hours from getting lost in a cave or carried away with a new project. How long it takes to play can grow or shrink according to the player’s interest and availability.

By the end of my month, I
was taking on larger projects.

Community Outside the Game The game, at least in its current form, is famously harsh to newcomers. Night comes sooner than expected, enemies are more dangerous than they look, death is disorienting, and there’s simply no information within the game about how to do basic, important things like making torches for light after sunset. Although traditional design suggests that this would be a huge flaw in the user experience, this increases the importance of being introduced to the game by friends, or of turning to the wiki and countless online YouTube tutorials. The user is not an island. Consequently, the player is either immediately pulled into the game’s tight knit player base, or becomes exposed to the tremendous wealth of information available outside the game.

Easily Shared That Minecraft is a computer game makes it easy to Fraps a play experience for YouTube, or screenshot a completed building project to imgur. This sharing experience beyond the game gives players an audience, raising expectations. Meanwhile, those videos and screenshots function as viral marketing for the game, introducing outsiders to the game’s aesthetics, concepts, and possibilities.

I’m proud of making this. Check out
my reference image and layer plans.
See? Projects are easily shared.

Motivating Pressures Building shelter that Creepers won’t destroy, Spiders won’t climb on top of, Zombies won’t spawn within, and Skeletons won’t fire arrows into gives utility to otherwise purely decorative elements. Doors, switches, fences, glass, armor, swords, arrows – along with landscape structures like moats, walls, sky bridges or defensive posts – become investments to protect a dwelling. The danger of darkness and quickness of nightfall give pressure and meaning to using daylight effectively. Without day/night cycles, and without enemies, the game would require much more initiative to learn. Instead, the game pushes the player to learn, without squeezing them through a narrow tutorial or precisely planned experience.

Earned Results The difficulty and luck involved in finding materials, along with the risk of losing inventory upon dying/respawning gives value to the inventory. Crafting adds to this sense of ownership: even though recipes are simple 3×3 grid arrangements, the feeling that you made the armor you’re wearing, as opposed to finding it whole in the world, makes it yours.

This is my pickaxe.
There are many like it,
but this one is mine.

Fragility Exploding enemies – Creepers – put structures at risk, which makes them particularly terrifying to a proud architect or red stone electrician. Fires can also spread, destroying flammable materials (lumber, doors, nearby trees…). Death by enemy, fall, or lava makes the player drop everything in inventory, which vanishes if not picked back up within ~5 minutes of respawn. This lack of safety or permanence adds to the perceived worth of items and structures, since they have to be guarded by the player, and we have a tendency to grow fond of things that we’re responsible to protect and maintain.

Sadly, there are many
videos like this one.

Unexpected Tensions Extend Play Time A side effect of fragility is the impulse to restore order after an accident, which unexpectedly extends gameplay time. We ideally want to leave the persistent world at a good stopping point, not worse off than when we started, so when inventory is lost upon dying from enemies, or once a wall gets blown apart by a Creeper, tension and dissatisfaction exist until the supplies are recovered or the damage is repaired.

Randomized Reward (Gambling Addiction) Variable ratio reward, the good ol’ Skinner box mechanism common to many games in the form of randomized drops, dice rolls, and surprise chests, plays a central role in Minecraft addiction. Here, every single block removed underground could reveal iron, gold, red stone, gems, flowing lava, or an expansive natural cave system behind it. There’s excitement in the unknown, and in the sense that if just a few more cubes are chipped away, payoff for the effort will be found.

Top: diamond, left: red stone,
middle: iron ore. Jackpot!

Overshot/Uneven Need Game currency purchased through console downloadable games, card collection packs, or web social games are typically set up to have uneven leftovers after purchases. A lawyer even sued Microsoft over doing this for Xbox Live Points. This scenario comes about organically in Minecraft. For example, you have 26 logs, but need 35 to build the balcony you have in mind, so you set out on a logging expedition – and while out in the woods with an axe anyhow, you bring home 25 logs. 26+25-35 = 16, so after building the balcony, you now have 16 logs at your disposal, which probably isn’t quite enough to do whatever you’ll next want logs for. This mechanism gets amplified by rare, useful materials like red stone, or time-consuming materials like obsidian. In the past, I’ve discussed this mechanism as the “chips and salsa” design, so called because when the salsa bowl is empty but we still have chips, we refill salsa, and when the chips bowl is empty but we still have salsa, we refill chips, until one or the other runs out.

