Minecraft gets more popular every day, but we don't talk about it much anymore. To find out what the game is like in 2014, we asked Duncan Geere to impart his wisdom. The result is a three-part series. Part one looked at Minecraft mods, part two at servers, and part three is below...
It's a great time to be a Minecraft fan. The enormous community has built incredible things, created amazing mods and runs brilliant multiplayer servers. But in mid-2014, it was all overshadowed by a bitter, brutal war about an end-user license agreement - the repercussions of which will shape the future of the game for a long time to come.
Nonetheless, Minecraft's community still seems to be growing exponentially, despite only occasional coverage from gaming sites and the mainstream press. Almost all discussion of the game takes place on YouTube, where people share their exploits and a parallel world of Minecraft celebrities has emerged. I've hunted down the best channels you should follow.
The EULA fiasco
But let's start with the murky affair that precipitated one of biggest gaming events of the year. If you missed most of it at the time, I don't blame you - it was unpleasant for everyone involved. A brief rundown goes something like this: Mojang, like many other games companies, has long had an agreement that you have to click yes to before you can play the game. That agreement forbids people from making money from Minecraft without Mojang's permission. Pretty reasonable, right? After all, it's their game.
Out of respect for and trust in the community, Mojang hadn't been enforcing that rule very strongly. But then servers started popping up that allowed you to 'pay-to-win', buying diamond swords and armour with real money. And suddenly, the company was getting emails from parents, asking it to refund the money that their kids had given anonymous server owners across the world. So the company 'clarified' the rules - allowing people to take money for hosting servers, but not to charge for gameplay features.
The response was far bigger than Mojang anticipated. Server owners, some of whom had built up businesses on the status quo, rebelled en masse. Open letters were sent, hashtags were coined, and forums and messageboards exploded with bile - the community was torn between the creators of Minecraft and the owners of the servers they played on.
In the Mojang offices, attempts to reach out the community failed, and hate rolled in around the clock. Notch, exasperated, tweeted: "Anyone want to buy my share of Mojang so I can move on with my life? Getting hate for trying to do the right thing is not my gig." The community didn't take it seriously at the time, but Notch wasn't kidding. He reached out to an old flame, a company that had expressed interest in the past in acquiring Mojang and which despite a few public fallings-out, he'd long had a positive working relationship with. That company was Microsoft.
The rest is history. The two companies struck a deal which would see Notch and Mojang's other cofounders depart with billions of dollars in exchange for the game of a generation. In an emotional blog post, Notch wrote that it wasn't about the money - it was about his sanity. "I make games because it’s fun, and because I love games and I love to program," he said. "A lot of you were using me as a symbol of some perceived struggle. I’m not. I’m a person, and I’m right there struggling with you."
No-one can see into Notch's head except himself, and the EULA fiasco is unlikely to have been the sole reason for the Microsoft sale. But it's hard to see it not being the trigger - the last straw for the programmer who already wanted to leave his fame behind him, and felt trapped by an increasingly hostile group of players that called themselves fans. Ultimately it was their actions that handed control of one of the best-loved gaming brands ever to the corporate behemoth that is Microsoft.
I have a suspicion, though, that not much is going to change around Minecraft in the near-to-medium term. One of the reasons Notch was happy selling Mojang to Microsoft is because he knows that the game now belongs to the players. He wrote as much in his blog post - "In one sense, it belongs to Microsoft now," he said. "In a much bigger sense, it’s belonged to all of you for a long time, and that will never change."
He's right - there's little Microsoft can do to screw the game up in the face of its enormous community. The company is doing a delicate dance of staying relevant in a future increasingly dictated by Google and Apple, and earning the undying enmity of a generation by screwing up their favourite game is too big a risk to take. The community that caused the sale of Minecraft to Microsoft is the same one that'll now protect the game from significant change.
YouTubers to follow
So how do you delve a little deeper into the better parts of that community? Well, you should probably hang out on YouTube more for starters. The list of top gaming channels is dominated by Minecraft players, from StampyLonghead, iBallastic Squid and the Diamond Minecart to Vegetta777 (who updates entirely in Spanish) SkyDoesMinecraft and CaptainSparklez. It would be churlish not to mention some other highly influential channels too - the Yogscast family, SethBling, AntVenom, Direwolf20 and Disco are all worth keeping an eye on, and several have spawned their own modpacks.
But what lies at the top of the charts isn't always the best - there are plenty of underrated Minecraft YouTubers. I love Bil Kulp's slow, meticulous exploration and constant apologies for traffic passing by his window. Ben Pracy's madcap adventures are always entertaining. Don't miss Pahimar (who often records with Direwolf20) and his calming voice, RandomObsessor and her prairie adventures, Micmastodon's nailbiting ultrahardcore videos, Palindrome's smooth narration, Vaygrim's complex builds, PurpleMentat's no-nonsense efficiency, ZombieCleo's self-effacing sarcasm, or the frequent moments when Aureylian breaks into song, either.
That's not an exhaustive list of course - just a few recommendations to start with. The community is huge enough that you'll find plenty of YouTubers to love, no matter your tastes. If you've got a favourite, don't be afraid to mention them in the comments below.
Minecraft in 2014 is in a great place, and that's because it's about creation. The creativity of millions of people around the world has been the very thing that drives its continued meteoric growth, and is why I don't see it stopping any time soon. Any community large enough will have its share of bad apples, but somehow, in Notch's blocky world, they only rarely rise to the top of the barrel.
How Microsoft is going to treat its new acquisition remains to be seen, but you can bet that it's already learnt from Mojang's experiences. "Minecraft is one of the most popular franchises of all time,” said Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, in the company's press release announcing the acquisition. “We are going to maintain [the game] and its community in all the ways people love today, with a commitment to nurture and grow it long into the future.”