Wednesday, December 30, 2020


As I mentioned in my earlier post, my experience of playing Minecraft has changed over time, from initially being more of a passive observer into my current active builder phase. It's been fun all along, and a really interesting in-game experience.

Just getting the game is a little different to start with. For any other PC game, I would go to Steam and buy it; but Minecraft is one of the very few titles not available on that or any of the other PC stores (Origin, Epic, etc.). A further obstacle is that there are two different, incompatible versions of the game. I am playing the Java Edition, which is based on the original codebase; it is compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux boxes, and since most of the office crew have Macs that was the one we wanted to use. The alternate version is dubbed Bedrock; that version works on Playstation, X-Box, Android, iOS, and Windows, but not on Mac or Linux.

Mel set up a private server for us, which you connect to with the hostname and a port number. This particular server uses a whitelist, so we all had to send him our Mojang account names to get access; but we can be assured that no griefers will invade our lands. We are playing in Survival mode, the standard version with limited resources and hostile monsters, set to Standard difficulty.

Since we're doing multiplayer, I wanted to get a unique skin. Out of the box only two models are available, "Steve" and "Alex". Fortunately there are a huge number of alternate skins available. I ended up selecting a Monopoly Man-style business tycoon in a suit and a monocle.

Launching into the game for the first time, my first impression was "Wow, everything is so blocky!" One of the first things I saw was some "trees" ahead of me, which had brown "trunk" blocks on the bottom and green "leaf" blocks up above. An on-screen prompt instructed me to break the trunks. I eventually did this by pressing the left mouse button to repeatedly strike the trunks. They broke, and dropped as logs... and the rest of the tree remained suspended up above. "Huh," I thought. "That's not how gravity works!"


Minecraft does have its own internally consistent logic, but it takes some time to get acclimated to that logic. It's kind of a neo-Newtonian physics: An object at rest will remain at rest, unless acted upon by an outside force. To make things more confusing, some other blocks are affected by gravity, namely sand and gravel.

Fortunately, I was playing with some Minecraft veterans, as well as fellow newbies starting around the same time, and was able to get oriented. During our scheduled events, everyone uses Discord for audio chatting, where I could ask all my stupid questions: "Is there fall damage in this game?" "Will you respawn if you die?" At other times, we typically use the in-game text chat for brief questions and comments.

For my first several sessions, each a couple of hours long and separated by a few weeks, I would log in, visit "the office", chat with the others, walk around and see the cool stuff folks had built. See my previous post for lots of pretty pictures!

As I played, I was surprised by how quickly my initial impression of blockiness was getting updated and replaced with a more immersive feeling. One of the best examples of this is probably the Sun. In Minecraft, the sun is, yes, a block: a giant square in the sky. But, after the first few seconds of seeing it, you just take it for granted. It just feels like the sun: it rises in the east, moves gradually across the sky, and eventually sets in the west, often with an impressive orangey sunset. It takes startling little time for your brain to accept that "Yup, that square is the sun."

And that sense applies to everything just as well. You can instantly recognize waterfalls and volcanoes, even though they don't really look like they would in real life. The cues in the game are so good that it takes very little art-wise to buy in to the world. The whole process reminds me of one of my favorite axioms about creating art: it's often best to follow a minimalist approach in your creation, and leave the viewer/reader/player free to color in the results with their own imagination.

There's a gentle on-ramp to learning the game mechanics thanks to those on-screen prompts, which guide you to collect wood, break the wood into planks, create a crafting table, make an ax, and so on. For several weeks I was stuck as the step of "Collect iron ore". I would spend entire gaming sessions digging, without finding any. In retrospect, the problem was that I didn't know what iron looked like: now I know that rock blocks with dots in it are more special than rock blocks without dots. (That also helped overcome my torch shortage issue; previously I was burning wood for charcoal, prior to learning how to collect coal, which, uh, it turns out is really not rare at all!)

Once I wrapped up my big Stellaris campaign I resolved to figure out how to play properly. I dug iron, got iron tools, and dug some more. My survivability got a huge increase once I was able to craft iron armor.

Around this time, I also started looking for a home for myself. Up until now I'd been hanging out at the office basement, which really is a great base (in no small part due to all the free cake!), but I was feeling like a bit of a moocher, and wanted to figure out how to do stuff properly. I headed out past the well-lit periphery of the settled areas and went looking for a wilder spot to settle.

I eventually picked a hilltop, which had nice views of the surrounding area. I plopped down a bunch of cobblestone blocks to make a wall, then more cobblestone blocks on top to make a ceiling. I used some wood to craft a door. (One very nice feature of the game is a searchable crafting interface: Once you gather raw materials, you will learn a recipe for what you can make with them, and then you can just type in the name of the thing you want to make, or browse through several categories.) I added some torches, a chest, and a bed: bam! It was way less comfy than the last space, but it felt great to have a spot of my own.

