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Building A Better Minecraft -- Bridging The PC And Console Gap

Posted September 5, 2012 - By Adam Rosenberg


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Minecraft 360

Who knew that finding coal for the first time could be so exciting, every single time? Markus "Notch" Persson stumbled onto a potent formula with his one-in-a-million PC/Mac hit Minecraft, giving gamers pliable LEGO-like worlds composed entirely of blocky voxels. 4J Studios repeated Notch's success on a new platform, bringing Xbox Live gamers a similar experience on their Xbox 360 consoles.

Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition offers fewer features than the PC version does, but it also carries over the trait of being a constant work in progress, a platform in and of itself that continues to grow over time with more content and added features. The first major title update, based largely on v1.7.3 from the PC version, featured pistons, a tool that enables players to think in all sorts of new creative directions. That's nothing, however, when you look at all of the various elements that are still to come.

We recently sat down for a "state of the game" chat with 4J CTO Paddy Burns. The team is extremely happy that their efforts have been well received, but no one is using that success as an excuse to sit back and relax. A long road stretches out before them. Pistons are a big deal, no question, but the additions that most fans of the PC/Mac game are really waiting for can be summed up in two words: Adventure Mode.

Minecraft 360

Bringing Things Up To Speed

"It's [version] 1.8.2 on the PC, but we will be mixing and matching a bit," Burns explained. For example, the latest update might be based on v1.7.3 on the PC side, but it includes lighting effects from 1.8.2 that, as Burns puts it, "helped us with using less memory and better processing" on the Microsoft console.

The big problem on the Xbox 360 is memory. It's not that the console is lacking in some way, but it is a seven-year-old piece of hardware that is being made to run a three-year-old PC game. Minecraft may not look very advanced, but it's a really deceptively complex one. Even the Xbox 360 version's smaller maps feature more than 100,000 fully customizable chunks of world for your console to keep track of.

"I think the thing that people tend to overlook is, you can change absolutely everything in a world. So you may start off with a world that seems like a normal computer game map, but you can change everything in there. It's not the same as loading a world from a disc," Burns explained.

"We did have to spend a lot of time trying to optimize our use of memory and to get the data size down so we could get as much as possible in there. I know there are comparisons about the PC version having a much, much bigger world, but it is just a different platform, and it doesn't have the same abilities. The Xbox does have three processors that we've been using to help speed things up, and people are saying that it is very good, because it IS running at 60 frames per second very smoothly. That was a real aim, to get this running as smoothly as possible."

In simple terms, your console is managing the Minecraft game client while it also hosts a server for online play over Xbox Live. Online connectivity is a great strength of the console version over the PC; both offer multiplayer, but it's all streamlined through the Xbox Live framework on the console side. You can just join in if you have a friend playing online, and vice versa.

That said, the possibility of one day seeing larger Minecraft worlds on the Xbox 360 isn't completely out of the question. Even now, 4J is looking ahead to how the game might take shape once the console game is up to date, gameplay features-wise, with the PC.

"One thing that is in discussion at the moment is the possibility of having servers. Similar to the Battlefield 3's 'rent-a-server' [feature]," Burns said. "If we can shift the work off to [an external] server, then I think we can open up quite a bit more. It's definitely something that I want to look at, and it's now something that Microsoft are quite keen to look at as well. So fingers crossed, we might get there."

Minecraft 360

Crafting A Different Kind Of Future

Ultimately, the 4J team's biggest goal is to catch up to the PC version of Minecraft...and then break away in an entirely different direction. The final release version of the PC game is the ideal, but future content beyond that is more a matter of delivering experiences that suit the platform. The Xbox 360 may not be able to go bigger than the PC, but that doesn't mean it's always going to exist as a "lesser" product by comparison, or even that it does right now.

"Currently what we're doing is obviously the 1.8.2 update [from the PC beta period] followed by the 1.2.3 update [from the final release version]. After that point, we're sitting down with Mojang and taking a look at where things are going and where things should be going next with it," Burns revealed. "Notch is also quite keen that we add in specific content for the Xbox which will not be on the PC, so we need to discuss that as well once we're at that point."

While he couldn't speak in specifics, Burns was more than happy to paint a general picture of what fans might expect. "The mods that are being done on the PC, obviously we can't just take those, but we are having a look at what people are enjoying and thinking could we do content that would pick up on the key things that people are enjoying in mods, and add them to the [console] game. At the moment that is what I would call the long-term view."

In short, Burns sees more of a competition-oriented future for the Xbox 360 Minecraft than the stock PC game offers. "Being in a living room is markedly different from being at a desk with a PC. What I'm hearing a lot of with the Xbox game is the family playing with the kids and the parents together," he said.

Minecraft v1.3 Arrives On August 1

"We'd like to do things that could be played together in a slightly more competitive way than just building in Minecraft. If you have just a quick loop through the top mods, there are a lot of mods that are slightly more competitive that people are really enjoying. It's the element of those that I would like to pick up on and build on the Xbox."

Burns would also like to see more of a focus on bringing community features to Xbox Live. The PC version of Minecraft doesn't support video recording, though PC users armed with FRAPS and mics have done just that, uploading their efforts to YouTube and creating a massive Internet fan community built around episodic series' of play sessions, everything from 'check out this neat project' to 'who will be the last player standing with this particular mod activated.'

"It's much easier to do video capture on the PC than it is on the Xbox, so it is something we're looking at," Burns said. "I would love to be able to put videos up on YouTube directly from the Xbox. It's not quite there yet, but I know that at some point in the future it will be. So we're trying to help Microsoft to work towards that, because I would definitely like people to be able to do that in the Xbox game. I think it would be brilliant.”

Building A Better Minecraft -- Bridging The PC And Console Gap
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