Last week, I heard and read about a news story that seemed a bit ridiculous: Microsoft was acquiring the amazingly kid-popular company Mojang, the company that created the game Minecraft. At first, I sighed, thinking, “Why in the world would Microsoft want to dilute their focus at such a critical time on a game company?” A game company who’s flagship product was not even founded on the Microsoft platform. Then I saw the price: over $2 billion. My God, that is a lot of money. At the time, I knew very little about this Minecraft game so I set out to research because I just couldn’t understand that valuation and Microsoft’s interest in it. And you may be thinking, “What does this have to do with developers?” First, let me explain a few things.
What is Minecraft?
Minecraft is different than other video games because the object is to design and build—not to shoot at, kill, or destroy. The goal of the game is to build structures in an open 3D environment. True, it's a video game, but it’s a video game with very few like it in today’s list of popular games. Like Lego and its games, you can easily classify Minecraft as a digital building toy.
Shockingly, Minecraft has sold over 54 million copies across all platforms. Minecraft is one of the most popular games in the United States, with over 100 million registered users. Its popularity is due to a number of things:
- The ability for the user to use his or her creativity and imagination in designing and building a whole new world.
- Its popularity has bridged user demographics. Minecraft players consist of the young and the old; males and females, from all walks of life.
- Parental support—think about it. Do you really want kids playing realistic shoot-‘em-dead and blow-em-up games, or would you rather your kids play a game that demands creativity like Minecraft does?
What is really interesting to me is that in terms of realism and graphics, Minecraft isn't even in the same league as the current genre of first-person shooter games like Halo on Xbox. Compared to games like that, Minecraft seems very low-tech. At first glance, the gameplay seems almost too simple.
Why Microsoft Values Minecraft So Highly
It’s obvious to assume that Microsoft’s acquisition of Minecraft could just be a money grab. Or the acquisition could just be a move—albeit an expensive one—to make Wall Street happy so that the stock price moves. But, many financial analysts believe that the acquisition could become big; really big. There is bold speculation that if Microsoft can properly manage the Minecraft brand (most likely by keeping the Microsoft brand clear of the Minecraft brand), this game and the resulting line of business could become the next LEGO. Like LEGO, the Minecraft business could encompass merchandising and movies and also opportunities for co-branding with other franchises such as Disney, Marvel, and Pixar brands and many more. LEGO is a private company currently valued at $14.7 billion. And at that valuation, $2 billion seems like Microsoft may have gotten a deal.
How is Minecraft Relevant to Developers?
I've said and written many times before that Satya Nadella, the Microsoft CEO, is “one of us”. He is a developer by trade. Since he’s the CEO, he's clearly leading this Minecraft/Mojang acquisition. I've also said and written many times before that Microsoft has to refocus its business to win back the developer. Over the last many years Microsoft has lost many of its faithful developers to other platforms—mostly the “under-30s" developers that could have been essential. Could this new move be a way to cultivate the next generation of faithful Microsoft platform developers? It’s clear that Minecraft could easily fit in with Microsoft’s vision of an Xbox-integrated and ubiquitous living room experience. It’s also clear that an SDK and developer experience for Minecraft seems like a great idea. Only time will tell. If the developer truly is part of the master plan of this acquisition and if that master plan is pulled off successfully, then Satya Nadella may just be the visionary leader that Microsoft so desperately needs.