You can buy a lot for $2.5 billion. You could buy Instagram twice, with enough money left over to develop Bungie's new first-person shooter Destiny, or you could put your very own rover on Mars. Microsoft chose to spend the money on Mojang: an indie game developer that created the mega-hit Minecraft. With that kind of money behind it, Microsoft must have some pretty big plans for the little company's future.
At first glance, it may seem like the monolithic Microsoft and the miniscule Mojang could never work well together: the gargantuan Fortune 500 company and the plucky little software developer. However, given Minecraft's popularity and the growing importance of the digital marketplace for video games, Mojang could be just what Microsoft needs to give the Xbox One an edge — or it could be one of the most expensive gaffes in video game history.
There was any number of indie companies Microsoft could have bought, and most for much less than $2.5 billion. Then again, not every indie company has produced a game like Minecraft, which is a smash hit among kids.
"It's definitely a play to get younger gamers," Sartori Bernbeck told Tom's Guide. Bernbeck is a senior market analyst for EEDAR, a video game consulting company. "Microsoft is hoping that the Minecraft brand itself has really strong staying power in the future … It never gets stale. A new generation of gamers will always want to be playing that."
With the PlayStation 4 riding high, it's easier to remember that one console-generation ago, the tables were reversed. The Xbox 360 was the go-to system due in no small part to its excellent Xbox Live marketplace. Now, Bernbeck said, people seem to prefer PSN. That could change, though, if Microsoft had a company known for small-scale digital projects at its beck and call.
Additionally, if you're going to drop the cost of ten thousand Rolls Royces on a game company, you should be reasonably certain that the business is going to make the money back. Minecraft, just by itself, is an incredibly lucrative game thanks to its widespread availability.
"I don't believe they're going to pull the PlayStation or iOS version, or anything like that," Bernbeck said. "Given how much they paid, it would make sense to continue support on all platforms possible." Indeed, a statement from Microsoft's Phil Spencer made it very clear that the PlayStation, iOS and Android versions of Minecraft are not going anywhere, and will continue to fill Microsoft's coffers for the foreseeable future.
But that doesn't mean Microsoft bought Mojang as a simple money-making operation. To get its money's worth, Microsoft will most likely enhance its Xbox and mobile offerings by leveraging the name recognition and talent of Mojang.
Mojang is currently developing two games: a retro side-scroller called Cobalt and a role-playing game called Scrolls. Microsoft now has final say over how these games develop, or whether they get to continue development at all, but chances are good that these titles will still make it to market, and that Mojang will keep most of its current staff.
"I don't think [Microsoft] would axe them entirely," Bernbeck explained. "The most likely case is that they let them develop as planned, or try to put a stronger focus on Microsoft platforms. It might be timed exclusivity, or exclusive content in the [Microsoft] versions of the game." The games could even be exclusive for the Xbox One or Microsoft phones, although Bernbeck said that scenario was not as likely.
Of course, the developers are only one part of the equation. Even though Mojang has a talented development team, there's every reason to believe that Microsoft wanted the studio's name even more than the people who come with it.
"The bulk of the purchase was not the developers themselves," said Bernbeck. "It was more so getting control of the brand and the IP to go along with that … When they create a game in the future, people will say, 'I know Mojang.' Especially in digital space, it's more difficult to find presence than a storefront. Having a strong developer brand is important.
"Talent is important as well," he added. Many of these developers worked alongside Markus "Notch" Persson, who created Minecraft and founded Mojang before leaving the company upon Microsoft's purchase. Those developers will have many insights that they can pass onto new staffers if they choose to leave, or share with their new owners if they choose to stay.
What about Minecraft?
In the future, Microsoft will shape the design and availability of Mojang games, but for now, Mojang and Minecraft are almost synonymous. Many players are concerned that under Microsoft's leadership the game will morph into something unrecognizable: a sludgy morass of microtransactions and Halo references. Minecraft fans can rest easy, though: The game is not likely to change very much, at least not anytime soon.
First, players should keep in mind that Microsoft is not Activision or, heaven forbid, Electronic Arts. Microsoft has developed and published a wide range of games, from the flagship shooter Halo to the historical, real-time strategy Age of Empires to the indie, side-scroller darling Dust: An Elysian Tail. You can levy a lot of epithets at Microsoft, but "homogeneous" is not one of them.
Furthermore, if Microsoft wanted to fill its games to the brim with microtransactions, it would have at least taken steps in that direction by now. Halo 4, for example, has more than its fair share of cheap downloadable content (DLC), but the vast majority of it consists of cosmetic items for players' avatars. In terms of actual game content, the only DLC available is some fairly substantive map packs for about $10 a pop. EA, Activision and even Ubisoft have been far more egregious on this front.
"I don't think you're going to see a flood of microtransactions," Bernbeck said. "There are already some available in the game, and you'll see a continuation of that." The extra content packs for Minecraft are hardly restricted to the Xbox version, either: You can drop extra money on cosmetic items in the PlayStation versions of the game as well. Selling small items and perks in a game in which players generally design everything by themselves is also a losing proposition, and Microsoft knows it.
"Microsoft understands the current value players have with the brand," Bernbeck explained. "[Players] have a very positive and strong relationship with the game and … Microsoft is going to do everything they can to make sure [it remains] strong." Letting players continue to test all of the new alpha and beta features will be key to Microsoft's success, as will providing new tools for players to keep designing their own content, Bernbeck argued. Minecraft players want to build amazing digital worlds, not buy them wholesale.
While Minecraft itself may not drastically change as a result of the Microsoft acquisition, expect the rest of the game maker's projects to favor Xbox and Microsoft-phone platforms. For those who still feel that their favorite game is compromised, just remember: It could have been much, much worse.