"We should look at Trove," mused RPS's Dark Gods. "Hundreds of thousands of people are playing it, so there must be something interesting about it. You, Thrall Meer, go investigate." I gazed at Trove's key art, sneered at how it looked like someone tried to remake Minecraft out of fossilised blancmange and then stuck 1980s sweets all over it, and despaired. Then I went in, and I found out why it's so popular.
I won't keep you waiting: the answer is "free, massively-multiplayer Minecraft in which you get to hit a lot more stuff and are constantly showered with rewards." Trove is very obviously designed to be catnip to kids: all that oh-so-simple collaborative freeform building, paired with near-instant spider-bashing whenever you fancy it, a simplified WoW-like quest structure and classes, and a constantly expanded range of ridiculous hats to find and wear.
It's monstrous, but it's ingenious. In the games industry's ongoing determination to flood the market with Minecraftbuts, Trove is the most logical: building + loot. Sadly this means that the creative side of the game is being overwhelmed by the greed side: there are some marvellous co-operative constructions to be found in the 'Clubs', a sort of Guild/private shard hybrid, but mostly everyone's running very similar dungeons over and over in search of experience, coin and gear. Want want want, gimme gimme gimme, never get off that hamster wheel. It's everything people who hate World of Warcraft think World of Warcraft is, but without any of the world-building, roleplaying or even much sense of community.
Trove is an assault of visual noise, this explosion of colours and mismatched shapes, like being trapped inside Pat Sharpe's worst nightmares. In fairness, kids' birthday parties are like that, so the messiness and garishness is probably giving its intended audience what it wants. Underneath the chaos are the spectacular cuboid landscapes of Minecraft, some spun into newer forms with fancier graphical effects, and sometimes these are striking, but entirely absent is the purity and strangeness of Minecraft. This is like all the world's theme parks mashed together, and I pray that never gets quoted out of context to sound like a recommendation.
I looked back in on Mojang's era-defining game for the first time in years the other week, and I was struck by how sombre and odd it was, how entirely anti-populist it is even though it has come to be the very avatar of populism. Clearly, shared servers, especially the ones loaded with mods and texture packs, are a different affair entirely, but played solo it's so wonderfully lonely. Those dim and misty mountains, the skeletal C418 soundtrack which sounds like a slow-motion existential crisis, the brutality of the night-time monster invasions before you're anything like ready for them...
Minecraft has, in its vanilla form, atmosphere coming out of its square ears. Trove, by contrast, is a cacophony, an out-of-tune orchestra on a perpetual sugar rush. Of course kids love it. If Minecraft is presenting us with a bottomless box of classic Lego bricks, Trove offers a similarly endless tub of minifig legs and hats and rayguns and dragon wings. Of course kids love it. Combat is easy to control, combat is big, rewards rain down.
Probably because of this, I couldn't see any signs of real community: chat is just filled with people asking for numbers to join harder dungeon runs, to help them scratch their itch for more, more, more. No-one seeks information because no information is needed, no mysteries await: everything's right there, you just need to obtain enough components to build it, or you buy it.
All that said, initial loathing gave way to a very gentle fixation on progression. I could level up by hitting things, I could gain new wands and masks by hitting things, I could spend my winnings on building machines with which to build other machines or convert blocks to other colours, I could slowly expand my 'Cornerstone' persistent base in order that it could contain all these devices, I could hit things and hit things and hit things, and AND not too far in I could press the number 2 and turn into a bloody great dragon for about 10 seconds.
Even now, even as I write about how cynical and hollow it is, something at the back of my skull itches: "go back, get a better weapon, run another dungeon, find a faster mount." Self-loathing stops me, but if I wasn't a grown man who thinks himself above such things even though he plays games for a bloody living, I probably would go back. Trove offers a hell of a lot for free, and if it wasn't for the start-of-game menu so laden with screamy promotional messages and store links that it's almost painful to look at, you might never know that it's got baked-in monetisation everywhere.
It really, really has, of course. Almost everything - from costumes to classes, from mounts to treasure chests, from potions to in-game currency, can be bought, bar the basic and fundamental systems of progression and construction. It's this latter which is most key to Trove's success: if you want to have the foundations of the Minecraft experience without paying, here you go. You can either do it in public, in the quest zones through which both players and monsters pass, or you can setup a Club of your own and invite friends, or be the only member.
Whether together or alone, toiling away at fabulous structures is something you can do as much as you like, without spending a penny. Only you might, because you want a pet or wings or a speeder-bike. For that reason alone, Trove is one of very few Minecraftbuts which could possibly take even the smallest chunk of out Minecraft's revenues.
It's a game for children, and it's a game designed to eke money out of children (or at least their parents). It's working. It's not entirely without appeal for adults, depending on whether you give yourself so freely to the salt-lick compulsion of a Diablo or Warcraft that you simply don't mind how unlovely the game which contains it is, but unless you consciously eschew all the Skinner box dungeoneering in favour or unalloyed creation, I can't see how it would feel even remotely meaningful. I absolutely understand why Trove is a hit - and probably a signpost to the next few years' worth of seemingly out-of-nowhere hits - but I hate it. It's not for me, of course. Your kid will probably love it.
Trove is out now.