Value in Trading All the reasons stated above adding to the value of materials – unpredictability in finding them, uneven supply needs, risk of their loss – combine to make them valuable for trade or gifting. Different biomes and varying distributions of minerals can lead to complementary overstocking between players, with too much sand & glass stored by a desert dweller, snow cubes by another player in the tundra, and lumber for the forest resident. This means that the player who wishes to have a full palette of materials available for their construction projects is unlikely to be a total hermit, instead reaching out to exchange some local excess for what’s abundant elsewhere.

Not a very fancy house, but I bet
he’d trade snow blocks for sand.

Abstracted Visuals Part of the appeal of pixel art, whether we’re talking about Space Invaders or Passage, is that the simplicity saves our attention from being wasted on nuances like bump-mapping giving everything a wet plastic look. We don’t see cubes in Minecraft after only a few minutes playing: we instead see an ocean, a fortress, a tunnel, or a tree house. To someone new to Minecraft, screenshots of the terrain all look clunky and arbitrary. To a Minecraft player those same images look inspiring, magnificent, and ripe for settling.

Low Detail = Less Room for Error The player’s custom texture is 64×32 pixels. Whether players want avatars resembling their real-life appearance or their favorite cartoon/comic/movie/game character, it’s hard to mess up too badly when drawing a 64×32 texture. That simplicity extends in an even more dramatic way into the world, where everything fits tightly on a 1-meter grid. Alignment is easy, symmetry is easy, and the player is never paralyzed deciding between minor, fractional differences in dimensions. Anyone can throw together a decent little house in a single play session, and with practice and a bit of experimentation, come up with something both creative and presentable.

For the first time in any game,
I was able to get my exact hair color,
glasses, skin tone, jeans/shirt of
choice, and even include my bracelets
and wrist tattoos (simplified). Compare to:
complex character selection interfaces.

Massively Multiplayer Online Level Editor From a purely functional perspective, Minecraft is a multiplayer real-time level editor. Combined with the simplicity of 1-meter block units, it’s easy to create novel and engaging spaces for others to explore, between exploring the spaces created by others. It’s MS Paint for 3D level creation.

View the full map of the old Reddit Creative Mode server
(7840×4122 – will take time to load. Click to full size.)

Infinite Worlds Players can – and do – throw away and initialize new random worlds until they’re happy with where the central spawn location is situated. And no matter where the players start, walking far enough in any direction will yield major differences in the environment. Each random world generated has the potential to become almost twice the surface area of Earth, if players wander out in every direction.

Unique, Uncharted Worlds (No Sequence Guides) A side effect of infinite worlds is that there’s no single guide of quests and locations, which helps save the gameplay from becoming an exercise in following directions, as has become increasingly common among MMORPGs and single player games alike. For the same reason that the game thrives without a tutorial, many games suffer in playability from the prevalence of online tips sites. Though a game can be designed as though the internet does not exist, no players will be fooled; Minecraft uses procedural map generation to counter the irresistible temptations that spoil our fun (we have no choice, really – because if we don’t utilize online resources, other players will, leaving us behind). No one can give away the secrets of the world a Minecraft player is in, since every world’s geographic secrets are unique.

Low-Fi Mods Modding for feature expansion and new art is simple, with still more support for mods being built into the game’s next iteration. Already people are adding more animals to the game, improvements to world generation, and inventing new modes. Though modding is possible for many commercial games, in this case Minecraft‘s low fidelity again becomes a benefit, since getting homemade mod content to blend seamlessly with the original game’s visuals doesn’t require a team of 3D artists and months of dedicated effort. This enables mod creators to think and compete over design, rather than emphasizing production quality.

