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THE HOW-TO GEEK GUIDE TO MINECRAFT / HOW-TO GEEK SCHOOL

How-To Geek

Lesson 1: Getting Started with Minecraft

Minecraft

Minecraft is one of the bestselling video games of all time but getting started with it can be a bit intimidating, let alone even understanding why it’s so popular. In this edition of How-To Geek School we’re going to help you get started with the game (or at least understand why your kids love it so much).

Despite its simple appearance there is a whole lot going on in Minecraft. It can feel confusing but don’t worry, we’ve laid out a series of lessons that will take you from not knowing a single thing about the game to advanced gameplay. This includes creating custom maps, building in-game devices and structures, as well as thriving in the difficult Survival Mode.

Today we’re going to dig into installing and setting up Minecraft to get you playing and enjoying the game as quickly as possible. After that, we’ll have daily lessons focused on optimizing the game, learning about all the cool terrain and creatures, and more advanced aspects of gameplay like setting up a local multiplayer game, customizing your in-game appearance, and playing online.

If you’ve watched your friends or kids play and scratched your head at what exactly the appeal is (or maybe you’re already convinced and excited to go) we’ll highlight what makes Minecraft so downright addictive to so many.

For most people, it’s important to understand what exactly this hugely popular game is and why others become so enamored with it before they’ll take it for a spin. We’ll thus begin with a look at the history of Minecraft and what exactly the game even is.

What Is Minecraft?

Before we get into installing and playing the game, let’s take a long look at what exactly Minecraft even is, where it came from, and what makes it so popular (as of early 2014, the game has had over 100 million players worldwide). Despite its huge number of copies sold and players registered, it isn’t immediately apparent to many people exactly what the appeal of Minecraft is and how the game has managed to suck in everyone from elementary school kids to retirees.

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Minecraft is the brainchild of Swedish videogame programmer and designer Markus “Notch” Persson. He began creating the game in his spare time while working as a game developer for Jalbum and eventually founded Mojang, once Minecraft proved popular enough to be his full time job.

His work was heavily influenced by earlier videogames such as Dungeon Keeper (a late 1990s resource and dungeon management game), Dwarf Fortress (a procedurally-generated open world-building game released in 2006), and Infiniminer (a small indie game that foreshadowed Minecraft with block-based sandbox gameplay). You’re free to explore those games if you want to get a sense of Minecraft’s video game ancestry, but what’s really important is what those games are. Let’s define some of those game terms and how they relate to Minecraft in order to better understand Minecraft and its runaway success.

Minecraft belongs to three distinct video game genres and the way those genres intertwine with each other create the experience that draws players in. First, Minecraft is an open world game. In open world games you are free to roam wherever you want with very few limits imposed on you. In most video games, you can only go where the designer of the video game intended you to go (and where they created space for you to go).

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Take as a simple example, your average Super Mario Bros. game. No matter how much you want to walk outside of Bowser’s Castle and roam around the gardens, you can’t do that because the video game designers never intended for you to go outside the castle and, in the very code of the video game, that garden doesn’t even really exist beyond the little hint of it you see through a window while playing inside the castle level. The pieces of the game beyond the reach of the player are essentially decorative, like backdrops on a stage.

In Minecraft there are very few limits like that, because the game was never intended to be played in a linear fashion. With very few exceptions, if you can see something in Minecraft, you can go explore it, touch it, or otherwise interact with it.

In addition to an open world design, Minecraft is also a “sandbox” game. Although the term sandbox is often used interchangeably with “open world” to describe games that allow you to roam all over the place with few limitations, a true sandbox game includes tools that allow the player to modify the game world. In that regard, Minecraft is a virtual epitome of sandbox gaming as, regardless of how you play the game, using tools to modify and interact with your environment is the very basis of the experience. It is simply expected that the Minecraft player will use their in-game hands and tools to break, move, build, and rearrange the world.

Finally, Minecraft is also a procedurally generated game; this aspect of the game is intimately tied to the open world experience. In your typical linear video game, the game designers create a sort of tunnel in which the player passes from Point A to Point Z in the course of playing the game. Even games that feel big and allow you to make choices about what you’re going to do and in what order are still essentially linear in that you start the game, you follow the story (and enjoy the scenery along the way), you arrive at the last station on the linear-game train line, and the game is over. Every stop on the line, every bit of scenery, every dungeon, everything you experience in the game was carefully placed there by the designers, much like a film crew and director creates the experience you have while watching a movie.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making a game that way, mind you, and there are plenty of brilliant and iconic video games that are designed in just such a fashion, but such games are inherently limited in scope simply because there is an intimate balance between how much time and money can be invested in the game and deadline pressures.

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Procedural generation changes that dynamic as the game world is generated by an algorithmic procedure and can be essentially infinite (limited only by artificial constraints put in place by the game developer or by the computational restraints of the computer system hosting the game). The Minecraft world is, in this regard, effectively infinite as its primary limitation is the computational constraints of 32-bit computing.

If you were to translate the largest possible Minecraft map (using the limitations of 32-bit computing as the upper threshold of the map’s size) into a real world scale (wherein each block in Minecraft is a square meter), the size of a Minecraft map from edge to edge would be 9.3 million times larger than the surface area of the Earth. In fact, a player named Kurt Mac turned walking across a Minecraft map into a sort of Zen experience. He’s spent the last few years just walking across the world—assuming he sticks with the task, he’ll finish the trek around 2040.

