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. To start, a look at the game's modding scene.
It's been an eventful few years for Markus Persson, the Swedish programmer known to the world as Notch. After building a game in his bedroom, he watched as it slowly took over the world, rising to become the third best-selling videogame of all time - behind only Wii Sports and Tetris.
But Minecraft in 2014 bears only a superficial resemblance to the Minecraft of just a few years ago. The PC version of the game today is less about building a dirt shed to cower in overnight, and more about space exploration, magical dueling or building enormous factories controlled by banks of computers and powered by nuclear reactors. Minecraft's ongoing popularity is largely thanks to its mods, and more recently, modpacks - collections of several mods together.
It can be overwhelming, but chances are there's more to do in Minecraft than you realised.
Tools to help
Back in the early days of Minecraft, installing mods involved digging around in the guts of Java packages. But today that's no longer the case - there's a bunch of easy-to-use tools to help you. The Curse client, for example, which was originally designed to help players keep track of World of Warcraft addons, lets players browse and install almost 1,500 Minecraft mods through a web interface.
Then there's the FeedTheBeast (FTB) and the Technic Platform launchers. Both offer various different modpacks built by both the launcher teams and third parties, and bundled in software that's super-easy for novices to use. These solve a problem that materialised very early on in the mod scene - with so many available, how do you choose between them? The teams at FeedTheBeast and Technic, as well as an increasing number of independent modpack creators, carefully choose groups of mods that work well together and provide an experience that can be very different from vanilla Minecraft.
Originally, these packs consisted a small group of well-made 'tech'-themed mods, most notably Minefactory, Buildcraft, Forestry, IndustrialCraft, Redpower and Railcraft - all of which provide different ways to automate your world with machinery. "For a long time, tech mods really dominated the modded landscape," says Canvox, who builds modpacks for the Technic Platform. Modpack curator JadedCat explains that these rose to the top simply due to the influence of early YouTube Minecrafters like the Yogscast crew and Direwolf20. "They had a huge influence on what mods were played by the average user," she says.
Many mods come with their own new blocks and items, in some cases hundreds, so players soon needed a better way to find out what was available and how to build it. A mod named Not Enough Items, popularly known as "NEI", quickly filled that gap, becoming vital in most modpacks. It offers an interface for players to search through the library of available items in the mods they're using, and -- more importantly -- access recipes. That means that players no longer need to alt-tab from the game and hunt through obscure wikis to find out how to build something.
Another essential component of nearly every modpack is Forge - an API that allows mod creators to interface with Minecraft's code without editing it directly. "Without Forge, if two mods both wanted to make a change to glass panes, you would only be able to use one because both would have to edit the same file," explains JadedCat. "Its creator, LexManos, spends ungodly amounts of time updating Forge and providing that buffer for mods to work together."
In mid-2013 there was a notable split in the community - caused by a rift between two rival modders, Greg of Gregtech and mDiyo of Tinker's Construct. Tinker's Construct expands Minecraft's tech tree - using its tools, you can accelerate your production of basic resources, making the game easier. Gregtech, on the other hand, is all about making Minecraft harder - going as far as to alter recipes from the original game. In Gregtech, you only get two wood planks from a log, for example, rather than the standard four - unless you build a special machine.
mDiyo, whose mod uses a lot of wood early on, didn't think this change was well-balanced, so he added a new recipe to make one log equal four planks again when both mods were installed. Outraged by this sidestep, Greg tweaked Gregtech to deliberately *crash the game* if any other mod overwrote his recipes, outputting error messages to the console that instructed players to contact mod devs and tell them to change their code to fit "industry standards". The community split into two factions - one which supported Greg's right to make the game more difficult, and one which saw his actions as divisive and toxic. Today, the developers have mostly resolved their differences, but the split had an unintended consequence - increasing the diversity of modpacks on offer.
Minetweaker was another essential part of this shift. It allows pack creators to change the recipes in the included mods through the use of scripts and config files. "Previously a pack creator was limited to packs that all ended up feeling the same," says JadedCat. "Minetweaker allowed pack creators to blend the mods together in unprecedented ways, making gamepacks feel more like a cohesive game instead of a mix of files."