A class-based fighting mod.

A hang glider mod.

Water/Lava Sources When moving water or lava by bucket, it isn’t the bucket full which is moved, but rather the source. Frequently, filling a bucket or two at the top of a waterfall can stop the waterfall – because the waterfall is inside the buckets. Likewise for lava – plucking up one source cube grants the power to drench a mountain or fill a narrow channel will lava. This design choice reflects a very unnatural contrivance which does wonders for gameplay, by removing the tediousness of moving liquids and instead allowing the player to take action at a conceptual level.

Explosives Without TNT, the game simply wouldn’t be the same. Explosives are made of materials difficult to acquire – sand mixed with the sulfer dropped by the exploding Creeper enemies – but they devastate caves, can be used to produce fearsome traps, and are an anarchy player’s dream (well, that plus lava source buckets). Thanks to the respect for materials, inventory, and general property that derives from the time necessary to accumulate and put it all to good use, carrying even a few TNT items can feel a bit like how one might imagine it would be for a civilian to be in possession of a hand grenade. Gone is the triviality common to explosives in action games, and in its place is reverence for the weapon’s potential to save or destroy time.

A huge server was due to be reset
on Dec. 20 for a major update.
The night before, we were all
given unlimited TNT and
permission to destroy the world
before its imminent deletion.
The scene was surreal.
More screenshots from that night.

Farming The player can make a hoe, gather seeds, till grass, and plant wheat to be turned into bread. Reed can be planted, then chopped down each time it grows to full height, for pressing into pages then books to join with lumber for bookshelves. Trees and cacti can also be planted, to farm lumber or more cacti (enemies can be killed by cacti walls). All plants require nearby water, light, and soil. Each of these grows at a different rate – which applies even while the player is away – and if they aren’t harvested they stagnate at maximum height, causing the the player to miss out on potential materials from fresh growth. These motivate the player to compulsively stop in to harvest various crop types, and to make the rounds at the start/end of each session, further prolonging game time.

Wheat farm, for bread.

Reed farm, for paper.

Distinctive Style and Concept Though both visuals and gameplay were cloned and advanced from the obscure game Infiniminer, when people see a screenshot, DeviantArt, or T-shirt with blocky people or cuboid worlds, that’s now associated with Minecraft. Franchises like Halo, Max Payne, and Half-Life all have a distinctive lead character; every element in the Minecraft world – and even things not in that world but rendered the same way – is now associated with this particular game.

Cross-Platform Support There aren’t many commercial games built on a Java foundation. Other than Minecraft the only other prevalent example is… RuneScape? Yet the OpenGL support through the Lightweight Java Game Library enables unusual graphical complexity and performance for a cross-platform format. For a game that relies heavily upon word of mouth to achieve more sales, this avoids dead ends due to Windows/Mac/Linux divides within peer groups. (This is likely more relevant among Minecraft‘s disproportionately geek audience than among mainstream computer users or game players.)

Actual Sandbox Gameplay Sandbox gameplay became a buzzword a few years ago, but bear with me. In the past, sandbox gameplay has meant anything from “the player can cause chaos between advancing the missions” (Grand Theft Auto), “the player has to cause chaos to advance the mission” (Just Cause 2), to “there are side quests the player can optionally complete, and in any order” (Fallout 3). In this case, the world is actually akin to a massive sandbox filled with huge grains of sand – millions upon millions of them – just waiting to be piled into castles, dragon sculptures, and rivers. Minecraft is a sandbox, in the most important sense of the word.

Huge dragon statue. source

Wish Fulfillment There was a time when the relative simplicity of homes meant they could be built entirely by the individual or family expecting to live inside. Sometime between log cabins and today’s mountain of logistical paperwork, wiring, plumbing, etc. that largely came to a halt in the industrialized world. Minecraft gives players a way to design and build their own home. It’s a similar enjoyment to architecting space in The Sims, and although the fidelity is lower, the player gets to live inside it, instead of merely observing other characters from the outside.

