What do Mass Effect, Minecraft and EVE Online have in common? Well, Mass Effect and Minecraft both have magic (effectively); Mass Effect and EVE involve space-based combat; and Minecraft and EVE Online both gain regular acknowledgement outside the dedicated gaming press due to their social aspects and the dense and fascinating metagame. What all three have in common, however, is that they each possess a mechanic built around mining – obviously this is utterly central to Minecraft and one mechanic of many in the other two, but is nevertheless a surprising similarity when one ponders this a moment. We have a third person shooter/RPG, a sandbox game and a global MMO, yet all contain mining. I’ve excluded Dwarf Fortress from this first list, not because mining doesn’t play a part, but because in all the above games you are one character (or at least one account) – you are the one personally doing the mining, even if it is conducted via a ship-based proxy. You are the one controlling the Normandy’s resource-extraction effects, hacking away with your pickaxe in a voxel world, or floating in space whilst your ship’s mining lasers tease away precious minerals from unclaimed asteroids. In games where you cannot delegate the mining to a part of your computer-controlled allies (as in DF) and you have to actively mine yourself, what is the appeal of mining? Why is it there? Does it serve a gameplay function, a thematic one, or some combination of the two? In addition to these three there are hundreds if not thousands of other games with some mechanic involving mining – how did this banal activity become such an apparently ubiquitous part of the modern gaming experience? I believe there are four reasons for this – the first three definitely matter, but it is the fourth which is likely the most essential, which is to say that mining is a method of distributing resources to the player at specific temporal intervals, either entirely, partially or barely controlled by player action and player skill, and to ensure a distribution of resources either according to the stage of the game you’re at, or according to the time invested. But first, let us consider the three lesser functions that mining serves, and in doing so try to shed some light on why something so mundane has somehow become so very ubiquitous.
1) Mining as an easy way for players to feel achievement.
Mining gives players a very basic piece of positive feedback. You see the areas you’ve mined out, or the planets you’ve cleared, or the resources you’ve accrued. Your player character will in turn be better off than when you began the mining activity as a result of the increased resources or money now available to them. Even if absolutely no skill or thought beyond a few mouse clicks or holding down the “mine” button was required (e.g. Minecraft), that can still make you feel like you’ve progressed, moved forward in the game, and placed your character in a superior financial/resource position to where they started the day. This, obviously, is a somewhat lazy way to generate a feeling of achievement; surely achievement should only be felt when you’ve actually overcome a challenge or completed a segment of the game (y’know, when you’ve achieved something) rather than just engaging in an activity which takes nothing except time to complete? Mining may provide you with positive feedback, but it’s positive feedback developed from grinding, not from any real achievement. Nevertheless, I think this is undoubtedly one core appeal of mining; it’s a kind of gradual, iterative, step-by-step progress, one that often requires little engagement, and one which allows the player to settle into a rhythm of simplistic actions and easy rewards.
2) Mining as an uninteresting way to pad out the game.
This aspect pretty much describes itself. There is a reason why lots of Minecraft players don’t bother with mining and just give themselves infinite quantities of every resource – the interest for them lies in what you can build with the resources, rather than having to actually acquire the resources themselves. Mining adds an unnecessary extension to a game. Consider the Mass Effect variation – many players, myself included, find exploring the in-game galaxy inherently enjoyable (I loved the Mako-wandering from ME1), without having to search for resources or items. Although you “need” to mine in order to afford upgrades for your ship and your crew, a moment’s thought will show that the designers could simply make every item in the game cheaper – and scale it to those resources gathered in missions, not via mining – and thereby remove the mining component altogether. It serves absolutely no real purpose other than extending the amount of (grinding) work required to improve your team (and nominally encouraging you to look at some of the pretty planets, but again – this should be interesting in its own right). The aspects of mining from the first point, that it is slow and steady and regular, can thereby be used to extend playtime with minimal effort as well as very easliy inculcating in the player a feeling of progress.
3) Mining as a narrative or thematic tool in the fictional universe.
Whilst I feel very negatively about those first two purposes, I think this one is more forgivable, particularly in the EVE Online context, which is the example I’ll explore here. The ability to mine doesn’t really do anything for the Mass Effect narrative – how and why exactly is the Normandy, a warship, equipped for mining?! – but it does apply to Minecraft in EVE. In Minecraft, of course, mining is integral to the fictional universe, but the EVE online example is richer and deeper. Much of EVE’s literature describes the idea that the entire game world is connected, that there are no free resources, that everything comes from somewhere and goes somewhere else, and therefore some chunk of ore mined by Player #17573 will later be used in a ship by Player #88215 in Corporation #2490 against another ship mined by another player for another corporation, and so forth. Equally, many EVE Online trailers and advertisements play upon variations of “frontier” and survivalist themes – the ability to find your own place to live, carve out your own survival using the natural resources available to you, make and break alliances as you see fit, and be self-sufficient (or team up with others who are then collectively self-sufficient). Mining both emphasizes the interconnectivity of EVE’s universe and the relevance of all actions (however small) to the overall metagame, and plays into the underlying themes of self-reliance, hypercapitalism, and carving out (literally and metaphorically) a place for yourself in the universe. Mining can, therefore, function thematically rather than mechanically/temporally… but it’s much less common.
