Microsoft Bought in Minecraft What it Could Never Make Itself

By Eric Limer on at

More than any other title in very recent history, Minecraft has permanently changed gaming. Motion control? 1080p at 60 frames per second? They've got nothing on an infinite world full of vaguely 8-bit-looking blocks. With its purchase of Minecraft and the studio behind it, Microsoft isn't just buying a game: it's buying the heart of a generation.

Here's everything Microsoft picked up today in its $2.5 billion Minecraft purchase. It's way more than just pixels.

A legion of loyal fans

Ask a kid — any kid — about Minecraft, and you're almost sure to make an instant connection. It's the modern-day equivalent of greeting your nephew with a clumsy "Mario twins" reference. And adults are just as smitten. The combination of simple mechanics combined with virtually limitless depth makes Minecraft great for after-work play with old uni friends and all-day summer holiday binges. There's a reason we all know its name.

The community of fandom around the game is staggeringly huge and multilayered. It's not just that there are tens of millions of fans of Minecraft itself. There are entire sprawling sub-communities based on the game's hundreds of utterly transformative mods. There are celebrity Minecraft players that post hundreds of hours of videos to YouTube, play together, and rub elbows with fans. Minecraft even has its own convention, one that Microsoft has already confirmed will continue after it absorbs the company that makes the game it honours.

It's an thriving community of enthusiastic builders and makers, the likes of which Microsoft hasn't seen in ages, if ever. And with Sony dominating the next-gen battlefield in part thanks to a super indie-game friendly outlook that could bring about whatever the next Minecraft might be, Microsoft needs some love of its own.

If you can't build a passionate fan base around your products — and let's face it, Office works just fine but doesn't stir many hearts — you can always just buy one. And Microsoft just bought millions of the most passionate fans in the world.

An entry into classroom

And of course what makes Minecraft great is that it's so much more than just a game. Even if you've got no love for spelunking through endless digital caverns, riding pigs, or slaying creepers, the simple block-by-block building that Minecraft refined and popularised is suited to all kinds of building. Minecraft isn't just a vehicle for the tech-inclined to build esoteric structures; it's a format for building and experimenting and creating that's already inherently fun. Wiring up a skeleton slayer with redstone logic gates is infinitely more fun — and arguably far more effective — than reading through a coding tutorial. And kids are already doing it on their own, they just need a little nudge and some context.

It's a huge educational opportunity, one that Microsoft would be wise to exploit. Kids get to play Minecraft in school, and Microsoft gets to sponsor their squeals of joy, earning respect and recognition from youths that will never have that sort of attachment to Windows 8 (or 9 or 10) or Microsoft Office.

Not to mention that the classroom is a place where Microsoft desperately needs to catch up. Apple has its (troubled) plan to push iPads to US classrooms. Amazon's Kindle Fires have kid-friendly modes built right in. Google's cramming Chromebooks into computer labs. Microsoft, meanwhile, has its stalled-out Surface RT and little else to offer, short of setting schools up with Xbox Ones. Minecraft is a quick and easy way in, and crucially, it's one that's supported on virtually all of Microsoft's competitor's devices.

This isn't just a game

And that's where the true value of Minecraft lays for Microsoft, the chance to gently attach itself to what's already the most transformative and wildly popular software in recent memory. Sure, the 50 million copies already sold aren't doing any good for Microsoft, but there's still room to grow, whether by (carefully) slicing off a piece of Minecraft's naturally occurring micro-transaction scene, pushing big licensing deals, or just watching the phenomenon that is Minecraft continue to soldier on.

Microsoft is at its heart a software company. But in a world where Google Docs and free OS X upgrades are closing in from all sides, selling the kind of software Microsoft traditionally has sold isn't nearly as easy as it used to be. Meanwhile, Minecraft sells like hot cakes on fire. $2.5 billion might sound like a lot to you and me, but as far as Microsoft is concerned it hardly registers. A few billion dollars is a small price to pay to own some of the world's best selling software in its totality. Especially when Minecraft is profitable enough that Microsoft should recoup its investment in just a few years.

Of course the endgame needs to be more than just selling more copies of Minecraft, or Xbox consoles. The Minecraft community does't just love its game; it can be ferociously protective of it. And yes, Microsoft could hypothetically use this purchase as a cudgel and make "Minecraft 2" an Xbox One exclusive. But that would be at the cost of destroying the phenomenon that it just paid billions of dollars to purchase, and surely Microsoft knows that. Minecraft on iOS and Android and Playstation and OS X will continue to exist, and probably thrive; Microsoft is in the business of being all-encompassing.

Minecraft isn't Candy Crush or Angry Birds. It's a thriving ecosystem, one inhabited by millions of people, spread across every generation. That's not something you can intentionally set out to build; it's something that happens through a mix of timing and competence and magic. Could Microsoft have built something like that internally? It could certainly have tried. But its success would have been subject to more stars aligning than it can afford. Minecraft, meanwhile, is a shortcut to the exact kind of success Microsoft needs right now.

By snapping up Minecraft at the peak of its popularity, Microsoft is getting the chance to reintroduce itself to millions upon millions of users in the comfort of the blocky wooden shacks they lovingly call home. And if it can avoid burning them down in the process, well, all the better.