Somewhere along the way, Minecraft — which Microsoft bought in a $2.5 billion acquisition of developer Mojang two years ago — went from a smash-hit video game to a cultural phenomenon, infiltrating kids’ wardrobes, the classroom, the toy aisle, and, in 2019, Hollywood.
Five years on from its official launch, Minecraft is more popular than ever, with 100 million copies sold and counting, across every major video game console, smartphone, tablet, and PC operating system.
Nowhere was the extent of the sensation more evident than at September’s Minecon 2016, the annual gathering of over ten thousand Minecraft enthusiasts from around the globe. The crowd was mainly made up of kids.
At Minecon, Minecraft is the new rock ‘n’ roll: Kids breathlessly bragged to their friends about close hallway encounters with YouTube stars like Stampy and Stacyplays, and Mojang CEO Jonas Mårtensson told me that he “sometimes” gets recognised and stopped for autographs while walking around the convention hall.
It’s so important to so many kids that dozens of Make-a-Wish recipients actually chose to go to Minecon 2016 and meet Minecraft developers and YouTube streamers as their special experience.
Here’s the thing, though: Minecraft wasn’t the first video game to let you build cool things with your friends, and given the slew of imitators it inspired, it wasn’t the last.
So I asked Mårtensson and a handful of other Minecraft execs just why the game has developed such long-lasting appeal.
‘Not too polished’
A major component, Mårtensson says, is the game’s signature, “not too polished” lo-fi look.
In an era where games like “Call of Duty” pride themselves on ever-more-photorealistic graphics, he says that Minecraft’s retro-styled cubes are actually a major asset: It encourages players to use their imaginations and stretch their creativity to build amazing things, rather than passively beholding a big-budget spectacle.
“It doesn’t fill in the blanks for you,” Mårtensson says.
Relatedly, the blocks are an important part of making the game accessible to everyone, Mårtensson notes.
Literally everything in the Minecraft world is a block that you can pick up, put down, and move around. Whether you’re digging a tiny pit to survive a zombie invasion or building a scale model of the Taj Mahal, once you’ve learned how to move a block, you’ve picked up Minecraft’s most important skill. Block by block, Minecraft novices become experts, without having to learn complicated new gameplay mechanics.
“The consistency of the block is very important,” Mårtensson says.
Make your own Minecraft
Another important key, says Mårtensson, is the game’s “openness.” First, the game doesn’t do a whole lot to give you guidance; it’s up to you to figure out what your ideal Minecraft experience will be. You can build a thriving village or go on an adventure to the bottom of the ocean, or just fight your fellow players. Minecraft supports it all.
“For people to make their own Minecraft is important,” says Mojang studio manager Saxs Persson. “It’s much more about personal experience.”
And if the base game itself doesn’t let you do exactly what you want, there’s always Minecraft’s vibrant scene for fan-made “mods,” or modifications, that let players customise the game with everything from more combat options, to graphical upgrades, to realistic farming simulations.
“It’s the inspiration for other people to do what they want to do,” Persson says.
All of these factors combine into a perfect storm, says Microsoft Corporate VP of Minecraft Matt Booty: A game that’s easy to play, but with surprising depth, and infinite customizability.
“There is a perfect balance in Minecraft,” Booty says.