Lego for the 21st century
Welcome to the exciting world of future entertainment. Everything about this documentary shows how our media landscape is evolving in all sorts of different, unknown directions. It isn’t just the subject of this film, but the very film itself – which was paid for by crowd funding through the now-popular Kickstarter website. This documentary exists because the audience wanted it to and put down their money for it in advance. It only gets better from here.
In 2009 a Swedish programmer called Markus Persson released a game on the PC called Minecraft. It was not yet finished and cost 10 dollars. For that sum, players could of course play the game, but also enjoy weekly updates as Persson developed it further. Common business wisdom states you should only release a finished product, under the mantra of ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression’. Minecraft proved either the exception to the rule or its destroyer. It quickly grew in popularity and thousands, and soon millions, of people started playing. Unheard of in the indie games development scene, Persson became an overnight millionaire.
What is Minecraft? It is nothing less than a facilitator of human creativity, a perfect sandbox. Gaming legend Peter Molyneux explains it in the film as digital Lego – the way Lego used to be when it wasn’t so prescribed and instructed as it is today. (Ironically, since then there has been an official Minecraft Lego set released.) In Minecraft, you can build anything you like. The core idea is that you are a person in a randomly generated world consisting of crude blocks. You can mine these blocks for resources and then combine those in your inventory to create a range of new materials and tools. Using those materials, each with their own unique property, you can build anything. Houses, palaces, cities, starships. These are not exactly functioning objects; most of the time they are artistic facsimiles, in the way of a sculpture.
It caught on. Soon, Youtube was overrun by people showing what they had made. Communities were formed to build together. Using rudimentary interactive materials, geniuses were able to create actual, functional computers within Minecraft, or constructed a 1 on 1 replica of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The ‘do whatever you want’ gameplay, along with the intentional lack of tutorializing, caused players to reach out and help each other to find ways to do things. Minecraft’s success was astounding. At the official launch of the game in 2011, years after its public release, Persson’s newly founded company (Mojang) created an entire convention in Las Vegas to celebrate. Fans flocked to it, dressed up as Minecraft inhabitants. A teacher in America saw the potential this game offered to help children learn the value of working together and facilitating creative problem solving. A special, educational version of the game has since been released, reaching hundreds of thousands of children worldwide. No surprise Minecraft won various indie game awards.
Indie? Yes, Minecraft is an independently designed game, i.e. developed without publisher money. There are many definitions for what constitutes an indie game, but Persson himself is of the opinion that the indie spirit is crucial. Indie games aren’t primarily made for the money, but out of a genuine love for games and a desire to bring the medium forward. This seems to hold true across the board, since nowhere in the field of video games do you see more innovation and fresh ideas than in games often made by only one person, in their spare time. Even if you don’t know anything about video games or indie development, watching this documentary will convince you that games can easily inspire to be art, if they want to.
There’s also much to say about the film makers. 2 Player Productions is a company that arose out of a specific goal: to create high quality documentaries about the world of gaming. They’ve been terrifically successful at it, chronicling amongst others the inner workings of the Penny Arcade offices (the internet’s foremost webcomic on games) and the making of Double Fine’s Kickstarter adventure game – another crowd funding triumph. It was high time someone started making docs on these matters that were more than cheesy adverts for testosterone-laden television programs.
The production is slick and the Chiptune soundtrack reminiscent of that of The Social Network. What it lacks is human drama. This is a direct result of the amazing success Mojang has enjoyed. There simply haven’t been many troubles and few dangerous ravines Persson was on the brink of falling into. He beheld everything with a characteristic, goofy smile and relished the ride. As such, the film is a celebration of the victories of technology and video games, and how they affect our culture for the better right now. The whole thing is intellectually interesting, rather than dramatically exciting.
One last illustration of how forward-thinking this thing is. 2 Player Productions, being a tech-savvy club, knew that within minutes of its release, Minecraft: The Story of Mojang would be pirated. To cut off ill-doers and generate the goodwill that these companies thrive on, they released a freely downloadable version on Piratebay.org themselves. The idea is that people who would normally download without paying will appreciate the gesture so much that they will pay anyway, or perhaps help 2 Player out with their next project. It sounds counterintuitive, but this sort of thinking has worked before and is another small crack in the old business model. At this point, nothing should be deemed impossible. The future is here and it’s dazzling.