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20 moments that defined Xbox: #13 — The Mojang acquisition

By Kes Eylers-Stephenson,

You mine, you craft, you build. The same loop that makes Mojang’s Minecraft tick could be applied to Microsoft’s time in the video game business. Talent was mined from the industry, the tech company crafted a console, and the brand Xbox was built. Microsoft’s acquisition of Mojang is perhaps the moment that everyone realised how serious the company was about using its financial weight to keep building its house in the games market. In this defining Xbox moments article, we will cover the early production of Minecraft into what made it such a great acquisition target for Microsoft, the acquisition itself, and what Mojang means for the future of Xbox. Come now, let’s mine the diamonds of this bumper deal!

Markus Persson, known as Notch by many, started the process of creating this beloved game back in the summer of 2009, before releasing Minecraft to the world through TIGSource forums just a few weeks later. Speaking to the success of Minecraft even in this infantile stage, Persson founded Mojang with a few of his former game-dev colleagues with the money he was bringing in from a pre-alpha stage. Notch was even joking about making merch and having a constant stream of meetings, all within less than a year. By May 2010, Minecraft was in its actual official Alpha, with updates being churned out at a rapid-fire rate. In late 2010, the game entered into the first stages of a Beta. This period was about bug-fixing and adding small quality-of-life features, all for free. This is when I must refrain from using too much italicised text for emphasis because even though the game was in the Alpha and Beta stage, it was still seeing huge success and generating big revenue with every purchase. I failed there with the italics, but Mojang most certainly did not. The team was so successful it expanded to that office in Stockholm (a notoriously bourgeois city), and development on Minecraft continued.

Only a year later — isn’t that unusual now! — on September 14th, 2011, the “Adventure Update” marked the final stages of the Beta, with a second patch on November 18th updating the game to its 1.00 version. Development of Minecraft was handed over to Jens Bergensten, who was the former co-lead on a game jam side project for Mojang called Catacomb Snatch. Again, it is hard to emphasise the massive success of Minecraft with the opening two-and-a-half years of game development. The Pocket Edition of Minecraft for Android and iOS was released in 2011 in Alpha form, pushing the brand into many, many new hands. It is inarguable that Minecraft, from 2009 to 2011, had been constructed into one of the most valuable gaming IPs to have ever existed.

Halo Mash Up 1

On 9th May, 2012, the Xbox 360 Edition of Minecraft was released by 4J Studios, marking the first console edition of the game. Those editions would be later joined by now-legacy console editions for the PS3, Vita, Wii U, and Switch. Though more limited in scope compared to the PC edition, it put a marker down that Minecraft was to be a game playable everywhere. 2012 also saw Mojang investing substantially in the Minecraft experience by hiring an entire set of developers totally concentrated on servers and mods. By acquiring CraftBukkit to assist the building an official mod API, the modding scene just kept growing alongside the continued success of the base game’s Survival and Creative modes. This is a company that built itself smartly, investing most of its early profits into the very game that had made that money. Mojang had an established structure, a valuable IP, and had built and supported a solid community of fans and modders, all within four years.

That smart company building, alongside the incredible Minecraft IP and brand recognition, is probably one of the most attractive acquisition propositions ever put on paper in video game history. A bit of controversy around the EULA regulations regarding the profit made from Minecraft servers was the final straw for Notch’s relationship with Minecraft, who then proceeded to offer the studio for sale in a tweet. After talks with high profile publishers like EA, Activision Blizzard, and eventual buyer, Microsoft, Notch decided to sell up his shares. So, on 15th September, 2014, the long-term dealings between Mojang and Xbox over Minecraft came to a head. The pair announced a deal worth $2.5 billion, with Microsoft acquiring Mojang and the Minecraft IP.

Since that point, Minecraft has kept ticking with updates that would take many, many more paragraphs to detail. In a highly truncated version of events since the takeover, the Xbox One and PS4 versions of the game launched in 2014, with continued updates since then (mostly) matching the highly moddable and flexible PC Java version. In 2018, the console editions became known as Bedrock, allowing for full crossplay between systems, with the PS4 version of the game updated into the Bedrock state in 2019. Core aspects of the game were revisited and reworked in themed updates, of which there has been at least once a year since the start of 2016. Now, at the tail end of 2021, we are looking at a game that is still getting huge updates and still has an immeasurably large cultural impact.

There have been plenty of spin-offs, too. Like the Minecraft: Education Edition designed for use in schools, Minecraft: Story Mode released by Telltale in 2015, and Minecraft Dungeons released in 2020 as a dungeon crawler. There are the VR versions of the game, as well as the now-cancelled AR version called Minecraft Earth in 2019 for Android and iOS. While not everything has worked, the reach of Minecraft is constantly expanding under Microsoft’s stewardship. This has led to the core sandbox of creativity becoming one of the best-selling games of all time 240 million copies, with over 140 million active users in 2021.

Nether update

While writing this article, I found myself almost hopelessly lost at which of the many threads to follow through Microsoft’s acquisition of Mojang. But the truth is, there is one constant: each thread ends in a product that is one of the most successful of all time. Kids can play it alongside parents, grandparents alongside teens, I know young adults who play with their non-gaming partners. Every bracket you can think of — casual, social, hardcore, educational — Minecraft has succeeded in. It is a game that inspires creativity, content, and social interaction. Moreover, it pushed the limits of trusting the gamer to mine, craft, and build exactly what they want to within a sandbox, and it absolutely nailed it. That success now resides under the banner of Microsoft and its superb continued investment into Mojang studios.

Microsoft set up what it called “unplugged management” with Mojang. This involved making the acquisition, believing in the strong culture already existing at the studio, and letting it operate as it was with the increased budget of the acquiring business. This methodology would inform how Microsoft’s Matt Booty let Tim Schafer’s Double Fine operate after that acquisition, and the same for Obsidian, InExile, and Compulsion. In short, Mojang helped Microsoft mine, craft, and build the Xbox Game Studios label for the future.

That makes Microsoft’s $2.5 billion acquisition of Mojang our thirteenth defining Xbox moment. Not the investment directly, but helping create a different and careful idea of the management of Xbox Studios for the future. Now, though, ahead of the next instalment where we’ll look at how Microsoft kept old games alive with a much-requested new program on Xbox One, we hand it over to you. What did you think of the deal at the time? What do you think of Microsoft and Xbox’s overseeing of the Minecraft property? Let us know in the comments!

Also in this series:

  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #12 — The fall of Kinect
  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #11 — Games with Gold
  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #10 — The Xbox One U-turn
  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #9 — Committing to Japan
  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #8 — The rise of Kinect
  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #7 — The New Xbox Experience
  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #6 — Red Ring of Death
  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #5 — Achievements
  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #4 — Xbox Live
  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #3 — Rare joins the Xbox family
  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #2 — Halo: The perfect launch title
  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #1 — The Xbox reveal

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