Video Games

Portal Knights Reminds Us That Minecraft Is a Genre

Portal Knights Mage

Some time ago in an interview with Steam Addicts, the lead developer on the hit game Terraria Andrew Spinks (AKA Redigit) claimed that he sees Minecraft as a genre rather than a standalone game. Here’s the full quote:

People need to understand that Minecraft isn’t a game anymore, it’s a genre. There are so many possibilities with the gameplay mechanics in question that they shouldn’t be limited to a single title. I think a lot of us are waiting for the big names in the industry to pick up on these concepts and start incorporating them into the new major titles.

While at first this seems like a deflection — this was in response to an accusation that Terraria straight-up ripped off Minecraft — I think time has proven him right. The gameplay mechanics that were mainstreamed by Minecraft have been reused and reimagined by dozens — if not hundreds — of video games since 2009 when Minecraft officially went public (in its original alpha state).

And I think there’s definitely room in the genre for variations on the original formula. Consider how Terraria took some of Minecraft‘s core concepts and applied them to a 2D environment, or how Starbound took that a step further and brought those concepts into outer space, or how No Man’s Sky took Starbound‘s premise and brought it back into a 3D world.

no man's sky ship

I’ve spent ungodly amounts of time with all four of the games I mentioned in the previous paragraph, and I never felt like the existence of any one of them diminished the value of any of the others. All four of these games — and many, many more — can exist in the same world as long as the formula is perpetually evolving.

And I would say it is, even now.

Back in 2016, Dragon Quest Builders landed on Western shores after proving popular in Japan, and its formula was immediately familiar. It took Minecraft‘s voxel-based build-a-thon gameplay and infused it with elements of the immensely popular Dragon Quest franchise, such as NPC-bestowed quests.

Once again, we’re seeing the formula evolve a little bit further with Portal Knights.

Portal Knights Ranger

While you can absolutely trace its lineage back to Minecraft, Portal Knights is definitely closer to Dragon Quest Builders than to Minecraft. In fact, it almost feels like a version of Dragon Quest Builders created for someone who played DQB but wished it had focused on cooperative multiplayer boss-slaying instead of a four-chapter narrative about restoring villages to their former glory.

Building, mining, and crafting are all present in Portal Knights, yet they’re de-emphasized a little to make room for the RPG elements. Portal Knights allows you (and up to three friends) hang out with NPCs, fight low-level enemies, level up, and take on intense boss fights.

In fact, when you think about it, this gameplay loop sounds more like Terraria than like Minecraft. And that means the main focus of the game shifts toward preparation rather than unbridled creativity. You can build in Portal Knights, but you’re more likely to find yourself prepping for the next big battle instead of engaging in free-form building.

Portal Knights Dragon Fight

Unless you want to engage in free-form building, that is. Because that is also a totally valid way to play the game.

And I guess that when you take all things into consideration, part of Minecraft‘s appeal was always that it minimized the gameplay loop. You felt free to create whatever you wanted because you were never distracted by a narrative structure, or some NPC shouting about killing X amount of monsters, or preparation for a major boss battle. Even the Ender Dragon fight lacked urgency, since any push to eradicate it came largely from the game’s community rather than from inside the game itself.

For a lot of us who got sucked into Minecraft, it was because it gave us the ability to manage our focus and create our own objectives. It was freeing to step away from blinking dots on world maps and villagers who kept begging us to slay their problems. Our creativity was allowed to be unshackled and un-distracted.

Of course, there are players who would vehemently disagree with me. Minecraft‘s lack of focus, they might argue, is one of its biggest flaws. But I would chock this up to taste. Some people enjoy a more structured experience, one in which they don’t aimlessly wander around for long stretches of time. And that’s totally fine. In fact, this is the true value of games like Portal Knights. While obviously borrowing elements from Minecraft, these “Minecraft-likes” offer experiences that are more appealing to a different crowd.

Portal Knights Dancing Mage

The fact that Minecraft‘s base elements are so versatile, then, might be a huge part of its longevity — and ultimately, its legacy. While the breakout blocky builder is clearly not going anywhere, there’s still plenty of room for other games to offer new twists on its core gameplay elements. And that, I think, is what Terraria‘s Andrew Spinks was getting at in calling Minecraft a genre.

So Portal Knights enters the arena not as a Minecraft competitor, but as a part of a long, robust legacy of games that share a common denominator. With that in mind, it becomes pretty obvious that Minecraft has indeed become a genre.

Josh Wirtanen owns this place and has opinions about pretty much everything. Follow him on Twitter: @joshuajwirtanen.