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

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.

Even if you’re interested in playing on the PE, CE, or Pi editions however, we’d still highly recommend you read through the series as the majority of the information applies to all editions. If you are using a non-PC edition, reference the links we provided above to the Minecraft Wiki hosted at Gamepedia to see what elements of the PC edition are missing from the edition you’re using.

Installing Minecraft

Once you’ve looked over the PC requirements, it’s time to install your copy of Minecraft and take it for a spin.

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Let’s take a walk through the signup and installation process.

Signing Up for an Account

The first step is to sign up for an account. Whether you want to jump right to purchasing a copy or play the demo, you’ll need to create a free account at Minecraft.net. Signup is simple, just provide a legitimate email address and select a password. Wait for a verification email from Mojang (Minecraft’s parent company) and then confirm when it arrives.

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When you click through the verification link, it will take you to the second step of the registration process: selecting your Minecraft username and purchasing the game.

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If you wish to try the demo before purchasing, jump to this link first. There you can download the demo without creating a username/purchasing the game. The demo allows you to play the game for 100 minutes (roughly five in-game Minecraft days); you can reset the demo and play it again, but you’re always limited to 100 minutes before you must reset the world.

Whether you’ve purchased the game outright or you’re trying the demo, the next step is to download the game and install it. On the download page select the appropriate download for your platform; Windows users should grab Minecraft.exe (a Windows friendly wrapper for the Minecraft launcher, and the tool we’ll be using); OS X users should grab the Minecraft.dmg; and Linux users, or anyone using an alternative operating system capable of running Java, should grab the Minecraft.jar file.

If you do not already have Java installed on your computer (or you are running an outdated copy) you must install and/or update before playing Minecraft. Visit the Java support page to grab the appropriate copy of Java 7+ for your operating system. It is strongly recommended you use the 64-bit copy of Java if you have a 64-bit processor/OS as you’ll see significant performance gains.

Save the file to your computer and, when the download is complete, launch the file. You’ll see a brief load sequence and then a login prompt.

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Always log in with your email address (the only people who need to input a username are those who registered for Minecraft in 2012 or earlier).

Once logged in, you’re presented with the Update Notes tab which brings you up-to-speed on the most recent changes in Minecraft. In addition to the Update Notes tab there is also a tab for the Development Console, Profile Editor, and Local Version Editor. Feel free to ignore these for now as they are of very limited use to a beginning player and outside of troubleshooting or a few specific needs, you won’t ever need to visit them.

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At this point, we’re ready to actually dig in and play the game. But there is one useful element we want to highlight before we jump into playing.

Using Profiles

Down in the lower-left corner of the Minecraft launcher is the “Profile” section. By default there is only one profile, named after your Minecraft.net username, and set to use the latest stable release of Minecraft.

Although you can get by with just one profile there are several benefits to having multiple profiles. Multiple profiles allow you to play with different versions of Minecraft, like beta releases and older releases that are sometimes required for joining multiplayer servers that haven’t updated to the current release yet, and they allow you to silo the game data.

Let’s say, for example, that you have three children who all play Minecraft on the same computer. If you’ve been experiencing some bickering about the kids messing around with worlds, deleting worlds, or otherwise disturbing the peace, it’s very easy to create a profile for each child where all their changes and maps are separate.

Click on the “New Profile” button now, just to get a feel for how it works:

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While you can specify several different settings in the Profile Editor, the most immediately necessary and useful ones are “Profile Name,” “Game Directory,” and “Use version.”

Profile names allow you to specify who or what the account is for, e.g. “Steve,” “Jenny,” “Testing Beta Release,” “Multiplayer Serve,r” and the like. Changing the “Game Directory” is very useful in that it allows you to separate, as we mentioned above, the player’s data. So in the case of old “Steve” and “Jenny” we can make profiles named after them and then append the default \.minecraft\ naming scheme for the data folders to \.minecraft-steve\ and \.minecraft-jenny\ for their respective profiles.

For reference, the default location of all Minecraft game data is in the following folders based on which operating system Minecraft is installed on:

Windows C:\Users\[yourusername]\AppData\Roaming\.minecraft\
Mac OS /Users/[yourusername]/Library/Application Support/Minecraft/
Linux /home/[yourusername]/.minecraft/

Any time you make a new profile and specify a new Game Directory, the Minecraft launcher will automatically create the appropriate folder structure and populate it with files from the Minecraft servers.

Creating Your First World

Now that we’ve highlighted the benefit of the profile system, it’s time to create our first world and play!

Click the “Play” button to get started. The first time you run Minecraft (or after an update) you’ll see a green progress bar across the bottom of the launcher as it downloads the new material. Afterward, you’ll be dumped into the actual Minecraft app.

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Let’s start off simple by focusing on the Singleplayer experience. In later lessons we’ll learn about Multiplayer and Minecraft Realms. Click on “Singleplayer” to get started.

Here you’ll find your local worlds linked to your profile; because it’s a brand new installation there are no worlds yet.

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Click “Create New World” to pull up the world creation dialog. Here we are able to name our new world, select the game mode, and set additional world options.

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The default game mode is “Survival”. Click the “Game Mode” button in the center of the screen to swap it to “Creative.” We’ll return to game modes in the next lesson but for now, creative play is the best way to learn the controls and figure out how to move around the Minecraft world.

