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Before Fortnite and PUBG, there was Minecraft Survival Games
Ask a dozen different people when the first battle royale emerged, and chances are, you'll get a dozen different answers. Some will say it was DayZ: Battle Royale, others will highlight earlier deathmatch games like Dyna Blaster. A true pedant could technically point to the use of "battel royal" to describe cockfights and fistfights in 17th century England - although even here, the jury seems to be out on whether the term originates from cockfighting or fistfighting. Now that's a chicken and egg situation.
It's a tricky thing to pin down, as there's plenty of debate over what constitutes a battle royale, with many of the rules overlapping with other game modes. If you take the strictest possible approach to tracing current-day popular battle royales to their roots, however, you'll probably land at Brendan "PlayerUnknown" Greene's mod for DayZ in 2013. Essentially a mod of a mod, DayZ: Battle Royale led to Daybreak's H1Z1 and Greene's standalone title PUBG, with the latter exploding in popularity and launching battle royales into the mainstream. Then, of course, came Fortnite: which recently celebrated reaching 350m registered players.
Yet before all of these, there was a smaller - but not insignificant - battle royale boom elsewhere. And it came in the form of the Minecraft Survival Games.
First emerging in early 2012, the Minecraft Survival Games (or "Hunger Games") was more of a community movement than a single title. Coinciding with an increase in Minecraft's popularity on YouTube, MSG has since been credited with helping start the Minecraft PvP server boom - and even launching entire companies. At its height, MSG pulled in thousands of players on third-party servers, and millions of views on YouTube. But perhaps most intriguing is the way the Minecraft community grappled with the challenges of designing a battle royale long before bigger studios tried their hand. Although some game balance issues were never truly resolved, the community came up with dozens of quirky solutions to the problems, with creators borrowing ideas from each other or splintering off to create wacky variations on the original MSG rules. A decentralised development process, if you will.
Subsequent battle royales may not have continued directly from MSG, yet it's still a fascinating branch of the battle royale tree that too often gets overlooked. And to those involved in MSG, it certainly left an important legacy.
While MSG eventually evolved into a sprawling collection of game modes within the Minecraft community, the phenomenon stemmed from the work of one mapmaking team. In March 2012, the first Hunger Games film was released, planting the idea of a 24-player battle to the death in one YouTuber's head.
"I saw [the film] early and understood that a concept like that could work in Minecraft," Dennis Vareide told me over email. "So after a week or so with building and planning we made the first map and I released it on my YouTube channel."
Vareide was already known for his fan-made Minecraft trailer (which was eventually used by Mojang as the official trailer), and his team of mapmakers - recruited from community forums - had grown to a healthy size by the time the Hunger Games was released. They were perfectly placed to convert the idea into a game mode, and while some early attempts created the look of a Hunger Games arena, Team Vareide constructed a fully-working map with online play in mind.
Some things were kept the same as the Hunger Games series; including the cap of 24 players, and the central Cornucopia where players would start and could find the best loot, creating a tense scramble for goodies. Team Vareide also spiced things up by dotting hidden chests, puzzles and traps around the map. The group even created a ruleset for players to follow, including limits on which blocks could be broken or placed, and how the host (basically a referee) could add more loot or enemies after the second day. For the name, the team simply switched "Hunger" with "Survival" to reflect the Survival mode in Minecraft. Little did they know, this format would lay the foundations for an entire game mode in the Minecraft community.
"When we first started playing the map ourselves for testing, I immediately understood that we were on to something - because it was really fun," Vareide added. "I did not [know] that it would almost become its own very dedicated community within Minecraft and everything that followed with it."
And take off it did, as Vareide's video immediately gained traction, accumulating nearly 200,000 views in two weeks. According to Vareide, the map soon became the most-downloaded PvP map on Planet Minecraft, a key website for map downloads at the time. Perhaps more importantly, Vareide's map became a phenomenon in the wider Minecraft YouTube community. Survival Games arrived on YouTube at an ideal time, coinciding with an algorithm change on 15th March 2012 that favoured Minecraft let's play videos (which were long, could be produced quickly, and kept viewers returning with an ongoing narrative). By May 2015, Minecraft had taken over YouTube to the extent that 14 videos on the YouTube homepage were Minecraft-related.
