Sunday, January 9, 2011

Lego's, Minecraft, Garry's Mod & The Joy of Building

LEGO and DUPLO bricks with a 1 EURO coin for scale
I've mentioned Minecraft before in this BLOG.  This time I'm going to discuss it in depth. Minecraft is a relatively new independently produced "game" that recently moved to the beta stage.  In spite of not being deemed release quality nearly a million people have bought it at at a discounted price of around $20 per person.  To be clear, the game is actually priced in Euros.  When I bought it a few weeks back the price in Euros was about $20.  $15 - $20 million in revenue for a game that isn't complete is a pretty impressive feat.

I put the word game in quotes above when I initially used it because Minecraft, at least at this point isn't really a game in the traditional video game sense.  It does have a rudimentary "survival" mode where you can run, hide from or attempt to kill various bad guys but so far as I can tell that isn't the way most people are using it, myself included. Minecraft is what is referred to as a "sandbox" game.  This means that it provides an environment and tools to create landscapes, buildings, devices, etc.  In the current version you start with a randomly generated world that you can explore, gather resources in and modify.  Here's a look out the window of my comfy little hideaway.

Those are trees in the distance outside my window and I'm holding a pick ax.  Yes, the graphics are primitive.  Minecraft has a Lego like aesthetic that actually works well.  The success and continued popularity of Lego's long ago proved that we love to build stuff and that we are willing to accept simplified abstractions to get our fix.  Like Lego's Minecraft is block based.  Each block is a one meter cube.  There are objects in the game that are smaller than this, but those are limited and tend to react in ways that are true to the cube paradigm.  If this sounds like a limitation, well it is; but it is a useful one.  This model simplifies things to the point where it is relatively easy to understand how to build stuff. Much like Lego's, there are a nearly limitless number of projects you can do if you have the time and interest.  Here's an impressive example of what I'm talking about that was created using a version of the code that is well over a year old at this point.

In addition to building Minecraft also has some basic physics built in.  Other than being smothered by falling sand when I removed a block I shouldn't have I haven't spent any time exploring this aspect of the game.  My general impression is that this area is still underdeveloped though people are already doing some very interesting things.  Roller Coasters & explosions are popular examples.

Garry's Mod is another sandbox themed game that has been around about twice as long as Minecraft and takes a very different approach on the technical side while leveraging a similar business model.  It's built using Valve's source engine and is thus  more realistic looking.  The physics model in GMod is  richer as well.  You can build rocketsfireworksa plane and just about anything else you can imagine.  Personally I find the building tools kind of cumbersome and complicated in GMod which is why I haven't spent a lot of time on it but it has a rabid fan base and if you have time and patience you can do some really amazing things with it.

GMOD is available through the Steam online store.  It sells for between $5 & $10.  I read an article recently that said the author receives 50% of the unit price, so $5 if it is being sold at the regular price and $2.50 when on sale.  Based on the following articles...

Garry's Mod Sells 310,000 units on Steam through November of 2008
Garry's Mod Sales Increase > 30% Per Year Over Past Three Years

I estimate the following sales figures.

2007: 134,000
2008: 174,200
2009: 228,202
2010: 303,509
2011: 410,000

With approximate revenues of

2007: $670,000
2008: $871,000
2009: $912,000
2010: $1,214,035
2011: $1,638,947

Estimated revenues scale more slowly than units sold because starting in 2009 GMOD was offered for sale periodically at 50% off.  The sales figure estimates are supported by another article that I link below in the "Related Articles" section.

Keep in mind that the initial work on both of these products was done by a single programmer.  I think most of us dream of winning the lottery but Garry Newman & Markus Persson both created their own single ticket lotteries.

Online sales channels provide a tremendous opportunity for even niche product such as these to shine.

If you're looking for casual fun I recommend Minecraft.  If you want to create highly complex environments and are willing to deal with a somewhat steep learning curve I recommend Garry's Mod.

Top Image via Wikipedia
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