Minecraft: Microsoft territory

Recently, Microsoft bought Mojang – the company behind video game Minecraft – for 2.5 Billion Dollars. This likely makes the developers of Minecraft quite rich. (Coincidentally, at about the same time, NASA bought six flights to the ISS for 2.6 Billion Dollars from SpaceX . According to Microsoft decision makers, virtual bricks have more appeal than going to space.)

Many people have expressed feelings of anger and/or disappointment in reaction to the idea that Mojang – and therefore the video game Minecraft – is now legally controlled by Microsoft . The fundamental reason for that lies in the realization that Microsoft now owns the name Minecraft : Microsoft may now legitimately change what the name Minecraft refers to, e.g. by introducing in-app purchases or creating a sequel pandering to a different audience. By and large, these fears focus on the æ sthetic qualities of the game – comparable to fans of a pop star disliking his or her new outfit or hair color.

A second, more disturbing notion, is the realization that the assemblage Minecraft is now influenced by Microsoft . The assemblage includes more than the name and the software : It encompasses the culture around the game created by its users – exemplified by both in-game content such as texture and gameplay changes (known as mods ) and out-game creations such as songs, videos, clothing and Creeper Cards . Minecraft users may suspect that Microsoft tried to buy their culture whole – aiming to monetize the brand and killing it off if that fails.

It follows that Mojang – and Minecraft creator notch – did not only profit from the legitimate sale of the name or the video game Minecraft . The entities who until recently controlled the video game Minecraft – and by extension, the most important influence to the assemblage Minecraft – also profited from contributions of uncounted programmers and artists who essentially worked for free along paid Mojang employees towards Minecraft 's success.

Intuitively, this relationship might seem exploitative – but it is not uncommon among successful video games to enjoy large amounts of user-contributed content. In fact, many best-selling PC games have enjoyed extended popularity because of this (just think of Half-Life or The Sims ). One might compare fans of the video game Minecraft to fans of a football club who spend a significant portion of their time and energy cheering millionaires and gladly pay for this privilege. No one forced contributors to the assemblage Minecraft to play their part.

What the above analysis disregards is that the assemblage Minecraft is – and always was – intentionally territorialized : Its components are largely defined by their role within the assemblage and cannot easily be made part of another without losing their identity.

For software-focussed assemblages, two established mechanisms to create such relationships of interiority are the creation of custom file formats and the introduction of interfaces without well-specified semantics. When a text editor uses a custom text file format (like Microsoft Word ), collaboration with those using a different text editor proves difficult. A collection of programs that work well together using private interfaces (like systemd ) may just make it impossible to use programs inside the relevant assemblage together with those on the outside.

Counter-intuitively, even though custom formats and interfaces might result in a distinct lack of usability, they may help in establishing the border of a given software assemblage. Gameplay modifications for the video game Minecraft may seem needlessly difficult to create and install. Yet, while this may make Minecraft inferior to similar games intrinsically , this results in knowledge required for modifying Minecraft not having use in relation to other software.

In establishing software as their territory, Mojang looks like a cultural fit for Microsoft – I doubt that Microsoft decision-makers would have bought a company that did not exert such control. But were the implications arising from control of the Minecraft source code – power over both virtual brick and cultural territory – communicated clearly to Minecraft buyers and users?

As recently as October 2012, notch had written on the Minecraft home page For as long as people enjoy and purchase the game, I will develop extensions after the game is done. and I will release the game source code as some kind of open source. . We know now that he lied .

Confict of interest disclaimer: The author has contributed code and images to the free software game Minetest . Minetest is inspired by Minecraft , but gives you the freedoms to study, modify, distribute and run it for any purpose. Content for Minetest can be created with a text editor .