Saturday, October 23, 2010

All matter is made up of large cubes: Manic Digger and Infiniminer

About a month ago, I waxed fanboyish about Minecraft, an in-development indie game that has since made an overnight millionaire out of it’s creator, Markus Persson, better known as Notch. From where we stand right now, one of two things could potentially happen, either this one game will turn out to be a blip on the radar, just this one strange anomaly that came and went, or a trend will start, and we’ll look at this game, and it’s progenitor, Infinimier, as early examples of some as of yet unnamed genre. Personally, I’m intrigued, and as such, I’ve been looking more into this strange, blocky world of games revolving around strange, blocky worlds.

The main course of this post is going to be Infiniminer, the game that comes before Minecraft in the timeline, but first, as an appetizer, there’s Manic Digger.

If you’re the type of person for whom two similar things aren’t both allowed to be good at the same time, this one might come across as a bit offensive, because, at it’s heart, Manic Digger is pretty much a free and open source version of Minecraft, running in a different engine. It’s creator admits this pretty unabashedly, and the idea behind the project seems to be to try and turn it into it’s own platform onto which the player can create their own blocky game types and scenarios… or just play a free version of Minecraft, I suppose, which is what I would have done with it, if only I could get the damn thing to run on my computer. (keep in mind, this likely has more to do with me than it does the software.)

Unfortunately, by noob-level computer skills means I can really only refer to the wiki and some Youtube videos posted by the developer, and maybe lurk the forums a little, for more information about the game. This is hardly ideal when it comes to giving a fair impression of a game, but seeing as it’s a free game, there’s not a whole lot to stop you from trying it for yourself, and getting your own impressions.

From what I've seen and read, the crafting system is a little different, in that the crafting area is just a blue surface onto which you unload other materials, and recipes in this game only take into account numbers of incoming ingredients, as opposed to their position on a grid. For instance, 2 cobblestone = 1 stone, and 4 stone = 1 brick, and 2 brick = 1 roof. Meanwhile 1 wood and 1 iron = 4 rail. The thing I do find likeable about this system is that it makes it a lot easier for people starting out to experiment with different amounts or combinations of ingredients to see what happens, as opposed to Minecraft’s system, which might be deeper and more elegant, but as of now, pretty much makes consulting the Minepedia recipe page a prerequisite to finding out how to craft anything. Also, from what I can tell, the mine carts work differently, making them potentially a little more useful than Minecraft’s without having to game the physics.

My hope for this project, though, is that if it develops a strong community of people mucking around with the source code, we could, perhaps a year from now, see a game that comes into it’s own and actually does things to differentiate itself a little more from it’s inspiration. A monster editor already exists, tests on implementing structural stress to buildings have been shown in the forums, and if you could just harness the same savant prowess that can build a working calculator in Little Big Planet, something totally unique could come out of this, and of course, there are clear benefits to running the game in C# instead of Java. So, for the moment, I’d rather be optimistic about it, and for what it’s worth, I’m sure most people who aren’t me won’t have any trouble getting the program to work, so if you like Minecraft, it might be worth your while to check out the off-brand version.

Another game that is absolutely worth your while to check out is Infiniminer.
Infiniminer, in stark contrast to it’s progeny, is a team-based competitive multiplayer game, where the object is to be the first to mine a set amount of either gold or diamonds, as determined by dollar value. Diamonds are more valuable than gold, but are also harder to get. The game takes place in a blocky, procedurally generated environment, complete with lava, and liquid physics, and even a control setup that will probably be pretty familiar to anyone whose played the later games, but at this point, the differences definitely outweigh the similarities.

For starters, you begin by choosing your team, then picking one of four classes: miner, prospector, engineer, and sapper. Each class can dig, and mine for both loot and ore, but the amount they can carry on hand varies slightly. Once a block is dug up, it cannot be collected and placed anywhere else. Instead, each class has different blocks that they’re able to place wherever they want, but in order to do so, you must have enough ore to cover the cost, which varies from one block type to the next. Different types of blocks have different effects, and therefore different strategic uses. At any point in the game, you can go topside and change your class at the push of a button.
The miners can dig faster than the other classes, and can carry twice as much loot, determined by number of blocks, but have only fairly rudimentary building abilities, making them useful mostly for the actual grunt work of digging and mining. Prospectors also have somewhat limited building abilities, but have access to a device that lets them track the location of loot blocks that aren’t immediately visible, and can then mark blocks with a “dig here” symbol to indicate to team mates a good place to start digging. Engineers, as the name might suggest, have the best of the building skills, and can build all kinds of blocks to improve the effectiveness of the team’s effort, or potentially to hamper the efforts of the opposing team. They can also hold more ore than other classes. Sappers are demolition experts, and are unique in that they can build, and subsequently detonate, explosive blocks, making them the most fun class to play. Be weary, mind you, that some servers have a zero tolerance policy about bombing the other team’s base.

