Friday, June 22, 2012

Minecraft: HCFactions and Mine-Z, plus - Interview with Lead Admin HighlifeTTU!

I clutch my pick in hand, creeping beneath the earth searching for diamonds. I started with nothing but a fishing pole, and now I've carved out a small base with a working farm, resources to keep me stocked, and I know at any moment, if I'm not careful enough, someone could break into my less-than-secure spot and kill me, and I'd lose everything. I'd also be locked out of the server for three days. Death comes at a high price. Some days later, I work in a faction base. The land is secure, as people can't use our doors or break our walls unless they manage to kill one or more of us.  The call goes out to everyone online, hostiles in diamond armor have appeared at our walls, looking for a way to get in, even a small hole could mean a well-thrown Ender Pearl could teleport the raiders inside. We grab potions and equip diamond swords, and prepare to fight.

Me, in glorious diamond armor, in the little room deep underground,
where I would be brutally murdered less than a day later.

If this doesn't sound like the Minecraft you've been playing, that's not unusual. HCFactions, a server with loads of custom-programmed tweaks and plugins is a special and unique place. Players contend with the usual difficulties of monsters, lava and starvation, plus hostile other players and the three-day "deathban" that enforces the "hardcore" nature of the server.  The stories above are both an actual part of my last week on HCFactions, and the drama, shifting alliances and betrayals of Factions (organizations that can purchase and defend land) have been detailed on Reddit for well over a year now.  Run by Matt Sundberg, better known as HighlifeTTU, the server can take up to 175 people at once, and there are usually between 50-100 playing at any given time, struggling and banding together to survive.

Recently, HighlifeTTU and his Administration and programming team announced their second server concept, called Mine-Z, a cooperative/competitive Zombie Survival server that takes direct inspiration from the popular fan-created Day Z mod to the game ARMA. I had a chance to speak with several members of the Admin team in the last few days, and I asked HighlifeTTU if he'd answer a few questions. Here's what he had to say.


- Tell us a little bit about yourself and your coding/Admin Team.

I go by "HighlifeTTU".  In the real world I work the standard 8 to 5 grind in the finance industry, so Minecraft server hosting is my after work hobby.  It has quickly exploded into something I never imagined! I have been lucky to find a very talented team of individuals. Almost all of them work in the technology industry in some fashion, so we tend to get on at night after we've all slaved away for the man and put our heads together to create new plugins and ultimately craft new experiences for players.  I am about to turn 29 years old, so I regularly tell my player base to get off my lawn.

The HCFactions Shop, where iron and gold can be sold by players who wish to purchase
land, potion materials or rare blocks for customizing their base.

- How would you describe HCFactions and MineZ to someone who is familiar with  Minecraft, but ignorant to the larger Bukkit/Factions community?

HCFactions is a hardcore PvP oriented factions server.  It basically allows groups of players to band together, claim land on an expansive map, and then battle it out against each other.  The uniqueness comes from the death ban we use.  When a player is killed, he is banned from the server for three days.  For someone unfamiliar with a hardcore experience, they would probably say there is no way that could be fun.  But the magic of a hardcore server is the change in how people act. In a normal game where you respawn instantly, you don't have a fear of death, and ultimately you see players grow bored since their actions have little meaning.  With death ban, many people actually get an adrenalin rush.  You know every mistake could be your last. defeats are brutal, but the victories are that much sweeter.

We've expanded on the normal factions experience by adding a number of things.  We have PvE oriented events, a King of the Hill event that has players fighting over a location for a chance of good loot, and my lead developer (lazertester) recently rolled out the Factions Arena, which is a fully automated arena plugin featuring loadouts, multiple arenas, and a comprehensive stats page for bragging rights.  Recently we added an Archer, Bard, and Rogue class that is in the spirit of vanilla minecraft, as it requires no slash commands, and you activate it by simply wearing a full set of a different armor.  Our most challenging change has been re-coding some of the craftbukkit code to balance enchantments and make them more intuitive, which we plan to roll out in the next couple of weeks.

The extensive Arena, as seen from the glassed-in Spectator Area, where players can
practice their PvP skills without risking their hard-won equipment.

We now have had 15,000 unique visits to the server, and average about 6,000 unique players a month.  It has been a very big success, and has motivated the team to work on side projects.

