It is not flashy graphics or an intricate story line luring these groups to the game, however. Minecraft has become a global phenomenon by breaking with those usual conventions.
The point of the game is building things — and tens of millions of people spend hours constructing elaborate structures with digital pickaxes and other tool — and helping others make their own creations.
Not unlike Second Life was for many — the old Second Life, in which people took clunky prims and made clunky things that seemed beautiful enough at the time. Well, beautiful to people in Second Life — people outside of it ridiculed it for not looking like Myst. It looked more like it was built with Legos. Like Minecraft does.
Within weeks of joining Second Life I discovered how fascinating it was to build these clunky things. It was a challenge to figure out how to make things look organic, but back then (2007) we accepted the limits of prim builds and filled in the rest with our imaginations. Pretty much like millions of avid Minecraft players do now.
Those days are gone from Second Life. I think Linden Lab developers got tired of hearing the same insults about how clunky Second Life looked compared to other games, how dated it was. Some users complained about it too, but honestly, most of us thought Second Life looked just fine, if not downright glorious. I remember trying to see it through detractors’ eyes, as ugly — but could not.
Now, of course, I can. Mesh changed how we see content, and much more. My earliest model furniture looks positively ludicrous next to my mesh creations. Even much of the sculpted stuff I was once proud of now looks pretty sad.
What is sadder still, to me, is the change in my job description. In the past, when asked about my job, I had to give this too-long explanation of building virtual things I sold in a virtual store for real money, which always drew blank looks — because it was unique, it didn’t correspond to any other job description anyone had ever heard of. Now, however, I just say I am a 3D artist selling things in a virtual world. While I assemble things inworld, all of my building now takes place offline in the world’s most complicated and inscrutable software, Blender.
But even that creation model — making mesh offline — is outdated. The smart thing to do now, in terms of efficiency, is to skip over the part about creating and just find things on the internet to import into Second Life, textures and all. Whole stores full of this content have sprung up overnight — many of them full perm stores supplying retail merchants. And since it takes hardly any time to upload, it is often dirt cheap. The creator has been replaced by the uploader. No surprise there. (Though when I predicted this outcome, many objected, saying, “They said the same about sculpts!”, although there were never warehouses full of sculpts available for import into SL.)
However, I started out making things for the same reason kids make Minecraft creations. They don’t want to just have (or sell) things, they want to make things. And that is what I want, to make things. I never get tired of making things, but I think the same amount of time spent uploading would get very old. More lucrative but so boring.
So making things is what I do and will continue to do, although it puts me — and everyone who makes and sells things — at a competitive disadvantage. I am just sorry that for most of Second Life users, creation within Second Life was once within their grasp and no longer is. People are simply not going to run out an learn offline 3D modeling. Yes, everyone can still build clunky, high LI stuff out of prims, but now that we see them through mesh-tinted glasses, those things don’t look so good to us anymore. So why bother?
The powers that be have decided that it is more important that Second Life look good than for it to be a clunky creation-oriented platform like Minecraft. I like making mesh, I am glad I was forced into dramatically updating my skills — but it is not clear to me that what Second Life has gained outweighs what it has lost. In fact, I suspect it has not. Certainly there is no evidence that this massive remaking of Second Life (and its creators) has had the slightest effect on user retention.
Hopefully if Microsoft does end up buying Minecraft for $2,000,000,000 it will not make the same mistake re: goose and golden egg.