How Has Microsoft Changed Minecraft?

Stepping into the main hall at Minecon, the huge annual get-together for Minecraft fans all over the world, you wouldn’t know that Microsoft existed – much less that it paid $2.5 billion dollars to acquire Mojang less than a year ago. The only sign of the multinational software giant’s presence is a monochrome rendition of its logo on the shoulders of its staffers. A logo which, coincidentally, is four flat blocks. Most people probably aren’t even aware the company is there at all.

Since the Mojang acquisition, Microsoft has very carefully stayed in the shadows to avoid spooking the game’s tens of millions of enthusiastic players. At this year’s Minecon I spoke to Mojang staff and Minecraft fans to find out how the acquisition has affected one of the world’s most popular games.

When I ask people around the hall how the game had changed since the buyout, most say that it hasn’t changed at all – hastily adding “And that’s a good thing!” Microsoft doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to these things, y’see. The company has made a lot of gaming acquisitions in the past, and most have subsequently failed to live up to their prior successes. FASA Interactive, Bungie, Digital Anvil, Ensemble Studios, Rare, Lionhead – the list of games studios chewed up and either spat out or “redistributed” within the organisation is lengthy.

The key question on the lips of Minecraft fans now is whether it’ll be different this time round. Mojang is an unusual beast compared to many of those other acquisitions – the studio is far smaller, but Minecraft itself is far, FAR more popular than anything Microsoft has ever owned. Bringing the Mojang team under the auspices of Microsoft without snuffing out its unique culture is no easy task, but Microsoft’s hands-off approach so far seems to be working. When Mojang’s COO Vu Bui thanked the company from the stage during the Minecon closing ceremony I listened out carefully for even the slightest heckle or display of displeasure, but heard only polite applause.

“We’ve been partners with them for many years, since we launched on the Xbox 360,” Mojang’s poker-faced CEO Jonas Mårtensson reminds me, when I grab him for a short interview during a break between Minecon panels on a balcony overlooking the Thames. “Microsoft obviously bought it because it’s a great game and it’s a great community. They don’t want to destroy that. They’re committed to invest in the game and to growing the community.” Minecraft developer Nathan ‘Dinnerbone’ Adams adds in a later interview: “Initially everyone was really scared. I totally understand that – I was scared, I’ll admit that to anyone who asks. But I think as time goes on, people have kinda realised that actually nothing really has changed. There have actually been good things that have come out of it.”

One of those good things has been the version of Minecraft running on Microsoft’s augmented-reality ‘Hololens’ headset. The E3 demo of the technology, where a Minecraft world came to life on a dining table, blew the internet’s collective minds – and having experienced it personally myself at Minecon, I can tell you that it wasn’t a carefully-choreographed, on-rails demo – it really is a full version of Minecraft running in there, albeit one derived from the Pocket Edition of the game.

The Hololens version is also the same version of the game that was recently announced as the ‘Windows 10 Edition beta’ – which no doubt caused some confusion among fans as to how it relates to the existing PC version. “The Windows 10 version is compatible with Pocket Edition, so you can play with your friends on Pocket Edition,” says Dinnerbone when I ask him to clarify the relationship between the two. The way he tells it, the existing PC version is still the flagship version of Minecraft: “For people who want to play on PC servers, or use mods, then the PC edition is strong and alive and that is the version we recommend.”

The other area, alongside the Hololens, where Microsoft’s resources are being keenly felt is in the Pocket Edition. The mobile phone and tablet edition of the game has long lagged behind the desktop version in terms of features, but suddenly it’s catching up fast – the next update will add the entire Nether dimension, as well as potion brewing mechanics, the ability to crouch and sprint and – before the end of the year – the long-awaited addition of redstone circuitry. The eventual goal is to have one version of Minecraft that everyone plays across all platforms. “It doesn’t matter where you’re playing it, who you’re playing it with, it’s just Minecraft,” Dinnerbone says. “That’s the ultimate goal – I’ll play on my computer, you’ll play on your phone. We’ll be halfway across the world. It doesn’t matter – we’ll just play.”

In terms of Mojang’s internal organisation, the biggest change is the addition of a new Minecraft team operating out of Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington which is working on all of this stuff. I ask Dinnerbone how much influence that team has on the direction the game is taking: “They have influence, as much as anyone else – which is that we can talk about it,” he says. “Obviously they’re involved and they have feedback. But they’re helping us making it bigger and better for the community,” adds Mårtensson. The final decisions are still made in Stockholm, though – mostly by Jens – the tall, Swedish coder who was handed the ‘lead developer of Minecraft’ reins by Notch way back in 2011. “If there ever needs to be a final ‘I have veto rights’, it’s Jens,” says Dinnerbone. “But for most things we all kinda align on the same idea and direction.”