A fancy Minecraft house. source

Social Bonding Finding materials as a team, fighting enemies together, coordinating massive construction efforts, and seeing how the world transforms over time forms a bond with the other players. With each world being unique, and each server going through its own architectural history, a highly compressed feeling of growing up together is simulated. Players share common knowledge of location names, local happenings, and histories of peer personalities on the server. Thrown in with a bit of hardship from Creepers, fires, and resource scarcity, plus current players assisting newcomers, a very dynamic and interconnected community of shared understanding takes shape.

An underwater village built as a group effort. source

Survival Horror + Scary Audio The enemy sounds in Minecraft are not much fancier than the graphics. And yet, because of the danger they pose to the player inventory, the proximity of the enemies implied by the sound is genuinely terrifying. Player weapons are weak – arrows are scarce, swords are short range, and rare materials are needed to make strong blades. Attacks are relentless, and come not only at night, but from any dark place, including a natural cave or a dark corner of the player’s home. Since at any given time the player is likely carrying supplies either mid-gathering or mid-building, there’s always something at stake when the player encounters enemies.

12 pumpkins, 14 moss stone, 8 gems,
19 brick blocks, 29 obsidian, 21 TNT, set of
diamond armor/gear… bad time to die.
The better you’re doing, the scarier the game.
(Picture for sake of illustration; players stash
their best goods in chests before going out.)

Forced Breaks for Night Short music tracks play when the sun is about to go up or go down, signaling either the need to seek shelter or to prepare for adventuring out another day. During the sheltered down time at night, a break is imposed on play, giving outlet to web browsing, book reading, homework doing, TV watching, or even indoor Minecraft tasks (smelting ore, harvesting indoor farms, crafting, deep mining…). This helps keep the outdoor activity from feeling like it’s completely dominating the player’s time, and makes being outside more exciting since attention must be paid to either leaving enough time to return to shelter, or carrying enough supplies to create a provisional site on short notice.

Charming Cubic Animals Boom Blox introduced the gaming world to cute blocky animals. Minecraft animals are in a similarly adorable, low-poly style. Finding cows hopping around a construction area, chickens wandering around a house, and sheep riding in mine carts is delightful and unexpected, breathing life into an otherwise static world, without adding to the danger. That the animals yield useful materials when hit (feathers for arrows, meat for health, hides for armor, dyeable wool for colorful building and decorating) only increases the positive association with these animals, who remain unaggressive even while under attack.

Precious blocky animals.

Kid-Friendly No swearing, no sultry cutscenes, no political/religious philosobabble, no blood, and no torture. A lot of games and media out there are almost kid friendly, but fail on account of carelessness on the part of the author(s) – for example there’s a relevant Penny Arcade comic about Minecraft that I wanted to include earlier, but there’s swearing in it that adds nothing to the humor, so I excluded it. Minecraft doesn’t need those gimmicks to work, so it doesn’t have them, making it possible for families and young peer groups to adventure and build together.

Surprises in Updates If there’s a roadmap of what features the developers intend to add next, it’s kept secret. Each update to the game includes undocumented feature additions – new materials, new crafting combinations, and other new features are thrown in unexpectedly. Halloween last year included a massive update, including a few minor touches like pumpkin blocks, but also a whole extra dimension, “Nether” (Hell) with new monsters and materials which can be accessed by making portals from the main world. More recently, music blocks were added, creating another opportunity for people to develop, teach, and show off talent within the game.

Portal song played with in-game
music blocks and red stone circuits.
Blocks are hit to change note, and which
material they rest on affects instrument.

In a Word

Minecraft is a game about discovery. Discovering what’s beyond the horizon, discovering new cave systems, discovering incredible projects others have done, discovering new features snuck into updates, discovering new like-minded people, discovering architecture / electronics / sculpture / texturing / landscaping / action / photography / decorating / music / trading / storytelling / adventure / modding, and discovering that we all love to make things, provided that we have an accessible and cost-effective way to do so.

Anything to Add?

If you’re a fellow Minecraft player, and have suggestions as to what about the game’s design or circumstances might contribute to its success, feel free to chime in with a comment.

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