It's no surprise that Minecraft, the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner. The latest is SkySaga, a British-made title. David Crookes takes a look and meets its makers.
The phrase “if you build it, they will come” is one of Hollywood's most infamous misquotes (it should be “he will come”) and, if you were to apply it to a certain block-based construction game, you would, once again, be making a teeny weeny error. For while Swedish developer Markus “Notch” Persson has been the brains behind the hugely successful game-cum-phenomena that is Minecraft, its incredible success is arguably less to do with him and more to do with the fans. A case, then, of “if they can build it, they will come”; and build they do, in their droves.
Since the game made its debut in 2009, it has sold more than 54 million copies across games consoles and PCs, earning it the title of the best-selling indie videogame of all time, according to the Guinness World Records: Gamer's Edition. Over the past two-and-a-half-years, those fans have created more than 225 million Minecraft worlds on the Xbox 360 alone.
In April, a 1:1-scale recreation of Denmark was unveiled within the game, mapping the entire 16,062 square miles of the country but even that paled when compared with the 22 billion blocks used to represent 86,500 square miles of the UK. And as if to reinforce its popularity, the game holds the world record for the largest indie game convention after 7,500 people jammed into a venue in Orlando, Florida last November.
With all of that in mind, it is no surprise that other titles are trying to build on its winning formula. The latest is SkySaga, a game with open-world play, cuboid creatures and all manner of materials to mine. Players smash blocks, gather up the remnants and use them to construct tools, buildings and weapons as they seek to explore the virtual sandbox laid out before them.
SkySaga has been in development for a couple of years in a small game studio on the outskirts of Leamington Spa. And yet despite its British creator Radiant Worlds producing a clever, home-grown, good-looking riff on Minecraft, it isn't too keen on drawing attention to the undoubted parallels. “There have been comparisons to a game that I won't mention,” says the developers' CEO Philip Oliver with a chortle. And when pressed on whether it could be a British Minecraft, he looks down, fiddles with his coffee mug and offers, smiling: “You could call it that.” And so we shall.
Despite its creators' coyness, it's hard to get away from the similarities between SkySaga and Minecraft. Gamers are handed a permanent, floating, customisable home island upon which they can construct castles and dungeons and the like from the materials they find around them as they explore terrain as high as mountains or as low as dark, gloomy caves.
Both games also use voxels, or volumetric pixels, a technical term for a unit of graphic information which defines a point in 3D space: it's what gives both games their distinctive “look”. But there are gaming twists. SkySaga players can hop into other worlds by opening portals to landscapes that are rich with other treasures and raw materials, giving them greater opportunity to chop trees, hunt animals and engage in looting.
Each player can also choose between participating as an adventurer, crafter, architect, farmer, explorer, miner, trader or gladiator. “If you are playing as a trader, your focus will be on buying low and selling high,” says Ben Fisher, SkySaga's game director. “If you're a farmer, you'll want to cultivate.” But all of the characters have the potential to become anything the players want them to be, mixing and matching skills.
But where the two games really differ is in a feature called the Adventure Director. It allows players to embark on personal quests that are created entirely on the hoof with no two players experiencing exactly the same quest.
SkySaga hopes to emulate Minecraft’s global money-spinning popularity
The game procedurally generates a unique world, together with a mini-adventure that has a specific objective taking around 30 minutes to complete. When combined with dual wielding – the ability to carry a weapon in both hands – and characters that can pull off combo moves, SkySaga is leant added depth that helps to throw light between the two games.
It feels as if Radiant Worlds has blended SkySaga with healthy dollops of Nintendo's Legend of Zelda and Animal Crossing and this is helping it attract attention. But it has its work cut out trying to match Minecraft's impact, a game which had 10 million players signed up to the beta release before the game was released on PC and Mac on 18 November 2011.
Other games have tried but none has quite amassed the same amount of money and acclaim as Notch's classic. Not The Blockheads, despite throwing in neat elements such as railways and solar-powered oil refineries; nor the acclaimed 2D exploration adventure Terraria (which has sold around 300,000 copies in Japan). Synthetic World is a 3D sandbox game that some are saying is a Minecraft killer; Blockland is about as Lego-like as a Minecraft-type of game could be. Neither of those is in the same league, though: Minecraft sold 1.3 million of its official books in the UK in the first eight months of this year.
Still, SkySaga is entering gamer consciousness at a good time. In September, gaming was rocked by the news that Persson had agreed a £1.2bn deal with Microsoft for the sale of his company Mojang. It led to accusations that he was “selling out”, amid fears that Microsoft's rival platforms would see a withdrawal of support.
It was a far cry from Minecraft's early years when it became the undisputed gaming success story; a quirky, indie title that gave gamers a blank slate on a deserted island, unleashed player creativity, allowed them to build, hunt, explore and fight. Players would produce their own narratives and be actively involved in a rich community. It changed the way games were played by running in a browser, opening it up to everyone with a computer, it altered the way developers approached their own games by dispensing with stories, putting the player in control, emphasising creativity and giving a fresh spin to the fantasy genre. It was less a game, more an experience; one that still has a staff of just 40 people working on it.
Minecraft has inspired the creativity of gamers and developers alike
For Radiant Worlds, the emphasis now is on encouraging gamers to join in the fun. The game is in an alpha phase and it is being made free-to-play initially, with in-game purchases not being introduced until much later down the line. This will hook a new audience into SkySaga's virtual world and it will allow gamers to get involved, helping to iron out the game's bugs and giving them a sense of ownership.
“We want this to roll on for five, 10 years and more,” says Oliver, whose last company, Blitz Games Studios, collapsed thanks to mounting debts. Radiant Worlds has bet its entire future on the game, bankrolled by South Korean billionaire Herald Kwon, who as the CEO of Smilegate has presided over Crossfire, Asia's most popular online game with 400 million players. And in building its cuboid world, it is dearly hoping the players will come… and build some more.
Game on: Minecraft and SkySaga compared
Country of origin: Sweden
Time in development, prior to release: 2.5 years
Released: 18 November 2011 (PC)
Formats: PC, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, Windows Phone, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Raspberry Pi
Money made: £330m (2013)
Recognisable characters: The Player
Mission statement: Minecraft is a game about breaking and placing blocks. At first, people built structures to protect against nocturnal monsters, but as the game grew players worked together to create wonderful, imaginative things.
Country of origin: UK
Developer: Radiant Worlds
Time in development, prior to release: 18 months+
Released: Provisionally 2015
Money made: £0
Recognisable characters: Explorer
Mission statement: “In SkySaga you are the hero, choosing your own path in pursuit of your destiny. Fresh challenges await you each day and your successes are celebrated among friends and fellow heroes.”