As Mr. Mark Rosewater notes on occasion, “restrictions breed creativity“. Minecraft has a somewhat restricted visual design thanks to a lower global resolution (almost everything is built from 1 meter cubes), but it’s precisely that restriction that has led to a minor renaissance among gamers with an itch to create rather than consume. (Also seen here with Azeroth in CivV, tangentially.)
Doom was a significant First Person Shooter game some years ago, but for all its impact on the genre and gaming industry, it had some constraints due to then-modern technology and game design. As this interesting article notes, those constraints made for a very different game from modern FPS games. Doom effectively played in two dimensions; there were bits of the level that had different elevations, but weapons autoaimed to compensate, and you couldn’t ever have a level where you could traverse the same X/Y Cartesian space at two different Z elevations. (So no bridges you could both go over and under, no spiral staircases, no multilevel buildings.) That’s a huge limitation for a game that gives an impression of 3D, but the Doom guys managed to work wonders within that canvas.
Also importantly, the lower “resolution” of the game tools helped the modding community take off, and there were a TON of player-generated additions to the game. Modders didn’t need to work in true 3D and have hugely expensive tools like Maya or 3DSMax that took years to master. They could get by with some simpler tricks and more streamlined level design, leading to faster development with quicker iteration that could lead to better design in shorter order.
Minecraft is a modern iteration of this pared-down design ethos. The game world is actually 3D this time, but the lower resolution, both geometric (the world of cubes) and textural (16×16 textures for said cubes) means that potential modders can focus more on the bigger picture rather than burning their time on normal mapping and pixel shaders. They might make a few relatively simple changes (to the textures or peaceful/monster mode) that affect the whole game world.
Of course, players don’t have the ability to tweak values as easily as Notch might, as the programmer of the game. Even thinking of his tools, though, depending on how he has the simulation code set up, he could theoretically tweak a few variables and quickly have some very different worlds. We see a little of this with his biome design, where segments of the world take on different climate properties and block generation ratios (a desert area with dunes and cacti neighboring an alpine mountainous snowy area, for example). Imagine if players could tweak those variables and make their own biomes. (This isn’t to say that said biomes were just a few lines of code, but rather that they could be controlled by a few variables that could provide significant changes with little input, one of the beauties of procedural content generation.)
Perhaps more importantly, though, players can do a ton within the game itself. You can tear apart the world with your bare hands and rebuild it almost any way you want to. Maybe you prefer big buildings or maybe you’re a Star Trek devotee or Lord of the Rings fan. Maybe you love BioShock, its sequel, simple computers or just want to go see the sights that the terrain generator churns out, always providing “just another mountain” to see. In the highly malleable Minecraft world, you can scratch a lot of different itches. Play it multiplayer, and you can even show off. (It scratches an itch that MMOs haven’t bothered with, despite having firm footholds on the tactical terrain.)
In a way, it’s like a piano. The instrument only has 88 keys, but the music that has been made over the centuries with it is incredibly varied. Or better, a guitar or violin; six or four strings can do miracles in the right hands.
Of course Minecraft won’t appeal to everyone, and it won’t win a beauty competition with Source and better out there in the wild. Still, coloring with crayons sometimes can bring out a lot more creativity than working in Painter, simply because it’s easier to work with the tools. Like building with LEGOs, there’s a fairly simple learning curve that allows for more time creating, less time gearing up to be creative. Even though I work all day with high high end art tools, I still love just whipping out my sketchbook and a ballpoint pen to do my own work and see what crazy ideas pique my interest.
When all you have is an ore pick, the whole world looks like a mine to be dug. When you can build with the stuff you dig up and put your own stamp on the world, crazy, wonderful things can happen.