Just a clone

Written by David Frampton @ 12:39 am, May 3, 2012

If you haven’t seen or heard of The Blockheads, it’s a work-in-progress game for iOS that I’ve been working on for some time now. To sum it up quickly, it’s an adventure, exploration, survival and creativity game played in a vast procedurally generated world.

That summary could easily belong to many games, in fact, there is a decent chance you just read that and thought ‘So you’re making Minecraft’.

I’m not.

I’m not going to try to prove that here, you’ll have to play The Blockheads to find out. And a single blog post is not going to dispel the ‘just a’ Minecraft/Terraria/Junk Jack rip-off police, I’ll just have to take that stuff on the chin.

But a tweet suggested it might be interesting to hear a bit more backstory on what my influences actually were, and I agreed. In short, Minecraft is an influence. Terraria and Junk Jack really aren’t, and there’s a whole lot of other games that are.

To start with, this game was first conceived before I even knew how to program. It was actually the game I always intended to make after I had the skills and resources to do so.

The initial idea was that the player controlled a number of humanoid characters. Back then they were cave-men like prehistoric humans. The player would teach them to use tools, discover fire, build huts, and eventually evolve into modern day humans. It would be played in the 2D cross section of a vast world, and the player would shape both the world and its inhabitants.

This idea, conceived in 2003, was heavily influenced by The Sims. I imagined an interface where progress bars told you needs and skills, where you placed pre-modeled objects that the characters would interact with and learn from. It was also influenced by Warcraft and Civilization. I imagined technology trees. Lumber mills and blacksmiths. Wars with other tribes, animals to farm and eat.

But for a very long time, this idea was out of my reach. In particular the art and level design required would have been astronomical. It would have taken me 100 years.

And then I discovered Minecraft.

Minecraft simplified the world so much, that anything was possible. With pixel art graphics, a few simple rules, and a procedurally generated world, my idea suddenly became possible.

So I started work. Initially, in part due to my childhood love of Sim Earth, I started making an evolution game. It was a 2D cross section world, where instead of starting with cave men, the player would start with amoeba, slowly evolving through a massive tech tree until modern humans were reached.

However, issues quickly showed up as I began coding and started thinking about how the game would work. In particular, the evolution component was quickly becoming just a long winded prelude to the much more interesting part of interacting with humans. Animals are cool and all, but they don’t shape their world like people do.

So I stripped out a large amount of the code I’d written, and just kept the world. And then I added the first blockhead, and suddenly it all made sense.

During development, the game has drifted closer to Minecraft than I had hoped, but it’s been an organic process. There were some key decisions that took it from being something totally different to something much closer. As an example, one such decision was to give the characters inventories. Initially I had thoughts of items being magically transported to where they are needed, and workbenches and chests being the main interface for the game. But for a number of reasons I decided giving the characters inventories would make the game better, so that is what I did. And as a result it is more like Minecraft.

But there are still many things that I have kept or added that have no relation to Minecraft. For example, like my initial concept, The Blockheads has multiple characters to control instead of one. This might seem insignificant, but it really isn’t. In Minecraft you are in the world, you are the character. In The Blockheads you are god. The characters do your bidding. This totally changes how the game feels, and I think, is better suited to the pick up and play nature of mobile devices.

As a side note, I’ve also already been accused of making ‘just a’ Junk Jack or Terraria clone. I’ve never played Terraria, though I have watched some gameplay footage. I did play some Junk Jack. However I have taken not a single idea from either of them, so similarities are probably due to our shared source of inspiration from Minecraft. However without going into too much detail, they both taught me a few things not to do.

So in summary, yes I have drawn inspiration from Minecraft. But this game was conceived before Minecraft or its main inspiration ‘Infiniminer’ even existed. I have drawn inspiration from The Sims, Sim Earth, Civilization, Starcraft and Warcraft, and even Plants vs. Zombies amongst many others. But what Minecraft gave me was the ability to create the game I always wanted.

The Blockheads is not ‘just a clone’. Of anything. It’s a game I’ve been thinking about for years, with influences from all over the place. And I know people are going to enjoy it.

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