The Minecraft community continues to blow minds with its incredible builds. One such server is Minecraft Middle-earth, a project that has built J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth inside Minecraft, block by block.
All of Middle-earth's top hot-spots—and everything in between—has been recreated. You can take a quiet stroll through Hobbiton, delve into the depths of Moria, and much more. Ever wanted to swan dive off the apex of Minas Tirith? I've done it, it's awesome.
I spoke with the server's founder Nicky Vermeersch, also known as q220, about its humble beginnings and why on earth anyone in their right mind would decide to build Middle-earth completely from scratch inside Minecraft.
Vermeersch was first introduced to Minecraft when the sandbox was still in beta back in 2009, and like many others who played early on in the game's development, he got completely hooked. As a moderator on a Dutch Minecraft server, the idea of building Middle-earth was something that had begun to float around the server's community.
"I grew up with Lord of the Rings, like most people around 30 years old I imagine," Vermeersch says. "We had people who were interested from the Minecraft forums, so we had this solid player base to start with. We began building the basic locations, like Bree and Hobbiton, then after publishing screenshots, people got hooked on what we were doing and started joining the project."
Recreating an entire fantasy world inside a blocky sandbox back in 2009 was far from an easy task, especially as the team didn't have many of the tools that builders have today. Tools like Dynmap, WorldPainter and WorldMachine are now vital for planning builds, but for the Minecraft Middle-earth builders, much of what they planned was freestyle.
"Looking back it was chaos," Vermeersch says. "Those tools didn't exist, so it was people running around and counting blocks. It was very much like, 'Oh, yeah, we have to do this' and, 'that has to go over there'. That was a disaster, really. Building Hobbiton was okay but when we had to bridge the distances between major locations it became more of a problem."
Another tool that the project didn't have was customizable map generation. Modern Minecraft builders begin their projects on a flat map and plan on top of it, but the Middle-earth team had to start with a fully landscaped survival world which they then had to carve away. If a mountain just happened to be in the way of where a forest had to be, the builders would have to demolish it ("which was really labour intensive").
Over the past ten years, the Middle-earth team has grown from a modest forum group to having around 300 members with staff positions, meaning that they are actively building and supporting the server. The process of researching and recreating an accurate representation of Tolkien's world requires the input of the whole community.
Ever wondered if it was possible to walk Frodo and Sam's entire route in the Middle-earth server? Well, it is, and we did it. Read about how it took 10 hours of walking to retrace the Fellowship's journey in Minecraft Middle-earth.
"The biggest, most iconic builds are usually handled exclusively by senior members or our best builders," Vermeersch says. "We then organize built contests, basically, where everyone can be involved. We set it in a blank world and ask, for example, for houses in Minas Tirith and people begin building. We give them guidelines and present them with pictures of like, for example, Roman architecture, as kind of a mood board. Then we look around at the builds and find out what works and what doesn't work."
The references that the team use are the descriptions from the books and how landscapes are shown in the films, but Vermeersch also says that the group use their own fantasy concepts for parts of the world that don't work in Minecraft. The Middle-earth builders also need to apply their own creativity to vast parts of the map that Tolkien only alludes to.
"Mordor is a good example," Vermeersch says. "It's going to be really tough since we'll also have to make up unique assets that haven't been shown anywhere on the map.
"Gondor was another place that needed more. In the movies, you only get introduced to it as that huge White City and the broken ruins, but it's so much more than that. We have Pelargir which is a huge commerce port that isn't introduced in the movies, and if you visit it, there are tons of individual houses and all of them are built by hand. It also has a unique style we hadn't used yet on the server."
Minecraft Middle-earth was live when the Hobbit trilogy released between 2012-2014, and I ask Vermeersch if the server got excited to see new parts of Tolkein's world visualised. "When the first Hobbit got released, we saw a huge increase in visits for people," he says. "But we hadn't really built anything that appeared in The Hobbit except for a couple of places like The Shire or Rivendell. So of course, we had to disappoint a lot of people. Visitors would ask, do you guys have Erebor built? And then we'd have to tell them no or, do you have Mordor built? And we would have to say, not yet."
"The Hobbit actually takes place in a different location, so we haven't built areas like Lake-town or the location where the Battle of the Five Armies happens. That kind of stuff we haven't touched yet."
The Minecraft Middle-earth map is currently 29,000 by 30,000 blocks, which makes an area of around 870 square kilometres. That's around the same size as Dallas, Texas, so it's understandable that the team might not want to tackle the wider realms of Tolkien's universe quite yet. If you did want an itinerary of what to see in Middle-earth, the server has the perfect tour for you.
"When you head out into The Shire at the server's spawn point, you'll find footsteps on the ground," Vermeersch says. "It's a guideline. You can go out and take the exact same path as The Fellowship took to get to Mordor. Sometimes it branches, which indicates where The Fellowship split up and you can choose who to follow."
Even after ten years working on the server, the Minecraft Middle-earth team shows no signs of slowing down. It's a mind-boggling server and is a prime example of how players are using the blocky sandbox in incredible ways. You can check out the server for free by heading over to the team's official website, or if you're feeling generous you can donate a small sum that helps the team run the server.