With more than 50 million copies sold, a robust line of toys and other accessories, and a near-endless legion of fan-created YouTube Lets Plays, there's no doubt that indie game Minecraft is a colossal hit. Heck, it's a veritable cultural phenomenon. But now, there's reason to question the future of the blockbuster game, as Microsoft has announced that it's buying Minecraft maker Mojang for $2.5 billion. What's more, Mojang founder and Minecraft mastermind Markus "Notch" Persson is departing once the deal is complete.
Further reading: Here's Markus "Notch" Persson's farewell letter to Minecraft fans.
It's a monumental moment for the future of Minecraft: Will Microsoft's structure and piles of cash boost Mojang to ever-more-stratospheric heights, or will the company fizzle out in Rare-esque fashion? (And the less said about Games for Windows Live, the better.) It's all in how it's handled.
Here are three things Microsoft can do that would ruin Minecraft—and three things it could do to make the game even better.
3 ways Microsoft can ruin Minecraft
1. Stuff it full of in-app purchases
In an era where so many games are given away for "free," only to be riddled with in-app purchases that cripple their design, Minecraft is a breath of fresh air. Whether you're on a PC, a mobile device, or a gaming console like the Xbox 360, you pay one flat fee for Minecraft, which entitles you to free updates for the life of the game. If Microsoft takes the Electronic Arts route and introduces in-app purchases unlocking the game's more obscure craftable items or entirely new content, it'll suck a lot of the magic out of the game's sense of wonder and exploration.
2. Restrict the game to Microsoft platforms
Microsoft's saying all the right things for now, promising to keep Minecraft alive on competing platforms, including PlayStation, iOS, and Android. Indeed, Minecraft's far-flung availability plays right into newfound Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's focus on cross-platform services—a push that has seen Office revealed for the iPad before Windows tablets.
But "plan[s] to continue to make Minecraft available across platforms" can easily be changed; witness how Microsoft's other major game studios focus solely on Microsoft platforms. And even if Microsoft keeps the game alive on other operating systems, there will no doubt be great temptation to make the Windows and Xbox versions the definitive one in some way.
Don't do it.
3. Transform Minecraft into a visually rich productivity tool
Microsoft has to resist the urge to make Minecraft into something it's not, and especially not try to shoehorn the game into Microsoft's overarching productivity focus. If Minecraft's open world can be converted into some sort of visually rich productivity tool, let it come from the community! The game's already been used to make working hard drives and to-scale geographical recreations of Denmark, after all.
But the future isn't necessarily bleak! In fact, Microsoft can bring a lot of good to the open world of Minecraft.
3 ways Microsoft can make Minecraft better
1. Augment it with Microsoft services
Whoa, whoa, don't go reaching for those pitchforks and torches just yet! Stuffing Minecraft with Microsoft services sounds controversial, and it certainly should be if the company made Microsoft services vital to the game. But Microsoft's powerful stable of services could be used to augment Minecraft for the better.
Imagine using OneDrive to seamlessly sync your Minecraft save files between your various Windows PCs and tablets, for example, or dumping Minecraft's old-school multiplayer chat with something running on Skype's backbone. And switching hosted Minecraft Realms servers over to Azure's cloud could be pretty painless—as long as Microsoft doesn't kill off the ability to run custom servers in the process, that is. But make it all optional.
2. Be the rich uncle
Yes, Minecraft is astounding, and frequently updated. But nevertheless, the game's development has been handled by a fairly small number of people thus far—Mojang has only a few dozen employees. That has allowed the game to thrive under the guiding vision of a few key people, but it limits just how much the team can realistically accomplish.
Microsoft can make Minecraft better by staying mostly hands-off, but giving Mojang all the financial backing and administrative support it needs to get even bigger. Let Microsoft's team handle all the marketing deals. Buy a few more developers to help bang out bug fixes and smaller features. Take over the busy work and let Mojang's best and brightest shine at what they do best.
3. Bring Minecraft to Windows Phone
Speaking of cross-platform availability, we should finally receive a Windows Phone version of Minecraft now. Persson was right: Microsoft's mobile platform is too insignificant users-wise to warrant a port from Mojang's tiny team. But that won't fly now that Microsoft's in charge and facing daily complaints about the Windows Phone app gap. Playing Minecraft on a Lumia 1520 would be a joy—just don't sic Minecraft's top developers on the boring conversion process. If Microsoft developed it as a universal Windows app it'd run as a Modern-style app on Windows 8 PCs and tablets, too, despite Notch's hatred of the Windows Store.
Boom! Just like that there would be a version of Minecraft optimized for the whole universe of Windows devices. But at the risk of sounding like a broken record, don't add exclusive features to the Windows Phone version, Microsoft—for the love of all things blocky.