I resolved to dig, and made a simple tunnel running at a 45-degree angle from inside my cobblestone hut into the hillside; I was worried I would break through to air, but did not. It eventually opened into a large cavern, which in turn linked up into a cave system. Around this time I started developing my basic spelunking and survival skills, replacing my earlier system of "Run away from whatever is attacking you".

To me, there is a basic rhythm to spelunking. You rush forward, planting torches on the wall as you go. I like to place torches on the left wall, so if I ever get lost, I can find my way back to the entrance as long as I keep the torches to my right. If I run into any monsters, I backpedal into the light and fight them there or flee altogether. If I flee altogether (which was more common in my earlier days), I will come back days later. My previously-placed light now makes the tunnels safe, and the enemies will be fewer in number and further back than before. After enough of this forward-and-back-and-forward movement, the way will be clear. At this point I can safely start mining for precious metals or doing whatever else needs doing in the deeps.

The emblematic activity of Minecraft is mining, but I think the game is so successful because of the enormous breadth of activities you can undertake in it. The world is incredibly vast and varied and full of opportunities to explore. The crafting system is really deep and interesting. You can go into dark places and fight monsters if you want, but you can also just stay on the surface in the daylight and never worry about them.

The next major system I got wrapped up into is agriculture. Like many good games, the systems in Minecraft are interwoven, and your activities in one will naturally lead you towards experimenting in another. As you fight, you will naturally take damage. Damage is healed by eating food, sort of. If your "food" meter is near full, you will deplete some food and rapidly regenerate health. Food also depletes quickly while you sprint, or more slowly from other activities like mining.

So, if you want to stay healthy, you need to eat food. If you're not going to eat cake in the office basement, you'll need to get your own. I started off eating random apples that fell from trees, but this is a very inefficient way to survive. So I started what would soon become a very common activity for me: Checking out the minecraft wiki and learning how things work.

In my case, I broke some nearby tall grass to collect wheat seeds. I crafted an iron hoe, hoed the banks near a small pond at the foot of my hut's hill, sowed the seeds, and waited. After a few days, the wheat crop had sprouted. I collected the crop, consisting of both wheat sheaves and wheat seeds. The seeds were re-planted. The wheat sheaves I crafted into bread. Then I ate the bread. Tada!

As odd as it may seem, getting bread was probably the single best aid to combat that I've gotten in the game. As long as your food meter is near full, you can heal through the hits you get in combat, and once you get a steady food supply, you won't have trouble falling to enemies.

I was fond of my hut, but it wasn't perfect. I started off with a single chest to hold the stuff that wouldn't fit in my inventory, but that rapidly became insufficient, so I added more and more chests. I occasionally had trouble sleeping at night, due to a supposed monster being near, so I added a second story onto the hut, turning it into more of a fort; the extra elevation brought me outside the range of the monster and let me sleep peacefully.

Most Minecraft players I know eventually pick up one or more projects, ambitious multi-day undertakings. Once I was feeling secure in my fort and had expanded my farm a bit, my first real project was building a road. I used my iron shovel and pickaxe to level some ground near my farm, then led it through towards a larger lake. But I realized belatedly that I didn't really have a destination for the road. I came up with the idea of building a string of hilltop forts like my home, with the idea that I, or other players, would be able to spot them from anywhere in the area and navigate by them or find a safe shelter at night. So I explored some more, and found another, steeper and taller hill, really more of a small mountain, and built a second fort there too.

While exploring around this fort, I found a much more exciting resource: A village! Our office crew had found one village already on the other side of an ocean by the office, but this was the first one I personally had located. At first I thought it was deserted, but it turned out that an overgrown spruce tree had blocked the doorway to a house, and once I broke the leaves a half-dozen villagers came rolling out of the door like clowns out of a car, "Hrrrrm"-ing all the way.

I had a new task now, and spent a few days building up defenses for the village: I crafted a ton of fences and fence gates, encircled the village, and placed a lot of torches around.

Around this time, I started to plan for relocating my base. I'd always thought of my hut as a temporary home, and now that I had a firmer grasp on the game mechanics and building, I wanted something more ambitious. The village seemed like a great resource; I didn't want to live in the village, as that seemed like it would risk the villagers for any spawns I attracted, but somewhere within walking distance seemed appealing. With some exploration, I found a wide-open plain with gently-rolling hills not too far away. It seemed like an ideal site: Not much need for terraforming, good sight lines right around the site, forests not too far away for wood, lots of wild livestock (including horses) in the area, some small ponds for water, and, most intriguingly, some caves opening up into what seemed like an absolutely enormous abandoned mine shaft and deeper caverns.

