Mining away hours of my life


— 10:26 AM on December 23, 2011

Hi, my name's David, and I'm an addict. It's only been about ten minutes since my last fix, and already, the ants are crawling all over my body. Why does my neck itch? Oh man, I forgot to change my spawn point back to the main base. Hold up, this will only take a second...

...and I'm back. Crisis averted. I swear this all started innocently enough with one quick hit of a free online demo. What harm could that possibly do? Shelling out $20 to support an indie developer and snag a reasonably priced game is justifiable, right? Configuring some server software to run 24/7 on the home file-server and setting up a nightly Cron job to back up my progress, that's smart, no? Oh, it's 4 AM on a work day again. Crap, addicted.

Fortunately, I'm not alone. There are currently about 4.4 million fellow addicts paying the same dealer to satisfy their craving for this innocuous-sounding diversion: Minecraft. I've even managed to get some of my friends hooked and burning away their spare time busting rocks on my server, but why? What is it about this simplistic realm that keeps us signed in well past any reasonable bedtime?

When explaining the game to the uninitiated, I'm often met with a quizzical stare and uncomfortable attempts to change the subject. At best, the conversation will elicit the response, "...and that's fun?" Now, I've never been much of a salesman, but pitching the idea of collecting and relocating various digital cubes for hours on end is a tough sell just about anywhere. That said, I'm going to try to outline my fascination with the game, if only to admit my dependence and start down the road to recovery.

There are three primary gameplay modes in Minecraft: creative, survival and hardcore. Creative mode is useful for ambitious projects requiring infinite resources and a focus on design rather than resource gathering. That mode is fun in its own right. However, I find the lack of adversity and challenge makes any accomplishments seem somewhat hollow and unfulfilling. By contrast, survival mode introduces such hardships as death, resource scarcity, and time management, which add a hint of strategy into the mix. Honestly, 99% of the times I've logged into the game, my mode of choice has been survival. I enjoy the added challenge it presents, and the objects I construct block-by-block seem somewhat more legitimate when I've served hard time collecting the required resources. Hardcore mode exists for the truly masochistic among us. It is similar to survival mode but offers a higher degree of difficulty, and you only get one life to live. Once dead, the world you've created, along with the hours of your life spent creating it, are simply wiped away.

Here's the gist of your mission in survival mode: begin gathering the resources around you to build shelter and infrastructure before the sun goes down, because at nightfall, monsters will begin spawning and make your life more difficult. After collecting various resources, you can begin crafting new items out of your inventory. That allows for the creation of tools and enhanced building materials to aid in your construction projects.

So, in a nutshell, you mine assorted resources and craft them together. Minecraft. Get it?

To keep players on their toes, the developer has implemented a rather fast day-and-night cycle. Daylight lasts for approximately 10 minutes, during which the amount of light present is usually adequate to ward off any monsters. Those monsters can spawn in just about any location where light levels fall below a certain threshold, though, so even during the daytime, you can run into trouble in dimly lit rooms. Because the monsters can kill your character, some strategy must be employed during long overnight or underground travels. In standard survival mode, being killed causes you to respawn at the last bed you slept in or at the nearest spawn point on the map. However, when resurrected, you are relieved of all your tools and resources that were on your person at the time of death. If you're lucky, you can return to the place of termination and retrieve these items. Still, planning ahead and stashing unneeded or valuable resources before embarking on long journeys or dangerous activities will prevent much frustration.

Other ways to maim and kill your character exist: fire, lava, falling, drowning, and arrows to the, err, patella, courtesy of other players on the server. One must therefore be constantly cognizant of their environment whilst whittling away the landscape for resources.

However, this vein of strategy borne from fear of death is not the reason millions of people have dropped an Andrew Jackson for the privilege of playing the game. Nope, the primary focus is on creation. The ability to manipulate nearly everything in the fully destructible environment is akin to having an infinite number of digital Lego blocks at your disposal. You are only limited by your imagination and the upper and lower boundaries of the Minecraft world. Elements exist that allow for various degrees of automation and the creation of complex machines, and some have even gone so far as to produce 8- and 16-bit processors using Minecraft elements as transistors.

As for me, I have been toiling away on two main projects: building and upgrading a respectable house and digging a big hole. Architecture is fun in this environment and is part of the natural evolution of nearly everyone's Minecraft experience. The large hole, on the other hand, is just an extension of some pathological need of mine to dig large holes. It probably explains why I choose to live about as far away as one can get from any coastal beaches, but that's a blog post for a different day.

Unless you're predisposed to reclusive behavior, Minecraft's single-player mode will only entertain you for so long. The real fun begins when friends and family can all work together on the same map to build a virtual world from the ground up—literally. The ability to share accomplishments and collaborate with others is the addictive catalyst that keeps me logging in for more.

In order to create a common world that can be shared among many users, special server software must be downloaded and installed. Like the game itself, the server software is Java-based and can run on just about any machine with a Java interpreter and loads of RAM—Minecraft will graciously nibble on as much memory as you can feed it. Since my primary PC goes to sleep during idle periods, I decided to install the server software on my Ubuntu-based home file/web server, which I leave running 24 hours a day. If you're looking for something a little less permanent and easier to manage, there is also a GUI-based server for Windows that is designed to get you up and hosting quickly.

Whether or not others can access your server over the Internet is highly dependent on your ISP and its open-port policy. By default, the server software listens for and accepts requests on port 25565, but that can be changed as desired. Once the software has been configured and a port number has been pointed to the appropriate internal IP address in your router's settings, people should be able to access your newly hosted world by feeding their Minecraft client your server's public IP address (which can be easily discovered with a quick Google search for "what is my IP").

So, there you have it: Minecraft. Are you convinced yet? As I read back over this post from the perspective of an unfamiliar bystander, I still find myself asking, "...and that's fun?" You know what, unfamiliar bystander? Don't take my word for it. I know a guy, who knows a guy, who can hook you up with a free online demo over at Minecraft.net. Just don't come back to me complaining when it's 4 AM and you're $20 poorer.

   
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