Blocktype

Workshop poster

We love scripting and hacking the font creation process. Some of our experiments led us to Lasse Fister's wonderful Graphicore Bitmap library, which we've tweaked to be able to generate simple vector fonts from bitmap data. This took us back to the olden days of screen pixel fonts, looking through the early designs by Susan Kare to the Amiga demo scene. It wasn't long before we came up with the odd question: how hard would it be to hack Minecraft as a font editor?

After some productive late evenings, we whipped up a working script that could read a specifically crafted Minecraft world and convert it to a bitmap image, and from there generate a typeface using the exported bitmaps.

We were really eager to try this idea out. It isn't just a weird connection between a game and a type tool; it was an experiment to see how a change in interface (switching font editors for games) could alter and eventually complement the design process. We were delighted to hear that Mozilla Festival was up for hosting our weird interface experiment -- and off to London we went.

We were honoured to participate in the vibrant Art of the Web track alongside selfie taxonomies, alt-reality scavenger hunts], [video remixes] and smartphone gallery archaeologies.

The workshop

Sketching Sketching 2

We started our workshop by sketching the first two characters of our collective typeface. After looking at each contribution, we made a joint decision as to what design direction we'd follow.

Progress board Decisions

From there, the group was divided into a builder team and a designer team. The "designers" would go on sketching and defining the remaining characters, whereas the "builders" would begin work on building those characters in a Minecraft world.

Minecraft screen

The builders were quick in constructing the uppercase version, while the designers went full-speed ahead to tackle not only the uppercase, but numbers and lowercase as well! After that, the designers lent a hand in making the digital versions of the lowercase and numbers using another font making tactic with text files and ASCII art (we'll detail this approach in a later post.)

The result

After much work and refinement, our script did its magic and the Mozblock typeface was born!

Mozblock
specimen

You can download the font package containing all necessary formats for inclusion in HTML pages.

Our last Minecraft workshop

If you've been following your work, you'll know that one of the main directions in our practice is the integral use of free software and free culture licenses in our work. That said, it will sound strange that we'd use Minecraft, a proprietary game, as part of our practice. In short: we tried, and now we realise it was a mistake.

We have been big fans of Minecraft since ginger showed us why it was a fantastic game, a couple of years ago. And while our values have always put us on the side of free software, Minecraft was the one exception we were willing to make: even though it's proprietary, their friendly product policy (pay 20€ for the license, never pay again for upgrades or other add-ons) made us and other free software activists give it a pass and embrace it.

However, the recent acquisition of Mojang by Microsoft, an entity which has a terrible track record of preserving openness and privacy, made it clear to us that we had to reconsider our stance towards Minecraft and its role in our work. While it is a brilliant framework to cook up design experiments (as our workshop showed,) the Microsoft connection makes its proprietary nature stand out clearly. Since we had already committed to teaching this workshop by the time the acquisition was announced, we decided to go through with it and make a statement afterwards about what these new developments mean to people interested in Minecraft as a game or a tool.

For this workshop, we developed an extensive set of tools to work with Minecraft worlds and translate them into bitmaps and fonts; we gave the name "Blocktype" to the set of scripts and gizmos that makes this happen. Our original plan was to release all the code under the GPL so that more people could try and improve it. However, the new state of affairs means that we'd be actively promoting a Microsoft product, and indirectly its values, by releasing code that works with it and enables it to do more cool stuff.

So Blocktype will probably be the one software library that we made which we will not release.

While we feel burned, we have to admit that our judgment in adopting a proprietary product was wrong, and it's yet another episode where Richard Stallman is proven right: respect for users' freedom can only be assured by the use of free software. In hindsight, it feels very naive to have believed that Minecraft and Mojang could be "different", but the outcome is again the same as previous cases: proprietary software is inevitably led towards goals that undermine users' agency, privacy and control. Microsoft has made its business practice clear by siding with surveillance, mining users' data and adopting extorsion tactics in markets where it has power. We will not support the products of such an entity.

We are now about to consider our options. We certainly don't mean to throw all the work behind Blocktype away, and plan to look at possible alternatives. The two most interesting ones are Minetest and Voxel.js. If you can help us adapt our Python scripts to these frameworks, we'd be more than happy to work together in order to release what we think is a really useful tool: a library that allows you to draw pixel fonts in a 3D world, something that we've just found is incredibly fun, productive and encouraging.

Credits

Image credits

  • Photos by Metod Blejec. Personal use is allowed, please get in touch for commercial use.
  • Screencast by Louis Reed.

Acknowledgments