Mining in Games

I recently visited an interesting event called “Spätschicht” (”Late Shift”) Extraschicht (”Extra shift”). It took place in the Ruhr district not too far from Cologne. The Ruhr district was a densely populated, highly industrialized area in Germany. It was one of Germany’s main sources of raw materials generated in the countless mines there. In the last decades, most of the faculties have been closed down due to the massive price drop of raw materials. This left the area hopelessly over-populated and under-employed. The empty mines and factories are being re-purposed for cultural projects now. The “Spätschicht” “Extraschicht” is an example. It is one night where various artistic events happen simultaneously all over the Ruhr district. Visitors can use shuttle buses to hop from one location to another.

The event is a great opportunity to learn more about such an alien topic as the heavy industry. There are some truly epic leftovers to visit and experience fist-hand. Personally, I was blown away by the Maschinenhalle Zweckel. It’s a huge, now empty hall that once housed the generators that powered the elevator to one of the mines. It was built around 100 years ago and the architecture is the embodiment of the idea of an “Industry palace”. I mean, check out the details! Back then, modern technology and beauty weren’t a contradiction.

We have also visited the mining museum in Bochum. It really made me think about all the challenges involved in mining. I noticed that this is yet another topic that is horribly misrepresented in games. The museum does a good job at explaining a lot of the considerations when mining materials on an industrial scale. None of them are addressed in games:

  • Collapse – One issue that is never addressed in games is that mines is that underground tunnels are always in danger of collapsing. In the real world tunnels need to be constantly supported by various structures. But every technology has it’s limits. Some mining techniques involve careful planning to make the mine safe. Other techniques involve the controlled collapse of out-mined areas. However, collapses often lead to Subsidence on the surface with potentially destructive consequences. Not so in games. Mines in games are somehow always structurally perfectly sound, no matter how much material you remove. Structural stability is never an issue.

  • Ventialtion – This is an obvious one. The deeper you go, the more difficult it is to get fresh air. Real mines are constructed with some amazing ventilations systems. And it’s not even the fact that you need fresh air. Mining usually also releases some amounts of trapped gas that can poison workers or explode. None of this is a concern in games, even though explosives and poisoning do play a role as separate mechanics.

  • Water – Mines are basically big holes. So it’s just a matter of time for them to fill up with water. Especially groundwater starts seeping in very quickly. Removing the water can be trickly. Natural caves often have some kind of natural waiter drain. They will often end up having huge water reservoirs anyway. So exploring caves is actually at the crossroads of climbing and water sports. To be fair, water plays a role in many representations of caves and mines in games. However, removing the water is rarely a concern. I noticed the problem of water coming up with the game of Terraria. But this was mostly due to mines accidentally reaching underground water reservoirs.

So what do we get instead? Here are some examples of how mining feels like in games. Feel free to add more in the comments below!

  • Mining spots & pickaxe – Known from games like World of Warcraft or Monster Hunter. Your character just walks up to a “mining spot” and hits it with a pickaxe to get some precious ores. Mining spots deplete eventually but magically re-spawn after some time (WTF?!!). The part that is missing is digging a mine in the first place. The mines you visit in those games often already exist by the time you arrive and cannot be expanded. The dangers of mining are absent. Funny enough, they are replaced by other, completely fictitious dangers such as evil monsters living in mines. On the other hand, this kind of mining is about very small quantities of materials and thus, it doesn’t really compare to industrial mining anyway. And after all, at least it includes the fact that mining is a laborious activity.

  • Black Box – Known from games like Warcraft. Again, mines are already there when you arrive. You send your guys in and they re-emerge after a few seconds with a sac of gold. What happens inside the mine is not relevant. Mines eventually run out of resources. When they do – that’s it. The creation and maintenance of a mine is conveniently never an issue.