JadedCat is the creator of the Magic Farm and Agrarian Skies modpacks, which have both proved very influential. "For a lot of us, playing Agrarian Skies was kind of a revelation, and I think it represents the shape of things to come," says Canvox. In it, you spawn in a house floating on an island in the sky, with not much more more than a dirt block, some bonemeal and a stack of saplings. From those beginnings, you're tasked with rebuilding the planet while facing the very real risk of starving to death. It's far tougher than the original game, and requires strict discipline. Most guides, for example, stress the importance of never running and jumping unless absolutely necessary - as the energy saved can be the difference between life and death.
The backbone of Agrarian Skies is a mod called Hardcore Questing Mode. Normally in a 'hardcore' mod, a single death means your save gets wiped. But this mod figured out a way of giving players additional lives that they can earn through in-game quests, as well as reward bags and other RPG-like features. You can also see it in action in the recently-released Material Energy3, where you wake up on an abandoned space station. You'll explore different wings of the base, lighting up dark areas, establishing a secure food supply and eventually restoring the station to its original functionality.
Into the future
These mods, JadedCat says, are representative of a new trend in modpack making. "Instead of the focus being on a collection of powerhouse mods, the focus is now on creating a new experience by combining mods with selective tweaks and even maps," she explains. "While there will always be a place for more traditional factory modpacks, themed gamepacks are now more popular and last longer for players. Minecraft has become a game engine."
Canvox agrees: "Modpackers and server owners are building constructed play experiences using mods as building blocks and making something entirely new with them," he says. "In my mind, this is the big thing to watch out for."
For many Minecraft players, the vanilla game is a quaint relic of the old days. By contrast, the mod scene is vibrant, diverse and fascinating - and the creativity on offer is accelerating exponentially. "Witchery, Pixelmon, and Ancient Warfare are all getting to be kind of a big deal," says Canvox. "I think we're going to see more diversity in how you can play modded Minecraft over the next year."
"Modding is more approachable," adds JadedCat. "With packs looking for smaller modular mods its even easier for new modders to find something small to sink their teeth into, and with multiple launchers, and multiple modpack and gamepack creators, there are packs for everyone. The community is more open and more inclusive than ever. And I think that's awesome."
For those who want to explore the diversity of mods on offer in Minecraft, a great place to start is the Feed The Beast launcher. This tool lets you access a wide variety of curated packs of mods which work elegantly together without incompatibilities or messing around inside Java archives. Or, if you prefer to explore a little on your own, Here are some of our suggestions to investigate. Note that they definitely won't all work well together, and won't all work on the same versions of the game. Good luck, and remember: always read the readme.txt.
Big Dig, Hack/Mine, Voltz, Blood n Bones, The Fellowship, Crazy Craft, FTB Unleashed, Mind Crack, Hexxit, Attack of the B-Team, Magic Farm 2, Agrarian Skies, Life In The Woods, Material Energy3.
Aether, Applied Energistics 2, Arcane Scrolls, BetterChests, Better Dungeons ,BiblioCraft, Biomes O' Plenty, Blood Magic: Alchemical Wizardry, Botania, BuildCraft, Carpenter's Blocks, Chisel, Computronics, ComputerCraft, Death Chest, DungeonPack, Ender IO, Ex Nihilo, Extra Utilities, Factorization, Falling Meteors, Forestry for Minecraft, GraveStone, Hydraulicraft, IndustrialCraft 2, Iron Chest, Jabba, Malisis' Doors, MapWriter, Mariculture, Matmos, Minefactory Reloaded, Mo' Creatures, MrCrayfish's Furniture Mod, Mystcraft, Natura, Necromancy, Not Enough Items, OpenComputers, Optifine, Pam's HarvestCraft, Pixelmon, PneumaticCraft, Progressive Automationm, Railcraft, Rei's Minimap, Roguelike Dungeons, Skyblock, Soul Shards, Statues, Thaumcraft, The Twilight Forest, Thermal Expansion, Tinkers' Construct, Treecapitator, Underground Biomes, Waila, Witchery.
On Wednesday, the series will continue with a look at Minecraft servers.