Design Bites: Minecraft - Feed The Beast

The "Design Bites" series is about learning or appreciating just one design element of one game. It's about applying an analytical eye, even if it doesn't touch on everything.

What's Minecraft - Feed The Beast?

Minecraft is a Sandbox developed and released by Mojang in 2011 (Kinda, it was in beta for a long time). The player roams a procedurally generated world building things and collecting resources with a variety of tools. Feed The Beast (FTB) is a collection of Mods for Minecraft, which add new items, creatures, resources and other features to the game. There are many different Feed The Beast modpacks, each with their own goals and focuses. This article is specifically about "Feed The Beast: Infinity Evolved". I would encourage anyone curious about FTB to head on over to the Feed The Beast website or Forums and check it out!

What's Awesome?

Deep inside all humans is the burning desire to build a nuclear reactor.

No? Just me?

Alright. To be completely honest - I didn't have the strong urge to collect uranium and design a reactor cooling system until very recently. While we might not all share my newfound passion, one thing that we do share is a strong desire for progress.

FTB is incredibly effective at stoking this desire and it does so in many ways. One that i'll talk about briefly here is a technique to make players feel good about progression: by showing the player that previously challenging things are now easy. Let's compare FTB to vanilla Minecraft.

You begin Minecraft by struggling to acquire some basic resource. This could be a precious metal, a plant, or an item dropped by some hostile creature. Whatever the resource is, the payoff for acquiring it is usually the ability to acquire rarer resources: an iron pickaxe can retrieve diamonds, a stone one cannot. In regular Minecraft, this climb tops out at Diamond gear, which really isn't all that difficult to acquire if you know where to look: an hour or two of gameplay is enough to find enough diamonds to deck your character out. There are other things to do beyond this: enchanting and various other items to build, but in terms of the core gameplay - mining & crafting - once you've got the diamonds you're pretty set. This is where a modpack like FTB comes in.

Feed The Beast turns minecraft into a lengthy ladder climb. The core game loop for Minecraft is simple: Collect resources to build tools... to collect new resources to create better tools. FTB alters this loop by adding a key element: processing of collected resources. Add a take away pizza and a good skype call and repeat until you pass out at 4am.

FTB not only adds a heap of new materials to attain far beyond the diamond tier of equipment (thus extending and strengthening the existing minecraft core game loop), it stresses a different kind of progression: efficiency. It's not longer just about whether or not you can acquire a few diamonds, it's about how many diamonds you can acquire and how fast you can acquire them. Furthermore, it's about whether you have all the machines necessary to make the most out of the diamonds that you have acquired. The latter of which sends you cascading through a series of branching requirements that give you mountains of things to do.

The beautiful payoff is that after you've put some time into things you can step back and look at the insane chain of contraptions that you've built and measure the benefit: when you started it took you hours to acquire a handful of diamonds, and now you're pumping them out of the ground at 800 blocks per hour. This stretches each material tier in the game loop into a player defined journey of advancement. You're not done when you've collected a diamond, you're done when you feel like you will never need to worry about collecting diamonds again.

There's so much more to talk about regarding FTB, but i'll try and reign it in here before things get scattered further. I'll conclude by saying that Feed The Beast devoured 130 hours of my life by revitalizing a game that I had long since put down. That, in itself, is a fantastic thing.

Design Bites: Mirror's Edge

The "Design Bites" series is about learning or appreciating just one design element of one game. It's about applying an analytical eye, even if it doesn't touch on everything.

What's Mirror's Edge?

Mirror's Edge is a Action Adventure First-Person Platformer developed and released by DICE in Late 2008. The player free-runs across city heights, jumping between rooftops and scaling walls. Occasionally you fight enemies with timing-based attacks but mostly it's about running away from things.

What's Awesome?

Games often instruct the player directly, spoken or written in UI, but the majority of instructions are actually given indirectly - A muzzle flash means "find cover", even without gruff military voiceover. Good level design is not just about what's challenging or fun, it's also about communication - it's a direct channel between the designer and the player.

Mirror's Edge showcases some awesome ways of getting your players attention and feeding them information. You might jump ahead here and bring up "Runner Vision", a mechanic that highlights objects in the world. This is a great feature but it's not what i'm talking about. I'm talking about how the game feeds you lore.

Take a look at this elevator sequence:

You hit this elevator button to advance, it's a mini tutorial on interacting with objects. It could have been empty, but instead there is a screen with a couple of short news articles. As you bend down to press the button, a small section of the screen is right there in view. You catch a glimpse of a headline, which just happens to be about a character that you're about to meet.

Some players may completely ignore the screen, others might stop and read, but no matter the choice the player has been signaled - directed towards an optional nugget of information. This example is quite direct: text on a screen in a closed space but, even so, not all players will stop to read this. The game is filled with mindful placement of objects - both key to platforming and as a tool for imparting story.

Many games do this, so the next time you're exploring Tamriel or Azeroth, take some time to appreciate how conveniently features of the world are laid out for you to see.

Design Bites: FTL: Faster Than Light

The "Design Bites" series is about learning or appreciating just one design element of one game. It's about applying an analytical eye, even if it doesn't touch on everything.

What's FTL: Faster Than Light?

FTL: Faster Than Light is a roguelike top-down space-sim developed and released by Subset Games in Late 2012. The player manages a small spaceship and crew, arranging them on the ship and adjusting power levels for various systems like shields, weapons and engines. You jump from area to area, where you may encounter other ships or answer distress calls. All the while, the rebel fleet advances on your position, making areas behind you dangerous.

What's Awesome?

Permadeath, an important element of the roguelike formula. When used correctly it creates a bond between the player and their character. It immerses us by making our decisions carry more weight and encourages us to care for the characters we're controlling more deeply - emotionally. FTL is great example of these things.

As a new player, FTL excels at creating a feeling of desperation - every choice carries tension. Each time you jump to a new location, you are presented with a choice. This could be the choice to avoid or engage a hostile ship, but it could also be to answer a call for help, a trade offer or any number of other things.

These, sometimes moral, choices have a large impact on your ship both immediately and for the long term future. You need resources like fuel to make the trip, and missiles to defend yourself.

You may begin the game by fighting all slave ships you encounter on moral grounds but, eventually, you might reach a point where doing business with a slave trader might be the key to your survival. You are put into positions where you may need to take advantage of someone, fight unwillingly, or give away precious scrap just to avoid dying and losing all your progress. 

Moral choices in games often amount to a choice between some absolute "good" and "evil", where the only difference is who gives you quests and what color your eyes glow. In FTL they are about doing the right thing versus doing the smart thing, and I found myself agonising over both.