MineZ was inspired by DayZ.  DayZ proved that as a developer you can try to ruthlessly murder your player base, and they like it.  MineZ is basically a zombie survival mod, where zombies use advanced AI and fast movement to hunt you down.  Players must manage limited inventory, find loot at key locations, all while managing their hunger, thirst, and health.  There is open PvP, so players can be as much of a threat as zombies.  The world is expansive and built by hand.  There are large distances with no loot to be found, meaning any amount of travel requires preparation.

- What are your short and long term goals for HCFactions and MineZ?

For HCFactions, we are currently doing an enchantment balance and are then starting on our own fork of Factions.  We plan to add a finite power source that can be gained at events, which can be used to gain small bonuses to combat.  After that, we want to add some RTS style features, letting players "power" chunks outside their main land, and build specific structures to take advantage of these bonuses.

MineZ?  Well.  I have a very firm grasp of the short term vision, but I want to see how the players react once I finally let them loose on the world.  For one though, I want to add a story to the game that is gathered in pieces via signs and eventually written books.  I also want to add a special bandit NPC type, that has advanced group AI. The bandits will only spawn at the hardest places on the map, and will require teamwork and high tier items to defeat.  Honestly though, outside of that, I think the player base will dictate what the development team ultimately works on.  We've already received some great ideas from the community.

A desperate band of players fights a small horde of aggressive zombies in MineZ.

- A lot of custom code has gone into your servers, making them unique. Are there any ideas that you've really wanted to incorporate, but haven't yet been able to make a reality in code?

Anything interface related.  We always build our plugins to use the vanilla client, as we feel the client modding process isn't intuitive to all players.  I am hoping the new mod API allows us to add new interface elements and more easily disseminate information to the players.  This will open up more possibilities, since some plugins just won't work with slash commands.

- Minecraft has been criticized for being an excellent building "toy" but without a whole lot of traditional gameplay mechanics, objectives or metrics for victory. Your servers have clear "game" elements with careful thought given to balance and progression over the course of a particular map. Are there particular games or designers (aside from the obvious ARMA/Day Z for MineZ) that have inspired or influenced the systems that have been integrated into the servers?

Ultima Online.  It was the first game I fell in love with, and for the first two years it existed it was something special.  The sad thing is they ultimately changed the game to cater to a wider player base, which makes sense financially, but hurt the gritty, hardcore experience it once was.  I find myself looking back at those experiences and it is a clear influence on how I balance things on HCFactions and how I look at the design elements of MineZ.

A look at HCFactions' Spawn area, where players can safely fish, shop, and when they are ready
to leave, be fired from a cannon 600 blocks away in a random direction.

- The type of gameplay found on HCFactions lends itself well to stories of drama, betrayal, heroism and sacrifice re-told by players. Do you have a favorite "story moment" from the playerbase on your servers?

Likely Greysoul. [Note: full story of Greysoul can be found here and here.]  On the second map of the server I saw a large group of new players venturing off together.  I followed them around and documented their experience.  They ended up being the first faction to slay the ender dragon, and then they went on to conquer and destroy the largest and most dominate faction on the server.  It surprised me that a group of players with no experience on HCFactions grew from nothing into the most powerful force on the server.  Well, at least for a couple weeks. :)

- If you could tell your community one thing about your time on these projects that isn't already widely known, what would it be?

I'd have to say that the most surprising thing is I have no background in programming or game design.  I took a C++ class in high school, but that is the extent of my experience.  For HCFactions, I had to teach myself how to use linux, bash scripting, some php/mysql for the first stats page, and basic java to understand the plugins I was having developed.  It has been a very long ride, but very well worth it. Having done it for a few months now, I still enjoy it as much, if not more, than I did the very first day I started doing it.


I'd like to thank HighlifeTTU for his time, and for a gameplay experience that has matched or exceeded the play experience I've found in a lot of $60 titles, all for free. Server donations keep the project from being exceedingly expensive, and players who donate are rewarded with "free lives" to get around the 3-day ban on death.  Notoriously cheap about F2P gaming, and suspicious of most games featuring microtransactions, my experience on these servers is a testament to the hard work these folks have put into the experience their players have. Within days of my first time on HCFactions I purchased a spare life, which is, to date, the only real cash I've spent for something extra in a game since purchasing a basic starter kit in my time playing Team Fortress 2. I eagerly await the opportunity to try MineZ, and also to get back to base-building with my faction. That is, once the brave souls we lost in last night's raid have served their three-day deathban. Best Blogger Tips
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G said...

I love minecraft and it consumes days of my life if I let it.

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