From a few cubes to a billion dollar buyout: A look at the Minecraft phenomenon

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It was recently announced that Mojang, the developers of Minecraft, had been purchased by Microsoft for a cool $2.5billion. The game’s founder, Markus ‘Notch’ Persson, explained his decision as the result of being tired of the pressures of working on such a huge title. Nevertheless as the majority shareholder of Mojang there’s little doubt that the ten figure buyout fee had something to do with his choice. Whatever the reasons, however, the sale represented a watershed moment in recent videogame history. Now, as the founders unpack their desks, smile gleefully at their bank balances, and insist that “…Minecraft will continue to grow in an awesome way”, we may ask a perplexing question: how did a wee indie game get this big?

Though this is damn-near impossible to fully answer, especially in a brief article, the answer (probably) isn’t “It was magic.” As such I’ll attempt to give a concise, logical explanation behind one of gaming’s greatest phenomena’s. A key element in Minecraft’s success is fairly simple: it’s an awesome game. Exploring, crafting, and fighting within its universe are all incredibly fun and addictive experiences. Nevertheless such things have been true for countless games, and these titles don’t have over 33million users spread across ten different platforms.

What Minecraft masters is accessibility. Its game mechanics and controls are staggeringly simple. As are its low-def, yet beautiful, graphics. The combination has proved an enticing prospect for new players. In particular those, such as young children, with little experience of gaming. Since its 2009 release Minecraft has been an oasis for alternative educational and creative experiences. Indeed, as the game’s own wiki site argues, Minecraft can improve children’s reading writing, mathematical, social, and even musical skills.

Admittedly just because a game packs (debatable) ‘edutainment’ value certainly doesn’t mean that it will be a hit amongst school kids – fun gameplay is the far more realistic explanation. It does, however, make shelling out almost £20 for a videogame more digestible for parents. Indeed Minecraft’s youth appeal and potentially lucrative educational functions could explain some of the logic behind Microsoft’s recent takeover.

Nevertheless as the legendary, and peculiarly relevant, Match of the Day pundit Alan Hanson once said: ‘You don’t win anything with kids.’ The games simplicity belies its near-infinite depth; a depth that has hooked its immense adult community from day one. With the game’s simple toolset, fully-grown players have created countless spectacular in game levels. The top picks include a full recreation of Game of Thrones’ King’s Landing, a complete multi-storey galleon, and even a functioning computer. All of which have been produced from a simple mixture of cubes, creativity, and dedication. The game has tapped in to that same realisation Lego made 65 years ago: adults like to play too.

Still this only explains why so many people started playing Minecraft once they knew of it, not how they first caught a glance of its beautiful cubed face. Indeed the game started life as a relatively unknown PC beta back in 2009. With no big bucks marketing campaign it relied primarily on word of mouth to get known. Luckily for Mojang the game quickly caught fire amongst YouTubers and bloggers. ‘Sky’, the most successful Minecraft channel, boasts almost 10.5million subscribers and well over 2billion views. It’s also thought that as much a third of Minecraft’s players first learnt about the game via the popular video hosting site.

The game has succeed on such a monumental scale because it combines often mutually exclusive virtues. Depth and simplicity have gone hand in hand with education and fun. The maxim that a pretty face never hurt anyone also rings true in Minecraft’s case; its handsome looks have given it the required sparkle it needed to be a televisual smash hit.

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