20 hours later, I have come away from Terraria with a renewed appreciation of just how wrong it would be to call it "Minecraft in 2D." So much so, in fact, that I'd like to muse for a while about how they differ while still fitting into the broader worldshaper genre. These thoughts are in reaction to my own experiences playing both games, and I don't think they are by any means exhaustive of the meaningful differences between the two.
The huge, huge difference that everybody instantly notices, of course, is that Minecraft is a fully 3D game (more so in fact than many other games with 3D graphics, since the gameplay is also truly 3D), while Terraria is absolutely grounded in two dimensions, graphically and systematically. As I consider the differences between the design of both games, I have come to see just how important this difference is in shaping the gameplay as well as the graphics.
Construction, Crafting, and Progress
When I first started playing Minecraft, one of the things that struck me was how naturalistic the game's progress felt. Progress, in Minecraft, is not moving from one scene to another along a linear path; it is the slow, organic increase of one's abilities and resources, every step forward made possible by the last. You go from having no tools to having wooden tools, which allow you to craft stone tools, which allow you to craft iron tools, and so on. You go from having no food sources to having access to a tiny farm that grows and grows as you harvest it, and exploration uncovers new crops for you to use. Your base goes from being a hole in the ground to being a respectable house, to becoming a town or fortress with its own mining operations, docks, and so on. On the surface, Terraria is little different; the various tiers of weapons and tools build off of one another, and achieving each tier of assets widens the scope of your possibilities while rendering your oldest assets and tools useless.
At least one difference, to me, was how different the role of architecture in that progress felt. In Minecraft, building the grand physical shell of one's base feels like the primary accomplishment; in Terraria, base-building feels like an annoying formality that must be dealt with in order to continue exploring, exploiting and growing in strength. The extra dimension Minecraft features plays a huge role in this; it allows us to reproduce structures that are familiar to us and that take full advantage of our ability to make clever plans, while Terraria's limited range of options mostly reduces us to constructing an optimized series of boxes for storage, crafting and NPC habitation. If that sounds harsh, it is; base-building, to me at least, is much less fun in Terraria than in Minecraft.
I don't know whether it's related or not, but Terraria's crafting and gear progression system is much, much more involving and motivating than Minecraft's. In Minecraft it's the opposite; finding better gear and resources is an annoying obstacle in the way of building a glorious, self-sufficient fortress of solitude. In Terraria, though, the main draw is all about the gear and character progression, much like in many MMORPGs and ARPGs. I dread starting a Minecraft game where I need to spend hours building up a basic ability to gather all the resources I need, but I relished the chance to dive into Terraria and work the mines and the mobs to get gear that's just a little bit better. Currently I have just forged a Molten Pickaxe and am trying to gather enough Hellstone bars for a suit of Molten armor and a Flamarang; and there are still several tiers of weapons above that. I don't doubt that when my power eventually plateaus, I will lose interest in the game, but what a ride it will have been.
|Journeying through Hell, for fun and profit.|
Terraria's sense of progress, then, mirrors that of well-established genres like MMORPGs, with progressively better armor and weapon tiers. While Minecraft's crafting system pays lip service to this idea, the item tiers are much more incidental to the game's sense of progress, and the constant degradation of items makes the power obtained by superior item tiers feel ephemeral. Minecraft's sense of progress, to me, seems to more closely mirror that of strategy games, where progress involves expanding your effective territory and improving the infrastructure you have access to; it feels more naturalistic than Terraria's, but it is also less clearly defined and qualified.
Combat in Two and Three Dimensions
Both games feature combat against a variety of enemies; however, for a number of reasons, I think it is fair to say that combat plays a different set of roles in each game, though those sets may occasionally overlap.
In Minecraft, the third dimension adds a huge, huge amount of difficulty to melee and ranged combat, when compared to Terraria. Simply aiming at an enemy becomes a challenge in some cases, especially when you are attacked from behind. Minecraft has enemies attacking you from all directions all axes of 3D movement - and half of your surroundings are invisible at any given time. You need to find your enemy and strike at them, and if you are swarmed, hitting several at once simply isn't an option.
Compare this to Terraria, which features exactly two attack directions in melee - left and right. You can mow down enemies efficiently by constantly swinging a broadsword, or even a pickaxe. It is extremely difficult to suddenly get overwhelmed in Terraria, except during a Goblin Siege, since you can see enemies coming from all around you and can't really be taken by surprise.
Ranged combat, too, is much simpler in 2D, in that you really only have to aim up and down. Additionally, Terraria doesn't feature bow charging times, so you essentially click to fire; the number of throwable weapons is also considerable. I fact, in the early Minecraft game, it can be difficult to come across arrows without access to tons of gravel and chickens, and one might tend to use them conservatively as a result; arrows in Terraria, on the other hand, are dirt cheap.
For a number of reasons, then, Terraria makes combat something that is more alluring to the player, whereas Minecraft makes it something that is more of a solution to a difficult problem.
The Economics of Combat
Durability is another factor with broad-ranging implications both in combat and in other areas of the game. Weapons and tools in Minecraft degrade over time, meaning you need to constantly craft them to maintain your progress, and defending yourself from attack becomes a cost-benefit analysis; can I afford to degrade my bow in order to kill these enemies, since I have a hard time coming across string, or try to melee everything with cheap swords? Do I really need to let them get within scratching distance of my expensive diamond armor? Occasionally, such as if you use all your stone and then break your last pickaxe, you are even demoted down the technological tree to more primitive tools.
