I ask you, for a moment, to consider that gaming giant, cultural phenomenon, and industry cash cow: Minecraft. Whether or not you play it or even like it, you cannot deny it is a resounding success, with over a hundred million copies sold worldwide. Minecraft obviously did something right, and the industry knows that. Ever since its release, developers everywhere have been trying to capitalize on its success. Block-based building sandboxes have sprung up everywhere, and low-res characters have become a very popular (and very cost-effective) gimmick.
However, it cannot be denied that the wave of sandbox games Minecraft has inspired have not faired nearly as well as their forefather, either in sales or critical acclaim. In some cases, of course, this was simply because the games were shameless, slapped-together knockoffs, but in others the reasons were less clear. There have been plenty of fresh, well-made sandbox games with new mechanics, aesthetics, and approaches since Minecraft, but somehow none of them have been nearly as successful. And, as developers and consumers, we have to ask ourselves: Why? What made Minecraft different, and how can we apply that knowledge to the games of the future? Obviously it was not merely a matter of aesthetic, nor, we must admit, was it simply because Minecraft was a sandbox game. Plenty of games have embraced Minecraft’s signature blockiness, and plenty of games have joined the ranks of the sandbox genre, and yet they have never come anywhere near selling a hundred million copies or receiving such universal praise.
The truth is, the very core of what made Minecraft good wasn’t that it was a sandbox. It wasn’t its gimmicky blockiness, it wasn’t its crafting system, it wasn’t even its building system. What made Minecraft good, and what continues to make it good (not to mention popular and profitable) to this day, is that it is player-driven.
The idea of a game being player-driven is not new. Ultima Online was being player-driven in 1997 (and is still to this very day). However, it is not an idea that is very well understood, either by developers or consumers, and it is not one very much talked about.
At its very heart, a player-driven game is, as you might expect, a game whose content is driven by the player. That much is obvious, and does not really need to be explained. But exactly how to make a game player-driven is where things get rather murky. What makes a game player-driven? Can a player-driven game have quests? Can it have a story? Can it have any developer-made content aside from a few meager tools for players to shape a world with? Unfortunately, few people have concrete answers to these questions, when they even bother to ask them at all.
Ultimately, though, all questions about the what makes a game player-driven find their answer in one simple realization: a player-driven game cannot be linear. A player-driven game cannot have levels; it cannot have a linear progression system that players must go through in a certain way to access all the game’s content. It cannot even have a linear story. Minecraft may have had a progression system of sorts, in that you could craft stronger armour and gain experience from killing mobs, but doing these things are not perimeters or requirements to enjoy its core gameplay. You don’t need diamond armour or a certain level to reach Minecraft’s “endgame”. In fact, Minecraft doesn’t even have an endgame, at least not in the way something like World of Warcraft does. Sure, there is the End, but there is no particular way you have to go about getting there. The gameplay of Minecraft is, essentially, nonlinear.
Nonlinearity puts all of the decision-making into the hands of the player. In a nonlinear game, players can decide what they want to do, and, most importantly, they aren’t going to be missing or skipping content by doing what they want to do. Technically speaking, you can decide what you want to do in a game like World of Warcraft, but by not doing the quests you are supposed to do you’re going to be preventing yourself from accessing further content. In a nonlinear game, there is no penalty for doing what you want when you want to do it, and everything you may want to do is going to advance your experience and your character some way or another. Want to build a giant squirrel statute in Minecraft? Go right ahead. It may spend valuable resources, but those resources are only there for your enjoyment, anyway. They are not “required” for anything else. There is nothing you're "supposed" to do in a nonlinear game, or at least not a particular order you're supposed to do things in. In a nonlinear game, you don’t have to worry about “wasting resources” on something "trivial" or holding up the story by "messing around", because when you’re “messing around” you’re creating the actual content of the game. You’re telling the story; you’re setting the goals. And this, at its heart, what it means for a game to be player-driven.
Of course, this does not mean that a player-driven game is necessarily devoid of pre-made goals; one just simply has to be careful about how one defines a "goal". Player-driven does not mean having a lifeless game world and giving the player godlike powers over it, it simply means giving everything the equal potential to be a goal, and giving tools to the players to create goals for themselves and for each other.