I'll probably write another post about the actual structure I built here, as it took a long time and I'm pretty proud of it. For now I'll just note that I was living and working in the same place, and it took a surprisingly long time to get a roof over my head, but I'm glad with how it turned out!

Some more recent stuff I've been working on includes:

I've been mapping the territory around my base, hoping to eventually build a series of 3x3 map walls with progressively larger zoom levels. So far I've completed the 1x and 2x zooms, and am 2/3 done with the 3x zoom.

Getting some farms around my base up and running. I've massively improved on my old strategy of "throw some seeds in the dirt near the shore", and have a much nicer set of fields now: Each is an 11x11 enclosure, with crops planted in rows inside. I'm raising bees at the edges of the crops, and the bees help pollinate the plants and make them grow more quickly. A little further out I have several animal enclosures, divided between sheep, chickens, pigs and cows. In front of my base are more rambling areas for my horses and llamas. A compact sugarcane farm and a small cactus farm are in back. I'm really happy with how everything looks, how it works, and how accessible it is.

Collecting various rare-ish resources. One recent challenge was getting Slimeballs, which I needed to get to craft Sticky Pistons for a machine I was building. After some failed ventures with Rick, we were able to get a ton by visiting a not-too-far swamp during a full moon.

Leveling up villagers. The village near my house had way too many grindstones, so I broke all but 3 of them and have encouraged a Librarian, Toolsmith and, more recently, an Armorer to take up professions. Breeding villagers is very hard, and I think I've thrown something like 10000 carrots at them, but it eventually worked. In the last week I found a new, much larger village in the tundra to my northwest, and have been getting that one running smoothly as well.

Getting and enchanting high-end gear. I got my first full diamond set by clearing out a large cave near my first hut. I have another stack-and-a-half of diamonds from my newer caves, but I'm actually doing something different now that I have all my villagers trained up: You can get a lot of diamonds by selling crops to farmers (with pumpkins and melons particularly lucrative), then buy diamond gear from the villagers. These often come with minor enchantments on them, which you can keep, but I often grind them off and then enchant them myself. I do really like this system, and I think it might be fun to play a future game as, like, a farmer and a trader who never lifts a sword or goes underground, and who still ends up with full diamond gear.

Building a railroad! I just got my first line up and running, connecting my two villages (which I still need to name). The railroad isn't yet connected to my base; I'm thinking of building that spur as a subway so it doesn't mar the beautiful landscape around my home.

The next big item on my agenda will be spending some time in the Nether. I'm still mulling over where to build my portal. There's an existing one near the office, and I think I'm close enough that a portal in my base would link to that one. I may make a new portal at the end of my railroad, or do one in my base after all and then manually build another one in the Nether to link to my base location.

So, yeah! It's been a lot of fun digging into this game (literally and figuratively). Open-ended games like this can be really dangerous for me, but I feel good about the stuff I've accomplished so far in it. It's humbling to realize that I haven't really even scratched the surface of what it has to offer: in particular, I've done almost nothing with Redstone, which can be used to build computing machines and tons of automatic systems; and I'm nowhere near The End. I may hit the pause button at some point and go back to my bi-weekly excursions with the work crew; but I feel like I could just as easily spend a year inside the game, discovering new vistas and gaining more knowledge. It's pretty fun!

Friday, December 18, 2020

Don't Be A Creeper

I've been looking forward to Cyberpunk 2077 for [checks calendar] eight years, ever since that incredible teaser trailer dropped. I'm a huge fan of the cyberpunk genre, and while I haven't played the OG Cyberpunk 2020 pen-and-paper game, it has a strong reputation. I got increasingly excited as we learned and saw more of the game: it looked incredible, seemed oriented towards a variety of playstyles, and had lots of panache.

My vague plan was to build a PC shortly before the game came out so I could play it at launch. My current build dates from 2014, when I last upgraded to play Dragon Age: Inquisition. When I actually started planning a build last month, though, I realized what tons of people had already warned me about: There is an insane shortage in the graphics card market. Things aren't just overpriced: it is actually impossible to find cards in stock. Any new supply gets bought up in seconds, and often resold on eBay for three times the price.

I'm now tentatively planning to do that upgrade in February, assuming the market settles down by then. Which actually works out perfectly, as by that time the many many reported bugs will hopefully have been squashed, and my initial experience in Cyberpunk can be a good one.

So, instead of playing the latest bleeding-edge graphics-intensive game, I am diving into the blockiest, lowest-resolution game imaginable: Minecraft!

