Marnix Licht is no ordinary Minecraft player. The Dutch former science teacher is better known as Cubehamster, a YouTube and social media sensation for his comprehensive tutorials and mecha-sized contraptions, with a growing presence on Twitch too.
For the uninitiated, Cubehamster is not your regular Let's Player. He's a 'redstoner', a Minecraft player who specialises in building with redstone, the game’s equivalent of electrical circuits. When combined with other types of blocks – command blocks, pistons and slime blocks – these can be combined to create enormous machines, even functioning computers and video games within video games.
This is what Licht excels at. He's an in-game engineer, able to construct vast, bipedal robots that would make even the Megazord turn around and go home, or recreate classic scenes from your favourite sci-fi films, as he did with his own take on the Death Star trench run just last week.
Licht is so successful at this that he's been able to quit his day job and concentrate on Minecraft full time. As Cubehamster begins a new step in his career – as a Minecraft lecturer – we caught up with the man to find out more about just how he got to where he is, his dream of building a factory in Minecraft that assembles robots, and that Missile Wars sequel we've all been clamouring for.
When did you first get into Minecraft? How did things progress after that?
I started playing just before beta 1.7, which is the version where they released redstone piston blocks, a long time ago. Originally, I got dragged into the game by friends. At first I kind of dismissed them, "What is this? It seems like a very childish game." But then, after them playing the game for several months and me staying away from it, they dragged me in there and I was like, "OK, I was wrong, it's actually really fun."
The thing that really got me was the redstone aspect of the game, where you can program and create your own machines and computers. At the end of beta 1.7 I started messing about a bit with logic gates, and then after the next update they released pistons and I was like, "Wow!" I moved stuff around, made hydraulic machines, stuff like that.
What was the first machine you made?
Before the pistons were introduced, I made a train station where you click a button and the train arrives at a certain station. I knew binary logic, so when the pistons came out, the first thing I wondered was whether I could make a clock that gave binary signals.
I ended up making something that was completely and ridiculously huge. The machine was about 60x60x60, with logic and stuff to push up a staircase from the ground. Looking back at it, if I was going to do the same thing again, instead of needing that space I could probably do it in one fifteenth of the size. At that time though, there really weren't any redstoners doing stuff on YouTube to offer advice.
Which is where you stepped in. When did you start sharing your videos?
At some point with the pistons, somebody figured out how to make an elevator that just went up, and it was a fast way to get the player up onto a high building. I was actually the first guy to figure out a system to also bring the player back down – without having to freefall down into a bucket of water!
The Attack Robot Colossus is one of Cubehamster's biggest creations
Had you made other game videos before? Looking back on it, were your first Minecraft videos quite rough?
I made one video in 2007 for Garry's Mod. That was my first and only experience. And yes, my style is definitely still evolving. If I look back, my first videos were horrible. I sounded very insecure and didn't get straight to the point – they were very unprofessional.
You've only recently begun to livestream your builds. Were you wary of Twitch? What was the reaction like?
It's a bit weird because a lot of streamers just play shooters, League of Legends, games that are very active, whereas I am working on a project. It's a niche, but there are so many people interested in Minecraft that even then, it's still a pretty big niche.
Tell us about your favourite creations.
My first big breakthrough was actually also an elevator, a very fancy one. That was when I started using Reddit to promote my work. It was when Notch was still the owner of Minecraft. You had the Minecraft forum where you could post stuff and, basically, the post got to the front of Reddit. Notch actually saw the elevator and tweeted about it, and from that it just blew up completely.
Cubehamster's Mega Gargantua, a ridiculously huge robot, in action
Tell us about the creation of Mega Gargantua, one of your craziest inventions.
The idea was that we had a robot with cannons, missile launchers and using special techniques you can actually activate them from the player's perspective while you're on it. We did a robot battle where we had two of these robots fight each other, shooting flame arrows and TNT. That was so much fun, but the thing that was actually the most fun was shooting down the incoming missiles, to try and stop them before they hit the robot.
I've been to Minecon a few times and I've been on the redstone panel, so I know lots of other creators. There was one guy, SethBling, and we were talking about doing a collaboration at some point. After that missile fight battle I was like, 'Wow, we should turn this into a game which focuses on firing missiles at each other and trying to blow them up'.
So we created a game called Missile Wars. From the lobby you get teleported, and after a certain amount of time you get items, defensive items like snowballs, to create barriers that block incoming missiles and fireballs. You can actually jump on the missiles, you can ride them across and do parkour while they explode in mid-air.
