Notch is laughing all the way to the bank with the $2.5 billion dollars Microsoft just paid for Minecraft. On the surface, Microsoft made a great purchase. After all, it wants to be a major player in the gaming market and sell lots of game players and software. Why not seize upon a game that has captured the hearts of millions of devoted fans?
What struck me most when observing or playing Minecraft is that it was a game designed by someone who loved to play games. Once a player buys the game, Notch never bothered the player with requests or demands to upgrade to the latest version or add a particular application. Seemingly all he cared was that his customers were having a ball. Sometimes, like a mysterious God roving through his universe, he would visit various servers and observe his customers having fun. He certainly was never a vengeful God demanding the sacrifice of a first son or a pound of flesh.
Let’s just say it. Big companies are responsible to their stockholders. The bigger they are, the more they have to prime their pump by generating new customers and increasing the revenue from existing customers. While Microsoft swears it will not do anything to anger Minecraft customers, I would bet that sometime soon popups will appear offering enhancements for a fee. Notch and his group of merry programmers were very responsive to their customers when it came to fixes and new enhancements, and the Minecraft bulletin boards reflected customers’ belief that bugs would be fixed immediately and enhancements on wish lists would be added quickly.
How does that experience coincide with people’s experience with Windows or Office? Often the prevailing wisdom was that customers were the ultimate beta testers whether they knew it or not. Also, unlike Apple, who remembers free upgrades from Microsoft?
I guess my point is that large companies by their very nature and by the demands pressed upon them are not incubators for creativity. Group think is much more encouraged. Ambitious middle managers are not about to take risks. As the old saying goes, it’s never a good thing for your boss’s boss’s boss to know who you are.
Creativity comes from living and breathing a creation. It means thinking about it night and day and loving and nourishing it like a child to help it grow to maturity. The parents of Microsoft Word and its 250 features nobody ever uses are probably in the witness protection program. You can’t create a great product by committee or even by having lots of focus groups. As Steve Jobs noted, he knew better than his potential customers what they really needed.
So, watch what happens to Minecraft over the next couple of years. The first time you see a new fee or a new operating system requirement or even a limitation that can be fixed quickly by just adding a low-priced application, you’ll know that deep down within the bowels of the mega company some group of middle managers are starting to get nervous because of pressure on them to produce more revenue. They’ll react the way they always react by trying to turn their customer base into a cash cow.
There is a distinct difference in the case of Minecraft when it comes to the type of customers Microsoft must deal with. They are not companies with tens of thousands of dollars invested in Microsoft products so that they are in too deep to get out without severe financial repercussions. These are young people who have an innate ability to recognize when they are being screwed. Rather than take it, many will simply walk away and turn to the next hot game.
So, if Microsoft is to be successful, it must disregard all its natural tendencies to nickel and dime its Minecraft customers. It must be responsive when it comes to enhancements and fixes and not try to favor the Windows platform over other platforms. I do suspect, though, that there isn’t an Einstein or a Tesla or a Notch working for Microsoft. The company will have to rely on the Minecraft customer base to suggest enhancements. Believe me, they have lots of good ideas.