In an alternate universe, Microsoft’s $2.5 billion acquisition of Minecraft maker Mojang looks very different these days. In that universe, Microsoft follows the historical form and announces that from now on all Mojang projects and future versions of Minecraft exclusive to Microsoft platforms: Xbox consoles and Windows PCs, tablets and phones.
In that alternate universe, many new people today would take a good look at those Microsoft platforms, especially the millions of parents with Minecraft– obsessed children. It’s been noticed for years, but it’s worth pointing out again that it applies to an entire generation of children Minecraft is the new Lego; less of a simple video game and more of a broad platform for connected creativity and self-expression. If Microsoft mastered the only ways to access that Minecraft platform, millions of people would come along for the ride, even if they grumbled loudly about switching devices.
However, that’s not what happened. Instead, for the first time in its long history of publishing games, Microsoft is going directly to make games for competing hardware platforms. As the company said in its press release today, “Microsoft plans to continue making Minecraft available on all platforms it is available on today: PC, iOS, Android, Xbox and PlayStation.”
This is a pretty unprecedented move for a major gaming platform holder (i.e. a console/OS maker), as unexpected and momentous as if Nintendo started making games for the iPhone. For example, after Microsoft bought Rare in 2002, games like Perfect dark zero did not appear on the Wii. After Microsoft bought Lionhead Studios in 2006, it hasn’t released a Macintosh version of it Fable II.
Granted, Microsoft Game Studios did release a few games for Nintendo handhelds, but there was no competing Microsoft handheld console at the time to make this a clearly self-defeating move. Microsoft as a whole has also become a bit less ironclad with its exclusive applications, recently bringing its Office suite to iPads and allowing Skype to remain on competing platforms such as OS X, iOS and Android after its 2011 acquisition (it should however, noted that Skype is available on Xbox systems, but not Sony’s PlayStation line).
Still, this is new territory in the gaming space: a console maker letting its entire ownership exist on competing hardware. The whole idea runs counter to the idea underlying the long-running console wars, where internal first-party developers create games to lure players into one walled garden over another (and ensnare third-party publishers for the exclusivity act along the way). way).
So why not make it Minecraft the exclusive Microsoft to end all exclusive offers? The first reason may be the legacy of the game. Minecraft is already well established as a famous platform agnostic game, playable on everything from Ubuntu Linux to the Sony Xperia Play. No doubt many Sony fans want a version of Halo on their PlayStation, but they’re not really entitled to that to expect it given the history of the franchise. Minecraft is different in this regard.
While Microsoft could slowly choke existing versions of the game through a lack of updates and support, that’s not exactly a move that would generate much goodwill among fans of the latest addition. And while many players would no doubt switch to Microsoft’s hardware just to play Minecraftmany others would remain stuck with their existing platforms for other reasons and simply curse Microsoft for denying them access to one of their favorite gaming activities.
On a purely financial level, it might be in Microsoft’s interest to allow this Minecraft to persist beyond the Microsoft ecosystem. Since last year, Mojang has recently launched Minecraft Realms, a $13/month hosted server service now owned by Microsoft. Keeping the base of players for that service as broad as possible is a good way to turn a game that is often a one-time purchase into an ongoing revenue stream.
And who knows what other monetization plans Microsoft has up its sleeve. Plenty Minecraft servers currently fund themselves by selling advertisements or cosmetic items to their players. If Microsoft plans to cut sales like that, or offer its own custom items as paid DLC (and there’s no indication of that), it would also make sense to encourage as broad a player base as possible to to spend. money on these things.
While Microsoft has promised Minecraft will continue to be available on a variety of platforms, it has left some wiggle room with regards to sequels and derivatives. We’ve already heard some speculation from concerned fans that Microsoft is releasing a Minecraft2 to the world as an Xbox/Windows exclusive, despite the fact that the ever-evolving original game has little need for a formal ‘sequel’.
That might be an easier way to hand the franchise over to Microsoft’s control than trying to put a cork in the game’s existing wide-open genie bottle. Although Microsoft says it plans to “maintain Minecraft and his community in all the ways that people love today,” plans can change. Many are rightfully suspicious that Microsoft would spend $2.5 billion on a game studio that will continue to help make money for Microsoft’s competitors well into the future.
We can look back to today as the day Microsoft began the Sega-esque realization that using exclusive games as a way to sell gaming hardware was less profitable than simply making popular games for a wide variety of other platforms. Or we can see today as a historical anomaly; a multi-platform acquisition that was too big and well-established to be confined in a small walled garden. Anyway, Microsoft’s path as a new game publisher on PlayStation, Android, iOS, et al. is definitely unfamiliar territory.