As for naming your world, we’re fond of naming the worlds we use for experimenting and learning “Learning Lab” or some iteration thereof.

Leave “More World Options…” alone, we’ll return to the fun toggles and adjustments available there in a later lesson focused on custom worlds and their creation. Once you’ve named your world and switched it to “Creative,” click “Create New World,” and sit back as Minecraft flexes some of that procedural generation magic in order to create you a unique world to explore.

Maneuvering Around the Minecraft World

Don’t worry if the view you have doesn’t match the view we have below. Each Minecraft world, unless loaded from the same source as another Minecraft world, is a unique generation. So whether the game plunked you down in a forest biome, on a beach, or atop a mountain, you can still walk through the basics of maneuvering the map and using the keyboard shortcuts with us.

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You’ll notice that the first thing the game does, after dropping you onto the map (this initial point is known in Minecraft lingo as your spawn point), is prompt you to press the “E” key to open your inventory.

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Because we are currently in Creative Mode, we see the full creative inventory (all the available blocks and materials) as opposed to the Survival Mode inventory (which only displays materials you’ve gathered yourself in-game). The tabs around the Creative Mode inventory make it easy to hone in on just the materials/objects you want: the tab with the sword on it intuitively shows you in-game weapons, and the tab with the little rail section shows you the in-game transportation tools.

The gray band of blocks at the bottom of the inventory screen is your quick-access toolbar. Any items you place in that strip of nine spaces will be available to you outside of the inventory menu. Go ahead and place some blocks in the quick-access bar now. We’re going to select some brightly colored wool blocks so they’ll stand out from the regular terrain during subsequent screenshots.

One thing worth noting is that, in Creative Mode at least, there is no sense of urgency whatsoever. Don’t feel like you have to race toward any sort of goal or against any sort of clock. Sitting here in Creative Mode is like sitting on the floor with a bin of LEGO® bricks (a classic construction toy that is, coincidentally, also of Scandinavian origin like Minecraft). There’s no rush in Creative Mode so take your time.

Once you’ve finished poking around the inventory menu (don’t feel overwhelmed by the huge number of blocks and objects found there, you’ll be a master of Minecraft building materials in no time), press the “ESC” key to return to the return to the game.

Minecraft uses a combination of mouse movements and keystrokes. Movement is controlled by a traditional WASD + Spacebar setup: “W” is forward, “A” is back, “S” is left, and “D” is right with the spacebar functioning as a jump key. In Creative Mode double tapping the jump key turns Fly Mode on wherein you can fly like a bird up and over the landscape.

The direction your character looks is controlled by moving the mouse (which controls the focal point of the first-person camera). “E”, as we’ve learned, opens the inventory. Left-mouse smashes blocks (or attacks creatures in front of you). Right-mouse click uses the item in your hand (if you can eat/drink it) or places it down (if it’s a block or other object). If you need to drop something, you can press “Q” to do so.

Let’s do some simple movement and block placement before reviewing the common keyboard and mouse controls in a handy table. Grab a block and build something near your spawn point.

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After you’ve built your first in-game structure, why not take a look at it from above? Double-tap the spacebar to enable Fly Mode and fly up to look down on your new creation:

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You’ll notice that the edge of the map fades into a sort of fog. This represents the edge of the game’s render distance. The more powerful your computer the higher you can set the render without suffering a performance hit (we’ll talk about this in a moment).

Take a moment to fly around and look at your creation for all angles. Then take some time to review these useful keyboard/mouse commands:

Mouse/Key Function
Mouse Movement Used for turning, aiming crosshair/looking around
Mouse Left-Click Destroy blocks, attack creatures/monsters
Mouse Right-Click Place blocks, use items (such as held objects, wall switches, etc.)
Mouse Scrollwheel Switches between objects in the quick-access bar
W Move forward, double tap W to sprint
A Strafe left
S Move backward, double tap S to sprint backward
D Strafe right
Spacebar Jump, double tap to enter Fly Mode in creative (hold to increase elevation)
Left Shift Sneak mode (quiet movement, won’t fall off ledges), also used to decrease altitude when in Fly Mode and to dismount mountable creatures (like horses).
E Opens your inventory
Q Drops the item currently in your hand.
1-9 Numeric Keys Correspond to the first through ninth slots in the quick-access bar
F1 Toggles on-screen display (perfect for admiring the view)
F2 Takes a screenshot
F3 Toggle the debug information screen
F5 Switches the camera angle between first and third person perspectives
F11 Toggles game between Windows and Full Screen mode

 

Next Lesson: Improving Minecraft Performance on Computers Old and New

We’ve installed the game and reviewed the basic movement and function commands; you’re ready to get down to the business of building, exploring, and otherwise interacting with your new Minecraft world.

Your homework for tonight is to just explore the Creative world we made today. Fly around, get a feel for the game, and if you’re not satisfied with the game performance (as far as smooth play and such goes) don’t fret. Tomorrow’s lesson is focused on optimizing Minecraft for the best play experience.

Even if you have a beefy new gaming computer the tips and tricks we’ll cover are still useful as we’ll go in depth in what exactly all the settings mean and how you can get the smoothest experience on computers old and new.

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 06/9/14
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