Mini-minecraft more than a carbon copy
Despite punching well above its weight in the fields of music, film and literature, one area of popular culture where New Zealand has traditionally struggled to make a global impact is the video game market. Aside from Wellington-based Sidhe Interactive's popular rugby titles and 1995's memorable Megadrive classic Super Skidmarks, the list of Kiwi games that have gained international recognition is a disappointingly short one.
With modern, mass-market games involving multimillion-dollar budgets and the backing of international publishers with deep pockets, it's almost impossible for start-ups to gain a foothold, particularly for console titles released via the off-the-shelf retailers. With limited options as far as domestic developers are concerned, programmers with a killer idea have looked towards mobile gaming as a way to break into the industry.
At the forefront of this new wave of Kiwi digital entrepreneurs is Hawke's Bay developer David Frampton, already an App Store aficionado after making his name with quick-fix hit Chopper and its imaginatively titled sequel Chopper 2, Frampton hit the headlines earlier this month with a game that racked up more than a million downloads within three days of its release on its way to becoming the No 1 iPad app in 15 countries around the world.
The Blockheads is a game without a storyline, narrative structure or overall objective. In fact, it's difficult to put a finger on exactly what the "point" of the game is - there's no princess to rescue, alien invasion to repel or storyline to unravel, there's no high score to beat or end-of-level boss to defeat. It's a game with no end where your only objective is to explore and create. This open-ended, blank slate approach allows you to make of it what you will, take things at your own pace and let your imagination run wild.
Despite your muted protagonist having no personality per se, you'll soon find yourself caring about the cube-headed character as their mood is a vital part of the game.
Explore too much without sleeping or eating and they'll become exhausted and hungry - requiring you to gather resources to create shelter and grow food. Beginning with basic hut-like structures, as you discover more of the vast virtual world you'll unearth materials that allow you to create more advanced tools and construct enormous palaces.
Although the game costs nothing to play, its fiendishly addictive nature is perfectly suited to the "freemium" structure that many mobile games have adopted. If you have the patience to wait for your blockhead to complete tasks like mining, building and sleeping then you'll never need to spend a penny - however, by investing in the game's currency, "time crystals", you can speed up the process and craft more complex items.
With all this talk of mining and crafting, it would be impossible to review The Blockheads without mentioning the elephant in the room, another brainchild of an one-man band indie programmer, Markus "Notch" Persson's phenomenally successful Minecraft. There's no denying the two games have a great deal in common, from the quirky, lo-fi graphics to the emphasis on resource gathering, exploration and creative expression.
When the Nelson Mail's Adam Roberts interviewed Frampton earlier this month, online commenters were quick to point out the striking similarities between the two games, implying and insinuating that The Blockheads was little more than a "Minecraft rip-off".
While it's understandable that people would jump to that conclusion, and there's little doubt that Notch's game was an obvious inspiration on some level for Frampton, there's far more to The Blockheads than some of the other copy-cat cash in shovelware that finds its way on to the App Store.
It's also lazy and unfair to jump on similarities between two games as evidence of plagiarism. Video games, more than any other form of entertainment, build on what has gone before them.
As technology advances and trends become popular, developers will refine and revise what "works" and take inspiration from groundbreaking games. Just as Space Invaders led to a wave of space shooters, Super Mario Bros set the trend for side-scrolling platformers, and Gears of War opened the floodgates for cover-based shooters, the unprecedented success of an innovative indie blockbuster like Minecraft will inevitably cause ripples in the industry. It's not plagiarism; it's progress.
If you're a Minecraft fan, then you're almost guaranteed to enjoy The Blockheads but it's more than a carbon copy. While Minecraft works best with a mouse and keyboard, The Blockheads' 2-D take on the creative sandbox genre is perfectly suited to the mobile format and its use of touchscreen controls is well implemented and intuitive.
It's great to see a Kiwi developer making waves in gaming's fastest growing sector and with three hits already under his belt, it will be interesting to see what Frampton's Majic Jungle Software crafts and creates next.
The Blockheads (iPad, iPhone) Majic Jungle Software. Free to play.
The Nelson Mail