Microsoft meddles with Minecraft

Last week it was announced that Mojang, the studio that created the sensational open-world hit videogame Minecraft would be acquired by Microsoft. Notch’s reasoning: he’s a programming monkey, not a multi-billion dollar CEO. Notch sold his studio away so that he could go back to doing what he loves.

A noble cause indeed, but I, like many other gamers, especially PC gamers out there, am disappointed by the decision. I am distraught because it represents one more institution within the world of gaming that has fallen to the largest contenders in the industry, which squeezes our wallets, preys on young, vulnerable gamers and destroys innovation.

For those who do not understand Minecraft, the best analogy would be: it’s like playing with Legos in video game form. The player roams around a virtual environment and collects materials that they use to build whatever they wish.

Some materials have special functions. For example, a player recently demonstrated that a working computer chip can be created using materials in the game that allow players to create electrical or “redstone” circuits.

Additionally, players can access the source code of the game and create their own materials and items. The company is also non-intrusive. They release small updates to the game that allow the product to run better but allow the players to play the game as they please.

Minecraft has also steered clear of profit-squeezing models that many video games feature now. The two biggest strategies are the introduction of downloadable content and microtransactions.

For example, each year, the Madden series comes out with a new game with updated player rosters, slight graphical improvements and minor gameplay tweaks. They then market the game as a drastically new, shiny take on the series and charge you $60 for a game that really isn’t that different.

Another example is big-budget first-person shooter games such as Call of Duty. Each year, the series releases a new game. Every few months the studio will release new environments or “maps” for multiplayer gameplay and will frequently drop you from a multiplayer match if you don’t continue to purchase the maps, essentially forcing you to invest 15 more dollars into a $60 title. With Minecraft, the map-making algorithm remains consistent and does not charge you to play in new environments.

A big-budget PC game called World of Tanks, which although is free to play, similarly offers cheap additionally content that gives the player an edge over others in multiplayer gameplay. With Minecraft, the player does not have the option to buy new types of blocks for a dollar, or a new item kit for 50 cents. Even cult classics like Team Fortress 2 feature small microcontent that gives the player a distinct edge over other players.

These profit-squeezing strategies make for a worse product. The Madden series could easily release updated rosters and small graphical tweaks as a $5 piece of downloadable content. The Call of Duty series could simply reward frequent and loyal gamers with the map packs through gameplay rather than insult their devout fans by forcing them to invest more money in a game they love.

It demonstrates a callous disregard for well-crafted games and an even more horrendous mistreatment of the game’s consumers. Part of what makes Minecraft and independent gaming as a whole great is that gamers do not have to encounter these problems.

That is why I’m terrified of Microsoft’s purchase of Mojang studios. Microsoft is a tech giant. It continually makes choices that do not reflect the preferences of gamers. This is a company that intended to release a console that prevented you from sharing games and throttles your Netflix account if it counts too many people in the room. They see gaming as an industry to be conquered rather than a craft to be developed.

Thankfully, there are still independent game designers that continue to innovate in the video game industry. However, if each of them fall to the economic conquests of companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Electronic Arts, we’ll be left with a video game industry that is like the film industry today—dull, full of crappy reboots and devoid of any heart, soul, or passion that once made the medium great.