4) Mining as a game mechanic for managing resource quantity.
Most fundamentally, however, mining is simply a method for resource control, and although we see that in Mass Effect, it is most visible in Minecraft and EVE. In these games mining functions specifically as a method for managing how many resources the player has access to at any given time. In Minecraft, when played in the “survivalist” way it was arguably “meant” to be played, at least when originally released and before the massive growth of the Minecraft community, the player’s acquisition and use of resources is central to the game. Many of these survival game mechanics become entirely irrelevant if/when the player has access to infinite resources (e.g. if playing Minecraft solely to build interesting things), and so the gradual slow progress of mining serves to create difficult and interesting player decisions about what spend these resources on, and when, and how much time they spend acquiring and using resources, and when the player should take greater risks for greater resources (near lava, near monsters), and so on and so forth. In EVE this is even clearer, where mining directly affects how many resources are in flow around the game world, and thereby by slowing this progress but allowing players (and corporations) to improve and optimise that progress through purchasing better mining equipment and committing more to the practice. Equally, by placing more valuable resources in riskier areas, mining becomes a core part of the strategic gameplay, and enables a lot of risk/reward decisions and the ability for battles to be started and initiated on the back of attacking mining fleets, whilst also giving corporations a strong incentive to capture and defend “nullsec” areas of the game world, where there is no NPC police force, but the mining resources are the richest. In both of these cases mining is first and foremost a way to ensure the player has enough resources to act but few enough that interesting decisions are made; to offer risk-reward considerations for resource acquisition and spending; and to manage how much the player has access to, since no matter how skilled a player is, mining still takes time.
These, I think, are the four most central reasons for the massive volume of mining mechanics we see in contemporary games: offering a sense of achievement, somewhat arbitrarily lengthening what might otherwise be a shorter game, presenting a central part of the thematic elements of a game world, and managing the resources the player has access to (this last one has a particularly strong showing in “survival” games). There are, of course, other less common reasons to include mining in games. It can be a totally optional kind of background simulationist mechanic, as in games like NetHack, or it can be a game mechanic that has little to do with resources but everything to do with spatial manoeuvring in the game world, as in Spelunky (and some of the old home computer games that exist further back in its genealogy (Boulder Dash, etc). In all of these cases they have managed to take what seems like a very boring activity and add some extra meaning to it that makes it useful or meaningful to add into a game; naturally the mining in EVE is not quite as thrilling as a close space battle, of course, but its wider strategic-economic significance imbues it with a lot of meaning and a centrality to many game mechanics. In the same kind of way, mining in Mass Effect is not thrilling but does progress the player’s character(s) and gives information about the worlds they visit that flesh out the worldbuilding elements; mining in Minecraft serves a whole range of purposes, being naturally integral to the game, and transforms mining into something that, if not thrilling, at least offers the players something whilst their pixel pickaxe hacks away.
Nevertheless, as I’ve tried to argue here, I don’t think all of these mechanics are inherently desirable. There are far more interesting ways to achieve many of the outcomes listed here, and those methods would often be less time-consuming, more exciting for the player, and require less time investment and less time spent doing, effectively, nothing – it’s not for nothing that EVE miners have multiple accounts and rarely pay attention to the account that’s doing all the mining, as that remains an inevitably unexciting element of gameplay when in the moment, even if that unexciting gameplay contributes to the massively exciting emergent gameplay that takes part in the rest of the in-game universe. I think we should hope to see a reduction in mining mechanics and a growth in more interesting ways to achieve the same goals (or, indeed, to omit some goals, such as the arbitrary lengthening), but the systems can be so effective at achieving these four objectives that it’s hard to see designers abandoning them any time soon. Unpicking what makes something as dull as mining has become so central to games, however, helps us to see how game mechanics can be drawn from real-world sources and put to a massive number of purposes beyond what we might associate with them in the real world, and the kinds of motivations developers are using when they undertake this kind of transformation.
I’m posting this entry in the middle of the week; as noted before, I’m on something of a break at the moment from blogging and developing simply due to the work load and pressure I’m under in my job at the moment, so since this blog post was around ten days from the last one, the next one will also have that kind of time gap. As I’ve said before, I hope to resume normality some time in November, and I’m still on track for that. We should also have a guest entry or two coming soon. Thanks again to you all for being so understanding – I really appreciate all the kind messages I’ve got here, by email, on Reddit, etc. URR will resume soon, and 0.8 will be out, and with that we’ll be past the 50% mark on development. Stay tuned, everyone…