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To Worship Minecraft

This week, whilst still being ravaged by second hand psychoactive fumes, I was anticipating a visit from my young nephew and so attempted to get back into Minecraft once again.

It turns out to be a fairly awkward time to do that, because Minecraft is at version 1.8.4, but the bigger mods have yet to really make the transition to this version.  The basics are here, such as Forge (the most popular mod framework), Not Enough Items (which provides in-game reference to items and crafting recipes), and Inventory Tweaks (which does what it says on the tin).   But if you want to do any serious overhaul mods, such as Applied Energistics or Thaumcraft, you will need to play Minecraft version 1.7.10, probably via the Feed The Beast launcher.

I ended up trying a few new mods from that latest Feed The Beast packs and, of those, Botania got the most time from me.

Botania is basically weaponized flower arrangement: 
  • Some flowers ("Generating Flora") gather magical energy via means unique to each flower type. For example, Dayblooms simply generate a trickle of mana from being in sunlight, while Munchdews will chew the foliage off trees.
  • This mana is shot through a network of placed mana spreader blocks to where you want the mana, most frequently a mana pool.
  • Mana pools provide energy for the working flowers ("functional flora") to perform a task unique to each flower type.  For example, a Bellethorne will convert mana into damaging nearby monsters, making your base considerably safer.  A Hopperhock will teleport loose items laying nearby into a nearby storage container.  Combine them, and you have an easy farming arrangement.
  • On top of this, there is a goodly amount of nifty weapons and items to use.  Mana tablets allow you to carry around mana you absorb from mana pools.  If any have any mana left in a carried mana tablet, it will be used to automatically repair any Manasteel (iron equivalent) or Elementium (diamond equivalent) equipment, for which you can expect to find the usual array of armor pieces, tools, and weapons available.
Overall, I think Botania is an example of a well-designed Minecraft mod, and this is why I spent so much time with it.  What I like the most about it is that it pays special attentions to aesthetics: flowers are fairly genre-neutral (you can expect to find them on any life-bearing planet) and creating networks of flowers to generate energy essentially incentivizes players to create nifty magical displays from gorgeous (by Minecraft standards) living flowerbeds.  (In case you are curious: the 5-year-old nephew mostly just wanted to create abominations in the Necromancy mod.  To each his own.)
However, game balance is an ever-dicey thing, and when you approach the average "mod pack" that Feed The Beast provides, it is a fair assertion that balance is well and truly screwed in this all-inclusive attitude in modpack design.  What am I supposed to make out of the idea that several mods revolve around the idea of collecting "mana" to perform chores, but with radically different concepts of what "mana" is, what must be done to obtain it, and what costs and consequences are associated with performing the same tasks?

For example, Thaumcraft has a much more stingy balance; you have to jump through quite a few hoops to get your hands on golems that can do what Bellethrones or Hopperhocks do; if I had to go with "most balanced game-enhancing mod," Thaumcraft gets my vote.  Few mods really do the whole, "sunlight generates energy" thing anymore after seeing what happened when Equivalent Exchange did that, because sunlight is not a limited resource and you do zero work to collect it, you should never give the player rewards for doing nothing, and even the passage of time is not a significant effort when this is happening on a server while the players are probably not even playing most of the time.  At least Botania mitigates the balance impact of having large stores of "mana" to mostly eliminating wear and tear on items, whereas Equivalent Exchange would allow you to generate diamonds... actually, nevermind.

The answer is simply that these mods were never intended to be balanced in anything but each original creator's vision of balance; there is no standardization commission for Minecraft mod balancing, so there is no need to be surprised that mod packs that throw several mods together are fundamentally unbalanced.
We used to call energy-generating block arrangements in Equivilent Exchange "Power flowers," but what do you call them when the individual blocks themselves are already power-generating flowers?
Along the line of conjecture related to how the details of mods can impact players' enjoyment of the game, I think an interesting thing happens when you compare how players approach mods in creative mode versus survival mode. In creative mode, you can obtain the blocks instantly, experiment to see what they do, and move on.  In survival mode, you must toil to obtain the necessary resources to create the blocks, go through an crafting ritual (often with unique crafting blocks) to create the item, and then finally hold aloft the finished spoil of this awesome new block.  Hard work leads to increased reverence of the same gameplay element, and this enhances the enjoyment of having it.

In coming up with the genome for enjoyable games, this "hard work yields greater significance" aspect of gameplay is an important consideration.  In pondering it further, I believe it has much to do with willing suspension of disbelief.  From the perspective of survival mode, the creative mode in Minecraft is essentially destruction of your suspension of disbelief: you are just cheating to get everything because, "Who cares?  It's just a game."  But when you play seriously in survival mode to achieve the same aims, you are willfully choosing to believe that these game pieces have greater significance.  (Unless maybe you do not suspend disbelief when you play in survival mode... in which case, it is really no wonder you are bored!)

For a fellow who holds virtual worlds as being the most interesting thing in computer games, the power of suspension of disbelief is a vital.   Without it, a virtual world is just a shoddy imitation at worst, a simulation at best.  A virtual world that is engineered to get players to believe in it has powerful potential to make the players feel "fished in" by the happenings is genuinely compelling.  Shoddy balance, cheaters, and influence from real money trade are each a form of invasion by the one thing that can destroy our suspension of disbelief the quickest: reality.


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