  • The infinitely stable and safe mine – Known from games like Minecraft, Terraria and Dungeon Keeper. Mines can be constructed and expanded. Some considerations need to be made in order maintain ease of access and to maximize the output of resources. However, the above issues never have to be addressed. Mines never collapse. They always have plenty of air. They hardly ever flood with groundwater. But at least the mine is represented as something that continuously expands and that needs to be carefully planned.

  • Laser Mining – Somewhat different from the others but still worth mentioning because of how stupid it is. Mining in space is often depicted as even less problematic. In games like Eve Online or in movies like Star Trek, mining is often done my a magical laser. You just shoot at an asteroid or a spot on a planet to get the materials. This has nothing to do with real mining and is completely removed from any scientific fact. It doesn’t even look like manual labor or a dangerous activity. Funny enough, the aesthetics of mining still remain the same. So the workers on mining ships are still smudged and dirty. The ships themselves look rugged and industrial. Sci-Fi as we know it: head in the clouds but not enough balls to be consequent.

I found the “Spätschicht” “Extraschicht” to be a quite inspiring experience in this regard. The gathering of resources is a well known element of many games ideas I have been playing with in my head. But it never actually occurred to me to research this area in real life.

In general, when depicting certain areas of the real world in games, it’s worth investigating them beforehand. Often, you come up with challenges and issues that can help creating new game mechanics. One obvious advantage is that this will make the game more realistic. But more importantly, it adds variety to the gameplay. Instead of filling in the blanks with old tropes, you are encouraged to create new mechanics informed by fresh, outside information.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

9 responses to “Mining in Games”

  1. Nick LaLone

    I wonder when it was that realism was replaced by what worked for video games previously.

  2. McZonk

    It was called “Extraschicht” not “Spätschicht”.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      Oh shiiii. Makes so much more sense now. Thanks!

  3. Elbi

    Hey there,

    I’ll just try the short version of a comment:

    “In general, when depicting certain areas of the real world in games, it’s worth investigating them beforehand. Often, you come up with challenges and issues that can help creating new game mechanics.”
    Absolutely. Just guessing what the issues in a specific field are makes the game appear stupid to everyone who knows a bit about it. Trust me, my dad’s a plumber and he totally doesn’t save princesses every day!

    “One obvious advantage is that this will make the game more realistic.”
    Now, that’s the point where it gets dangerous. While “you might die of asphyxiation” is a real threat when mining (or fermenting wine, some erotic plays and whatnot), it does not necessary need to be implemented in a game.
    Including realism, to a certain degree, CAN be a great idea, but it does not HAVE to be. Complete realism belongs to the field of simulations – you didn’t mention a single simulation. (Probably because there are none. I don’t know. Is there a “Mining Simulator 2011″?)
    I guess I know what you want to say – but the article reads a lot like adding realism to a game is a necessary for a game to be good/creative/fresh. It’s not.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      I apologize. I guess that part was a bit ambiguous. Of course realism is not a substitute for design. I agree that many game designers are still making that mistake, especially when it comes down to aesthetics.

      But keep in mind that merely going for fun and completely giving up making statements about our world is a creative dead-end as well. The current state of the industry is a testament to this.

  4. Andreas F.

    With the exception of ventialtion the Clonk series does represent these aspects of mining. I find it interesting that Clonk never had the international success Minecraft or Terraria had. Maybe the game was ahead of its time.

  5. Andreas F.

    Misread the part about collaps. Clonk has also only controlled collapses and collapses because of earthquakes. But it is still more complex in thies regard than the other mentioned games.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      Good point! I had Clonk in the back of my mind but couldn’t remember how it worked there. I think one of the reason why Clonk doesn’t have any wide appeal is weak usability. I remember playing one of the many versions back in the days. My biggest problem with that was that the availible tools were quite awkward to use and all the mines I have constructed eventually became death-traps, no matter how hard I tried. But it may very well be that it improved in the meantime. I haven’t played it for quite some time.

  6. SgtPiddles

    Probe away, Commander Shepard!


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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