Efficiency is a word that’s often hailed as that special thing everyone should try to achieve. When I teach technology-related classes, efficiency is a word tossed around by most undergrads when we ask them about the characteristics of technological systems. I often get annoyed by that, but I don’t blame them. How could I? Nowadays, we’re surrounded by examples of efficiency at work.
Efficiency is also a big part of gaming. Video games teach us that there’s usually an optimal, Taylorized, path that can be taken, and that it’s always possible to backtrack in order to find that path, either through in-game mechanics or by reloading a saved game. This particular efficiency-based mindset is one of the main obstacles faced by designers who want to implement interesting morality systems in their games. After all, if you can just go back and change your choice – either diegetically or not – then what does morality matter? Where are the consequences of your actions? This is not an easy problem to solve.
I’ve encountered this problem during table-top role-playing sessions as well. When we first began playing, certain members of our gaming group had trouble making decisions because, when playing D&D, there’s no turning back, and there’s no saved game to reload. Once you make a decision, you have to live with it without knowing if it’s the most efficient one you could have made.
Thinking of efficiency as an obstacle might be a strange thing to do. After all, efficiency isn’t that bad of a thing, is it? I mean, it often makes things a lot easier, it gives us more opportunities, and provides us with a wider array of choices. However, sometimes, the search for efficiency can lead into very strange directions.
To illustrate this point, I’d like to tell you the story of Minecraft and the Castle of Uncomfortable Contraptions.
Gaines and I play a lot of Minecraft. To us, it’s a way to connect with friends and have a good laugh when it isn’t always possible to get together. I started playing Minecraft on PC during its beta, and then moved to the Xbox 360 version in order to be able to game with my friends. Now, a lot of us are migrating to the Playstation 4 and we’ll likely continue playing Minecraft on that platform.
Over the years, we’ve specialized in the kinds of duties that we performed. We’ve become more efficient. Gaines likes to fight monsters and explore. I like to build railways. Jon likes to grow food. Our Minecraft worlds are like little microcosms of things that don’t appear to be related to one another.
Our journey into Minecraft began innocently enough. We were wide-eyed youth marveling at the new possibilities offered by the game. Okay, maybe not, but we nonetheless had a lot of fun playing.
Game Island: The Innocent Beginnings
We’ll dub our first world Game Island. It was a largely aquatic world populated by several small islands surrounding a larger one. We established our base to the southwest, one an island dominated by plains.
Each island had a different geological characteristics, so we simply – and efficiently – named each one accordingly: Desert Island, Mountain Island, Forest Island, and Plains Island. Game Island was different. It was a pristine, untouched, stretch of land that was reserved for various games we held for our friends.
In the Game Island world, we began experimenting. Gaines built his first Monster Spawner™, Jon constructed his first automated farm, I made my first dock and railroad.
Since it was a world of islands, we decided that the best – the most efficient – way to move about way using rail. We found a good – efficient – rail station design online and began using it. This particular design allowed for an in-track and an out-track, and was able to switch carts from one track to the other. After a while, we established eight different stations connecting all the islands of our world.
Eventually, we began refining the station design. Because of positioning, some stations got bigger, contained more tracks. Instead of two tracks, some stations now had four. The biggest station, Game Island Station, was a behemoth with overlapping bridges, eight different tracks, and two connected transfer points. It was a marvel of engineering to behold.
Game Island was a purer, more idyllic world. It was our first world, and contained little of the extravagances for which later worlds would be known.
Shroom World: Innocence Sullied
We created a new world after 4J Studios added strongholds and mushroom biomes to the game. Dubbed Shroom World, this world’s saw efficiency reach new peaks.
Rail remained our primary mode of transportation throughout this world. However, Game Island had taught us two things: 1) land rails must be protected by fences, and 2) underwater rails are tedious and dangerous to build. In Shroom World, we circumvented this problem by building lighted cobblestone skyways on which our tracks would be built, thereby efficiently bypassing both issues.
In Shroom World, we established our base by simply building a wall around an existing village and appropriating its existing structures. After all, it’s much more efficient to use the buildings already there than to build new ones, right?
That isn’t to say that we didn’t add things. I mean, most of our group was born in the early to mid-1980s and watched Saturday morning cartoons, so it’s perhaps not a surprise that our first use of the new biome was to turn mushrooms into elaborately crafted houses.
Jon had larger ambitions than I. He built a multi-level mushroom house topped with its own outdoor mushroom pool. He later added one to my own house.
In Shroom World, we also began experimenting with scale. Our structures began taking our gargantuan proportions. Gaines’ Monster Spawner™ was bigger – more efficient – than ever, Jon’s Melonator® – a complex, automated, efficient, self-reproducing melon farm – started taking shape, and my docks now included water elevators and multiple levels.
Shroom World’s stronghold was also efficiently exploited. It was remodeled to hold a train station, a large melon farm, several hidden rooms, and wooden cat. None of us remembers why the cat was build, but it takes up an entire room in the stronghold.
Maybe it’s just a diversion for the hidden room located underneath it. However, the stronghold’s efficient use of space meant that the only place where an entrance to said hidden room could be located involved one of the cat’s most uncomfortable orifices.
Shroom World was also the first world where our mutual friend Nate joined us. Rather than using the world’s existing facilities and making use of the resources we had already mined, Nate decided to crown himself King in the North by establishing his mountain base at the northeastern edge of the map. Our natural response to this rather inefficient use of the game world was to isolate his land by surrounding a good 20% of the map with a gigantic wall of lava. After this, Candice, Gaines’ life partner and occasional player, began referring to Nate as the Dark Lord.
Before plunging into our penultimate world, the one housing the Castle of Uncomfortable Contraptions, I was to talk about another aspect of efficiency. Namely, the way griefing evolved as we played.
