I think it's cute the way people talk about Minecraft's success as being "overnight" or somehow a fluke.
Those same people seem to not have the past gaming experience of either Minecraft's developer or its audience.
Some of us are disgusted at "gaming on rails" and the complete lack of replayability found in almost every game. Sandbox games are a refreshing change.
Some of us miss games where the gameplay was more important than the graphics. Or where the tone and immersion are the focus.
As soon as a game tries to be real, it has to push photorealism. That becomes a major player attention-grabber and a point of competition between games. Photorealism will fail - it has to - a computer does not reproduce the experience of real life. When the player notices that the photorealism fails, the game then feels "wrong" to the player. The next pretty game becomes the attractant.
Going back to the older games is only interesting after they've lapsed into a sort of laughable unrealism compared to contemporary games. The player can suspend their disbelief, as with a movie, to appreciate an older game.
There are three visual styles which could be worked toward.
- Games which eschew the photorealism arms race. They try to develop a visual style which is somehow timeless or unique.
Games which completely ignore contemporary graphics altogether. They have representative graphics only.
Pick your contemporary game.
- Pick your Nintendo game.
World of Warcraft tried to develop a unique non-photorealistic visual style and failed miserably at it. They're stuck between a timeless style and a representative style. When actually playing the game it gets even worse, with the graphics just getting in the way.
So far, Minecraft has two strong points.
- Replayability (Sandbox)
Audio visual experience (Representative)
This kind of game will appeal to a certain type of audience. That audience isn't intimidated at representative graphics because they grew up in a time when that's all there was. There's the answer to Minecraft's popularity. There is a huge untapped market of adults who are not being marketed to by the current generation of games or even the last ten years of games.
Games these days are being made for the young and hip kids. They are incredibly high-resolution - sometimes 3d - and with surround sound audio. They require "twitch" reflexes and mastery of 16 buttons simultaneously.
Games which try to do more with less and which focus on the playing immersion experience rather than the player audio-visual experience are the sorts of games which appeal to a different sort of audience.
I've also been intentionally ignoring "slide show" and slide show-hybrid games. There is a lack of immersion in these games which .. I'm not sure how to describe it. The immersion isn't as present in these games, and so the representative nature of such a game doesn't have the same sort of impact.
So about this audience that Minecraft has appealed to. This audience is adult. They owns things. They run things. This audience has an appetite that hasn't been catered for in many years. Perhaps playing Halo 3 but missing Quake, this audience has a craving. Caught up in the flurry of technology changes and the refocusing of game designers on their prettier and shinier games, this audience is nostalgic. Perhaps some are having their gamer mid-life crisis.
Some in that audience haven't kept up with the huge computer games industry that has emerged. They have been overwhelmed by the variety. The noise of variety has drowned out the signal of games that appeal to them.
After buying so many bad games, some people simply stop buying. When the signal-to-noise ratio gets too high, they spend on the safe bets. They spend on the recommendations.
So when the word makes it to them that there's a new game coming out. When that word comes neither from marketing nor from the public buzz but instead from a peer - an actual peer not just a fanboy twitchy gamer - then it is listened to.
For many, Minecraft tugs on some sort of nostalgic heart-string. There is a sort of calling.