Monday, March 17, 2014

D&D and Minecraft

Wait a minute…what? Dungeons and Dragons and Minecraft? Al must be on the happy sauce again!

But hold on, I’m serious and I really want to talk about this. What does D&D and Minecraft have in common? Where do they differ? And what can each of them learn from the other? To find out, read on:

First off some stats (because everyone loves stats):
Year started:
Estimated regular monthly players:
2.25 million(1)
1.5 million(2)
Estimated net worth:
1 billion dollars (US)(3)
900 million dollars (US)(4)
1) Wizards of the Coast, 1999; 2) Daniel Kaplan, 2011; 3) Wikipedia, 2006; 4) Fortune Magazine, 2012.

For those of you who don’t know, Minecraft is a PC/Mac/Xbox/Playstation/handheld game started by a man named Markus "Notch" Persson. The basic idea behind the game is to play a character in a randomly generated world where almost everything (and I mean almost everything) is movable, collectable, and useable in some fashion. Its “Lego-like” appearance and distinctive/intentional pixelated graphics have caught the attention of many gamers who like the “retro look”. The first-person game involves building; exploring; mining; farming; landscaping, forging metals into tools, items, weapons, and armor; raising/taming animals; fighting zombies, creepers, slimes, witches, skeletons, etc.; and trading with NPCs. It is extremely open ended, has almost no plot-line to speak of, and appears deceptively easy to play. There are also multiple game modes which include: Creative (the player is able to build and explore with almost no limits or danger); Survival (the player must work for everything they get while trying to fend off harmful enemies); Hardcore (same as Survival only much more dangerous); and Multiplayer (payers log onto an internet server and can organize co-operative play or PvP within the same map). If you are interested in seeing how it all looks/works, I recommend Paul Soares Jr.’s videos on YouTube, especially the “How to Survive and Thrive” series of which the first episode can be found HERE.

So what does Minecraft and D&D have in common? Well for starters both are RPG based. In D&D you fight monsters and hunt for treasure in order to level up/improve your character and progress the story. While there is no real “story” in Minecraft, your character still fights monsters and hunts for resources/treasure to level up and create/construct whatever it is you wish within the game world. Secondly, both games have some pretty standard fantasy elements within their frameworks such as enchantments, potions, teleportation, hit points, and even dragons. Thirdly, and perhaps the most significant of all, in both games the player is free to do almost anything they wish within the framework of the game world. What you can accomplish is limited only by your imagination. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest selling points of D&D and I’m sure that many players of Minecraft would say the same.

So where does Minecraft and D&D differ? To start, they were each born out of two very different generations. D&D was a child of the seventies and had its origins from popular fiction, novels, myths, and legends. Minecraft was born into the modern digital age and had its roots in previous PC games such as “Dwarf Fortress, Dungeon Keeper, and later Infiniminer” (Wikipedia), as well as…well…D&D. The vehicle for play is also different as D&D works best as a face-to-face sociable tabletop game, where Minecraft is more of a solitary computer/console game. D&D is also more story/goal based where Minecraft is open-ended and has a greater focus on construction and use of resources. And while both games have NPCs, in D&D they are quite diverse and can function on multiple levels while the Minecraft NPCs only serve the purpose of trade and could do with a bit more character/versatility.

Finally, what can both games learn from each other? The short answer is: a lot. Minecraft already took a page from D&D when its game designers realized it had to be more than just a sandbox construction game. However, in my opinion, they haven’t taken it far enough. Minecraft can still go further into D&D’s wheelhouse and be a better game. Make the NPCs more interactive, add greater quests/achievements and more ‘boss’ type enemies, perhaps some spells and spell casting could be thrown in, introduce races and classes, and a greater range of weapons and tools would be excellent. As it currently stands, Minecraft is still evolving and changing with each new version (since the game’s release there have been seven major updates/alterations) and I’m sure that some of the things I’ve brought up are being considered as I speak and will be implemented in the future.

As for D&D, the main lesson it could learn from Minecraft is to be more open-ended. This is an area that D&D used to be strong in for many years but I think too much emphasis has been placed on pre-generated adventures, modules, miniatures, and tiles in recent times. These pre-generated items, while very well done and interesting, are taking away from one of the true strengths of D&D: Imagination! My advice to Wizards of the Coast is to give DMs the framework like 2nd Edition did with its boxed sets. They gave us the “world” but still left things sufficiently open for everyone’s creativity and originality to flow. Leave the blanks blank! In this regard, I hope the game designers of D&D Next have learned their lesson from 4th Edition. You don’t need to spoon feed the DMs and thus the PCs every NPC, encounter, magic item, and event. Give us some locations, a few suggestions, and some fascinating stories to get us going and then turn us loose. Don’t try to control us, give us the tools to create.

I think the other lesson that Minecraft holds for D&D is the old saying: keep it simple stupid. Minecraft has done very well for itself in a very short amount of time because it’s simple and fun. The popularity of the game has exploded and it’s not because of the ‘insane’ graphics, or lifelike gameplay, or award winning plotline. None of these things exist in Minecraft. However, what it does have is plain old simple fun and apparently that trumps everything else…who knew? (sarcasm Sheldon, sarcasm) As far as I’m concerned, D&D needs to do a little soul searching when this new edition arrives and realize that if it’s not simple and fun, everything else doesn’t matter.

So there you go, two titans in their respective fields both able to up their game by learning from one another. As D&D celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, I can’t help but wonder if Minecraft will last that long. And if it does…what will it look like?

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