Minecraft is one of the most popular video games ever created. Since its humble beginnings as an indie game for the PC, the game has amassed over 100 million sales in just over five years. This makes it the second best-selling video game of all time, second only to Tetris. Minecraft has captured the hearts of both adults and children across the globe.
Minecraft’s identity is unique. Its merchandise – ranging from action figures, clothing, books, backpacks and even Lego sets – is instantly recognizable and easily findable in a variety of high-street stores throughout the world. Minecraft has become an everyday part of our lives, even if some of us don’t recognize it yet.
Highsnobiety was lucky enough to speak to the lead designer and lead developer of Minecraft, Jens Bergensten, to figure out what’s made the game the cultural phenomenon it is today.
“We Believed That Minecraft Had Peaked by the End of 2010”
Jens Bergensten has been the lead designer and lead developer of Minecraft since its original creator, Markus Persson, stepped down from his position in December 2011. Since then, the three founding founders of Mojang, the Swedish firm responsible for development of the game, have now left. Highsnobiety asked Jens if he had ever imagined Minecraft would grow into the cultural phenomenon it is now:
“We believed that Minecraft had peaked by the end of 2010, so I think it’s safe to say that it was a surprise to all of us,” Jens tells us. It’s a modest reply. After all, it’s safe to assume that back in 2010, nobody at Mojang would have ever guessed that Microsoft would eventually buy the company for 2.5 billion dollars.
An acquisition by such a large company could have been damaging for a game with its roots in indie culture. Thankfully, it’s been anything but, and the Minecraft brand continues to grow at an unprecedented pace.
A Game That Shows No Signs of Slowing Down
Over time, Minecraft’s popularity has seen the video game evolve into a series that stretches across a whole variety of different media.
Warner Bros. acquired the film rights to Minecraft in February last year, spawning rumors that Steve Carell may play a leading role in the big screen adaption of the game. Featuring in films, documentaries, a Lady Gaga music video, TV series such as South Park and even in schools as an educational tool, Minecraft has successfully cemented itself into popular culture.
The Building Blocks of Virtual Lego
What is the secret to the game’s success? This video game equivalent of Lego is simple to pick up and play, but has a surprising amount of depth thanks to a variety of different game modes.
Perhaps one of the most impressive things about the game is the way players can use their imagination to recreate locations from the Game of Thrones universe, Harry Potter, New York and even a life-sized recreation of the Taj Mahal. We wanted to know if Jens thought that the aesthetic and visuals of Minecraft helped to determine its success:
“In a sense it did help the success, as it allowed Markus Persson to develop the game very rapidly and focus on gameplay instead of visuals,” he explains. “As the game and development team grew, we realized that it was also one of the game’s strengths. This gave it a clear visual identity, while allowing the very creative Minecraft community to participate. Anybody can make a 16×16 pixel image for Minecraft.”
Minecraft Continues to Build and Improve on Its Merits
It would be foolish to dismiss Minecraft as nothing more than a sandbox creation game. Minecraft has a variety of different game modes to help it appeal to as many different audiences as possible, and Microsoft has continued to show the same amount of support for the game as Mojang post-release.
Microsoft’s commitment to Minecraft’s player base is shown through a variety of different updates across all of its platforms, providing them with new and exciting ways to play the game. Consistent patches also eliminate any bugs that may appear along the way. The responsiveness of the development team is certainly reason for praise.
Minecraft Allows for Complete Customization
The 16×16 pixels that Jens speaks of have also allowed for the release of official skin packs to be used by a variety of different characters in the game.
Among these are packs inspired by games such as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Skyrim and Mass Effect, as well as loads of skin packs focused around popular films and TV shows. The beauty of Minecraft’s identity is that it pretty much allows for anything to be replicated into the game.
Growing the Minecraft Story
At the end of 2015, Telltale games (the company behind the episodic The Walking Dead and Games of Thrones titles) released the first episode Minecraft: Story Mode. Adding further exploration into the narrative aspect of Minecraft, these episodic releases allowed players to connect with Minecraft characters on a whole new level.
“Story Mode is one of many possible stories told in Minecraft,” Jens explains. “The idea is that players will make their own story in Minecraft, so we try not to explain too much in the game.”
“There are elements in the Minecraft universe that act as a narrative, such as a dragon in The End, and the evil villagers that attack the villagers,” he continues. “But they are intended as a background for other people to base their stories on.”
Following on from the success of these episodic releases, the Minecraft story continues to grow as it enters into an entirely new and somewhat unexpected medium: the novel. Last year, Mojang announced Minecraft: The Island, the first official Minecraft novel.
A Passionate Community
Behind any great game is a passionate community. Conventions such as Minecon attract scores of Minecraft fans in their thousands, with the 2015 London Minecon breaking a Guinness World Record for the largest ever attendance at a convention for a single game.
The game has literally created careers for thousands of YouTube stars, and millions of people flock online to watch a variety of YouTube-generated Minecraft content. What role do the fans of Minecraft play in shaping its future?
“We obviously listen to the feedback and take suggestions, but ultimately, we attempt to develop a game for everyone,” Jens says. “Different kinds of players like different things, so we try to grow the game without overcrowding it with any specific kind of feature.”
Looking to the Future
With Minecraft already exploring different genres thanks to their partnership with Telltale games, we ask Jens if we could ever see the Minecraft name extended into other areas. “Yes,” he said, “although we would probably look for game types that have some kind of crossover with the core Minecraft audience already. A racing game is, in other words, a stretch.”
For someone leading the development and design for such a popular video game, it’s easy to wonder if he could ever feel shackled by the success of Minecraft. Shortly before his departure, series creator Markus said he “doesn’t want to be responsible for something huge that [he doesn’t] understand, that [he doesn’t] want to work on.” Mojang echoed his sentiment with a statement explaining that Markus “doesn’t want the responsibility of owning a company of such global significance.”
“Sometimes I wish I had time to work on games other than Minecraft, but that’s a privileged problem,” Jens says. “I really like strategy games, so I would probably work on something along those lines.” He goes on to add that some of his favourite video game releases in 2016 are Inside by Playdead, Factorio by Wube Software and Cobalt by Mojang.
Minecraft shows no signs of slowing down. For a game with an ever-accelerating player base – Mojang’s website literally has a click tracker for PC and Mac purchases – Minecraft’s popularity can only continue to grow as its developers experiment with new ways to explore its worlds.
Minecraft is already available for the Gear VR and Oculus Rift, and was recently announced as a title for the Nintendo Switch. And with the Minecraft movie promising to introduce a large group of people who are possibly yet to try the game, the future certainly looks bright for the franchise.
Having achieved 100 million sales in just over five years, we can only wonder what the series will achieve next.