Minecraft, "Open-Source Culture," & Networked Game Development

Curator's Note

Minecraft, the indie-game-cum-global-phenomenon, epitomizes the simple dream of independent game developers: build, spread, profit. Markus Persson (aka. notch) worked on Minecraft alone; two years later, Minecraft boasts over 3 million copies sold and more than 10 million registered players.

But the game is not finished; it's still in beta.

Minecraft interests me because of its "viral" popularity from a strong community of gamers on social media platforms like YouTube and Reddit (popularity that emerged from sharing in-game media, like the videos to the left and below).

The fact that Minecraft is still being developed with so much support from its players intrigues me. Well, "support" varies, given that an "angry mob" of players DDoS-ed Minecraft.net because notch was developing too slowly.

The balance between development and play is critical to Minecraft's cultural salience. Players hinge on news regarding the game's evolution, for which notch and his dev team at Mojang provide updates via Tumblr (http://notch.tumblr.com) and Twitter (http://twitter.com/notch). But some players are not mere consumers; they also participate in editing the game, as notch uses the million-player network as "playtesters" for creative feedback and debugging.




Playtesting is not alien to "professional" game development (see Nina Huntemann's IMR article), but Minecraft players' labor becomes a conspicuous (rather than hidden) element of game construction. Even beyond Minecraft's "official" development, tech-savvy fans unobfuscate the code, fork the development, and create mods, which have been viewed and downloaded millions of times. notch plans to integrate mod support into Minecraft, but players continue to craft the game to their own needs in opposition to notch's hierarchical creative decisions.

I've written before about "open-source culture" for In Media Res (see my post on the Japanese user-generated music franchise, Vocaloid), and Minecraft represents another example of the creative industries evolving to purposefully allow user-generated contributions. However, as an incomplete game, Minecraft traverses novel practical and ethical concerns regarding networked production, both in terms of Minecraft's legitimate creation and fans' similarly-creative alternatives -- or even the question of legitimacy itself. Beta has profound implications for culture (Neff 2003 [PDF]).

This fall, I'm delving deeper into the Minecraft community. Follow my survey, interviews, and the full project here: http://tinyurl.com/minecraftphd


Thanks for the post, Alex. (And what a tragically hilarious house fire video!). I'm stoked that someone is researching Minecraft!

Okay, so I don't know much about this game save for what I've seen on YouTube videos. I'm wondering though, with such a prolonged Beta phase, do you think that notch & Mojang have any real intention in "finishing" Minecraft? In other words, would a "finished" Minecraft (even if it still allowed for considerable freedoms re: user-created content) fail to attract the same level of creativity that the Beta has so far generated?

Matt's question is an interesting one, and I had a similar thought though in a slightly different direction:  because so much of the game has been built upon fan labor, what happens when/if the finished game gets monetized?  Is there discussion in the fan communities or from notch et al. about how to say that changes things?  It seems like there could be two thorny issues to skirt:  the money question and the question of credibility once the game's completed.  I can just imagine fan outcries of notch selling out, and I wonder if there are other examples of such levels of (potential) fan backlash already out there. 

 Thanks for your post, Alex. I'm closely following your studies (and as a Minecraft player, took your survey) because I'm enthralled by the virality of the game. My quandary pertains to the nature of open-sourced, player-tested games in general: is there potential in this sort of development, or do you think Minecraft is a unique exception to traditional roll-outs? I have a hard time imagining a major game developer, or any sort of game without incredibly flexible objectives, to be able to have success with this sort of model.
To me it seems like a quite fortunate lucky break, albeit one facilitated by the online viral sharing network, which only becomes stronger with every passing day. Is there a way in which viral sharing can be utilized under more conventional game development?

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.