Yet the mode was a hit itself, with well-known names such as Nooch and Bajan Canadian recording matches in early April 2012, while Machinima and iHasCupQuake organised a tournament later that month with YouTubers like Paul Soares Jr and SeaNanners. CaptainSparklez's perspective alone was viewed 1.7m times in one month, and today sits at a tidy 11.5m views. The game mode's format also meant viewers could hop between channels to view each participant's view - making it an ideal way for viewers to find new Minecraft YouTubers.
"I knew there were going to be a lot of people looking up my perspective, because obviously I'd won the game," Taylor "AntVenom" Harris, winner of the legendary first iHasCupQuake match, told me over Discord. "I think [my] channel had maybe 200,000 subscribers at the time, and it really rocketed the channel."
Yet beyond establishing the game mode in the community, the early YouTube matches also exposed some of Survival Games' inherent problems. With most of the good loot placed at the centre, and with all players starting at the same place, many would immediately battle at this hotspot - causing some unlucky players to have very short matches, or leaving those who ran away without much equipment. The main issue, however, was that nobody could find each other. Without a closing circle like in PUBG, there was no mechanism to force players into a final battle. In AntVenom's match, the host resorted to manually spawning Ghasts to herd the final players together. By Vareide's own admission, the map team hadn't thought much about balance on the first maps, explaining they were "way too big" with "not enough loot". Thankfully, Team Vareide then went on to create seven more Survival Games maps, with the second (a vast decaying city) designed to be "as epic as possible", and the third and fourth designed with gameplay in mind, with "smaller maps, traps and creative parkour".
The development of the Survival Games wasn't solely down to the work of Team Vareide, as the transition from private matchmaking to publicly-hosted matchmaking brought servers into the fray. Automating the matchmaking process meant players could join games easily, rule enforcement was no longer handled by individual hosts, and matches could include more advanced features like randomised loot in chests. Those I spoke to described the early days of Survival Games matchmaking as "primitive at best", requiring players to log into a website and copy an IP address before entering a game - but minigame servers such as MCGamer Network, founded by Chad Dunbar in April 2012, were eventually able to streamline the process.
"MCGamer originally started off with Survival Games, and SG was always its bread and butter," MCGamer developer Ava told me. "A lot of people initially flocked to the server because we had the first fully automated Survival Games system - something that was in pretty high demand as content creators started creating hype for the new type of PvP gameplay."
By mid-2013 MCGamer had converted to a hub system, allowing players to enter a lobby world, see the status of multiple running minigames, and join them by hitting a sign - instead of having to join through a more clunky server list. Dozens of community-made maps were accepted into official rotation, and each had the ability to shape gameplay in their own unique ways. By the time MCSG shut down earlier this year, 100 maps had been uploaded to the server. MCGamer also released a ground-up rewrite of the software powering the Survival Games in early 2013, dubbed "MCSG v2". This was partially done to resolve "deep architectural issues with the original codebase", Ava explained, but MCGamer also took the opportunity to make sweeping balance changes. "We entirely reworked our loot tables [and] chest tiering to make the game more exciting, and after a few minor adjustments, the change was a huge boon," she added. "I've heard even from our former competitors that our new loot tables universally set the bar for SG balance for quite a long time."
Many servers adopted a system where chests would provide different tiers of loot, creating hotspots and loot opportunities outside of the Cornucopia. Players could learn which chests provided certain items, and follow their own "chest routes" around the maps. MCGamer put its own twist on this by randomising the content in tier three chests (the highest tier) to provide a mix of RNG and preset loot for those following routes. The Hive chose to randomise most chest locations, but epic items were placed in preset locations to create hotspots. In later variations, chests would refill mid-match to solve the loot distribution issues, providing another burst of excitement and driving players back to these hotspots. By May 2014, Mineplex had introduced supply drops that dropped every night, and were announced with coordinates in the chat. Naturally, the drops promised high-level loot... if you were prepared for a fight.
On some servers, meanwhile, the problem of a mass bloodbath at the central Cornucopia was tackled with a "grace period" of 20 to 30 seconds, giving players a chance to escape before the slaughter began. This solution wasn't popular with everyone, as some felt it eliminated the risk factor of fighting in the centre.
Beyond the loot and hotspot problems, servers also looked for solutions to force players together as matches progressed. One used by The Hive and Mineplex was to have a final deathmatch once the player count fell to a certain point, triggering a countdown before teleporting the remaining players into a smaller arena. Mineplex, meanwhile, added tracking compasses to the loot pool. These would point towards the position of the nearest player, but only had five uses. Over time, MSG maps gradually became smaller and more dense, with shorter game lengths ensuring players weren't left roaming the wastes in search of victims. The very first games played by YouTubers lasted between 40 minutes to an hour: by 2013 many of these had shortened to about 15 minutes, while modern-day matches on The Hive now last about 10. The average Fortnite match lasts around 20 minutes, if you were wondering.
