Sensational news over night as it has been reported that Microsoft is about to close a deal to buy Mojang, the company that developers the wildly popular game Minecraft. According to the WSJ, the deal would value the company at $2bn. Here’s four questions we’re asking as a result.
1) What’s in it for Microsoft?
There’s two ways of looking at it from Microsoft’s perspective. The first is that Mojang is a hugely successful independent developer, that with modest staff have managed to create one of the biggest games in the world. Who wouldn’t want a piece of that success?
The second is slightly more on the nose: The Xbox One is struggling – being outgunned by the PS4 and is being outsold reportedly 2:1. It needs to do something: How can it stop the PS4 getting all of the most wanted games?
Short of being able to supply children with crack, Microsoft is opting for the next best thing and buying Minecraft which is not only widely popular, but also has a dedicated fan base. The game is so important, as a community hub for many people, and as a platform that the game only being available on Microsoft’s platforms is sure to convert a tonne of people from a future PS4 purchase to Xbox One. Who wants to be the only kids bringing the much inferior Mega-Blocks to a Lego party?
If the deal goes through, it could go a long way to giving Microsoft a fighting chance of clawing back market share from Sony in a difficult situation, where the vast majority of Triple-A games are cross-platform. Minecraft could become the saviour of the Xbox One.
2) What does this mean for Minecraft on other platforms?
In a sense, Microsoft’s $2bn could be like the Tomb Raider deal – paying for exclusivity. But this time, rather than get nothing but heat for buying its way to exclusivity, it can more credibly claim to be investing in the future of the game.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens to Minecraft on the many other non-Microsoft platforms now: It has been ported to everything from Playstation, to Linux and Mac, to iPhone and Android. If I was a betting man, I’d speculate that the PS3 and PS4 versions could now be cancelled. Why? A while back we heard of so-called delays in development on the PS4 version, only to then have Minecraft pop up on Xbox One out of the blue last Friday. Anyone would think that the deal was on the cards, and Mojang didn’t want to scare away the $2bn.
What’s also interesting to consider is Minecraft on mobile: Windows Phone is also struggling, and Microsoft is keen to establish it as a games platform (even using the Xbox brand for its games offering). What if Windows Phone was the only platform on which you could play Minecraft on the go?
Of course – the above speculation could all be wrong, and Microsoft could instead judge to keep things going as they are, lest they upset the rabid fanbase – and in any case, the game could still be generating a nice income from micropayments and the like on other platforms. The only reason to change what is already working so well would be because it doesn’t fit in with broader strategic goals.
3) What does this mean for the future of Minecraft more generally?
It’s hard to say. The reports suggest that after the acquisition is complete that original creator Notch will be leaving the company – so there won’t be the same person guiding its development.
Given that it is Microsoft we’re talking about, it is perhaps also easy to worry about what gameplay “innovations” we could see. Could it become pay to play? Microsoft already has micropayments in the Xbox versions of the game: Though you can’t do anything substantive, you can skin your characters differently if you wish (like you can make your guy look like The Doctor).
4) Is Notch a filthy sell out?
The problem for the Minecraft ‘brand’ with this deal is that fundamentally Minecraft doesn’t ‘feel’ like a normal, shiny game. It isn’t the usual Call of Duty fodder – it feels more homemade and worthy. So for Notch to take the corporate cash? Yeah, something doesn’t sit quite right.
Here’s the thing though: If you were Notch, having built the game into the huge success it is today, with just 40 employees who helped you get there… wouldn’t you take the money? There’s many more degrading things that many people would do for a $2bn payday at the end of it.
Even if Notch is some sort of modern day Che Guevara (he isn’t), fighting the corporate power and all that, the pressure on him from employees with share options could be immense. Turning down a couple of billion dollars isn’t easy.
If Notch takes this deal then yes, he is a sell out. But… can you blame him?
5) Is there likely to be a backlash?
Trust me, it has already started.