Dear EA: Keep your paws off Mojang!

Today, Notch tweeted a link to a Gamasutra article in which EA’s Chief Creative Director, Richard Hilleman, stated that Mojang was going to need some serious help from a “big-name” company if they were going to continue to thrive in the gaming marketplace. He then went on to liken the future business of Minecraft to the California Gold Rush, saying that the money wasn’t made from the actual product, but from the industries which grow up around the product.

Finally, Hilleman said that he wished he could work with Notch and Mojang, because there was much that EA could learn from them.

Well, well, well. First of all, I’d like to thank Mr Hilleman for answering a question I’d been musing on: Were the “big boys” still trying to acquire Mojang? I’m probably being Captain Obvious here, but the way I see it, this Hilleman chappie is saying, “We want Mojang, and they’re not going to make it without us… Come on, Notch – you know it makes sense.”

Based purely on my own interpretation of Hilleman’s statements, I’d like to say this:
Don’t make me laugh.

Word of mouth

Minecraft has sold more than five million copies in the PC version alone, with hardly any advertising at all. Word of mouth has been the primary driving factor with Minecraft, from articles at popular websites such as PC Gamer, Rock Paper Shotgun and even BoingBoing, to tens of thousands of Minecraft videos posted at YouTube. Can you imagine any of the so-called “triple-A” software houses, such as EA, being able to achieve that?

Of course not – and neither can they. Luck played a significant part in Minecraft’s success, and the likes of EA can’t afford to trust to luck. So they’re forced to spend millions of dollars to get the word out there to gamers worldwide. Notch took a gamble with Minecraft, but he wasn’t stupid: He stayed with his then-employer until the game exploded, so there was the safety net of still having a job if Minecraft didn’t pan out. That’s just common sense.

Picking the right people for the job

Right from the start, when Notch formed Mojang, he took on people whom he knew would be capable of doing what needed to be done to make the company grow. Yes, those people were his friends, but Notch wasn’t going to take on dead weight simply because he wanted to do a favour for a pal.

What’s the name of the Mojang CEO? It’s Carl Manneh, not Markus Persson. Notch wanted to focus on creating games, but at the same time, he needed to ensure that whoever was running the show on a daily basis had a proven track record. Notch felt that Carl fit the bill – and as far as I can see, he hasn’t been proven wrong.

And this approach has continued as Mojang has matured. Jon Kagstrom is an expert in Artificial Intelligence, and it seems that he’s earning his money’s worth, considering the number of people who curse the new pathfinding and self-protection behaviours of zombies, skeletons and creepers…

Lydia Winters isn’t simply someone who stumbled onto Minecraft: she has owned her own business in the past, as well as being a speaker at numerous public engagements in relation to her work, so she knows a thing or two. While she may not necessarily have the experience needed to run a huge event like Minecon, I think she’s growing into her role rather nicely.

And then there’s the statement by Hilleman regarding the need to create a strong, stable modding API. Now, I don’t know if the interview with Hilleman took place before Mojang announced their hiring of the Bukkit developers, but the fact remains that Mojang knew they wouldn’t be able to create the API that was so sorely needed – they publicly said as much. So they looked around for who they felt was the best qualified to handle the task, and decided on the Bukkit team – while still reaching out to other modders in an effort to reach a result which would be good for the game and the modding community. And then Mojang still said to modders, “You don’t have to use the API if you don’t like it” – though Mojang would obviously prefer it if they did. Time will tell if modders do actually gravitate to the API, but Mojang is making far more effort in this direction than Hilleman is giving them credit for. Mind you, this was after a sort of mis-step from Notch when he said the entire source code would be available to any modders who asked for it.

Safety net, or straitjacket?

Now, I make no claim to be an expert on this, but I feel that Notch and co. won’t ever want to have Mojang absorbed by EA, or anyone else. It seems to me that the potential loss of creative control would be far greater than any gains from the theoretical safety net that a “triple-A” game studio would provide. With Mojang – as with any independent game studio, of course – the people who own the company are the ones deciding what games to make. I’m not certain that Mojang would be able to continue to have the freedom it does right now if it was seduced by a “triple-A” studio.

What more do you want… blood?

This is wild speculation on my part, but given the success of Minecraft, I would be inclined to suspect that a publisher like EA would want to squeeze every last cent out of the customers for such a hot property, by having Mojang crank out downloadable content (DLC) that EA could charge for. Or perhaps even bring out Minecraft 2. And I’m also given to thinking that EA would definitely not allow the sort of business model that Mojang employed with Minecraft (and which some other indie game devs are trying out). Sell a game while still in alpha stage? Unthinkable! And yet the majority of sales of Minecraft occurred before the game’s full release last year. And the full release didn’t stop the content coming for Minecraft – content which Minecrafters would be paying for as DLC if it was controlled by EA or the like.