Despite these improvements, not everyone I spoke to felt all the balance problems were solved. AntVenom noted that you still need to get lucky to find the necessary weapons and armour to take on others, "or you're likely just going to die right away" - a problem he tried to solve on his own server by giving players raw materials they could then craft into loot.
"I really don't like it when someone bombs into the centre, gets lucky with an iron sword, and then gets 20 kills solely because of that, not because of their skill," he added. "That's my only real gripe... but I don't think it's that big of an issue. The luck factor doesn't really define how good someone is, it might define the outcome of a single game."
To be fair to MSG, getting the correct balance of skill and RNG in a battle royale is something even current-day titles like Apex Legends are still trying to get right. And in some ways, MSG's weaknesses - such as the predictability of chest locations and the "chest routes" tactic - very much make up the weird and wonderful character of the mode. This was something I discovered when I dived into a game on The Hive... and found myself on the receiving end of a fishing rod.
"Anyone looking in from the outside would have no idea why fishing rods are used, but that's because it gives a distinct hitbox advantage when you then switch to your sword to hit another person," AntVenom explained. "When you use bows, they have limited ammo, [and your enemies] can pick up your ammo if they don't have any to fire back at you. With a fishing rod, all you need to do is make contact to mess up their hitbox a little bit."
In essence, I was effectively stunned with a fishing rod and then cut up with a sword. That's certainly a tactic.
I think it's fair to say Minecraft was never really designed with competitive PvP in mind, and combat is something Mojang has tried to tweak over the years to add more depth (with a fair amount of controversy). AntVenom insists the combat wasn't simply a matter of mindless spamming, even with the older 1.8 combat system: players had to consider clicks per second, and timing their jumps at the correct time so they wouldn't get knocked back. The old 1.8 PvP system had a quirk where - if your opponent struck the first blow - it would feel like they could be farther away from you and still able to land a hit. Top-tier players had to consider all this, along with how to use fishing rods, aim bows and when to set people on fire with flint and steel.
Beyond these colourful (and often unplanned) quirks, the community also got creative with the basic Survival Games formula, splintering the battle royale's branch into... well, many. Servers introduced their own unique hooks in the same way current battle royales have also tried to corner a slice of the market. MCGamer, for instance, added a sponsor and bounty system to let spectators influence the game they were watching in subtle ways (something that sounds eerily similar to Ubisoft's Hyper Scape).
Some mechanics were far more experimental, with Hypixel and Mineplex introducing "kits" into their games. Kits essentially added themed classes, such as archers and scouts, and let players start with certain weapons, armour and abilities. The kits introduced a form of cross-game progression, and could be upgraded using in-game currency earned through games, kills and wins. The problem, however, was that servers often sold boosters or premium subscriptions that allowed VIP players to earn currency more easily: thus making it easier for paying players to upgrade their kits and gain an in-game advantage. This became part of a broader clash between Mojang and minigame servers, and in June 2014 Mojang stepped in to prevent third-party servers from selling any gameplay-affecting items. Personally, I'd also argue the lack of a level-playing field is probably where the battle royale definition starts to wear a little thin - but apparently some people enjoyed this. Each to their own.
While the popularity of MSG has obviously died off in recent years, MSG matches still gain a surprising amount of interest on YouTube, with 200 players taking part in a charity game only three months ago. Due to the way MSG was spread across several servers, it's hard to say exactly how many people were playing at its peak, but we do have a couple of figures to give us an idea. Ava told me MCGamer peaked in January 2015, at which point there were 7000 concurrent players and over 100,000 unique visitors playing games every day. "Not too bad for a network that was mostly based on SG," she noted. Hive Games owner Youri Kersten believes the mode peaked between 2013 and early 2014, with "many tens of thousands [playing] at the time".
"We even reached those kinds of numbers on our own, and Mineplex existed as well," he added.
It may be significantly less than the dizzying numbers seen by PUBG and Fortnite, sure, but not bad for a community-created game mode. Both AntVenom and Kersten credit MSG with kickstarting the minigame boom in Minecraft, and Kersten told me it was the first minigame that really blew up to become a proper "game in a game experience". The Hive is still going as a successful minigame server and official Minecraft Partner, and as one of the earliest modes on the server, Survival Games effectively helped launch the business. "I'd be lying if I said [otherwise]... it really put everything in motion - without it, I don't think I'd be in my current place," Kersten says.
