Microsoft's Missed Opportunity: Not Getting Minecraft's Founders?
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Microsoft is buying Mojang, the maker of the popular game Minecraft, for $2.5 billion. But while the Mojang team will join Microsoft, its founders, including Minecraft creator and antiestablishment indie-gamer hero Markus "Notch" Persson, are moving on to new projects.
For a company often accused of both lacking innovation and arriving perpetually late to the game, is this a problem? The acquisition means Microsoft gets a hit game, intellectual property and a pre-installed base of loyal users, but it won't get access to the pipeline -- the visionaries behind Minecraft, most notably Persson, who will presumably go on to create new titles elsewhere.
For Tuong Nguyen, a principle consumer tech analyst at Gartner, this isn't a game changer for the tech giant. While Mojang's founders "deserve a lot of credit for the great game and community of gamers they’ve built," he says they've also created a strong and talented team that Microsoft is acquiring.
Additionally, while Minecraft is one of the few titles to reach cult status among gamers, there are plenty of talented, creative developers who Microsoft can bring on to help produce new titles, for far less money. "As any gamer can tell you there are tons of one- and two-man shops out there, making innovative, unique gaming experiences," he says.
Brian Blau, a technology research director at Gartner, agrees: "Microsoft isn't going to have a problem brining on talented developers."
And then there's the question of motivation. In a blog post discussing his role in the acquisition, Persson made it clear that he had no desire to join the company and continue developing Minecraft. “I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m not a CEO. I’m a nerdy computer programmer who likes to have opinions on Twitter," he wrote, later thanking gamers "for turning Minecraft into what it has become, but there are too many of you, and I can’t be responsible for something this big."
Bringing on an unmotivated founder is never a good strategy, says technology analyst Rob Enderle. "They may get in the way of the folks who are trying to get things done – they're used to being the kings of the castle and are least able to fit into the new structure."
Even when founders are initially 'acqui-hired,' they typically end up leaving after a relatively short period of time, he says, pointing to IBM's 1984 purchase of ROLM, where all four of the company's founders left within two years of working under the computer giant, as a case study. "The founders bought out pretty quick – in most cases, something similar pretty much always happens."
In addition, the skills necessary to create a title are often at odds with those required to develop it into a successful franchise. "The founders are really the visionaries behind Minecraft, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they are the right individuals to help the company grow, and be a success in the future," says Blau. "Different people have different roles at different times."
For his part, Persson claims he doesn't want to produce another hit game: "As soon as this deal is finalized, I will leave Mojang and go back to doing Ludum Dares and small web experiment. If I ever accidentally make something that seems to gain traction, I'll probably abandon it immediately," he wrote.
All three analysts agree that while Minecraft users may carp and worry about the future of their beloved game under Microsoft's leadership, they won't stop playing until the game is rendered, in the words of Enderle, virtually "unplayable."
While it remains to be seen whether or not the company can continue to build the title's user base, "this is as much a statement as it is an acquisition," Enderle says, a play meant to illustrate that CEO Satya Nadella is serious about the market and "convince developers to stay with him as he tries to turn around Xbox, which has fallen behind Sony."
It's a statement, he ultimately feels, that Microsoft can make without Mojang's founders.