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With Minecraft, Microsoft Buys A Doorway To Millions Of Players

Two youngsters play in a Minecraft tournament Aug. 9 in Ascot, England.
Miles Willis
Getty Images for Ascot Racecourse
Two youngsters play in a Minecraft tournament Aug. 9 in Ascot, England.

The video game world saw a massive acquisition Monday when Microsoft confirmed it was buying Mojang, the company behind the immense world-building game Minecraft, for $2.5 billion.

Now let's be clear: While the ink on the deal might say Microsoft bought Mojang, they really just bought the game franchise Minecraft. The company has created and published a few other small games, but nothing in its portfolio is on the level of Minecraft.

For those unfamiliar, Minecraft is an open-world, sandbox-style building game where players create objects and structures from resources gathered from the world. There is no real story or plot; it is just the player (or players) versus their imagination. Players have re-created everything from King's Landing of Game of Thrones fame to massive city replicas, the Starship Enterprise and even a giant, programmable piano.

Since its first public release in 2009, Minecraft has become one of the most popular video games in history, with 54 million copies sold across all platforms, including PC, consoles and mobile. In particular, it quickly became a top seller when released for Microsoft's XBox 360 in 2012, and remains a top seller for its XBox Live service.

In a statement, XBox chief Phil Spencer said that success is what put Microsoft on the road to making the deal, and that it sees "great potential to continue to grow the Minecraft community and nurture the franchise."

What that means for the game and its massive community is still unclear. And what exactly did Microsoft buy, besides a franchise?

Playing video games is often an evolutionary process, and the first video game that really hooks you becomes the lens in which you compare future experiences and the doorway to other games, genres and platforms.

Since its release, Minecraft has become that doorway for a great many players of all ages and demographics, especially those that might not label themselves as "gamers." Like Farmville or Candy Crush, it is entry-level gaming. Minecraft is casual; there are no big action scenes or politics or machismo-heavy protagonists. You are in control of its world, and it is only as difficult as you want to make it.

What Microsoft has essentially done is buy a very popular doorway. As new players enter the world of video games through Minecraft, either in its current or possible future versions, Microsoft will now be the doorman ushering that player into its game room instead of the competition's.

Both Microsoft and Mojang have said that Minecraft will continue to be sold on PC, iOS and Sony's consoles as well as the XBox 360 and XBox One. But regardless of where players choose to play, Microsoft will now have jurisdiction over that experience. Players have spent 2 billion hours on the XBox 360 version alone in Minecraft, according to Microsoft. And as the adage goes: Time is money.

As Ben Kuchera of Polygon writes:

"Microsoft bought mindshare with your children, who are likely already playing Minecraft on their consoles at home, their computers at school and their phones when they're out and about. Now Microsoft owns that game, and by extension that time."

One thing Microsoft didn't buy is the game's original creator, or its top executives. Minecraft was first developed by Swedish programmer Markus "Notch" Persson and later published by Mojang. But Persson says he's leaving the company once the deal is finalized, and says he never meant for it to become such a massive hit.

"Thank you for turning Minecraft into what it has become, but there are too many of you, and I can't be responsible for something this big," he wrote on his personal blog Monday.

And that's the rub, and the risk, with Microsoft's $2.5 billion gamble. Minecraft grew into what it is today relatively organically and with massive community support. Many have tried but few succeed in making lightning strike twice. In the case of Minecraft, Microsoft will certainly try, one colored block at a time.

Steve Mullis is a Web producer at NPR. If you have any gaming questions or suggestions, please write or tweet him. You can also follow the action on our gaming Tumblr, NPR Plays.

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