Things I Have Learned from Minecraft

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If you haven’t heard about the PC/Xbox/iPad game Minecraft, none of this will make any sense. That’s okay. It’s just one of the greatest games of the last decade. Think Legos with zombies.

Naturally, it’s also sweeping the ranks of kids as one of the latest craze, though in my experience too many of their parents are letting them get away with playing on Creative mode. If you are one of these, toughen them up. Make them play on Survival mode or not at all.

Minecraft is a world of its own, and it has some very, very strange rules of life and physics.

These are the lessons I have learned in my journeys through the lands of Minecraft:

  1. If you punch a tree hard enough, it drops wood.
  2. It is impossible to fall from a cliff as long as you crouch down.
  3. Eating an entire loaf of bread all at once is a great way to heal from falling a hundred feet and almost dying.
  4. Destroying things actually takes a lot longer than building them. Unless you use explosives.
  5. Horses get hot and bothered if you feed them gold.
  6. Walking quietly behind people and whispering, “Ssssssssss…” is a great way of discovering which of your friends play Minecraft.
  7. If you try hard enough, you can swim up waterfalls.
  8. Zombie children are far more terrifying than grown-up zombies.
  9. “The chicken or the egg” is actually a very legitimate question.
  10. Throwing chicken eggs at walls is a great way to make baby chickens.
  11. Compasses don’t actually point north; they point towards the last bed you slept in. Possibly handy for one night stands.
  12. The world is as big as your RAM disk.
  13. Nothing is more terrifying than giant flying marshmallows. Nothing.
  14. Things really do go bump in the night. Well, more like moan in the night. And not in a sexy way. Unless you’re into rotten meat…not judging.
  15. You can carry 2308 things. They can be of any size at all, so long as there are only 2308.
  16. If you fall to your death or burn up trying to swim in lava, you will just wake up in bed, like it was all a dream, except you’re strangely naked and all your shit is gone.
  17. Gravity is actually kind of optional if you’re talking about dirt, clay, stone, wood or wool. Sand, shale or you, though, well, that’s a different story.
  18. Horses run faster than trains.
  19. Torches burn forever.
  20. Pigs take quite readily to being saddled.
  21. Pumpkins are amazingly effective at performing ancient Judaic Kabbalistic magic.
  22. The fastest way to reconstitute a rail line into transportable track sections is to pour a bucket of water on it.
  23. Conservation of mass does not apply when seeing how many head of cattle you can stuff in a 4×4 stockyard.
  24. Metal doors can only be opened with electronics.
  25. It is absolutely possible to build a tower of any height simply by repeatedly jumping and throwing dirt at your feet.
  26. Dipping apples in molten gold and then eating the resulting confection will heal you of any wounds up to and including missing limbs and organs dangling by a mere tendon from your body cavity.
  27. Skeletons like riding spiders.

I think this could form a great basis for a new drinking game – see how many of these things you can test in real life.

What, wondering where the drinking comes in? Come on, that should be obvious – that’s what you have to do before you think that is somehow a good idea.

The Video Game Pipeline

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The Problem

I tend to be a big advocate of strong and frequent communication with video game players.

Partially, this is because I think frequent communication provides a more human face for a development team, making players more tolerant of the inevitable missteps and more understanding of the limitations of the development process, as well as tending to improve the overall tenor of a game’s community. People like knowing that they’re being listened to, even when you often have to say, “Sorry, we can’t do that for X and Y reasons”. Partially, as well, frequent communication helps the developer by providing a strong stream of subjective feedback from a game’s most passionate players which is a good way of identifying legitimate problems that should be investigated and addressed.

It is true that the players who comment on forums, for example, represent a distinct minority, but even if they are not a demographically precise sampling of a game’s user base, if a significant majority of these players, self-selecting as they are – are evincing pain, it’s probably something worth looking at. Players (and sometimes executives) frequently lack the necessary context to be able to identify what are realistic solutions and what are not, so where a developer is willing to open up and communicate more aggressively, the average quality of proposed solutions tends to go up.

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One of the areas where players and developers often clash is over the speed of changes, new content, and bug fixes. Developers are (rarely) actually lazy, but the process and the pipeline to minimize risk of deployed issues is generally quite intense, but most players have very little insight into this. To a player, a bug that sits around for a month before being fixed can conjure up an engineer sitting with his or her feet up sipping Mountain Dew while playing League of Legends, when the truth is (usually) that there are a lot more steps a fix has to go through than players are aware of.

The exact process varies from development studio to development studio – length of release cycles, platform, company development philosophy, and other considerations all have a major impact on the exact structure, but here’s one example – in this case, for Gazillion‘s Marvel Heroes, where I currently work as the game’s Lead Content Designer – of some of the specifics of a development and deployment pipeline for those who have never been exposed to something like this.

The Pipeline

Gazillion’s development pipeline can be thought of as the synchronizing of two interlocking wheels, sort of like an Aztec calendar. One wheel is the code and data set that developers (designers, engineers, artists, audio folks, etc.) are all working on (the Development wheel), while the other wheel is the production deployment (the Deployment wheel).

Both wheels are turning at the same time, but they interlock with each other only occasionally; periodically, the deployment wheel takes a snapshot of what is on the development wheel, kicks that off to QA who then reports on what critical issues there are. Developers then have to fix – sometimes on each wheel separately through what is called a merge, sometimes directly into the wheel – any found issues.

The deployment wheel turns again and kicks off another wheel, it goes back to QA, rinse and repeat until you have a “good” build. Obviously, this takes a variable amount of time based on what issues arise. Once there is a good build, the deployment wheel turns yet again, and this time pushes it to the Test Center on a white list. Rinse, fix, repeat. Then another turn of the wheel and it goes to the Test Center sans white list. Rinse, fix, repeat. Once that’s finally good, then it goes to the Live service.

All this time the development wheel is turning, but you can see here how the development and deployment wheels can – depending on the timing – either be in synch or out of synch by as much as two – or even more – weeks.

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A two week cycle is in the industry very aggressive and very risky; more common (and more safe) is more like a month to two months. Any single gamestopping issue can halt the entire deployment wheel, and until that issue is unjammed, it can’t go forward.

Looking at the patch notes is, as well, only a part of what is going on. The patch notes include everything that is (or is supposed to be, at least) player-facing, but there are a ton of things that go on under the hood from fulfillment services, integration with outside services (like Steam), website integration, server and client optimization, and so on. Any of these things can halt the entire process which is why it is impossible for us to absolutely guarantee a deployment date for any specific piece of content.

For major releases, as you can imagine, things can get very tight and very stressful since there you have an enormous amount of external visibility from the community, from Marvel, from Gazillion’s board, and from game sites. To be sure, we bake in as much extra time as we can to account for things, but by definition you can’t anticipate a Black Swan event.