As the Guardian Liberty Voice reported yesterday, one of the biggest independent gaming hits of the past decade has been sold to Microsoft for a whopping $2.5 billion. Minecraft is an unusual game that channels the concept of a virtual sandbox, allowing the players to build elaborate structures using differently textured blocks. Atmospheres within the game range from small huts in the woods, through recreations of Star Wars fighter ships, all the way to complete sprawling cities based on real world and fictional locations. While the game features some challenges, such as creepers appearing at night to destroy the player-built structures, there is no real goal except the expression of creativity itself. However, many fear that creativity will be now stifled and the future of Minecraft after the Microsoft acquisition does not look very optimistic.
Minecraft began as a humble, little open-beta project developed by Swedish Markus “Notch” Persson. However, its popularity soared rapidly and Notch founded his company Mojang to handle the needs of what soon became one of the biggest titles in recent gaming history. Spread across multiple consoles and handhelds, along with a line of funny merchandise, Minecraft has already secured its place as a classic among its 50 million users. Yesterday, however, the company was sold to Microsoft, and Notch has stepped down from its development. He explained, however, that the reasons have more to do with his sanity than monetary gains.
Needless to say, the big change has caused a lot of worry among fans. Similar to many other triple-A publishers, Microsoft Studios does not have the best reputation when it comes to acquiring and preserving smaller developers, such as RARE, in the past. There are some concerns about potential future exclusivity as well, especially from those playing Minecraft on Sony or Apple platforms. Lastly, Notch leaving the project could also prove a large blow to its vision. Perhaps, however, Minecraft’s future is a little more optimistic than meets the eye, even in spite of the Microsoft acquisition.
All the seemingly negative factors could also turn out to be a blessing in disguise. While Microsoft may not have always treated their smaller developers well, Microsoft has proven a great partner to the Minecraft team so far, and has historically provided great game development tools for their console. Managing such a big and widespread title across so many different platforms has not always been easy for the Swedish development studio, and Notch himself expressed feeling confused and disconnected with his fanbase at times. Microsoft could provide all the resources and manpower to ensure the development of the game continues smoothly.
Secondly, given that Minecraft is already entrenched across so many platforms, it is unlikely it would turn exclusive now. Microsoft has indeed promised the development will continue on all consoles equally. However, there is a risk that some future updates or even new spin-offs may become timed-exclusives on the Xbox. After all, the upcoming Rise of the Tomb Raider has followed the same path and angered many of its fans, particularly since the precursor was released on multiple platforms simultaneously. Future exclusivity is, perhaps, the biggest threat Minecraft faces.
Lastly, the concerns about the game’s creative direction are not as big as they might first seem. The game has already established a strong foundation which has been consistently expanded and reiterated since its release in 2009, so there is little chance that would change. In fact, bringing new minds to work on the project could in fact foster whole new ideas and push the game in completely fresh innovative directions. Perhaps Minecraft will even expand to a franchise, encompassing more games with the central concepts of limitless creation and exploration at their core.
It is also important to note what the decision means for Notch himself. While he has worked on other titles during Minecraft’s development, most were small game-jam experiments. Some of his side projects ended up being cancelled, such as 0x10c, a sci-fi sandbox game with a complex world and ability to program a virtual 16-bit processor in the game. Perhaps freeing himself from the burden of keeping Minecraft alive and attaining financial security will enable Notch to once again spread his creative wings.
At this time, it is hard to predict the future of Minecraft after the Microsoft acquisition, but an optimistic outlook is not impossible. On one hand, it is true the game is a ripe ground for monetization and exploitation by a big studio looking to cash in on its huge popularity. On the other hand, the small Swedish studio can benefit from the resources, manpower and fresh outlooks of a bigger publisher being thrown at it. The coming weeks will give more hints, but given Minecraft’s strong gameplay foundation and diverse player base, as well as Notch’s newfound freedom to pursue other projects, the sale could be seen in a cautiously optimistic light, not only for this particular title, but the gaming sphere as a whole.
Opinion by Jakub Kasztalski