Yesterday, news broke that Microsoft was acquiring Mojang, the creator of the “sandbox” game Minecraft for $2.5 billion. The move will bolster Microsoft’s gaming ambitions and further integrate Microsoft’s gaming system, Xbox, with the incredibly popular game.
While the business world was ogling the massive deal for the open-world game, which has an estimated 100 million downloads on PCs alone and brought in $100 million in profit last year, parents were wondering what this means for their Minecraft-addicted children.
Minecraft is the go-to game for parents and children alike, because it’s incredibly easy to learn and fun to play, involving nothing more than clicking and building anything from roller coasters to castles to tree forts. It's impossible to win or lose and no one dies — it's just building. There are no rules and no instructions, it’s intuitive and straightforward. Younger children, say, 6 and up, may prefer to play in “creative mode,” which let's users simply wander the landscape and build whatever they can imagine and the game’s blocky graphics can allow. For older players, there’s the more challenging “survival mode,” filled with zombies, pigs, zombie pig men and a dragon lurking somewhere in the distance. Still, you can’t die in survival mode, you simply “respawn” and go back to what you were doing. It’s gaming lite, which is where the appeal lies for the next generation of gaming fans (just ask my 7-year-old son) and their parents who don’t want to hear cries of frustration over levels and character deaths.
Minecraft’s simplicity is the key to its inter-generational success and for any parent who has done battle with a Microsoft operating system — and with the specters of Windows Vista and Windows 8 and all their software and hardware compatibility issues floating in the air— it’s hard for parents whose children love Minecraft not to be slightly wary about news of the acquisition. Some parents (me) may have groaned loudly thinking about trying to explain the sudden addition of Microsoft Bob to the ranks of Minecraft characters like Herobrine and Steve. Then other questions started percolating: Would Minecraft only be accessible via a Zune? Would you need a Hotmail account to sign up? Would you have to download Internet Explorer? Would Microsoft Word's ever-present helper Clippy become a creeper? (That's a local Minecraft hostile, if you don't play the game.)
The main concern for parents though, is that Microsoft will somehow change the game, making it more complex, allow in-app purchases, or require parental supervision (the horror!). While the game has only been around since 2009, it has grown to become one of the most popular computer games of all time, with over 16 million copies sold for computer use. Parents trust it to be safe, fun and ostensibly educational, operating both as a gateway to the world of computer science and helping to develop spatial recognition skills. Children of all ages love it, parents love it, and Microsoft should leave it well enough alone. But will they?
One likely possibility is that Microsoft may push more unique features towards its own Xbox platform. Currently, Minecraft can be played on several platforms, including desktop computers, tablets and smartphones, with PCs having the most functionality and advanced controls. Xbox has long been a popular way for kids to access the cubist landscape of Minecraft and it has the same functions as playing on a desktop. According to a Microsoft press release, Minecraft is the top online game on Xbox Live, with over two billion hours played on Xbox 360 in the last two years. Minecraft on Xbox also gained popularity thanks in no small part to YouTube users like Stampy Longhead, whose wildly popular videos feature the player touring through Minecraft worlds, narrating his findings in his excited British accent and feeding bones to digital dogs. (While parents may find the allure of these videos elusive, calling Stampy "wildly popular" is perhaps an understatement. Stampy was the fourth biggest YouTube channel in July with 199.6 million video views, the majority of which were undoubtedly racked up by my kid watching during lulls in summer activities while I tried to work.)
Stampy plays exclusively on Xbox and only visits worlds connected to the Xbox network, at least according to my son. The kid has been making a hard sell for weeks trying to convince me that he needs an Xbox for Minecraft use. If Microsoft expands its Xbox Minecraft network to its tablets or smartphones, it could transform millions of children around the world into walking, whining Microsoft acolytes (which may be part of Microsoft's business plan), begging mom, dad and Santa to fill their stocking with Microsoft products. It's probably not something that happens very often aside from the Xbox, as the company is still best-known for making corporate hardware and software bundles.
While parents may have fears of Microsoft corrupting Minecraft — or at least being bullied into buying Microsoft products for their clamoring underage Minecraft fans — some young players are concerned, as well. “I am worried that they might change Minecraft in a bad way,” said tech savvy 11-year old Zoel Boublil, who is an expert in all things Minecraft. “For example, what if they fire Notch, the CEO of Mojang? Notch, Jeb [Bergensten, the lead developer of Minecraft] and Dinnerbone [a game developer on Minecraft] all put in a lot of creativity and I hope Microsoft doesn’t just make it into some ‘normal’ game and what if they put Microsoft advertising on everything? That would not be cool.” This fear of rendering something once cool, corporate, is often fans' biggest fear; adults who used to use MySpace or Flickr are familiar with this kind of thing. That said, Yahoo! hasn't managed to change Tumblr culture too much yet, and it probably doesn't want to.
The reality is that no one knows what will happen in the deal that Microsoft claims will close by the end of the year. Hopefully, Microsoft is business savvy enough to know not to mess with something that has universal, inter-generational appeal. And if they do? Well, there's a zombie pigman that could take out Clippy, if necessary.