Minecraft gets more popular every day, but we don't talk about it much anymore. To find out what the game is like in 2014, we asked Duncan Geere to impart his wisdom. The result is a three-part series which will run across this week. Part one looked at Minecraft mods, part two is below...
Multiplayer has been a cornerstone of Minecraft ever since it was first added to the game in June 2009. Mining, farming and building a house on your own is great, but exploring the game's procedurally-generated landscapes as a group is far more fun. Building a massive penis out of gold blocks on the roof of your friend's mansion is pretty fun too.
A sizeable chunk of the Minecraft community in 2014 are players who spend the majority of their in-game time on public or private multiplayer servers. These range wildly in theme and tone - some are centred around survival, some around arcade-style minigames, others around building epic structures and yet more about roleplaying a complex society. From CivCraft to Spleef, Minecraft's multiplayer servers show that when you put millions of people together into a blocky world, the result is an explosion of emergent creativity.
Kicking the Bukkit
Almost every multiplayer server around relies on a bit of software called Bukkit. This is a modded version of the Minecraft server software which lets admins customise almost every aspect of their servers from the ground up. Bukkit plugins are available to do almost anything - from in-game economies, and restrictions on who can build in different areas, to the ability to warp between worlds. "Pretty much all customised servers use it," explains Daniel Ratcliffe, creator of the ComputerCraft and qCraft mods.
In recent months, however, the future of Bukkit has been mired in controversy. Mojang acquired Bukkit in 2011 when it hired several of its coders - Dinnerbone, EvilSeph, Grum and Tahg. EvilSeph left Mojang in late 2013, and began leading the project in his spare time. But in solidarity with server owners the wake of the EULA fiasco in the middle of 2014, he announced the project was shutting down. Mojang immediately pointed out that, actually, it owned the software and so Bukkit would not in fact be shutting down at all, and Dinnerbone and Grum volunteered to take over its maintenance instead.
But in early September 2014, another Bukkit developer - Wolverness - issued a DMCA takedown of all downloads of Bukkit, on the grounds that he was withdrawing the copyright on his contributions to the project. His motives aren't totally clear, but modpack curator JadedCat wrote in a TwitLonger post: "I'm guessing he thinks this will force Mojang to either pay him and other contributors off, hand over Bukkit to him, or open-source the Minecraft Server code." More than a month later, none of those things have happened, and the software remains unavailable. "Servers continue to operate on Bukkit by passing the download around among themselves, but the community seems to have moved on," says Ratcliffe. "There are various projects vying to become Bukkit's replacement now."
The biggest servers
It's easy to be overwhelmed the first time you step onto a major Minecraft server, like Hypixel, Mineplex or the Arkham Network. You'll spawn in a lavishly-decorated hub area, or lobby, which is full of players running around. Coloured letters will scream at you to buy VIP status, mounts or music disks. You'll step through a portal into some sort of minigame, then everything will catch fire and you'll die.
After respawning a few times, though, you'll start to figure things out. Most of the items in your inventory open up menus - by browsing these, and viewing the tutorials that can be found on most of the larger servers, you'll get the hang of how things work and begin to marvel at what the server creators have accomplished.
Hypixel, for example, has a game called Cops and Crims which is a full-scale recreation of Counter-Strike. There's also a pretty impressive facsimile of instagib from Quake Live, a paintball game, and an arcade game called The Blocking Dead where you and a small group of plane crash survivors have to hold out against a horde of zombies. But the star of the show is Walls - a game where the players are divided into four teams and given an island each. They get a few minutes to build up a fort before the walls between their islands drop and teams can attack each other. The surviving team wins. It's fast, brutal and thrilling.
Mineplex, on the other hand, has a mingame called Block Hunt - where one team is disguised as blocks while the other tries to hunt them down. It'd be tricky, except for one fabulous addition - the hiders have the ability to meow or shoot a firework into the sky. If they do so, and survive, they get extra points at the end of the round - so whenever you turn your back as a hunter there's a chorus of meows from behind you and a firework flies up into the sky. As the timer ticks down, hunters begin detonating houses with TNT and chase fleeing flowerpots across the map. It's thoroughly ridiculous, and thoroughly brilliant.
Visiting the biggest Minecraft servers is like visiting a theme park or shopping mall - it's brightly-coloured, noisy, confusing, and there's the constant exhortation to spend money on things you don't need. But there are other, more interesting options for players who don't mind investing in a longer-term project.
The CivCraft server, for example, describes itself as "an experiment for communities, political ideologies, debate and discussion". It invites players to band together in any way they desire, with a few mods installed which create a world where actions have consequences. For example, chat is limited to 1,000 blocks - so you can only talk to people nearby. Growth rates of crops are reduced, and only grow well in certain biomes. Jukeboxes have been repurposed to log anything anyone does within eleven blocks of them, so they act as security cameras. But the most interesting addition is PrisonPearl - a mod that lets you trap players in Ender Pearls, stuck in The End until the pearl is broken. This makes server politics far more crucial - a player with a good reputation in their community will be swiftly rescued, while those who cause trouble are likely to be left to rot.
Another server of a similar nature is Project Hermertia - known formally as "The Mercurian Empire of the world of Hermertia." This is a Lore-RPG server with a deep history, and a requirement that all players go through a detailed application process before they can join. In it, you'll be asked to explain how your character came to the area, what they're hoping to do there, and what role you'd eventually like to take up in the server - the equivalent of the 'where do you see yourself in five years time?' job interview question. The server has strict laws - It even has specific legislation to protect Minecraft's indigenous population (villagers, to you and me). Anyone found to be mistreating villagers can be prosecuted and imprisoned.
One final mention should be given to Westeroscraft - an ambitious attempt to recreate the world of A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones in Minecraft. Like Project Hermertia, you'll need to apply before you're allowed to join the server as a builder, but unlike Hermertia you can fly around the server as a spectator beforehand to see what it's like - and regardless of whether or not you want to join, it's a worth a look. While it's still very much in-progress, many areas - like King's Landing, for example - are finished and extremely impressive. The team estimates that it's still a year at least away from completion, but when it's done, it'll be used as a roleplay server.
Some servers to try
Whether you're looking for an hour or two of fun, a building project to commit to for months, or something in between, there's a Minecraft server for you. Here's a few to try out, though they won't all work with the latest version of the game - some will require a downgrade of your Minecraft version through the launcher before you can join. If in doubt, a bit of Googling should see you straight. Good luck, and remember to be nice.
The Unofficial RPS server - urps-minecraft.co.uk (There are more details here.)
Hypixel - mc.hypixel.net
Mineplex - eu.mineplex.com
Arkham Network - mc.arkhamnetwork.org
Classic Skyblock - classicsb.com
Desteria - pvp.desteria.com
Extronus Factions - pvp.extronus.net
EcoCityCraft - mc.ecocitycraft.com
CivCraft - mc.civcraft.vg
Jedicraft - hub.mineswine.com
Project Hermertia - apply at projecthermertia.com
WesterosCraft - download the launcher at westeroscraft.com
If you'd like a little online Minecraft space to call your own, there are of course ways to do that too. Minecraft Realms is a subscription service offered by Mojang which helps you start and manage a small server. It doesn't yet support mods, but if you want to play vanilla Minecraft with a few friends or family, this is the way to do it.