Minecraft isn’t Mojang’s only game of course. It also publishes an action platformer called Cobalt and was until recently developing a digital card game called Scrolls. I ask Mårtensson whether the Scrolls decision had anything to do with Microsoft and get an immediate, flat “Not at all” in response. Poking a little, I ask if Mojang will continue to publish non-Minecraft games. “I wouldn’t want to put it out as a promise,” he says. “I’m hoping eventually that we can put out more games, but I wouldn’t go out and say that’s a promise.”

In terms of Microsoft’s attitude towards Minecraft fans, the ultimate test is still to come – particularly when it comes to long term support of competing platforms like the Playstation edition of the game. When the acquisition happened, many expected that those versions would slowly fade away – but to the surprise of many Minecon attendees, Microsoft’s booth at the event hosted several Playstations running Minecraft. “I think that kinda shows that they’re not here to be intimidating, they’re not here to be (adopts robot voice) ‘Windows is the best. Buy Xboxes.'” says Dinnerbone, when I ask about Microsoft’s presence. “They’re here just to show, like: “we exist, we help with this stuff. Here it is, you can play here and here. Isn’t that cool?'”

For the fans, opinions differ. Whilst everyone I spoke to at the convention was aware of the Microsoft buyout, most told me there’d been no noticeable change. Only a few were a little more forthright. “It hasn’t changed as much as it should for $2.5 billion,” say Michael and Alex, a pair of young fans from Strood, but Ben and Emilie from North Carolina were more sanguine: “It’ll bring discipline, and Microsoft’s deep pockets will ensure its future,” they say. “Minecraft has grown up.”

48 Comments

  1. cdjaco says:

    “The way he tells it, the existing PC version is still the flagship version of Minecraft…”

    Speaking of which…is has anything substantial actually happened to the PC version in the last year or so? There was such a flurry of wonderful development in 2013, then….not so much.

    • Clavus says:

      I once held hope that they’d develop a proper native modding API. Nothing ever came of it, the mod scene is pretty fragmented and everything breaks every update.

      • Andrew says:

        Mod API! Ha! Good one! Notch was a bit like Molyneux. Just a bit.

        In all seriousness, what people (we) don’t want is obvious (GFWL, Windows/Xbox only version, DLC on PC, etc.). But what they want from MC? What Mojang/Microsoft can do to expand and evolve MC without changing it into different game? I seriously don’t know.

        I mean, I know what I want from MC-like game (proper physics, lite survival mechanics, vehicles, transportation of goods, living villages/cities, persistent world without “chunk unloads and everything stops”, etc.), but you can’t do that in MC – engine cannot support any of that. That’s why I’m looking to other games for that MC+ experience.

        • Gap Gen says:

          I think the issue is that Notch is happiest as a hobbyist programmer rather than someone who finishes and polishes stuff. Before MC was handed over to Jens there were a bunch of half-finished features or ones that actively broke stuff that worked (such as sheep, or infinite XP orbs that did nothing but caused time-breaking anomalies where people dropped them when they died). MC was never really designed as a robust, extendable thing, I don’t think.

      • PseudoKnight says:

        This was addressed at a Minecon panel. They put aside the official mod API because at this time they can’t imagine doing a better job than the community at this time. Instead, they’ve been focusing on changes that help the mod community, like the resource pack stuff. (which is being further improved in 1.9)

        • Premium User Badge

          Phasma Felis says:

          …Seriously, they said that?

          Anyone suggest that maybe they could stop running a Java obfuscator on their code and deliberately breaking all the mods with every new release?

    • Napalm Sushi says:

      At over 300 days, this is the longest time that has ever passed between updates, but the occasional Twitter-tease confirms that 1.9’s development is ticking along. Upcoming features include shields, multiple arrow types and a complete overhaul of the End.

      link to minecraft.gamepedia.com

    • Yglorba says:

      Reading between the lines:

      “The way he tells it, the existing PC version is still the flagship version of Minecraft…”

      “The eventual goal is to have one version of Minecraft that everyone plays across all platforms.”

