This article originally appeared in issue 246 of PC Gamer UK. Read our feature on the making of Minecraft here.
It's hard to imagine how Minecraft could become any bigger than it already is, or how Mojang could spend the money if it did. Then the Mojang guys tell me. It sounds like a good plan.
Instead of indefinitely expanding Minecraft's in-game content, Mojang intend to gift its future to the modders and tinkerers.
“I think we're getting to a point where everything new I'm thinking of should probably be a mod,” says Minecraft's helmsman Jens 'Jeb' Bergensten. “The features are getting more and more specific and not so useful to everyone. Adding new animals and monsters hasn't felt like it's extended the game – and maybe I should work on something more useful, even though I know animals or mobs are the most appreciated content. In the recent snapshot we added bats. They don't really do anything, they just fly around and sit in roofs and sleep. But people are very happy about it.”
The modding community for Minecraft is already colossal and responsible for a huge volume of quality output. There are mods which add Pokémon, mods which add Portal guns, mods which add steampunk dirigibles. Custom maps, meanwhile, can completely upturn Minecraft's ruleset, like the perilous, puzzley resource scramble of Sky Blocks, or the vicious PvP of The Hunger Games mod.
But the lack of official modding tools has meant the community's offerings have been disparate, inconsistent, difficult for Minecraft's less techy players to use and occasionally dangerous. The solution is to build an official mod API, enabling Mojang to endorse well-tested mods and offer them through a central repository in-game.
“Hopefully they will be easier to install and less prone to destroy your game,” says Markus 'Notch' Persson, Minecraft's original creator.
This is no small task, however. Radical changes cannot be made to the game's API after launch, so getting it (mostly) right first time is important. And getting it right means changing a lot of Minecraft's basic infrastructure.
“We're rewriting the rendering – basically rewriting the client side of Minecraft from scratch,” says Nathan 'Dinnerbone' Adams, who was hired from the community for his work on Bukkit, the most popular of Minecraft's unofficial modding toolsets. “I think it'll be a couple of months before we see the initial versions of the API.”
Jeb also talks of making it easier to add and animate models, and fundamentally changing the way the game stores data regarding its many materials and items. But though modders will dominate Minecraft's future, for the short term at least, Mojang will continue to release weekly 'snapshots', optional downloads of unfinalised content, which continue to extend the game in unusual ways – or, more accurately, enable the players to do so.
“In the recent snapshot we've added something called the command block,” Jeb says. “When it's triggered, you can teleport players to a certain position, or change the game mode. So this user called Sethbling has created a Team Fortress 2 map for Minecraft. You can choose a class, it has control points, and everything works like TF2. It's quite amazing.”
But what's critical about this process is putting the community's most outlandish, most brilliant creations in the hands of all users – even those who are largely computer-naïve. The mod browser is one part of this, but Mojang are going further with a plan to offer private servers to players in-game.
“We want to make it easier for families and people with little knowledge of computers to create persistent servers,” says Jeb. “So we'll integrate our own server provider in the game. We mentioned this before and I got a lot of emails from server provider companies scared that we would force them out of business. I can understand it might look that way, but our target audience is not the same. Our hosting service will probably be too simple for the hardcore who buy servers now; we'll aim for servers with eight-to-ten people max.”
Patrick Geuder, Mojang's data analyst, has been working hard to identify trends in how people play Minecraft – and, more importantly, when they quit. Tutorials designed to smooth out those bumps may well be in the offing. Meanwhile, platform-specific versions of Minecraft will evolve into bespoke experiences.
“For the iOS and Android version we're always looking for how we can use the camera and the GPS,” says Daniel Kaplan, who handles business development at Mojang. “We've been thinking about trying to pixelate your surroundings using Google Maps data – it'll be really cool to try to do it.”
And, serving as a fulcrum for all these developments, will be the revamped Minecraft website, helping to bring the most interesting community mods and custom maps to the surface.
Yet many of Minecraft's forthcoming developments won't involve a single line of code. In fact, despite being a game whose success was predicated on its availability as a digital download, you will soon see Minecraft for sale in the shops – not in a box, but as a voucher.
“We have a lot of comments from kids that say their parents won't let them buy the game online,” Patrick explains. “So we're looking to produce cards which allow you to buy the game with your pocket money instead.”
Then there's the other major real-world extension of Minecraft: MineCon. Under the creative stewardship of Lydia 'MinecraftChick' Winters, the yearly conventions will continue as relatively small affairs.
“But we are working on an idea to help fans create their own fan events – a kind of TEDx-style programme, where you follow guidelines and apply for the MineCon brand. This year, however, we're working on livestreaming so people can watch MineCon at home.”
While MineCon makes its way to the living room, other staff members at Mojang are hoping to bring Minecraft to the classroom.
“Early on there were teachers contacting us,” says Carl Manneh, CEO. “And one guy, Joel Levin, started showing videos of how he used Minecraft in education. Then a few Finnish teacher students built the Minecraft Edu mod, which gives teachers control of a classroom in Minecraft.”
It's not the only social good for which Minecraft is being used: there's also the recently announced collaboration with the UN.
“The plan is to build 300 public spaces in these problematic areas around the big cities in the world,” Manneh says. The designs for these spaces will be shaped by the input of the local community, invited to build their own vision within Minecraft.
Mojang are keen that their legacy is not limited to a single game, and that's reflected not only in the increasingly ambitious applications of Minecraft but in the other projects underway at the studio. Scrolls is co-founder Jakob Porsér's baby – a card battler designed to exist only in a digital space – while the mysterious 0x10c is Notch's new squeeze: a space exploration and trading game of near-ludicrous ambition.
The company is aware that the more projects they take on, the larger they would have to grow – and they are reluctant to exceed their current intimate headcount.
“We have a few empty seats here, and I think we'll fill those up and not much more,” Notch says. “If we get too many projects and need to hire more we should split up into separate studios and try to keep those teams small I think.”
One alternative to such a drastic future can be seen in their partnership with Oxeye, the developers behind Cobalt. More such collaborations are planned, publishing each game through a centralised Mojang account.
Is this intended to be an indie-fuelled alternative to Steam?
“The free competition on the PC has always been why I find it so appealing,” says Notch. “So I'm a bit torn. I'm a huge fan of Valve, and I think they're doing everything for the right reasons. I just think they're slightly too good at it.”
There are some clouds on the horizon, however. Mojang's success has made it a target, and, currently, they are one of a large number of developers being sued for patent infringement by Uniloc.
“They want a licence fee for all sales, historically as well,” says Carl. “Obviously it's a pain in the neck. It's something that when starting this company we never imagined we'd need to handle. We've gone into a group of defendants and there is a firm in the US that represents all of us. So we just pay a huge sum of money every month to this lawyer firm and hopefully they'll win.”
How bad would it be for Mojang if they lost?
“Not disastrous in a way that we'd have to put down the company,” says Carl. “I think the monetary effect wouldn't be as bad as just... losing faith in humanity, really. But obviously the money would not be fun either.”
Mojang's battle here is not simply for their own well-being – the precedent set by Uniloc's victory could suffocate indie development as a whole. Notch's attitude, which he duly Tweeted, is that “Innovation within software is basically free, and it's growing incredibly rapid. Patents only slow it down.”
It's fitting then that the true future of Minecraft is not really in Notch's hands, or those of anyone at Mojang, but in the hands of its community, who will continue to chip bits off, build bits on the side, and mould it into countless shapes. The future of the game Mojang made is a game that makes itself.