4 Ways Minecraft Hasn’t Actually Changed Gaming

This isn't a knock against Minecraft. If anything, it's a testament to how unique the game actually is.

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Jared Newman / TIME.com

Click here to read editor-at-large Harry McCracken’s full magazine story on The Mystery of Minecraft — including an in-depth trip to the developer’s headquarters in Sweden — available exclusively for TIME subscribers.

The objective seemed simple enough: Come up with a list of ways in which Minecraft has changed the video game industry. For a game so often hailed as one of the best ever, with more than 20 million copies sold, I figured the signs of Minecraft’s influence would be easy to rattle off.

But the more I considered it, the more I felt the opposite way. Certainly, Minecraft has resonated with players, who’ve spent countless hours letting their creativity run wild within the game’s procedurally-generated worlds. Still, four years after Minecraft’s alpha launch, its impact on the rest of the gaming world has ranged from immeasurable to insignificant.

That’s no knock against Minecraft. If anything, it’s a testament to how unique the game actually is. Rather than pretend Minecraft has been an industry-changing force, let’s instead count the ways in which Minecraft was an anomaly whose successes won’t be so easily duplicated:

Most Games Aren’t Cribbing from Minecraft

Despite Minecraft’s popularity, mainstream games haven’t borrowed much from the Mojang playbook. User-generated content is still a rarity unless you count PC mods, which existed long before Minecraft. Even if more publishers put creative hooks into their games, there’s no guarantee a community would build up around them. Minecraft’s viral levels of success will be nearly impossible for any publisher, no matter how deep-pocketed, to manufacture. That may explain why so few have bothered to try, save for the occasional low-budget clone or derivative.

And while Minecraft is often dubbed a sandbox-style game, other examples of the category fall neatly into existing genres: Grand Theft Auto is a racing game and third-person shooter, Far Cry 3 is a first-person shooter and stealth action game, and SimCity is open-ended strategy. Mentioning these games in the same breath as Minecraft, which is largely devoid of structure and is just barely a hack-and-slash at times, seems inappropriate.

Meanwhile, take a look at this year’s upcoming video games, and you’ll see a lot of the same old things: more shooters, RPGs, beat-em-ups, platformers and sports simulations. In the world of big-budget gaming, Minecraft’s influence is undetectable.

Minecraft Took a Road Less Traveled

The market for independent video games is booming because it’s become so easy to buy them. Between phones, tablets, Facebook, Steam, Xbox Live, the PlayStation Network and the Wii U eShop, there are plenty of places to find games that weren’t produced by megapublishers.

But unlike so many other hit indie games — Braid, Angry Birds and Castle Crashers, to name a few — Minecraft became a phenomenon without the help of an established distribution platform. For a long time, the only place to get Minecraft was directly through its own website. By the time the game landed on Xbox Live, iOS and Android, it was already a hit. On the PC, Minecraft has famously avoided distribution platforms such as Valve’s Steam. Creator Markus Persson told PC Gamer last year that he’s worried about one entity having such command over the PC games market, and that he hopes for a future where “more games can self-publish and use social media and friends to market their games.”

It’s a nice thought, but as long as PC game developers are claiming that most of their money comes from Steam, direct distribution will take the back seat. And with Sony and Nintendo showing greater interest in indie gaming on consoles, the Minecraft model doesn’t pose a major threat to established distribution methods.

Pixel Art Was Cool Before Minecraft Existed

Minecraft did produce a heightened interest in pixel art after 2011, at least according to Google Trends. The number of searches for the term “pixel art” rose sharply after 2011. But most of the searchers were also looking “Minecraft pixel art” and “Minecraft art” in particular. Strip away the term “Minecraft,” and interest in the topic is no greater than it was about eight years ago.

In any case, pixel art was a fascination among game developers already. Games like Fez (which began development in 2007), Passage, Cave Story and 3D Dot Heroes all upheld the tradition of pixel art long before Minecraft became a phenomenon. A YouTube documentary from 2010 illustrates how indie game makers have been interested in the style for years. Had Minecraft not existed, I’m sure developers would still be paying homage to the Atari and Nintendo eras today.

The Jury’s Out on Paid Beta Testing

Minecraft became popular long before it was finished due to its paid alpha and beta versions, which offered the core crafting and survival experience with less polish. While major publishers have stayed away from this approach, Steam now offers an Early Access program for select indie games, in a clear nod to Minecraft’s success. Incidentally, many of the games available through Early Access are open-world sandbox games, following Minecraft’s free-form footsteps.

Still, it’s early days for this form of distribution. Only 20 games are available on Early Access for now, and it’s unclear whether any of them will rise above niche success. It’s also unclear whether the next consoles from Microsoft or Sony will allow game makers to sell products as unpolished as Minecraft was in its alpha stages.

I’ll allow that things could change, and that some of Minecraft’s ripples may not be felt just yet. Perhaps the kids who are growing up on Minecraft now will only thirst for more games that foster creation, rather than destruction. The next generation of game consoles may encourage publishers to experiment, and to try catering to this audience. But right now, Minecraft remains a singular example of a well-designed, innovative game that achieved mass market success without heavy marketing or gimmicks. The fact that it hasn’t changed gaming as we know it just proves how different of an experience it is.

Click here to read editor-at-large Harry McCracken’s full magazine story on The Mystery of Minecraft — including an in-depth trip to the developer’s headquarters in Sweden — available exclusively for TIME subscribers.

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