      These two things contradict each other; and the second one, I think, makes it pretty clear that the original PC version’s days are numbered, at least as far as active support goes. If their goal is to have one version of Minecraft everyone plays across all platforms — and it’s pretty obvious that by that they mean the version derived from the pocket edition — then they’re going to want to force people to stop playing the original PC version eventually.

      Which, I mean, wouldn’t be that bad they promised modding support, but I’m not seeing it.

      • mattevansc3 says:

        Or that until the pocket edition matches/surpasses the desktop Minecraft there will always be the desktop version.

    • PseudoKnight says:

      – The 1.8 “Bountiful Update”, the largest Minecraft update in its history
      – A launcher update that installs Java, which has a big sticking point for compatibility reasons
      – Big change to UUIDs that finally allowed them to turn on name-changing, a highly requested feature
      – The collapse of Bukkit for server plugins when 1.8 came out, and ultimately the save by the Spigot team.
      – The creation of an all new powerful Sponge API for servers, vanilla and modded
      – An endless stream of new mods, packs, servers, plugins, games and other creations
      – And of course, snapshots for the 1.9 Combat Update will probably be out within a month

  2. Distec says:

    This sounds like the usual assuring, non-threatening, soft talk that precedes the inevitable mangling. I don’t want to jerk my knees at every Microsoft acquisition, but it’s a hard thought pattern to break and not without some justification.

    I don’t really know what to expect here. Either MS will bully this product into a shadow of its former self or they’ll just let it sit and wane. I would honestly be delighted with some miracle third option.

    • Gap Gen says:

      Yeah, even if the intention is to not fuck it up, eventually someone will (which, to be honest, was also possible when Mojang was self-owned, but now it’s got several more layers of management bearing down on it). Which… is kinda fine. It’s been around for some time now and it’s pretty rare for me to still be invested in a game after so long. Granted, we have a world that we’ve shaped over years rather than just memories of the time I sniped someone from across the map or whatever, but still, everything’s gotta end at some point.

  3. Ashrand says:

    I think it’s fair to say no-one at the high ends of microsoft want to be the one who kills the golden goose, even as they figure out how to sell the eggs.
    That is to say, there are free clones of minecraft out there the community could leave for if anything egregious happened, and this is a game more sensitive to it’s community changing than most (imagine the top 10 minecraft youtubers moved to the same competitor right now and didn’t go back).
    There might be an option here where closer integration with microsoft helps them long term, but no-one want to do anything that might spook their customer base.

  4. RuySan says:

    It wouldn’t take long for Microsoft to swallow the Mojang brand and complete the acquisition process. That’s just how things work. As it is now, what’s the value and logic in having a company with a diferent name that just develops one game? Or at least, not much more than one.

  5. Edgewise says:

    I wonder if the purpose of this acquisition was specifically to support the Hololens. MS may have come away from the Kinect with the lesson that you need a killer app to sell new hardware. The Kinect has proven to be great hardware, but software developers haven’t been able to do much with it. I could really imagine Minecraft successfully selling Hololenses. In that case, it would make sense that MS isn’t going to mess much with the core of Mojang/Minecraft.

    • xerandin says:

      @Edgewise gets it.

    • mattevansc3 says:

      No need to wonder, Microsoft confirmed it shortly after the Hololens reveal;

      Sataya Nadella –
      “Let’s have a game that, in fact, will fundamentally help us change new categories,” Mr. Nadella said. “HoloLens was very much in the works then, and we knew it.”

      link to mobile.nytimes.com

      • Yglorba says:

        Kind of makes me wonder what’s going to happen to Minecraft after the Hololens fails.

        • mattevansc3 says:

          Well Minecraft is already a $0.25bn per annum business. It went from $240m in 2012 to $290m in 2014 so its still a business with growth so Microsoft doesn’t need to do much to it.

          Offer the mobile/Win10 version or a local network only option to schools for free. Get the kids hooked on it while they are young and upsell them to the proper version. Kids buy merchandise, they already are buying Minecraft merch in droves. Expand the younger age user base at minimal cost and it’ll increase the adult, paying user base in a few years. None of this will of course adversely affect the core game so I’d be cautiously optimistic about Minecraft’s future.

  6. geldonyetich says:

    I get the feeling that, sooner or later, Minecraft will ditch the JAVA platform for something a bit quicker and more efficient. That’s a balllsy move, though, because the massive modding community that keeps Minecraft viable uses JAVA… in many cases, learned JAVA just to mod Minecraft! Would that same modding community be willing to learn, say, C#?

    • Jalan says:

      Adaptability comes with the territory.

