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How Minecraft became one of the biggest video games in history

September 03, 2013|By Chris O'Brien
  • Minecraft has become a worldwide phenomenon.
Minecraft has become a worldwide phenomenon. (Associated Press )

When I first heard that a group of Berkeley fourth-graders were using Minecraft as part of a campaign to help a classmate who had been deported, I didn't need much convincing to write about their story.

That's because in my home, Minecraft has become a dominant presence. My son, a fifth-grader, and my daughter, a third-grader, are consumed by Minecraft -- and so are many of their classmates.

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But what's truly amazing is that Minecraft has become one of the bestselling games of all time by defying much of the conventional wisdom about what it takes to make a hit video game these days.

Minecraft was created by independent Swedish developer Markus "Notch" Persson, now 34. With no big studio behind it, no outside investors and no carpet-bombing advertising campaign, Persson made the game available to download.

It became a word-of-mouth sensation. As of Monday, Minecraft has sold 12 million copies for PCs. That makes it the fifth bestselling PC game of all time in less than two years.

And that doesn't count the Xbox 360 edition, which has passed sales of 6 million, and the Pocket Edition for iPad and iPhone, which has sold 10 million copies.

And just this summer, Mojang, the company Persson created to run Minecraft, announced the game was coming to PlayStation.

It’s no surprise that my kids, or the Berkeley students, were among those swept up in Minecraft mania. Though people of all ages play Minecraft, children under the age of 15 are the game’s biggest demographic.

But it wasn't just Minecraft's indie status that has made its success so astonishing. 

In a time when gaming companies are striving for ever more realistic graphics, Minecraft uses large, blocky graphics -- there’s not a curved line in sight. Close your eyes and propel yourself back to the early 1980s, when you probably last slipped a quarter into a slot to play a game such as Frogger. Minecraft’s graphics look like they come from that era of gaming.

The game is also complex. Rather than discourage kids, that difficulty is part of its allure, making Minecraft extremely social. My son first learned about it from his friends. Part of the fun is making plans and sharing stories about their discoveries and creations.

Minecraft allows multiple players to enter the same world, where the focus is on cooperating to create things rather than competing to destroy. And that makes it a favorite among parents, who might not be excited about their 10-year-old playing first-person shooters.

In Minecraft, players gather, or mine, material used to create tools and buildings. The buildings keep them safe at night from the baddies that roam the lands, like the Creepers Endermen and Zombie Pigmen.

That dynamic of exploring, and then seeking safey, taps into a central childhood theme.

"Minecraft is designed around a really compelling fantasy," said Chris Goetz, a doctoral candidate in the department of film and media at UC Berkeley. "Play in the real world is often about exploring the unknown world around you and then returning home where you feel safe. Minecraft is a place where kids can work through those same impulses. It’s like kid utopia."

The world created by Persson has exploded far beyond its own virtual walls. My kids love to watch the endless YouTube videos that people post, either offerings tips and instructions, or just showing off their latest creations. Search for "Minecraft" on YouTube and you get 85.7 million results.

The game is also a relatively open environment, which means that outside developers can add on or create their own versions of the game through the use of "mods." The list of Minecraft "mods" seems infinite, but with Mojang only employing a dozen or so people, it's these outsider developers who contribute enormously to extending the Minecraft experience. 

So far, Mojang has said it doesn't intend to take outside investment and that intends to remain private. Who knows how long it will maintain its underdog status as it marches toward total world domination. 

But as for my kids, I'm not really sure they care about all that as long as the updates keep coming. 


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