Our talk about sandbox play, the huge world, and that last bit about how Kurt Mac is just walking across the world for fun, highlight the true allure of Minecraft. The game is not only practically infinite in size but practically infinite in the way you play it.

Minecraft isn’t about saving a kingdom (or the whole world), exploring monster-filled caverns, building a functioning city complete with electrical lights, or planning a crazy rollercoaster, but it can be any, all, or none of those things if you want it to be. The secret to Minecraft’s success is that the game is a toolbox that allows players to make the game into the one they want to play, be that game focused on building, exploring, surviving, or all of the above.

Much like the popularity of LEGO® blocks and other construction toys, Minecraft allows you to build whatever you want to build: castles, racetracks, rocket ships, doll houses, and everything in between; all while using tools you’re familiar with and can easily manipulate.

Once you familiarize yourself with the tools and techniques that underpin the Minecraft world, you can easily use tools to make Minecraft whatever you want it to be; the game becomes a Swiss Army Knife of building, adventuring, and fun.

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Intrigued by a game that can be whatever the player wants it to be? Whether you’re interested because you’re looking for a new game to lose yourself in or you’re trying to figure out exactly why your child or grandchild is so completely engrossed in Minecraft, read on as we peel away the blocky layers of the game and walk you through everything from installing the game to understanding its more arcane underpinnings.

What Can I Play Minecraft On and How Much Does It Cost?

Minecraft is wildly popular and as you can imagine, has been ported and adopted for a variety of platforms. The original Minecraft game was created for desktop computers and the desktop version remains the most popular version of Minecraft.

Minecraft PC Edition

The PC edition of Minecraft is Java-based and can be played on any Windows, Mac, or Linux machine with Java installed and suitable hardware. Although Minecraft looks very simple thanks to the minimalist leanings of the graphics and user-interface, under the surface the game is rather sophisticated and the procedural generation of the world, as well as in-game physics, require beefier hardware than you’d expect.

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For that reason, Minecraft PC edition has an extended demo that the developers highly recommend you take advantage of before purchasing in order to determine if your computer can provide a smooth and enjoyable Minecraft experience (we’ll show you how to try out the demo mode in just a moment).

If you have access to all the various platforms Minecraft can run on, we strongly recommend going with the original PC edition over the alternative editions like those available for mobile devices and game consoles. Although the PC edition runs $27, making it the most expensive edition of Minecraft, it’s the most versatile and definitely offers the most bang-for-buck when you factor in the diverse multiplayer servers and how you can essentially change the game entirely with mod packs.

Minecraft Pocket Edition

In addition to the desktop version there is also a Minecraft Pocket Edition (PE). Minecraft PE is available for Android and iOS devices and costs $7. The Pocket Edition is significantly less demanding than the PC version; we had no problems playing Minecraft PE on an old iPad 1, for example.

Although Minecraft PE is great for playing the game on the go, it does have some fairly stiff restrictions compared to the PC edition. All content is separate from the PC and Console editions (so you can only join multiplayer servers, for example, intended for Minecraft PE).

Redstone, Minecraft’s version of electricity/electrical circuits, and a pretty significant element of many constructs in the PC Edition, is completely missing from the Pocket Edition. Unlike Minecraft PC Edition’s nearly infinite world map, Pocket Edition’s maps are limited to 256 x 256 blocks. While that’s still plenty of room to roam around and build, it’s not quite the same spacious experience.

While many players are okay with the limitations of the Pocket Edition, an almost universal complaint is how kludgy using on-screen controls is compared to using a mouse and keyboard on the PC or a quality controller on the Console Edition.

Minecraft Console Edition

Console players can pick up a copy of Minecraft Console Edition (CE) for the Xbox platform and for the PlayStation platform (both of which are $20). Because the Console Edition is tweaked specifically for the platform it is deployed on, you can expect smooth play without worrying about hardware requirements.

Early editions of the Console Edition were a bit rough around the edges; the Xbox and PlayStation releases had significant differences and were out of sync. All Console Edition releases are in sync now, receiving concurrent updates. Compared to the Pocket Edition, Console Edition is pretty advanced and more closely resembles the PC Edition. Like the Pocket Edition however, the world is still limited in size albeit bigger at 864 x 864 blocks.

One significant difference between the Console Edition and all other editions is that it supports local split-screen play so you can couch co-op play with up to three friends.

Minecraft Raspberry Pi Edition

Finally, Minecraft has even been ported to the Raspberry Pi. The Pi Edition is particularly interesting from an educational standpoint. Pi Edition is intended to be used as an educational tool and included tools for budding programmers and enthusiasts to actually modify the game code.

The Pi edition is based on the Pocket Edition but includes Creative Mode and lacks Survival Mode or any elements related to Survival Mode.

We can’t stress the educational/experimental part of the Pi Edition strongly enough. If you want the full Minecraft experience, this won’t be it. If you want the thrill of picking apart the video game you’re playing at the code-level and peering into its guts, the Pi version for you.

Follow Along with Any Edition

For the purposes of this How-To Geek School series, we will be focusing on the computer version as it is the most widely adopted, has the most features, and will provide the best framework in which to discuss and highlight all the amazing things you can do with Minecraft.

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Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 06/9/14