      And for those who don’t/won’t adapt, there’s always members of the community who know other programming languages/etc. that might see this as an opportunity to shine.

      • Jalan says:

        (All written within the hypothetical situation where Minecraft fully moves away from Java, of course)

    • frightlever says:

      On the PC hey already did away with needing to have a discrete installation of Java, which has been a delight. Not having scummy Yahoo pandering Java update 8.x to install is just one more irritation out of my life.

      I’m 95% sure the Pocket Edition doesn’t run on Java, hence the reason it’s been sucking the hind teat this whole time. With the Windows 10 specific version basically being the Pocket Edition, they would have thereby moved away from Java on PC as well.

      So then you have Minecraft running on the same engine on all platforms, and all of those platforms have app stores.

      They can bundle Minecraft with Windows 10 and make it up selling skins and mods.

      I doubt they’d be dumb enough to close down the old Java version on PC (and Mac and Linux?) they’ll just iterate it to death by gradually offering more and more features on the non-Java version. Just consider how handy it’ll be to go from the PC on your desk, to the couch and your console, then take a toilet break with your trusty tablet, and continue to play on your server of choice. Hopefully by that stage your family and friends will stage an intervention.

    • PseudoKnight says:

      The Windows 10 Edition (ie. Pocket Edition for Windows) is using C++. It’s definitely faster, but not as moddable as Java. It also has nowhere near feature parity. They don’t even have redstone in that version and it’s limited to 8 players in the new multiplayer mode. Yes, they’ve said that they’d love to have one version that works everywhere (who wouldn’t), but that’s not realistic yet. So the Java version will remain the main PC version for the foreseeable future. Maybe in a few years?

    • Rob Lang says:

      Migrating a coder from Java to C# isn’t difficult. And C# is now open source (literally) – even the new service-based compiler, which Java isn’t. When you write for Unity games, you’re writing C#. Microsoft have been quietly giving away control of their proprietary stuff and moving toward services. I think modders will learn whatever skills they need to mod their favourites, be it quake .bsp files, .inis or compiled code.

    • DrZhark says:

      Mo’Creatures author here

      You’re absolutely right, I learned Java to mod Minecraft. It wouldn’t be that difficult to move on to C++ or C#. However updating the mod every time they make a Minecraft update is tiring.

      • charlesg says:

        Modding is mostly done by decompiling the Java. This often leads to obfuscated code. This is to prevent giving the source code away, but also makes modding a lot harder. And it’s why a new mod has to be released every time MC updates. Obfuscation means every function and variable name is a random string. With every new release these strings change.

        To make modding easier, the obfuscating of code needs to stop.

        Step two is to build an actual API, but quite frankly, there doesn’t seem to be an urgent need for one at all, all those mods are out there and have been made despite the lack of a proper API.

    • charlesg says:

      Interesting. That would also make it stop working on OSX and Linux. I suppose those only make up a fraction of the users, although I can imagine the linux support is really important for those who run servers. I used to play MC many years ago and I’d have the server run on my little linux home server box, which was always on so my friends could connect whenever they’d like.

      The fact Java software runs on pretty much any OS is one of the few good things about it. C#/.NET is quite similar to Java as a programming language, but lacks that multi-OS support.

      Rewriting the entire game in a different programming language purely to deal with perceived performance issues is likely not worth it. The game works in its current state, and was able to become as popular as it is despite being in Java. Then again MS does have a lot of money to throw at this and they’ve never liked Linux, it being one of their competitors.

      But at the same time I’m seeing MS trying to move away from merely being an OS developer, they’re feeling the sting of the changing times where OS choice becomes less relevant. Tablets and smartphones have shown up as new platforms, and they’re usually not running Windows. Also, so many applications just require a browser to run, and browsers run on pretty much any OS. And finally there’s the Steamboxes on the horizon, which will also run a form of Linux.

      MC has never been on Steam though. But in its current Java form, I’m sure it’ll already run on Steamboxes.

  7. melnificent says:

    Actually the xbox and playstation editions have different skin and texture packs. The xbox has things like dr who, while playstation has just got little big planet. Xbox gets 3rd party texture packs more often too

  8. Solidstate89 says:

    You really think Bungie deserves to be on that list? They were an absolute cash cow for Microsoft. Like or hate the Halo series, you can hardly say that Bungie suffered the same fate shared by the likes of Ensemble or Rare.

