I think if you are reading this you PROBABLY know what Minecraft is, but for the uninitiated it is a sandbox building game that lets you mine resources and create objects and “machines” within the virtual environment. It uses simple graphics and relatively sparse gameplay to create an open template allowing people to build and explore. The underlying complexity is actually quite startling with people being able to create virtual hard drives , see it used by governments to be bombed (or liberated) my Americans, and more.
There’s a few levels of interesting news tied to this story, let’s start with the more feel good aspects of the story as it relates to gaming. Mojang has been a success story from day one, it basically paved the way for early access gaming (for good or ill) and helped show that creative space concepts, games that functioned almost like toys allowing for emergent gameplay are not just possible technically but are commercially viable.
In the case of Minecraft, it’s much the same thing, Microsoft are a company with a long and storied history. They reinvented the home PC and in concert with Apple ushered in an era of usability that has made computers a household device. They have attempted for years to branch out on to other form factors and platforms with some of the first smart phones (only to have Apple steal their thunder), the first tablets (see iPhones), smart homes (Apple and Google are getting up in that), and so on. Microsoft have been very good at some things, and very bad at others. Right now they are trying to unify these successes in to a monolithic entity bringing together their modestly successful Windows Phone (number 3 mobile platform but a DISTANT third), their Xbox game platform, and their desktop platform. The goal is to eliminate the boundaries between devices so you can pick up your phone in the morning, drop it in to a dock at work and do your daily work, bring it home dropping it in to a dock and play your games with all the heavy lifting being done by cloud based servers and service based software.
This is a pretty risky prospect but to achieve this they need buy in. Microsoft’s image has not always been the most untarnished by controversy. Often given the moniker M$ for previous behavior and after the terrible Vista launch a few years back and the much maligned launch of Windows 8 (some would say undeservedly) on top of the train wreck of how they handled consumer backlash to pushing for a digital future with the Xbox One it is now about buy in. Mojang as a publisher is pretty worthless, they have one other project that is still in semi-closed beta and other than that a lot of half finished ideas. What they do have is the most recognizable brand for 8 to 16 year olds on the market. By leveraging this brand and (with hope) treating it with respect and moving it forward in ways that Notch could not they can buy the support of a generation.
There’s no guarantee that this will work or is even possible but it’s a bold choice, they are attacking this in a realistic way and are not expecting a return on investment in the first year but a reasonable GAAP approach of expecting a return on the capital greater than they would have received by not using this capital (basically Minecraft will make more for them than that same 2.5 billion would have earned in interest). This is a cautious approach that does not force an aggressive strategy and is supported by the fact they have clearly indicated they will continue to support other platforms. Like their patent policies (which many people ignore) they will continue to let other people have access to the technology because it ensures a revenue stream outside of their core enterprise and OS brands (for example Google has to pay Microsoft for every Android phone sold due to patent considerations).
So at that level, this is an interesting story of success, of an industry and companies being willing to take risks and leverage technology and properties as a long term investment but using these same examples (and the addition of one more) we can see an ugly side to this as well. This ugly side has been in the news far too often as of late.
After the sale of Oculus to Facebook there was a vicious backlash by gamers towards the company, they immediately started accusing the company of “selling out”. The stated objective was to gain more capital to move the product beyond the limited scope of their initial vision, which was a scaled down version of their true vision. This did not sit well with gamers who accused the founders of being in it for the “cash” with little to no foundation in fact. Oculus continues on the same trajectory it was before just with further resources and the ability to plan beyond being a gaming peripheral, this has not appeased some critics though (including ironically Notch who at first said he would not touch the device now but then backed off saying he understood the issues and may have spoken in a rash manner interestingly around the time the Microsoft deal started to come together).
For those who don’t know Fish I suggest watching that video in full, it’s very enlightening, but to sum up he was a Montreal creator responsible for the brilliant retro-indie game Fez. He was an opinionated fellow, no more so than anyone else on the internet, but he was blunt and suffered from a lack of filter that many raised in chat rooms seem to suffer. He would speak from the hip in a way that would often invite criticism. He also had the “failing”of celebrity having appeared in the award winning documentary Indie Game The Movie. Add to this his sense of style (honestly the sense of style of many a Montreal twenty something with skinny jeans and sideburns) he instantly had the dislike of the “defenders of gaming”. The man received attacks on a daily basis. I’m not defending his choices of words, there are many things he said that I feel uncomfortable with but it never justified the response which basically drove him (and around the same time several other people including the Bioware founders Doctors Ray Muzyka and Greg Sechuck among others) from the industry entirely. In the case of Fish though, it continued to haunt him even after he left the industry with the recent Quinn disaster leading to his personal information being disclosed including his company’s payroll data and the website for the game and company for which he was no longer involved being compromised so disgusted with the situation he is selling his company and the IP.
Notch saw this, he saw this all unfold, and he was afraid. He was afraid of becoming a symbol like Fish who came to represent to some the “hipster douche bag indie developers ruining the industry”. People didn’t attack Fish because of his product (which was amazing) they attacked him because the IDEA of Fish made them displeased. Much in the same way female writers at Bioware made them displeased to the point of sending death threats (hence the Doctors quitting in disgust) or Quinn became a symbol for the “corruption” in the gaming press. This circular logic from this slender but vicious slice of the gaming world was enough to make him fear for, in his own words, his sanity. He struggled with creating something that would keep the passion of gamers alive, he struggled with a public of whom he was becoming increasingly afraid, and he struggled with an industry that he felt he was ill prepared to deal with and so he sold.
He has indicated he is going to return to the programming challenges that he enjoyed and led to the creation of Minecraft but he has also said he if he sees anything even begin to get traction like Minecraft he will abandon it immediately. We have essentially scared the man out of creating so he’s going to live like some hermit rock star who had some crazy pop hit in the 60s but is now so afraid of the fans he lives a life of solitude. So, thanks to the random few dwelling in 4chan, reddit and in the seedier corners of gaming and the internet we have lost another creative talent. He is one of many who have fallen to the whims of a crowd that doesn’t understand the business, the technical aspects or even the basic nature of civility.
Where does this leave us? Hopefully Mojang and Oculus will find longevity under their new owners, hopefully in time these talents will return or in the least act as phantom benefactors supporting projects giving them the leg up needed to succeed (which means hopefully Notch will now fund that Psychonauts 2 sequel he said he’d help fund), and in time that as a community grow to become more mature and nuanced so instead of attacking people we start engaging people and building instead of destroying but as long as the internet remains anonymous and people have the easy ability to hide behind a screen name and a fake IP I am not entirely convinced that this is possible... but one can dream.