Blocks themselves vary from simple coloured boxes, to force field boxes that allow one team’s players to pass through while acting like a solid block for the other team (or the other way around, which is sometimes useful), to traversal based stuff like ladders and springboards, to more complex uses like beacons, which are used to mark certain locations on the radar in the corner of the screen, to bank blocks, which allow any player to deposit or withdraw ore to and from a team reserve.

Effective teamwork is the key. While one person gets to work setting up a base, another can go mine ore and deposit it in the team coffer, while someone else goes searching for loot. Once loot has been found and mined, the player who’s collected it needs to return to the surface level in order for it to count, so again the team needs to work towards building an efficient means of getting down into the mine, and then back up as quickly and safely as possible. From what I‘ve heard from players more skilled than myself, the prospector’s abilities turn out not being as helpful as you’d think in the heat of an intense match, but other than that, players need to make effective use of all the different classes, and play to their strengths, as well as take full advantage of the interactive terrain. A team made entirely of sappers, for instance, would be downright awesome, but are probably going to have trouble keeping up with a more coordinated group.

In the end, Infiniminer ends up being a more “gamey game” experience than Minecraft, who’s multiplayer mostly involves putting different players into the same sandbox and hoping they play nice together. If, however, you did want to have a more relaxed time in Infiniminer, maybe focus less on competition and more on building the most awesomest base ever, you can start or jump in on a sandbox server, where all victory conditions are removed, and all blocks can be built for free. This mode is probably the most Minecraft-esque that the game ever gets, except you have a smaller space to play with and less types of building materials, but at the same time, some of the blocks you do get access to allow you to create bases where traversal through the base becomes part of the fun.

The only real downside is that single player Infiniminer is a bit of a bust, since you’re pretty much just wandering around alone in a multiplayer map. You can break out a stopwatch, I suppose, and try to beat your own best time, or build a giant base all by your lonesome. By all means, it’s not a complete wash, but really, this game need interaction with other players in order to really shine.

Like Manic Digger, Infiniminer is a free and open source game, and is fairly clunky, limited in scope, and primitive compared to the games it’s inspired, but it’s still a ton of fun, and in a strange way, the primitiveness of this game is the source of my optimism. Even Notch openly referred to Minecraft as an Infiniminer clone when he first started working on it, and this early test video definitely plays out the comparison, but during the course of development, he’s taken hold of a certain aspect of Infiniminer - the base building aspects - which was something of an emergent property of Infiniminer’s gameplay, added some resource management, a la Dwarf Fortress or Dungeon Keeper, and ran with it, to the point where the two games are now very distinct from one another. More importantly, it demonstrates that this type of fully interactive terrain offers many more gameplay possibilities than just making giant penis statues, or re-creating Doom levels. There could be so much more to this idea that hasn’t even been dreamt up yet, and for someone like me, that’s very exciting.

Manic Digger official site

Infiniminer official site


  1. I think what ultimately sets Minecraft apart from these (and you have to buy it for this) is Survival mode. The world aspect makes an enormous difference in enjoyment.

    Manic Digger has an advantage in not using Java - I'd really like to see this genre (essentially true sandbox) grow into really complex games. While the honeymoon appeal of these games (largely due to Minecraft's rapid popularity)may falter it's unlikely this genre will fade.

  2. Hmmm, I had never heard of Minecraft. Might try one of these free games to see what this blocky stuff are about.

  3. If anything, I like the idea of Infiniminer. I just can't get into the idea of building for the sake of building in Minecraft. It would be nice to see people craft more than just the scenery and actually program creatures and characters with AI. I guess I want Minecraft to transmogrify into Little Big Planet or a "gamey game" as you put it.

    Although it is definitely not as focused on building, you might want to look into a game called Love. It is an MMO FPS with some building elements to it. Like Minecraft, it is the vision of one man followed through to create something quite unique. You read more about the game here:

  4. @ gogogoldberg:

    Minecraft Alpha does also have some survival and resource management elements, so there is some purpose to the building you do, but if you did want something a little more game-like, I would definitely recommend some Infiniminer multiplayer.

    Infiniminer is pretty well known as the game that inspired Minecraft, but I don't think a lot of people realize how different a game it actually is, and that's a damn shame, in my rarely humble opinion.

    I've heard of Love, actually, and seen some screenshots. I was thinking of having a look at it, and maybe writing about it for this blog if it proves interesting enough... then that could be the culmination of these little write-ups on interactive terrain games for the time being. Thanks for the link.

  5. Have you heard of Neverdaunt: 8-Bit? It's similar to Minecraft, though a bit more "80s virtual reality" in look. Also, you can build within an area, but you have to capture the area's shrine to be able to do so. So it's like competing for creative space, which is interesting in that capturing someone's shrine and undoing their work would just make you look bad if you didn't build something more impressive.

  6. The trailer definitely gives off a Dactyl Nightmare kind of vibe.

    I'm not sure I'd actually be able to out-build anyone. I love playing with building blocks, but my creations tend to be boxy and abstract, but it might be fun to just play tourist every now and then, especially if the game world does end up being in constant flux, which seems to be the idea.

    If only there were more hours in the day...