    • malkav11 says:

      It’s a slightly different fate, but Bungie still went from a company that had developed a wargame, a multiplayer RPG, an FPS/RPG/adventure hybrid, three incredibly innovative FPSes, two incredibly innovative RTSes and one fairly unique third person melee action game over the course of ten years, to a company that made five gradually iterated versions of the same FPS over the next ten.

      • frightlever says:

        Bungie discovers Golden Goose, chooses not to slay it…

        Ask 100 gamers to name a game developed by Bungie and I doubt 5% would name anything other than Halo.

        • BooleanBob says:

          You think that’s his point though? It really IS a shame that the way this business works means the ‘reward’ for any non-indie developer finally finding its smash hit is to remake that same game once a year until the heat death of the universe.

      • mattevansc3 says:

        And what do Bungie do when they got that bit of freedom? They make a HALO MMO.

        You can’t pin all the blame on Microsoft for that.

        • malkav11 says:

          No, but by that point many of the core creative team that used to define Bungie had already left. If not all of it. And the company culture and makeup were people that had been making versions of the same console FPS for a decade. Is it really that surprising that they went on to make a new IP (the IP not having come with them) that was…a very similar but more ambitious console FPS?

          • Thesingularity says:

            Listening to the Bungie podcasts, many of the guys that helped make Oni were still there. I don’t think there was any kind of mass exodus.

  9. OrangyTang says:

    No mention of the obscene ticket prices? It was £130 for a ticket (for any age) so a Standard Metric Family of 2 adults and 2 kids will set you back £520 for entry alone. And that’s before you’ve entered the giant room full of merch.

    Doesn’t that sound a wee bit exploitative to anyone else? This is how MS will kill Minecraft – not by messing with the core formula (which it has enough sense to leave well alone) but by it’s exploitation and wankery outside of the game.

  10. GallonOfAlan says:

    The Minecraft mod scene? Here’s how it works.

    1. Child sees some tit like Stampy playing Super Mod X on Youtube and decides to have a nag.
    2. You reluctantly go on the web to source the mod.
    3. You navigate in a terrified way through a pile of possibly nefarious sites to find out what the latest version of the mod is, and what versions of Minecraft it works with.
    4. Assuming mod development is still ongoing you repeat step 3 for all the other 200 mods it depends on.
    5. Assuming steps 3 and 4 are looking good, you attempt to locate a working download location that does not involve malware or installing some piece of wank ‘downloader’ thereby opening your network to sundry hackers.
    6. You look for install instructions in the zip. There are none. Back to the web, where you dig through 200 forum posts saying ‘NO EMAILS ANSWERED!!! READ THE INSTRUCTIONS!!!” looking for the instructions.
    7. You repeat step 6 for all dependency mods.
    8. You finally start Minecraft. It throws a Java exception and dies. Meanwhile child has wandered off to play football and forgotten it ever existed.

    • Duncan Geere says:

      That’s something the mod community is actively addressing. In the meantime, try the Curse Voice client for a much more pleasant experience.

  11. Zaideros says:

    “Mojang is an unusual beast compared to many of those other acquisitions – the studio is far smaller, but Minecraft itself is far, FAR more popular than anything Microsoft has ever owned. “

    Although Minecraft’s cult of popularity is perhaps far more vocal, Microsoft owns Windows.
    You could argue that Windows is only foisted upon people that need it to play games and/or use business software that cannot be run on Mac or Linux, but let’s not get carried away with the Caps Lock key there.

    • GallonOfAlan says:

      > need it to play games and/or use business software that cannot be run on Mac or Linux

      Both true, but millions of other people also use it because it’s a good OS wit ha huge ecosystem around it.

      • Bankie says:

        This. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Windows. It’s a pretty amazing OS when you consider the scope of its compatibility.

    • Duncan Geere says:

      I could probably have been clearer there – I was talking about games, rather than generic software. Otherwise I’d have included Skype.

  12. Premium User Badge

    Aerothorn says:

    “I ask Mårtensson whether the Scrolls decision had anything to do with Microsoft and get an immediate, flat “Not at all” in response.”

    This seems highly improbable.

    As a private company that doesn’t answer to anyone, they could have funded Scrolls till the heat death of the universe.

    As an entity of a publicly-held company, they have to answer to shareholders and can’t just burn money on a losing proposition.

    NOW: maybe they really did want to kill Scrolls. Though that raises all sorts of questions as to what exactly their goals were for it in the first place.

    • Premium User Badge

      Aerothorn says:

      Specifically: ceasing development is not the same as turning off the servers, and “we can’t afford to pay the server bills” is clearly untrue.