That said, Mojang isn’t averse to charging for DLC. The concept of having Scrolls as a collectible card game practically demands it. And I believe it had been previously stated that there may be expansions to Minecraft which Mojang would charge for. But the company at least has the flexibility to change its mind if it wants to, if it hasn’t already done so; it’s perhaps not as driven to maximise its bottom line as the likes of EA would be. Besides, given that the modding community is so massive within Minecraft, it may no longer be possible to charge for expansions or DLC: the resulting fan outrage might be overwhelming. As I’ve said, I’m no expert on the matter.

“We’ve got a loose cannon here, boys…”

As for Notch’s comments about piracy… It would not surprise me at all if he scared the living daylights out of the bigger studios when he said what he did. I think that EA, with its insistence on using much-derided DRM within its Origin system, would move quickly to quash the sort of “radical thinking” that Notch has been expressing if Mojang came under their wing.

Mojang ain’t perfect – but they ain’t no dumb hicks, neither…

Now I’m not claiming, and have never claimed, that Mojang is infallible; they’re not. Sometimes, decisions are made that don’t go well for the company, or they don’t sit well with the community (Notch airing dirty laundry in public; the choice of holding Minecon at Vegas; picking the Bukkit team to be the modding-API developers was another). But no company is infallible – and besides, Mojang’s community certainly isn’t alone in having fans who object loudly and vociferously when change is made.

But the overall impression that I get from Richard Hilleman’s arrogant, condescending comments is that he views Notch and the Mojanglers as something akin to yokels, unable to make their way amongst “the big boys”, like EA, Valve, Sony and Microsoft. As I see it, Hilleman and others like him are dead wrong. Sure, there have been mistakes, and there’ll doubtless be more in the future, but this doesn’t mean that Mojang is clueless.

It’s probably true that Mojang may not become as big as EA, Sony, Nintendo et al. But it may not have to: Mojang is still small and nimble enough to cope with change – and yet big enough to handle the risk of whatever releases come next.

Remember, also, that Minecraft was not the game that Notch had dreamed of making. The game in question was Scrolls… although oddly, Notch doesn’t appear to be working on it at all. But Minecraft was the game which made Mojang possible – and made the big dogs sit up and take notice.

I don’t pretend to know what the folks at Mojang are thinking. For all I know, they could announce tomorrow that they want to be bought up. But Notch and co. have done things which have impressed – and even scared – their bigger rivals, and being independent has, I feel, made that possible. I, for one, hope that they continue to impress and scare and make waves, and I also hope they never feel that they would have to kowtow to the likes of EA’s Hilleman and his money-grubbing ilk.

Or as Notch put it in a rather more succinct form:

I’m sure EA is very successful at monetizing games, but the more we don’t do what they would do, the happier I am. #nooffense

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  • Trey

    I agree with your point on EA and DLC. EA has slaughtered their market by cramming DLC down their users throats. A perfect example is Sims. The original Sims had a huge modding community behind it. Sims2 reduced the support for mods and the modding community shrank. In Sims3 to push DLC to the max EA virtually dropped modding support in almost every area. Sims3 “mods” are primarily skins and textures. In being a big company their vision is limited to forcing the money towards them rather than making something that brings it.

  • http://r.heartlessgamer.com heartlessgamer

    I couldn’t agree more with Notch’s last tweet. If EA controlled Minecraft we would probably see:

    a) only EA-authorized server hosts
    b) EA hosted mod market with a monthly fee
    c) “Get your $10 cat DLC now!”
    d) digital distribution through Origin only\
    e) Coe’s Quest: brought to you by

    Which sadly proves the EA rep right: the real money in Minecraft isn’t in selling the game, it’s selling the services around it. The server hosts selling Minecraft hosting are making mad money which Mojang isn’t dipping into at all. As well as the various mod sites, etc. Minecraft has a huge potential at cashing in, but it would ruin the game longterm and Notch knows this. That is the difference between an indie and the AAA studios: one is concerned with making a good game for the long run while the other is simply worried about appeasing the stock holders in the short term.

  • Andy Durdin

    Tens of thousands of minecraft videos on YouTube? If I search for “minecraft” there, it says “ About 2,880,000 results”.

    By comparison, if I search for “mass effect”, there are only “About 243,000 results”.

    Even for “lego”, it only says “About 1,010,000 results”.