To the lament of many in the Minecraft community, the sale of Minecraft is a done deal. For a cool $2.5 billion, the game now belongs to Microsoft, and journalists who have never heard of the game before are struggling to make sense of and cover the staggering news.
In a statement from the big cheese himself, creator Markus Alexej “Notch” Persson has stated that he’s not looking to make the next big thing: “If I ever accidentally make something that seems to gain traction, I’ll probably abandon it immediately.”
Very few question his integrity or sincerity, but it’s easier to say that with financial security no longer an issue. The reality for 99% of those involved in game design is a fine balance of commercial viability and art—luckily, Minecraft effortlessly taught us many lessons on how to create a game that’s both at the same time.
1. There’s No Minecraft Instruction Manual
Most people remember that feeling of awe and wonder when they first booted up Minecraft, and without the presence of whichever friend cruelly suggested you try out this gaming equivalent to crack, you were left with no idea of what you were supposed to do.
However, you were aware you had to do something, and the trial and error experience is way more rewarding than it is punishing. Of course, you don’t want to leave players completely in the dark to the point of frustration, but there’s nothing more irritating in gaming than overly-long tutorials and constantly being told what to do.
This lack of hand-holding has been proven successful in a lot of survival-esque games which followed: Rust, DayZ, and 7 Days to Die to name a few.
And if there’s something you can’t work out, you can always turn to…
2. The Community
No game before or since Minecraft has seen such a massive community form around a single game. Given that this kind of fan support is a much coveted boon to the modern game developer, you’ve got to wonder how Minecraft‘s community got so huge.
Refer to point 1.
If someone is trying to figure something out, what do they do? They turn to the Internet.
Get rid of the instruction manual, add in some genuine intrigue (either story- or mechanics-based), and as long as it’s a good game in the first place you’ll have fans tripping over themselves to talk about it online. A similar parallel can be found in the similarly brilliant indie game Kerbal Space Program, in which fans are literally trying to figure out rocket science together….
And that leads us neatly to the third entry in Minecraft‘s theoretical successes: it let the fans do the marketing.
3. Notch Wasn’t a Copyright Jerk
We wait with anxiously-held breath to see how Microsoft treats Minecraft as a copyrighted intellectual property, but you can almost guarantee it won’t mirror Notch’s approach. In short, Notch wasn’t a copyright jerk.
In a world where gray-suited legal executives fiercely issue strikes against anyone and their dog, Notch was all “Hey, go right ahead.” By letting people not only upload footage of Minecraft to Youtube, but even make six figure sums from the ad revenue, Notch got marketing and PR arguably worth hundreds of millions…all without spending a cent or lifting a finger.
Sure, he didn’t directly earn from all those Youtube videos, but arguably it would have been impossible to have taken a cut of it. Nintendo tried, failed, and took a serious blow to their reputations in the process.
In short, recognize when someone is doing your game a favor. Just because you can hit someone with a legal hammer doesn’t mean you should.
4. The Market Needed Minecraft
Notch released Minecraft at a time when the market couldn’t have been more ready for it. Both the indie and casual games markets were more popular than ever before, and a renewed interest in sandbox gaming was flaring. Nobody had quite dominated these markets with one single game…yet Minecraft was a clinically perfect mix of all three.
The timing was probably inadvertent on Notch’s part, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it retrospectively. A very good question a game designer should ask his or herself—before writing a single line of code—is “does anyone actually want this game?”
Find the gamer’s unscratched itch, then scratch it.
5. Minecraft Was Just a Damn Good Game
Quality gameplay trumps marketing techniques every time. Conversely, even the best marketing in the world won’t save a terrible game. All of the above points would be null and void if it wasn’t for the fact that, in and of itself, Minecraft was simply an excellent and unique gaming experience.
Put gameplay first. It doesn’t matter if you’re a bedroom hobbyist, just graduated from game design school, or someone who’s been in the industry for decades: you’ll have more fun if you put gameplay above everything else…
…and it won’t harm your chances of creating the next Minecraft, either.