Given the significance of MSG within the Minecraft community, I was intrigued to find out whether Mojang ever did anything to recognise the mode - or if the developer ever considered absorbing it into the title as an official game mode. For this I spoke to Quinn Richter, head of the Minecraft Marketplace Partner Programme, who said that Mojang was very much aware of MSG - and the team even played the mode together behind the scenes.
"I think servers were the big one that a lot of Mojang really participated in: that was the thing you would do, you would go and have a survival map or server with your friends," Richter says. "Then if you wanted to do one of these massive multiplayer things... you would go to Hypixel or Mineplex or The Hive. And that would be what you'd do for fun, because it was such a cool, different experience."
As for turning MSG into an official mode, Richter believes this wasn't ever considered, as Mojang's focus has always been on empowering its community to be creative. "We haven't ever made a specific inside-Minecraft-battle-royale kind of thing. The closest we have to an official [mode] are our partnered servers on Bedrock, Hive Games is one of those.
"But would I be lying to say that we probably made some design decisions based on [MSG]? How could you not if you're playing those a bunch and seeing what the community is doing."
The reason MSG got such a following, according to those I spoke to, was that it captured the same elements that make current-day battle royales so appealing: long-lasting games where you lose everything on death, and the simplicity of simply dropping into a match and killing other people. "The less you have to explain, the further it'll go on the internet," as AntVenom puts it. The creativity of Minecraft also lent itself to map-making, and meant players could create a huge range of variations on the basic battle royale formula.
But now for the million-dollar question: did MSG actively influence the development of modern battle royales? It's something Minecraft fans have suggested throughout the years, and perhaps there is something in this. "The Minecraft version of battle royales proved that it was fun and popular - at its height it was by far the most popular thing in Minecraft and it had millions of views on YouTube and several large channels built their channels on doing Survival Games," Vareide tells me in response to this question.
"But an Arma 2 mod that was launched sometime after the Survival Games is probably what was the biggest inspiration for H1Z1..."
By this, of course, Vareide is referring to Brendan Greene's work - both his DayZ mod and subsequent work on H1Z1, which was followed by PUBG. To confirm once and for all whether MSG did or did not influence Brendan Greene's work, I contacted PUBG Corp and got the following back:
"Minecraft Survival Games had no influence on Brendan Greene's early work or PUBG. At the time, Brendan's main influence was The Survivor GameZ on the DayZ Mod and he later heard about Minecraft Survival Games after he created DayZ: Battle Royale, which went on to lay the foundation for PUBG."
Well, that settles that. But as Vareide points, the influence of MSG was likely more indirect. It may have seeded the idea of a battle royale among a generation of young Minecrafters who either played or viewed it, while there's a chance those game mechanics influenced later designers (particularly given Fortnite's own building system was partly inspired by Minecraft).
"The way the design process works is you're taking influence from everything you're playing - all the best designers I know are playing new games all the time," Richter says. "So if you're a designer at Infinity Ward making Warzone, and you've played MSG... how could that not seep into your design process?"
Reflecting on MSG's impact on both the battle royale scene and her own life, Ava also felt MCGamer had left an important legacy. "I knew it was pretty big when I was going into it, but I didn't expect it to just keep growing at the pace it did," Ava says. "I was still in high school at the time I joined the development team, so I was struggling to balance the increased demands of the growing game with my grades. MCSG ended up taking priority, much to my parents' dismay at the time...
"Even though we never accumulated massive player counts like many of our competitors did, I think we still did a lot to help pioneer what is today's battle royale genre, with the influence we held from getting in the game early," she added. "I'm still taken a bit off-guard whenever the topic of my past with MCGamer comes up when chatting with friends, and they remind me that I'm likely a part of the reason battle royale games exist today."
While it's hard to say exactly how much MSG influenced current-day battle royales, perhaps we should just focus on celebrating MSG in its own right. The mode garnered a huge amount of interest within the Minecraft community, entertained millions on YouTube, and even helped launch entire companies. Using Minecraft as a base made the battle royale quirky and creative, allowing a vast community to test ideas and discover myriad solutions to battle royale balance problems. For all this, I think it's worth celebrating MSG for what it was - even if it was only an early branch of the battle royale tree.
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