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If you are familiar with gaming or the Java programming language, you’ve almost certainly heard of Minecraft. This extremely popular game has captured the imagination of a generation. The premise of the game is simple: you are presented with a near-infinitely explorable world built out of textured one-meter cubes. Modifying the landscape around you is simple and powerful. There are things to craft, such as weapons and mechanisms. There are enemies to fight or hide from, animals to tame, and crops to farm. However, the game doesn’t actually provide you with any kind of goal or story beyond what you define for yourself. This makes Minecraft the perfect example of a Sandbox Game, if not the golden standard. But more than that, it has also become a Sandbox for people who like to write code. So let us take a moment and delve into why this is so and what it means for Minecraft to have become “The Programmer’s Sandbox”.

Originally the product of one man, Markus “Notch” Persson, Minecraft is written entirely in Java. The choice of Java as the language has helped define Minecraft in many ways. On the surface, we have the innate portability that Java provides. But when you dig deeper, Java opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. This is largely because of the inherent ease with which Java applications can be inspected, decompiled, and modified. This means that any part of the code can be changed in any way, allowing us to rewrite the game as we desire. This has lead to a large and vibrant modding community, perhaps even the largest such community ever to exist.

The Minecraft modding community would not be what it is today without the herculean efforts of several groups of people, sinces the raw code isn’t particularly modding friendly. It’s obfuscated and not very extensible in ways that let mods exist side by side. But the efforts of teams such as the Mod Coder Pack (MCP) and Forge have changed that. Today, getting started with Minecraft modding is as simple as downloading Forge, running a one-line setup command (gradlew setupDecompWorkspace eclipse), and pointing your IDE at the resulting folder. From there you can dive straight into the code and create a mod that will be compatible with the vast majority of all other mods. And this opens up realms of possibilities for anyone with an interest in seeing their own creations become part of a vibrant explorable world. It is this desire that has driven the community to innovate and design the tools to let anyone just jump into Minecraft modding and get their feet wet in minutes.

As an example, here is a simple mod that I have created that adds a block in Minecraft. This is simple, but will give you an idea of what an example looks like:

package com.example.examplemod;

import cpw.mods.fml.common.Mod;
import cpw.mods.fml.common.Mod.EventHandler;
import cpw.mods.fml.common.event.FMLInitializationEvent;
import cpw.mods.fml.common.registry.GameRegistry;
import net.minecraft.block.Block;
import net.minecraft.block.BlockStone;

@Mod(modid = ExampleMod.MODID, version = ExampleMod.VERSION)
public class ExampleMod {

    public static final String MODID = "examplemod";
    public static final String VERSION = "1.0";

    public void init(FMLInitializationEvent event) {
        // some example code
        Block simpleBlock = new BlockStone().setBlockName("simpleBlock").setBlock
        GameRegistry.registerBlock(simpleBlock, "simpleBlock");


And here is a figure showing the block from the mod in Minecraft:

Minecraft: The Programmer's Sandbox

The Minecraft modding community consists of a wide range of people, from the self-taught programmers to the industry code experts. The reason that such a wide range of modders exists is because the code is both accessible enough for the novice and flexible enough for the expert. Adding a new decorative block can be done with just a few simple lines of code, but mods can also become major projects with a line count in the tens or even hundreds of thousands. So whether this is your first time writing code, or you are a Java Guru, you can quickly and easily bring your creations to life in the sandbox world of Minecraft.

People have created all kinds of crazy new things for Minecraft: Massive Toroidal Fusion Reactors, Force-fields, ICBMs, Arcane Magic Runes, Flying Magic Carpets, Pipes for pumping fluids around, Zombie Apocalypse Mini-Games, and even entirely new dimensions with giant Bosses and quests and loot. You can even find a mod that lets you visit the Moon. There really is no limit to what you can add to Minecraft. In many cases, people have taken elements from other game genres and incorporated them into the game: RPG Leveling Systems, Survival Horror Adventures, FPS Shooters, and more. These are just some examples of things that people have actually added to the game. The simplicity and flexibility of the game makes this possible.

There are several factors that make Minecraft a particularly accessible game to mod. For one, the art assets are all fairly simple. You don’t need HD textures or high poly models; the game’s art style intentionally avoids these. It instead opts for pixel art and blocky models. So even if you are a genius coder, but have no real skills in textures and modeling, it’s still possible to make something that looks good and fits into the game. But the reverse is also true: if you are a great artist, but your coding skills are weak, you can still create awesome decorative blocks. And if you need help with code, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of Open Source mods to learn from and copy.

So yes, Minecraft may be a fun Sandbox game by itself. But if you are the type of person who wants to get your hands a bit dirty, it opens up a whole realm of possibilities, a realm where you are no longer limited by the vision of the game’s creators but can make your own vision a reality. This is the true beauty of Minecraft: it really can be whatever you want it to be.

About the Author

Aaron Mills was born in 1983 and lives in the Pacific Northwest, which is a land rich in lore, trees, and rain. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science and studied at Washington State University Vancouver. He is best known for his work on the Minecraft Mod, Railcraft, but has also contributed significantly to the Minecraft Mods of Forestry and Buildcraft as well some contributions to the Minecraft Forge project.


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