In an alternate universe, Microsoft's $2.5 billion acquisition ofMinecraft maker Mojang today looks very different. In that universe, Microsoft follows historical form and announces that, henceforth, all Mojang projects and future versions ofMinecraft will be exclusive to Microsoft platforms: Xbox consoles and Windows PCs, tablets, and phones.
In that alternate universe, a lot of new people would be taking a good hard look at those Microsoft platforms today, especially the millions of parents with Minecraft-obsessed kids. It's been noted for years now, but it's worth pointing out again that for an entire generation of kids Minecraft is the new Lego; less a mere video game and more a wide-ranging platform for connected creativity and self-expression. If Microsoft controlled the only ways to access that Minecraft platform, millions of people would come along for the ride, even if they grumbled loudly about having to switch devices to do it.
That's not what happened, though. Instead, for the first time in its long history of game publishing, Microsoft is going to begin making games directly for competing hardware platforms. As the company said in its press release today: "Microsoft plans to continue to make Minecraft available across all the platforms on which it is available today: PC, iOS, Android, Xbox, and PlayStation."
This is a pretty unprecedented move for a major gaming platform holder (i.e. a console/OS maker), as unexpected and momentous as if Nintendo started to make games for the iPhone. After Microsoft purchased Rare in 2002, for instance, games like Perfect Dark Zero didn't show up on the Wii. After Microsoft purchased Lionhead Studios in 2006, it didn't put out a Macintosh version of Fable II.
True, Microsoft Game Studios did publish a few games for Nintendo handhelds, but there wasn't a competing Microsoft handheld console at the time to make this an obviously self-defeating move. Microsoft as a whole has gotten a bit less iron-fisted with its exclusive applications as well, recentlybringing its Office suite to iPads and allowing Skype to remain on competing platforms like OS X, iOS, and Android following its 2011 acquisition (it should be noted, though, Skype is available on Xbox systems but not on Sony's PlayStation line).
Still, this is new territory in the gaming space: a console maker allowing its wholly owned property to exist on competing hardware. The whole notion goes against the very idea at the core of the long-running console wars, where internal first-party developers make games to attract players to one particular walled garden over another (and rope third-party publishers into the exclusivity act along the way).
So why not make Minecraft the Microsoft exclusive to end all exclusives? The first reason might be the game's legacy. Minecraft is already well established as a famously platform-agnostic game, playable on everything from Ubuntu Linux to the Sony Xperia Play. Many Sony fans no doubt want a version ofHalo on their PlayStation, but they don't really have a right to expect it given the franchise's history.Minecraft is different in this regard.
While Microsoft could slowly choke off the existing versions of the game through a lack of updates and support, that's not a move that would exactly engender a lot of goodwill among the fans of its latest acquisition. And while many players would no doubt move over to Microsoft's hardware just to playMinecraft, many others would stay locked in to their existing platforms for other reasons and simply curse Microsoft for denying them access to one of their favorite gaming pastimes.
On a purely financial level, it might be in Microsoft's best interests to allow Minecraft to continue to exist outside of the Microsoft ecosystem. Since last year, Mojang recently launched Minecraft Realms, a $13/month hosted server service that now belongs to Microsoft. Keeping the base of players for that service as wide as possible is a good way to turn a game that's often a one-time purchase into a continuing revenue stream.
And who knows what other monetization plans Microsoft has up its sleeve. Plenty of Minecraft servers currently fund themselves by selling advertising or cosmetic items to their players. If Microsoft is planning on taking a cut of those kinds of sales, or offering its own customized items as paid DLC (and there's no indication either way on this), it would also make sense to encourage as wide a player base as possible to spend money on these things.
While Microsoft has promised Minecraft will continue to be available on all sorts of platforms, it has left some wiggle room regarding sequels and derivative products. We've already heard some speculation from worried fans that Microsoft will force a Minecraft 2 on the world as an Xbox/Windows exclusive, despite the fact that the ever-evolving original game is in little need of a formal "sequel."
That might be a simpler way to transition the franchise to Microsoft's control than trying to put a cork in the game's existing wide-open genie bottle. While Microsoft says it plans to "maintain Minecraft and its community in all the ways people love today," plans can change. Many are justifiably suspicious that Microsoft would spend $2.5 billion on a game studio that will continue to help make money for Microsoft's competitors well into the future.
We may look back on today as the day that Microsoft began the Sega-style realization that using exclusive games as a way to sell gaming hardware was less profitable than simply making popular games for a wide variety of other platforms. Or we may see today as a historical aberration; a multi-platform acquisition that was too large and well established to lock down in a small walled garden. Either way, Microsoft's path as a new game publisher on PlayStation, Android, iOS, et al is definitely uncharted territory.