A Brief Interlude: Griefing
Griefing – in a friendly among-friends manner – was always present during our time playing Minecraft. The art was quickly mastered by Gaines, who began with simple lava and water falls, but expanded his craft by building hidden mini-Monster Spawners™ above our houses. His finest moment, however, was perhaps when we walked around with a pack of 12 tamed wolves, knowing that they would 1) corner us in ways that would make it difficult for us to move, and 2) viciously attack us if we hit but one of them. A most efficient way to grief.
Needless to say, we countered his efforts in various ways. The pack-of-wolves tactic was dealt with by setting the ground on fire in front of a wandering wolf. After it burst into flames – and didn’t maul us because we hadn’t technically attacked it – it began tackling the other wolves, thereby setting them on fire. We thought it was a very efficient way to solve that particular issue until we realized that the flaming wolves were running around our mini-base and torching our underground tree farm. Maybe not the most efficient way to do things, but hilarious nonetheless.
One of Jon and I’s better efforts at counter-griefing involved a monster trap, railroads, and lava. You see, Gaines loves building things that spawn monsters. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this love is the 62,000+ block Monsters Spawner Ultra™ he built for the Castle of Uncomfortable Contraptions, but sometimes he builds lesser contraptions that allow us to safely kill mobs for experience.
One of his more successful – and efficient – efforts involved two cave spider spawners, one zombie spawner, and a rail system that activated the whole thing and funneled the mobs in a space where they could be safely killed and their experience harvested.
One day, Jon and I decided that it would be amusing to sabotage this particular experience farm. We build a large hole, filled it with lava, and diverted the rail track so that it would drop Gaines into said hole. Needless to say, the results were satisfying.
The Castle of Uncomfortable Contraptions: Innocence Lost
Our journey into Minecraft continues with perhaps our ultimate expression of efficiency, The Castle of Uncomfortable Contraption. When we built it, our motives were pure. However, as you’ll see, our increasingly rabid search for efficiency lead us – albeit unknowingly – down dark alleys. For some reason, everything we built in this world became tainted in some way.
It began innocently enough with Gaines’ gargantuan 62,000+ block Monster Spawner Ultra™. One day, Jon, Nate, and I were playing and we noticed two things: 1) the game lagged incredibly, and 2) there were no mobs anywhere, even at night. Eventually, we discovered that Gaines’ creation had spawned dozens of hostile mobs, all of which were now overlapping in an area the size of a closet. Jon and I took it upon ourselves to save the world by quickly disabling the giant spawner and annihilating the sea of zombies, skeletons, and spiders. In commemoration, we build oversized monuments to ourselves.
The journey towards darkness continues with Jon’s Melonator 10000 X-Treme Edition®. A multi-level contraption solely dedicated to producing copious amounts of melons, the Melonator 10000 was a labyrinthine cube of dirt, redstone, pistons, and waterfalls. Unfortunately, it had the unfortunate side-effect of drowning any neutral mob that inadvertently ventured into it. As such, the Melonator 10000 was a very efficient purveyor of pork chops.
The Castle itself contained many of our darker contraptions. For instance, it housed our egg production facility, which basically involved chickens caged over a waterfall. When the chickens lay eggs, the eggs are safely transported down the waterfall and can be easily collected.
The Castle also houses our snow production facility. You see, we always surround our base with a wall to protect ourselves from hostile mobs. Usually, the wall is made out of some kind of easily obtainable stone. However, for this world, I decided to build the wall out of snow.
There’s no quick – efficient – way to gather large amounts of snow. One can either find an artic biome and mine every snow-covered block available, and then wait for new snow to fall to replenish the supply, or else build snow golems and mine the snow left by their movement.
I decided that the former way was too slow, so I went with the latter. However, I needed a very, very large quantity of snow so I needed a way to make the harvesting more efficient. My solution was to trap a single snow golem on a single elevated block so that I could easily, and repeatedly harvest the snow that would continuously be deposited on the single cube. With proper angling and placement, it was possible to efficiently harvest hundreds of snow balls per minute. A most efficient design.
However, to anyone watching, the mining animation coupled with the placement of the players involved looked like my avatar was very efficiently pleasuring a very happy golem indeed. Definitely not my finest hour.
As I said before, railroads have been a part of all our Minecraft worlds, and this one is no exception. It boasts a gigantic network centered around the world’s origin that spans the entire map. It also includes the single largest closed track we’ve built.
Gaines decided to build a roller-coaster ride. When completed, it possessed five side-by-side tracks that allowed us to race around a large portion of the world. However, it was later revealed that the entire ride was constructed in such a way as to provide the riders opportunities to shoot one another with arrows in a last-man-standing type event.
This world was the first one where I abandoned railroads in favor of waterways. My largest construction project involved a huge suspended boat racing track composed many turns, uphill sections, and large drops. However, the track was never finished and ended abruptly in such a way that caused the death of anyone using it.
With the latest update we started a brand new world, the one on which we currently play. As far as worlds go, it’s rather low key. Sure, it possesses towers, railroads, and a monster spawner, but these are nowhere near the scale they had previously been in our other worlds. The search for efficiency is now behind us.
It’s an idyllic world where we try to live in harmony with nature. We make it our duty to protect the villagers from threats and to ensure their proper expansion. To accomplish this, we surrounded the surviving village with a high cobblestone wall and built plenty of new housing to ensure proper villager procreation.
To ensure the village’s survival, we’ve imprisoned a few villagers below a house. They’re well treated though, and the other villagers frequently visit them, turning said house into the village’s most frequented conjugal trailer and love hotel.
Well, sadly, maybe our search for efficiency isn’t quite over yet.