Minecraft is no longer a phenomenon: it's just a part of life. You still see it everywhere online: maybe a friend wants a quick sessions, or it's another fantastical creation doing the rounds. Then you're going about in the world, and see kiddies with Minecraft backpacks, stacks of Minecraft titles in bookshops, Minecraft gift cards and Creeper plushies and lunchboxes and most other things you can think of. This game is now woven into culture.
It's a double-edged sword for Microsoft, which in 2014 acquired Minecraft and developer Mojang in a deal worth $2.5 billion. Yes it's one of the most well-known and bankable gaming properties on the planet, but Minecraft is a particular type of Golden Goose. The audience skews overwhelmingly towards the young and a big part of the attraction, since before Minecraft was even finished, is that you pay once upfront and then you have access to an unregulated and seemingly-endless mass of community-created content. Vanilla Minecraft may be a great game, but it's what you can do with it that makes this a special kind of game.
And much of that goes against Microsoft's past behaviour as a company. The reasons behind the game's success also make it hard to subsequently monetise. You're going to get a big community reaction against the notion of payment for mods, however you do it, and even though some of Minecraft's versions have had toe-dipping with themed DLC skin packs and the like, where the game's going next marks this exact shift.
Blockception's Rise of Londinium
The start of the news is what Microsoft call the 'Bedrock engine,' which means Mojang has standardised its code across almost all editions of Minecraft, including Minecraft: Pocket Edition — excluding only the console versions and the original Java PC version. This basically means that, where it was previously a nightmare for the studio to ensure that updates were hitting all versions simultaneously and running well, it's now a lot easier. And so the 'Bedrock engine' is accompanied by the 'Discovery' update, which really is exciting.
Several other games based around community creation have toyed around with giving their creators AI tools — LittleBigPlanet 2 most notably, some of Microsoft's own in-house efforts, and indeed Minecraft: Pocket Edition. The latter's 'add-ons,' text files that let users alter AI behaviour and capabilities, are now coming to Minecraft. This is a seriously big deal, with enormous potential.
The example shown involved zombies, whose usual behaviour is shambling slowly towards the player. These zombies are then dumped in a pit, and given the spider AI — whereupon they slowly climb out. Then they're chucked in the water, and sink to the bottom, before being given squid AI — and one-by-one the shamblers float to the top and start bobbing around. The poor zombies are then given ghast characteristics, a ghost monster, which produces a wonderful skyscape filled with jerkily-floating undead. The demo ends with them being turned into bunny zombies and, in the kind of touch Minecraft excels at, the player showcasing all of this then mounts a zombie bunny and starts riding around.
On top of this a new sharing tool called Remix3D allows users to share discrete elements of their world easily — a spiffy new building, for example — rather than having to share the world that it's in. If Pocket Edition players feel left out, they're shortly getting Adventure mode. There were a lot of nice announcements like this, ranging from serious additions to quality-of-life tweaks.
But the focus will be on the new store, and the advent of real monetisation within Minecraft. Now, there are a lot of positive things about this change. Microsoft argues, and it has a point, that sifting through what's out there to find good community content is not a very effective or rewarding process — there's gold sure, but also a tonne of junk. There's also the fact that Minecraft's audience is so young, and that in this context many parents may prefer to at least have the option of curated content that implicitly guarantees it's suitable for children (nothing that would get a rating over 10+ will be allowed).
That's the argument. This will be a highly-curated store, with work from nine creators available at launch, with the goal being to add "5-10" more a month, according to Microsoft executive producer John Thornton. Content will be reviewed for its appropriateness for the audience, and to ensure there are no licensing issues, both of which are 'problems' in the wild.
"We don't dictate the content though, it's up to them to decide," says Thornton. "It's more like an app store in that regard, we're not the fashion police."
The goal is to keep the quality bar high and introduce more stuff gradually, and the former part of that equation is really what this will live or die on. Free competition is everywhere for Minecraft modders, and these chosen sons and daughters will really have to deliver something beyond the usual — anything that can be bought on the store, after all, can be made in-game. I was surprised to hear from Thornton that, while there will a creators' website where people can apply for entry, you'll need a business license to do so.
Certainly a new level of professionalism. The launch lineup does reflect this, to be fair, including a mix of adventure maps, which you can think of as mini-campaigns, all of which seem very impressive. There are beautiful skin and full-game texture packs, which in the case of PureBDcraft really does have an amazing impact on the game. Then there are fascinating offerings like creator QwertyuiopThePie's Space Battle Simulator game mode, where two spaceships battle it out while being staffed by groups of players.
QwertyuiopThePie's Space Battle Simulator
A more ambiguous element is that the content is purchased using a new in-game currency of coins, which can't be earned. Microsoft say this is because it makes calculating the creators' share easier. Hmm. Then there's the revenue share. 30% off the top goes to the platform holder, which will be Apple or Google in the case of Pocket Edition, but on PC will be Microsoft itself. This cut is nevertheless fairly standard, and Thornton says "over half" of the remaining 70% goes to the creators. So the creators will receive around 40% of sales then, or is it more like 50%? Thornton wouldn't clarify further.
Even if we take the lower guess of 40% that stacks up favourably against competitors like Dota 2 and its workshop, which has recently reduced the amount it pays out from 25% to 15% and caused something of a controversy (the full story is of course much more complex).
Will the Minecraft community take to this new store? It will surely be a financial success: the audience is simply so large that, once this thing's in the game, people will buy. But in the longer term? I ask Thornton how Microsoft can protect its curated creators from being ripped-off — once a design goes live surely the community can just reverse-engineer and have free copies of it relatively quickly. There wasn't really a good answer to that, because there isn't one.
Sphax's PureBDCraft texture pack
There's no denying that what this store offers will be welcome to many, and in a general sense curation in itself could be of enormous value to players. Then the aspect of this we've barely explored: it allows creators to make a living. Before this, many of the most popular Minecraft modders were ducking and diving around the game's own restrictions on selling content: they had talent, and had an audience who wanted to pay for it, but couldn't 'legitimately' sell their work. So you end up with slightly dodgy-looking websites and deniable exchanges, simply because the demand's there but that's the only way you can do it.
That stands for this new era of Minecraft as a whole. In some ways, small and large, what Microsoft is doing rubs up against what this game is, and some of the most important reasons for its success. But in others this is a considered response to what the game has become, rather than what it was, and if you look beyond the kneejerk reaction it's one that the quiet majority may welcome. Even the grandest pieces of architecture occasionally need renovation. You've just got to be careful that, once you're done, the original's brilliance still shines through.