None of this is true in Terraria, where your weapons and tools remain until they are made obsolete by better ones (except in the case of ammunition). The risk of death is the only cost of combat. The result is that Minecraft, as an experience, more strongly encourages you to be timid in your use of tools and weapons than Terraria, even when it eventually becomes very easy to craft most of those tools, because merely using them incurs a penalty.
In short, combat in Minecraft is tense, fearful, and heavily influenced by economic considerations. I die out here, can I get back to my stuff before it disappears? Should I try to melee that creeper even though he's standing next to my wall? What if my bow breaks now, and I need it later? Can I afford to put on my diamond armor and let it degrade?
Combat in Terraria is the main focus of the crafting and economic system, though; it generally does not negatively impact that system (unless you die and lose your things), and it encourages the player to participate by making combat easy, methodical and relatively risk-free.
Torches and Fear
|Stumbling across this was scary. Also, I was killed 30 seconds later.|
Another small difference with big consequences: torches in Terraria are much, much easier to craft in massive quantities than in Minecraft. Minecraft torches require coal or charcoal, which are somewhat rare and require sacrificing other very useful applications. Coal can be used to smelt tons of metal or other materials, and logs, instead of being turned to charcoal, can be converted into highly useful wood. Sticks, too, are widely useful.
In Terraria, on the other hand, torches are made with regular wood, which has relatively few uses other than extensive decorating, a limited number of crafting stations, and doors; and gel, which is dropped by the absolutely bloody prolific Slimes that constantly harass the player, and only has a few niche uses beyond torches. The end result is that I run out of torches in Minecraft much more often than in Terraria, where I regularly have 50+ torches on me at any given moment while spelunking.
So what? Well, when combined with Minecraft's infinite terrain, three dimensions and human-scale graphics, the relative rarity or expense of torches helps make the world a heck of a lot scarier. At any moment you could turn a corner in the tunnels and run into a creeper or a poison spider spawner just beyond your sight, and you need a lot of torches to cover the meandering, confusing tunnels that you discover underground. In Terraria, the world is confined to two dimensions, players can see through walls, and they can plant torches along almost every square inch if they want to, removing the threat of darkness easily and quickly.
The result is that in Terraria, you have a much stronger feeling of mastering the world. than in Minecraft, where that mastery feels tenuous and confined; no matter what you have accomplished in Minecraft, you are sitting on the edge of wilderness and danger. This means that the player's arc, from powerless to powerful, is much more clearly defined by how the player can change the world in Terraria than in Minecraft.
The various mechanics I talked about above (two- and three-dimensional construction and combat, durability, the crafting recipes of torches), and many more, help make the two games very different, despite their shared "The world is a grid of blocks you can change at a whim!" premise.
Neither approach is better in a broad sense, of course; without a particular and limited set of criteria to measure them against, they are merely different. But the mechanics in question do influence the kind of experience the game ends up being, and future designers of worldshapers or other sandboxes ought to consider such differences when targeting a certain kind of experience or player. The number of dimensions you choose to set your game in matters for more than aesthetic reasons; implementing durability can have a huge impact on how the world's systems feel and interact; the crafting recipes of various objects gives them rarity and places them in antagonistic relationships to other recipes or gameplay systems.
While I continue to explore both games, I am most eager to see what future games descended from the Minecraft-driven worldshaper boom do (though at this point, the first wave of post-Minecraft worldshapers and similar, such as Terraria and Towns, are also contributing to the inspiration). Starbound is raking in cash with their pre-order page, Stonehearth just surpassed its Kickstarter goals in 3 days, and Castle Story is now in beta. Assuming the overall continued health of the PC as a gaming platform, worldshapers look like they have a bright future ahead of them.
If anybody else reading has played both Terraria and Minecraft, what are your thoughts on the differences between the two, and how they relate to the genre they are in? I'd be interested in hearing about other differences that I overlooked here.
Addendum - The Power of the Wiki
Perhaps the saddest point of comparison of both games, from my perspective, is how strongly reliant on their respective wikis they both are; this is a huge point for future entries into the worldshaper or sandbox genres can improve on. Arguably, less static content in Minecraft means that you more quickly get beyond needing the wiki in that game, while it will probably accompany you through Terraria till you do all there is to be done. But in both cases, I frequently find myself alt-tabbing out of the game to go read the wiki; heck, I only managed to get interested in seriously playing Terraria by reading the wiki.
Nowhere in either game is there some kind of indication as to the possible things you can build. I would never have guessed there was Jungle Armor in Terraria, or a Daylight Detector in Minecraft. Terraria at least could plausibly be said to allow accidental discovery, because merely standing next to the right crafting table with the right materials is enough to see the crafting option; but this ignores the limited size of Terraria's inventory, and how quickly it fills up. I dump all non-essential loot into chests as soon as possible to avoid clogging my inventory while out exploring, which makes it hard to accidentally stumble onto crafting recipes. Minecraft is even worse, because the layout of the items is key to the recipe; you would need to actively try random combinations to discover things.
This is unfortunate, because it is, at least to me, immersion-breaking. Every time I alt-tab to the wiki, I am reminded that this is a program running on my computer rather than a virtual world I am exploring. The game feels incomplete. I hope that future worldshaper games are less extensively reliant on external wikis, though of course good wikis are almost always a useful supplement to any game.