Microsoft purchased Mojang, developer of Minecraft, for $2.5 billion earlier this week. $2.5 billion is a lot of money to put down for an independent studio. To be fair, Minecraft, Mojang’s big hit, had reached popularity that exceeded the traditional “indie” label. But some believe that Microsoft’s influence on Mojang and, by extension, Minecraft will be detrimental to the creatively independent spirit of both the studio and the game. The primary argument to support this stance has been the plummeting in quality of Rare’s output since the company was purchased by Microsoft and games were developed for the Xbox ecosystem, and the parallels between the two acquisitions are obvious. But there are notable differences as well. It’s quite possible Microsoft’s corporate culture will stifle Mojang’s output after years of independence, but there are a few reasons the developer (hopefully) won’t lose the creative, critical, and financial success brought to them by Minecraft.
Learning From Past Mistakes
Context is always important, so it’s crucial to understand why Microsoft’s track record of developer control leaves some fans feeling less than confident about Mojang’s future. Rare, from 1985 to 2002, primarily developed for Nintendo consoles, even becoming an official second-party developer in 1994. During that time, it created critical hits like Battletoads, Donkey Kong Country, Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye 007, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and more, all closely associated with Nintendo. Donkey Kong itself was, of course, a Nintendo property. In 2002, Microsoft purchased the entirety of Rare for $375 million. With the exception of a handful of Game Boy Advance and DS games, Rare began making games exclusively for Xbox platforms. Early Rare-developed Xbox games like Grabbed by the Ghoulies, Kameo: Elements of Power, and Viva Piñata were fairly well-received, but perhaps lacked the elements that made Rare’s past games instant classics. Ultimately, games like Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts and Kinect Sports convinced people that Microsoft was “ruining” Rare. It didn’t matter that Rare made many of its own creative decisions (and its own mistakes); the change in quality was marked by the transition to Microsoft ownership. It’s truly hard to say how much, and what kind, of an effect Microsoft had on Rare’s projects post-Nintendo, but no matter how significant, Microsoft has certainly learned from past mistakes. Whether it was claustrophobic direction or the allowance of rampant freedom that diminished Rare’s recent work, or even something else entirely, Microsoft is sure to be working hard to make sure public opinion doesn’t shift quite so dramatically again. With the company’s recent attempts to create an “all about the players” message similar to its competitors’ and the promotion of Phil Spencer — an honest-to-goodness fan favorite of gaming corporate culture — to head of Xbox and Microsoft Studios, it seems that Microsoft is attempting to assure players that it’s working hard to make good games. In this case, that might actually mean a more hands-off approach is taken with Mojang’s work. Support will even be continued for all existing Minecraft ports, including the upcoming Vita version, so it’s clear that Microsoft doesn’t want to take anything away from Minecraft players on other platforms, and that could extend to future projects.
But didn’t Microsoft care enough to do that before? Is Minecraft really that much more valuable? Well, yes, Microsoft certainly didn’t purchase Rare with the intent to force them to make lesser games. And Minecraft really is that much more valuable. 23 million copies of Rare’s hits Donkey Kong Country, Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye 007, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day were sold, roughly and collectively. In June of this year, Minecraft was nearing the 54 million mark. Of course, there are qualifiers that need to be mentioned. Rare’s games were only published on one platform, whereas Minecraft is on everything. Minecraft is cheaper, going for about $20. Rare’s games, especially back in the ’90s, were much more expensive. Still, Minecraft, all on its lonesome, has outsold all of Rare’s popular titles. Microsoft has already made a statement regarding the financial viability of the Mojang acquisition, despite the purchase price; it expects to make even returns by the beginning of fiscal year 2015, and the deal hasn’t even officially closed yet. While Microsoft’s confidence isn’t a portent for what will come to pass, it’s certainly telling of the value the corporation saw in Minecraft.
Mojang Is Minecraft
Minecraft’s massive popularity and its existence as a pop culture phenomenon might imply that Microsoft didn’t feel the same way about Rare, and clearly it didn’t. Truly, Microsoft purchased Rare for Rare’s potential — not for Banjo-Kazooie or any of its specific intellectual properties. The Mojang acquisition, on the other hand, was all about Minecraft. That may sound like a cynical view belittling Mojang’s talents as a creative studio, but it illustrates the point that this was a carefully calculated business decision. Microsoft’s not expecting those returns to come from Cobalt and Scrolls, two recent Mojang’s games that still haven’t left the earliest stages of development. But in terms of quality, and fans’ uneasiness with Minecraft creator Markus “Notch” Persson’s public declaration of his leaving Mojang, not much is going to change. Notch essentially handed the Minecraft development reins to Mojang in 2011, and has had nothing to do with the game’s development since that time. In Rare’s case, early Microsoft games, which received moderate critical (if not commercial) success, were still overseen by studio founders Tim and Chris Stamper. After they left in 2007, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts and Kinect Sports were released. That’s truly not a commentary on the quality of those games; if anything, they’re quality creations. However, they were not born from a group of people who were critical to the development of the classics that came before — the classics that defined Rare as the world class developer they once were. Minecraft has only gotten better since Notch gave it away, and its commercial viability continues to grow. Additionally, there aren’t truly expectations for a host of properties and series, beyond Minecraft of course. Any new projects from Mojang, as long as they don’t utilize the apparently hated Kinect, can be made without an expectation of familiarity and certain elements. Once again, beyond Minecraft.
“Beyond Minecraft” will eventually define Mojang’s future as a part of Microsoft. While that future is uncertain, the reasons I’ve outlined will hopefully have a positive effect on whatever comes after Minecraft, and on the continued development of Minecraft itself.