If Minecraft’s greatest trick is the way in which it leaves players to do as they please within its verdant, destructible playpen, then it’s one hasn’t travelled the world with equal success. “In Japan, people like to be told how to play their games,” explains Noriyoshi Fujimoto, one of the creators of Dragon Quest Builders, a game that attempts to splice §Minecraft’s giddying freedom with the kind of quest-based adventuring for which Japan’s beloved RPG series is known. For Fujimoto, Minecraft’s guidance-free approach, which leaves players free to build a tower to the stars, dig a tunnel to the Earth’s core, or chase sheep all day, goes some way to explain why its gargantuan and enduring success hasn’t been replicated in Japan. “Minecraft is just finally starting to become popular with primary schoolchildren here,” he says, sitting in a stretched sofa at Square Enix’s Tokyo office, a plushie Slime (Dragon Quest’s googly-eyed merengue blob mascot) perched on his lap. “But it’s clear that it just isn’t going to have the same breakout appeal that it’s enjoyed overseas.”
For Fujimoto and his team, which includes Etrian Odyssey creator Kazuya Niinou, Dragon Quest Builders attempts to bridge the gap. “It was easy to see that, if we gave players some of the guidance they were looking for, combining the signposted quests of Dragon Quest with the sandbox parts of Minecraft, then we just might have a hit on our hands.” It’s a slick pitch and one that, it should be remembered, Minecraft’s original developer Mojang also made when, for the first ‘full’ release of the game, it folded in an adventure quest-line complete with an endgame for those who need to ‘beat’ a video game rather than simply enjoy one: a giant dragon that, when discovered and felled, concludes the storyline. Mojang’s attempt was, however, somewhat half-baked, one that revealed the essential tension between Minecraft’s essential fluidity and the strictures of formal quest design.
It’s a tension that, for a long time, befuddled the Builders team. “The first draft of the game had a huge amount of freedom,” explains Fujimoto. “You could do whatever you wanted. But we quickly ran into fatal problems. For example, the game might ask the player to go to a certain area that they had already completely destroyed.” The team threw that version out and started again. “We started adding limitations till we struck a balance that seemed to work,” he says. “For example, we would make certain landmarks indestructible to prevent you from blowing them up. But there might be a hundred different paths you could choose to get from A to B. In any other game you might have a road to get from A to B, but here you have the choice to dig a tunnel, or build a bridge. The journey itself is not laid out for you, even if the mission objectives are.”