Player interaction is the other main driving force behind Minecraft’s success, and the reason for its longevity. And, it is, consequently, the fuel that player-driven games run upon. Even if your game is perfectly player-driven and allows players to choose and create their own goals in a game world chock-full of potential aspirations, the imagination of one lone player can only go so far. Limitations in AI complexity and NPC interaction, too, limit the potential of player-driven content in a singleplayer space. Developers simply cannot account for everything a player might try to do in their games, and thus NPCs in player-driven games generally feel pretty flat and lifeless. To compensate for this, Minecraft has a strong multiplayer side, giving players the ability to host servers and the tools to customize and code them beyond their wildest dreams.
And this, simply put, is genius. It is the very idea of being player-driven turned up to eleven, and it gives Minecraft the potential to, theoretically, last forever. So long as nothing comes along and beats Minecraft at its own game (no pun intended), players will still flock to it as a digital space where they can combine their imaginations and dreams with hundreds of others and create a veritably infinite amount of content. If you simply take a stroll around a few servers, from Survival ones, to mini-game-oriented ones like Hypixel, to RPG ones like Wynncraft, to civilization simulators like Hello Miners, it is impossible not to the powerful results of giving players the ability to create and share content in an online space. Because players can create and set their own goals in Minecraft, whether with in-game mechanics or custom-coded ones, it has ended up with a potentially infinite amount of goals, and thus a potentially infinite play experience. Players far outnumber developers, and giving them the power to create content results in far more than any amount of developers could create, with a far higher level of engagement and immersion.
Are there any upcoming games, then, that are actually learning from this? Are there any developers that have realized the difference between merely having a building mechanic in an open world and having player-created goals and player-driven content? Is there anything being made right now that may become “the new Minecraft”? The truth is, yes, there is. That game is called Dual Universe.
A lot of us have heard of Dual Universe, so much so I will not take the time to describe it here, but no one seems to be very excited about it. Its announcement rode right on the heels of No Man’s Sky’s catastrophic launch, and everyone was far too disappointed and enraged by that game's failure to get interested in another super-ambitious space sim where you can "do anything". In fact, Dual Universe barely even got its Kickstarter campaign funded, and still hasn’t hit the stretch goal for Construct Vs. Construct (that is, vehicular and fortification) combat, even with the opening of its new crowd-funding portal.
However, upon further inspection, it becomes swiftly apparent that Dual Universe is about as different from No Man’s Sky as day is from night. No Man’s Sky was all about the promise of procedural content, content that was derived from pre-made assets. And, naturally, it disappointed that promise, because, even with the aid of algorithms and procedural generation, a development team can only do so much (this was, knowingly or unknowingly, yet another example of taking the wrong elements from Minecraft in hopes of similar success). In contrast, Dual Universe is entirely centered around player-driven content. It takes Minecraft’s player-driven core, the very core that spawned its success, and runs with it farther than any game ever has. Literally every mechanic in the game is designed to be a tool for players to use to create their own content, and even more excitingly, these mechanics are designed with multiple players in mind. Unlike Minecraft, or nearly any sandbox game of the past, Dual Universe is an MMO, and, on top of that, a single-universe MMO, making use of innovative new server technology to put everyone in same online space. Every player will be in the same, seamless universe, and every player will be able to contribute to that universe's content. All politics, warfare, social structure, economy, vehicles, buildings, cities, culture—everything will be created and driven by the players (they have mentioned the possibility of jumpstarting the economy with some automated markets, but even those are planned to be removed in time). It sounds impossibly vast, but, in actuality, it won't require an enormous amount of content to be developed, since the game will simply be providing the tools to combine resources and unite players, and not much more than that. It is, essentially, a game about creating your own goals, and their relevance and impact in a giant, shared universe where everyone's decisions matter.
It is, quite frankly, about the most exciting game in development. It has taken what made Minecraft fantastic and turned it into something even more player-driven and even more spectacular. Time alone will tell, but Dual Universe is well on its way to truly becoming the next Minecraft, and the next big thing in gaming.