It's much more than just nostalgia
It's much more than just nostalgia
Why is Minecraft so popular? It's a hard question to answer. Is it down to the game's constant updates? Getting to the indie scene early? Microsoft's acquisition? In a way, none of these are singularly important enough to say yes but the answer isn't nearly reductive enough to say no.
Minecraft has gone through a lot over the last few years and without that growth, it wouldn't be the indie colossus it is today. To understand why it is so popular, we first have to look through its history.
Modelled after games like Dwarf Fortress and RollerCoaster Tycoon, Minecraft started its life as 'RubyDung' - a base building game with highly pixelated graphics. Here, Minecraft was just an idea in the head of young King employee, Markus Persson.
Perhaps the single biggest influence early in development was a pixelated multiplayer shooter named Infiniminer. It featured the ability to sculpt your environment and a very blocky style - two things synonymous with Minecraft.
I've drawn a lot of comparisons here not to disparage Minecraft's development but to emphasise how communal video game development, and art as a whole, is. Minecraft did not get its start through its own creativity alone - it followed on the backs of icons before it.
Early in its development, Minecraft took inspiration from tonnes of different series and genres to make something of itself. This is, how the process of art evolves.
In turn, Minecraft has inspired millions to chase their dreams and make their own art. It is just one stitch in the tapestry of gaming but it plays an important part in its own right.
This moves us to the moment when the public first got their hands on Minecraft. Way back in 2009, Minecraft set a precedent that it has followed ever since. Initially designed for Java, Minecraft was handed out to the public, allowing players to essentially test the build and report problems.
This was a pivotal moment in development and the positive response and valuable feedback incentivised a development cycle filled with communication. Even now, if you want to play the next update early, you can do so via Minecraft Java.
Without this open style, Minecraft would likely be in a very different position today. The added bonus of constant communication between developers and players is that fans won't be let down by updates. They know what to expect and are there to watch it grow. This brought the team to new heights until the official launch.
The Full Release
Up until late 2011, Markus "Notch" Persson had been in creative control as lead designer and creator of Minecraft but Jens "Jeb" Bergenstein took over just after the the official launch. This was the first step that led to him eventually selling the company just a few years later.
It's important to note that Minecraft was already hugely successful for a game of its caliber. By 2011, it had sold 4 million copies, making it one of the most profitable indie titles on the market. This being said, it had much more growth ahead of it.
Growth and Acquisition
From its release in 2011 to its acquisition in 2014, Minecraft only continued to move from strength to strength. The game was ported to new hardware, received tonnes fo free updates and made promises for the future of the game.
Before being bought by Microsoft, Markus Persson revealed Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts were also interested in buying the studio. On September 15th, 2014, Microsoft purchased Mojang and the ownership of Minecraft for a monstrous 2.5 billion dollars. This leaves the questions "why did Microsoft believe it was worth that much?"
Why did Microsoft buy Mojang?
Although we have talked heavily about its influences and its growth, we haven't mentioned what Minecraft had going for it.
Firstly, it's a unique concept. Now, we have seen dozens of games inspired by Minecraft, but at the time, it managed to carve out a unique space in the industry due to its standout selling point. Near launch, it was heavily compared to Lego and this comparison is still accurate today. Whether you play survival or creative, you can sculpt the world around you in any way you see fit.
Like a canvas, Minecraft is so valuable for what it could be, rather than what it is. Its ability to let players do whatever they like is practically unmatched in the gaming sphere, even more so back in 2011.
As well as this, Minecraft got in at the start of the survival crafting craze just before it took off - allowing an accessible entry into the genre.
In turn, it has adapted an aesthetic that is comforting yet nostalgically sad - environments and music that just have a certain loneliness to them. In hindsight, it makes sense that Minecraft's music just makes me kind of wistful. It has this ability to cement itself in your brain and remind you of all the fun you had with friends you no longer talk to.
Minecraft is safe - it's a comfort blanket in gaming form, allowing you to explore your creativity in a world that will accept you even if you fail. Dying in Minecraft is just part of the process and that's a process I've enjoyed for over a decade.
Why IS Minecraft so popular?
I started this piece off not quite giving a complete answer and now, almost 1000 words later, I still can't. Like so many indie titles, Minecraft is a mixture of a good idea, a competent team, the right time and place and far too much luck to fully comprehend.
The soil that the structure of Minecraft was built on was tilled by the games that came before it. Base building games, RTS, Roguelikes - these all set the scene for players to latch onto on its release. Ultimately, Minecraft doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's a product of what came before it and it, in turn, will shape the future of gaming in ways we can't even grasp.
Although Minecraft is deserving of its place in gaming royalty, it's hard to deny just how arbitrary the gaming market can be. Sometimes, a title comes out and just takes over the gaming world for a few months. In another world, that exact game fails to reach its audience.
Like Minecraft, the world of making your own art is all about trial and error. Although the end product is inspiring, the journey is what makes it worthwhile.