My brother has talked up this game to me for years. I've always been intrigued, but haven't taken the plunge before. I'm generally wary of open-ended games, as I either get bored or, worse, get obsessed, and spend way too much time in a game that never ends.

Minecraft has been a little different, as it's been a nicely social experience. A few months ago, my company decided to stand up a private Minecraft server, and use that as a social gaming outlet. In The Before Times, we used to have monthly Game Nights with board games and card games at the office after work, and people had been missing that experience. Minecraft isn't the same thing, but it's been a really fun place for folks to gather and mess around.

As I've learned, one of the awesome things about Minecraft is that it can be whatever you want it to be. I personally have gone through a lot of phases. For the first couple of months, while I was busy with Stellaris, I would pop on for our every-other-Tuesday "Minecraft Night". We voice-chat on Discord while walking around and looking at what other folks have built. After I started to get more interested, I began digging into the mechanics of the game and learning how to actually do stuff. I went through a long phase of spelunking and dungeon-crawling, descending deep into the earth to battle skeletons and find treasure chests and mine diamonds. More recently I've gotten on a building kick, upgrading my previous minimal forts to a more aesthetically pleasing and livable base.

I'll probably make a couple of posts on Minecraft. For this one, I mostly wanted to show off the amazing things my fellow players have created. We're playing on Survival mode (normal difficulty), so there are lots of torches everywhere to keep the monsters away!

So, let's start out with the office!

Nice logo!

Let's go through a tour. (I should emphasize that all of this is eerily true to life.) Here is the entrance right inside the front door, with pinball machines directly in front and the bike-parking space off to the right.

Looking into the main office area. Developer desks to the left, conference room upper left, pillars ahead.

This is where our designer and general manager sit.

And hey, here's my desk! Yes, they really are this shade of red IRL.

Call booths are upstairs.

And our conference room, complete with sound panels and mounted TV!

Looking out from the conference room through the glass windows.

Looking down on our lounge area from the upper developer balcony.

Heh... in real life this is a translucent roll-up door facing a high school and not a transparent window facing a farm. But the panels are very accurate!

Here's our kitchen and dining area.

Coffee and snack bar, leading back to the lounge. Oh and yeah, all of these plants are accurate recreations from the real office.

Within Minecraft, we have a bigger space underneath the office that is not as realistic but is a great space, and is often where we end up hanging out: there's tons of crafting stations, chests with materials, and so on there. Charles is a dedicated baker (in Minecraft) and always keeps this area well-supplied with plenty of cake.

The office, like most structures in this post, were designed and built by Rick, our company designer. It's pretty insane how much he's done! He'd never played Minecraft before, and it has been wonderful to see him creating amazing architecture in this space, as well as see how his skills and ambitions have grown over time. Here is the first building he ever made, a little house just outside the office which functions as a secure entry. (To keep the zombies and creepers out, we don't have a direct route into the office, so instead you enter through this building, then go through a tunnel and eventually pop out of our supply room.)

Rick wasn't content with merely recreating the office, and continued rebuilding seemingly the entire Mission District. Here is Sightglass Coffee, located next to the office, where I used to go every day for a delicious Americano.

I want a pastry so badly!

I'm not sure, but I think this might be ODC, Kristen's dance studio.

And of course there's Mission Dolores Basilica.

Next to Rick and maybe Mel, Charles has probably been the most active builder on this server. Charles has focused on the practicalities and resources to support all of us, including locating a billion torches everywhere. He also built this amazing farm, spending hours patiently leading in every animal, and then breeding them until we had enough that, like Scarlett O'Hara, we'll never be hungry again.

His most recent project has been this floating castle, and he's been working hard on getting a functioning railroad to connect it to the office.

Back to Rick's creations: Check out this awesome pirate ship, complete with illegal contraband inside!

Or this charming waterfront island home. I really love how this house blends in to the environment, unlike the "clear the land and build a structure in the remaining flats" that most of us have been doing.

The house is beautifully situated, with many fine views from the roof.

And there's even a cool garage with an adorable dog who can't wait to go for a ride in the car!

Random fountain:

Rick didn't even remember building this awesome modern house.

And then there was this creepy cabin:

Inside the cabin was a book:

And when you read the book THE DOOR SLAMS SHUT BEHIND YOU IT IS SO SCARY!!!

And this observation post:

Rick would hang out in this observation post and watch us as we run around inside the hedge maze to try and find the center, which contained the dispenser he created to give out fireworks.

Rick's current project is a museum, which looks absolutely enormous and is already impressive.

Meanwhile, Jack has been building a sinister volcano lair. (I should have taken these screenshots at night, it's especially awesome then.)

That's it for now! I'll probably write more later about my actual gameplay experience in the game, and maybe some of my own building ventures (which definitely pale in comparison to the examples above!)