Why Microsoft might be the best thing that ever happened to Minecraft

By

Picture courtesy Xbox
Picture courtesy Xbox

Microsoft’s $2.5 billion purchase of Minecraft maker Mojang might read like another “corporate behemoth swallows a beloved indie” story, but in reality this could be the best thing that ever happened to the game.

The inevitable snarky reactions on Twitter called out the deal as yet another reason to hate on Microsoft. While those might be valid points when it comes to some of Redmond’s more egregious enterprise software tactics, there’s simply no reason for worrying about the fate of Minecraft. When it comes to gaming acquisitions, Microsoft has shown itself to be anything but a harsh master.

Mojang co-founder Markus “Notch” Persson’s open letter about leaving the company in the wake of the sale might sound like sour grapes coming from anyone else, but it conveys a profound sense of relief from the controversy-shy game developer.

“I love you. All of you,” writes Persson. “Thank you for turning Minecraft into what it has become, but there are too many of you, and I can’t be responsible for something this big. In one sense, it belongs to Microsoft now. In a much bigger sense, it’s belonged to all of you for a long time, and that will never change.”

Minecraft has more than 100 million subscribers, making it the biggest success in recent gaming history. Ask any kid or gaming adult about it, and chances are you’ll get an earful. It started in 2010 as a beta available to geeks in the know, came onto the scene for PC and Mac in November 2011, and then exploded onto every major platform imaginable — Xbox, PlayStation, iOS and Android.

It’s exactly the kind of smash hit that could bolster Microsoft’s credibility with a generation that never used Word.

Say what you will about Bill Gates’ technology giant, but Microsoft’s Xbox division has always been successful. The company’s previous acquisitions, like Lionhead Studios (maker of the Fable series of games) and Rare (the folks behind the Viva Piñata games), have done pretty well. Heck, an early purchase, Bungie — after developing several highly successful Halo games — grew too big for the Microsoft family and eventually parted ways as a much bigger, much more successful game studio. They’ve just released Destiny to wide critical and consumer acclaim.

In the two years Minecraft has been on Xbox Live alone, players have racked up more than 2 billion hours of mining and crafting on Microsoft’s gaming platform. As Xbox head Phil Spencer says, “We’ve long seen the incredible potential of Minecraft.”

The only real concerns over a Microsoft-owned Minecraft are twofold: One, that the new owner will pull the game from competing platforms; and two, that the thriving independent scene of personally owned servers and crazy modifications will come to an end as Microsoft pulls the game’s code behind its corporate wall.

We’ll never know in advance exactly where Microsoft will take its hot new property. But Phil Spencer, head of the company’s Xbox division, addressed the issue of competing platforms quite directly in a video posted this morning alongside the deal announcement.

“Whether you’re playing on Xbox or PlayStation, Android or iOS,” said Spencer, “our goal is to continue to evolve and innovate with Minecraft across all those platforms.”

Mojang’s Chief Word Officer, Owen Hill, also spoke right to this worry. “There’s no reason for the development, sales, and support of the PC/Mac, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, Vita, iOS, and Android versions of Minecraft to stop,” he writes on the Mojang website. “Of course, Microsoft can’t make decisions for other companies or predict the choices that they might make in the future.”

Whether hackers will be able to continue modifying the game is less certain, but Hill takes a stab at addressing the issue, saying, “We don’t know specific plans for Minecraft’s future yet, but we do know that everyone involved wants the community to grow and become even more amazing than it’s ever been. Stopping players making cool stuff is not in anyone’s interests.”

Why did Persson, still the majority owner at Mojang, sell the company? According to Hill, the company just became too big, the pressure too much to handle.

In his own letter, Persson adds a bit of nuance to the decision. He says he watched a video on YouTube (This is Phil Fish) that made him realize he’d become a figurehead to the millions of people who play his game and comment on gamer culture.

“I don’t want to be a symbol,” he writes, “responsible for something huge that I don’t understand, that I don’t want to work on, that keeps coming back to me. I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m not a CEO. I’m a nerdy computer programmer who likes to have opinions on Twitter.”

Ultimately, rolling the biggest game since Halo into the most successful division of a huge technology company may in fact be the best thing for Minecraft. As Microsoft’s last few gaming and tech acquisitions have proved, Redmond is capable of retaining the best of the companies it purchases. Most of the fear is created by uncertainty about an unknown future.

“Change is scary,” says Mojang’s Hill, “and this is a big change for all of us. It’s going to be good though. Everything is going to be OK. <3"