16 Jan 2019

A Short Guide for Library Computer Labs Wanting to Use Minecraft: Part 3

The following is a guest post by Chris Markman, Senior Librarian at Palo Alto City Library in conjunction with PLP’s 2018-2019 Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant, “Cybersecurity for Youth Using Minecraft”. This project is supported in whole or in part by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, administered in California by the State Librarian. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services or the California State Library, and no official endorsement by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services or the California State Library should be inferred.

Would 100 minutes be enough?

What does it all mean?

Yes, it’s the post we’ve all been waiting for! In part 1 we looked at the different “flavors” of Minecraft out there, and in part 2 you saw the different installation options and their limitations. Because every library computer lab has slightly different IT configuration, or might share resources across several branches or library systems, this post is going to make a lot of assumptions about total costs. For example, I’m leaving bandwidth out of it—you probably have that covered already. I’m also leaving hardware costs out (keeping in mind that Minecraft very works well on older PCs and consoles) with the exception of “cloud gaming” as an option. These are all variables you’ll need to consider before making a final decision, e.g. if your library already owns several video game consoles you have a much different situation than someone with a set of iPads.

Low Cost / No Cost Solutions

Let’s first consider the fact that, depending on your goals, you may not need to host a server or purchase Minecraft licenses at all. If people who already play Minecraft are coming to your library and want to play on the same server, they just need to share the IP address and connect. Also note that the server software is free, so if you have an idle computer sitting around, it’s probably powerful enough to run a Minecraft server. Here is a price comparison as of January 2019 for a single user license across different platforms:

  • Minecraft Java Edition (Windows/OSX/Linux): $26.95
  • Minecraft Nintendo Switch: $29.99
  • Minecraft Playstation 4: $24.95
  • Minecraft Xbox: $19.99
  • Minecraft Bedrock (Android/IOS): $6.99
  • Minecraft Education Edition (per user, annually): $5

It’s easy to see that Education Edition is the clear winner here, especially if you’re not sure if Minecraft will be a repeat program next year, but keep in mind this version has several roadblocks that might be in your way. First off, you need Windows 10 installed, which might be a few years away in your computer lab. Secondly, check your eligibility. For public libraries this just means providing “general library services without charge to all residents of a given community, district, or region”.

The Middle Ground

Let’s say you’re feeling a bit adventurous and would like to offer your Minecraft community a self-hosted, dedicated server for a year. You might be able to get by using a free Amazon Web Services tier and self-updating MC server Docker image. A highly motivated person might also look at a distributed web backup solution so the server files are always extra safe. The 3-2-1 rule still applies!

AWS prices vary by location and uptime, so you’ll need to price this out individually, but unless you have a volunteer willing to keep tabs on the server 24/7, or somehow magically create the most popular Minecraft server ever in the world with 1000s of users online all the time (because this would eat up a lot of CPU cycles), the bigger costs is most likely going to fall under the dedicated staff time to keep it up and running.

That being said, also keep in mind that it’s pretty easy to manually start and stop AWS instances to keep costs down, and/or use Auto Scaling so you’re only paying for what you need. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any solid guides or tutorials that step you through this entire process (some were started but never finished, which seems very telling).

High End Solutions

These are premium solutions for premium experiences. At the top of the list is Minecraft Realms. This service, direct from Microsoft, has a unique price model. The best part about this service, in my opinion, is automatic backups:

  • Java Edition: $7.99-9.99 per month (up to 11 players)
  • Bedrock Edition: $3.99 (3 players) to $7.99 per month (11 players)

You might be wondering why this is a high-end solution given the relatively low price. With so few players accessing the server at one time, unless there’s a special need for the server (say, large geographic distances making LAN play impossible or difficult to configure) you could probably just use the build-in LAN play option to host a server for free from one of the machines. There are some other differences between Realms and a self-hosted or professionally hosted server, like the option to install mod packs, but this is a discussion for another time.

Let’s assume for a moment that you want to allow at least 20 players at a time and need fully managed hosting with a customer support number and the most user-friendly experience possible. Over the past decade this has moved from being a cottage industry to a highly competitive market. A simple Google search shows the variety of options. While I’m not going to endorse a specific Minecraft server host, be aware that many of these services also offer a time-limited free tier, making it easier to shop around for the best option and test out different configurations.

Finally, there’s a hybrid approach that might work better for your library in the form of a “cloud gaming” computer. I’ve personally tested Shadow, which worked well but costs ~$35 per month. The nice part about a cloud gaming set up is the versatility and access to a super fast GPU from anywhere, but since a Minecraft server is more about CPU speed than the graphics card, unless you also plan to use your cloud gaming setup  for demonstration purposes and/or other video games, this is probably overdoing it.

Questions? Comments?

Did I get something wrong? Are you a Minecraft pro that disagrees with any of the above or someone new with lots of questions? I’d love to hear  from you. The best way to reach me is via Twitter but if you’re in the bay area (and you probably are if you’re reading this) I’ll also be at Minefaire coming up on Feb 9th and 10th at the San Mateo County Event Center.

As a final caveat, it’s important to remember these prices change all the time! Let’s not forget the early-birds were paying ~$13 when the PC version was in “pre-release” mode many moons ago.