Down the Creeper Hole: How I spent my first 50 hours in Minecraft

Minecraft is something of a phenomenon. It's the innovative pet project of Markus Persson, a solo game developer better known by his handle, Notch. What began inauspiciously as an open-ended digital playground has evolved into an original experience with a rapidly growing fan base.

In a nutshell: Minecraft takes the fun of building with Lego bricks, combines it with an open-ended, collaborative online experience, and dresses it up with smart, charming indie sensibility.

Its recent success is largely owed to Penny Arcade's Mike Krahulik, whose comics about Minecraft drove thousands of readers to check out the game at its official website. That massive influx of traffic ended up crippling the authentication servers, leading Notch to declare an impromptu "free-to-play" weekend. And just like that, sales exploded.

I first heard about Minecraft in the days leading up to PAX when Spencer mentioned the game in casual conversation. He tried to talk about it nonchalantly, like it was just no big deal, but his thousand-mile stare betrayed any pretense of innocence. It was clear to me that Minecraft is the gaming equivalent of a designer drug: It'll suck you in and you'll spend hours blissfully ignorant of the real world around you.

All right, I said. Let's do it. Let's craft some mines.

Hour 1: Punch everything

When I first loaded Minecraft and generated a game world, I saw a vast expanse of blocks: dirt blocks, sand blocks, water blocks, tree blocks, rock blocks...just blocks. There was the occasional pig or chicken wandering around, too, but killing them didn't seem to yield any immediate reward.

I climbed to the top of the nearest mountain to get the lay of the land, and I was a little dismayed to see nothing but more of the same over the next horizon. I was reminded of the expression about when you only have a hammer that everything looks like a nail, but I only had a fist; everything just looked like a wall.

At that point I realized that I could click to punch things. And sure enough, if I punched a block long enough it would disappear and jump into my inventory.

But that was the limit of my abilities. I'd figured out the basics of mining, but what about crafting?

Hour 2: Minecraft's missing manual

A quick Google search for "minecraft help" led me to Minepedia, the Minecraft wiki. I wish I'd discovered it sooner, because it should be considered required reading for anyone hoping to enjoy their time with Minecraft.

For instance, I learned that there are several tiers of crafting within the game. While the player's inventory has a 2x2 grid for combining items anywhere, a workbench, which provides a 3x3 grid for crafting, is required for building more complex objects such as tools, fences, and doors.

And suddenly the world opened up to me. It wasn't just a vacant, monotonous expanse; it was a vast and untapped creative goldmine. Literally.

Hour 9: Did I ever tell you about the time that I hollowed out an entire mountain?

So I proceeded to tap it.

I ditched my wooden tools in favor of stone-based ones, which cut through dirt and rocks like butter. Within the span of a few minutes I could build a rough stairway, a small crafting room or an entire house. As time passed I invested more effort in making tunnels that were consistently shaped, well-lit and intuitively structured. I realized I was growing attached to the world I was building

I was the master of my domain, but I was woefully ignorant of what was waiting on the surface.

Hour 12: The dangers of the common creeper

It was at this point that I realized what happens at night in Minecraft. Because I'd immediately climbed into a mountain and created a makeshift building my first night, no enemies were able to track me down for quite some time. But once I'd dug my way back down to the surface, I was in for a rough surprise.

Gone were the placid cows and obnoxious (but harmless) chickens of the daytime. Instead, hordes of zombies, skeleton archers and spiders roamed the hills and valleys of Minecraft, and they were out for blood.

I proceeded to die over and over, losing all my equipment in the process. But at least they couldn't hurt my structures, right?

Wrong. Meet the creeper, a silent enemy that explodes on contact, leaving a crater in its wake.

After my fourth or fifth death, I resolved that I could get by just fine without ever leaving my fortress. And if the surface was going to remain hostile, well, I'd just have to conquer the whole continent from the bottom-up.

Hour 21: Gardener by day, dungeon hunter by night

Crafting became an obsession. I refined rock into smoother stone, expending precious coal for a more pleasant visual style in my buildings. Grand, sloping staircases connected my various buildings. Bridges spanned the sky, connecting my outposts and keeping the riffraff out of my sanctuary.

And I dug deeper and deeper, eventually hitting the unmineable core of the world. Down here were unexpected dangers, including portals that spew out monster after monster, but there were also rare jewels and valuable minerals to collect. I outfitted myself with armor, left my valuables in a series of secure chests, and descended into the depths to take back what was mine.

For a game with no overt purpose or narrative, I sure knew exactly what I needed to do. I cleared out dungeons, built extravagant fortresses, and crafted the finest objects attainable.

But even then, it felt like something was missing.

Hour 29: Taking it online

It turns out that one of my friends has been hosting a Minecraft server for quite a while. By the time I first logged on, there were already elaborate skyscrapers, hollowed-out mountains and a massive system of intricate "deep roads" connecting each person's structures.

My contributions started out humble: a bridge here, a tunnel there. But soon my imagination began to get the better of me, and my half-hour play sessions stretched well into the night in a series of lengthy, Civilization-like benders.

I tested the limits of the game engine. Would it be possible to build a massive glass tower that stretches from the planet's core up above the clouds? Could I construct a series of bizarre signs that float in midair to weird out the other folks on the server? And of course, the age-old question: Can I build a gargantuan stone phallus that erupts lava (beside the fact that I'm far too old for a joke like that to be considered appropriate)? The answer: Absolutely -- but it's gonna take a while.

So for a few weeks, that was how I was spending my evenings: constructing crude objects in an archaic-looking game world until the sun was almost up.

And that's when I started to worry.

Hour 50+: The future of Minecraft

Money's tight right now, so I had to make sure the games I bought over the last few months would last me for a good length of time. In this regard, StarCraft II and Civilization V were both excellent investments. But I haven't played either of them in weeks because of Minecraft.

If anything, Minecraft is too much entertainment for the money. It enables almost-unbridled creativity on a massive scale for less money than the average Xbox Live Arcade game. But if you're the sort of person who can recall the grim reality of "just a few more minutes" with The Sims or Civilization, beware: Minecraft will suck you in, and you're going to have a hell of a time leaving it alone.

But if you value great new ideas and supporting the little guy, and if a gaming platform that's designed to allow players to express themselves creatively sounds right up your alley, Minecraft is an absolute necessity.

Just be sure to set an alarm in the real world before you go in.