The cool thing about these missiles is they have trigger mechanisms when they hit a wall because of the way they are built. It means if you pre-empt the missile by hitting the right TNT, or the right Slime block, you can manipulate them. You can defuse them, you can stop them in mid-air. People got really into it because of all the subtle techniques that were involved.
A quick peek at what the above-mentioned Missile Wars looks like.
You only quit your day job as a school teacher last year. Has your background as a teacher affected how you play Minecraft and the way you make tutorials?
Teaching is something that's in my heart, basically. I think my physics and chemistry background maybe goes with the problem solving aspect, being able to tackle big projects and keeping a clear mind about things. But I'm not a programmer and although I know binary stuff, that's all super basic and doesn't really help me that much.
What about growing up, were you into Meccano and Lego?
I grew up with Duplo and Lego for sure, but that's as far as it goes – I never got into Technic Lego. But I've always been building stuff and when I was little I was like a General; I used to give my Lego people weapons and build bases with defense mechanisms, stuff like that. I think that has translated a bit into my YouTube videos.
Where do you get your inspiration for new ideas?
I get my inspiration from watching other people's redstone videos, by the things that they do, video games, movies. Recently I've been working on making an actual functioning factory in Minecraft, inspired by a real factory.
The reason that it started was because another YouTuber, a guy called Redstone Jazz, discovered a new mechanic in the game that allowed a good mechanism of separating Slime blocks. So by separating them again I can basically hook them up to other blocks. It's basically a big assembly machine, like a conveyer belt.
Cubehamster has been working on a fully functioning factory that makes things in the game.
To give a sense of scale, how long does it take to build these projects, from the start to finish?
I literally just start making them. The big four-legged walking robot took around 60 hours, the spider took around 30. This factory, I've already spent around 24 hours on it and it'll probably go to 35. The Missile Wars game, that was done quite quickly – we spent about two weeks on it but then we spent a lot of time testing, mainly because it was so much fun. We've been doing promotional work recently as well, where we created an almost standalone game in Minecraft using command blocks, a game called The Heist.
The Heist is an almost standalone game in Minecraft and looks practically nothing like its base title.
What are the most difficult things to make in Minecraft?
There's basically command block stuff – so the programming – and then you have Redstone, and I see those things separately. With command blocks there's pretty much no limit. With the redstone stuff, when yo''re trying to build something, you're making a 3D puzzle. Every one-by-one area can only fit one block, so you can't easily fit everything – you have to work to fit it all together.
Have you got a list of things you want to make still? What would you love to do?
On my list right now is finishing this factory. As for future projects, I have a bunch of mini game ideas I want to do, but those take a lot of time, especially if you want to polish them a lot. I also want to make a factory that builds robots in Minecraft. I know it's possible, but I just want to finish this project first.
What's next for you? How does your career as a Minecraft player evolve from here?
I have all these ideas for cool games you can create in Minecraft, but I'm basically doing two things. Starting this week I'll be teaching Minecraft to game design students at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam. Basically it's students from all different directions who can choose game design. When I was teaching in my old school as a physics teacher, one of my colleagues had a brother-in-law who worked at the college. When I started talking about how I wanted to do something with Minecraft, he mentioned me and we got talking, and that's pretty much how I got involved.
Has anybody called you a professor of Minecraft yet?
[Laughs] No, not yet.
Do you see yourself working with other Minecraft creators on really, really big projects?
I have other projects, but they're generally projects that involve command blocks as well. With redstone I'm basically self-sustainable and can do the things I want to do, but when it comes to command blocks for mini games and stuff, you need command blocks to make things really cool, and I call in the help of other people. And as for aesthetic builds, I also get help from other people. But that's kind of where I want to go; I make cool stuff but I see myself as a game designer as well.
In a month or so I want to try and get a Kickstarter going for a Minecraft map, a sequel of sorts to the Missile Wars map, but something that's super-polished. I've done the promotional in-game marketing and advertising thing, but I think that after I've done with this teaching job I'm going to poke around and see if I can interest some companies in doing some promotional stuff for them.
How do you see Minecraft itself evolving now it's owned by Microsoft?
It's interesting to see. The development for Minecraft on PC has actually been pretty slow recently, and that has to do with Microsoft buying out Minecraft, but I also think they may be doing it because they want the consoles to catch up, which has pretty much happened now.
They released the Minecraft Educational package, which is a good way for teachers to assign projects and is very interesting, and then you have the whole HoloLens thing, which looks particularly cool. I would love to see one of my robots walk on the table – it'd be the best thing ever! I don't know if Microsoft is going to make a Minecraft 2.0 at some point, I reckon they might, but I'm just looking forward to seeing Minecraft version 1.9.