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Mojang prepares for life after Minecraft | 10 Years Ago This Month

An interview with Mojang's first employee offers insight on a block-building phenomenon in the works while Ubisoft tries to go Hollywood (again)

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

Minecraft has been such an ever-present phenomenon it's easy to forget it's barely been around for a decade. Markus "Notch" Persson hadn't even established Mojang to help work on the game until late in 2010, and while the game sold 1 million copies before it was out of beta, it wouldn't see proper release until November of 2011.

In between those milestones, Mojang's business development director (and first hire) Daniel Kaplan spoke with about the studio's aspirations for the game. A few parts of that interview are fascinating from a 2021 perspective, but before we get into those, check out the trailer for Minecraft version 1.6 -- posted on May 24, 2011 -- if you want to get a sense of where Minecraft was in development (and marketing production values) at the time.

Watch on YouTube

Ok, back to the interview. First of all, Mojang was ahead of the curve when it came to successful indies moving into publishing other studios' games, as Kaplan told us, "We hope to have something out this fall at least, some co-published games."

And much like many of the indie publisher aspirations we see from other developers, Mojang's met with limited success. The only games Mojang published for other developers -- Oxeye Game Studio's Cobalt and Cobalt WASD -- launched in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

"Eventually Minecraft will have to start going down, then hopefully Scrolls will start to take the pace at that time and cover it up"

Mojang's Danial Kaplan

Second, Kaplan noted that Minecraft wasn't even the project with the largest development team in the company. That was Scrolls, with a whopping total of three people.

So with a massive amount of money coming in, a flood of offers to bring in more, and a burgeoning worldwide phenomenon on its hands, Mojang had all of two people (perhaps one?) actually working on its still-unfinished, million-selling golden goose.

Kaplan said despite that, the studio's focus was still Minecraft, though it was planning for what it saw as an inevitable life after Minecraft.

"Eventually we'll, not phase out, but, eventually Minecraft will have to start going down, then hopefully Scrolls will start to take the pace at that time and cover it up," Kaplan said.

It obviously didn't turn out that way. Scrolls was shelved in mid-2015, while still in beta. (It was eventually released as a free game in 2018.)

"We have to think about what we'll do when Minecraft starts to decline," Kaplan said. "How do we set a pace with our new games, how do we set it up so that people understand that this is our new game and don't think that the company is just Notch and Minecraft? I think we're trying to educate our users to understand that there's a whole company around Minecraft and Notch. But we're still pushing Notch. We like to push the key figures in the company."

"How do we set it up so that people understand that this is our new game and don't think that the company is just Notch and Minecraft?"

Mojang's Danial Kaplan

Wanting Mojang to not be synonymous with its creator turned out to be a good instinct.

Having the spotlight on Persson was great when he was generating good will by sharing his dividends with Mojang employees and offering to fund development of Psychonauts 2, but perhaps a little more awkward when he tweeted that Electronic Arts was "methodically destroying" gaming or telling Microsoft to "stop trying to ruin the PC as an open platform." By the time he was tweeting transphobia, racist dogwhistles, and support for Qanon.

While it's debatable how successful the effort to make Minecraft less synonymous with Persson really was, it's worth noting that when Persson sold Mojang to Microsoft for $2.5 billion and left the company entirely in 2014, the Microsoft press release didn't even mention Persson by name. (A clearly unenthused Persson instead released a statement on his own website, saying "If I ever accidentally make something that seems to gain traction, I'll probably abandon it immediately.")

"I try to believe that Minecraft will be looked at just like Doom was"

Mojang's Danial Kaplan

And when Microsoft celebrated the 10th anniversary of Minecraft, Persson wasn't invited. Microsoft specifically explained the snub was because "his comments and opinions do not reflect those of Microsoft or Mojang and are not representative of Minecraft." A month later, users noticed Microsoft had removed references to Persson in Minecraft itself.

Finally, there's Kaplan's dawning understanding of just how big a deal Minecraft really was.

When asked about the then-recent rash of Minecraft-like games on other platforms, Kaplan said it was more flattering then concerning, adding, "I try to believe that Minecraft will be looked at just like Doom was."

So at this point, the comparison to a seminal work like Doom is in play enough that him voicing that ambition isn't absurd or laughable. At the same time, Kaplan clearly isn't too far removed from the days when it wouldn't have been.

When asked when he realized Minecraft could be something special, Kaplan answered:"Last year, the huge blogs like Kotaku and Penny Arcade wrote about it -- that's when we realized, 'Wow.' It was already going well, but when those guys wrote about it, it started to go great. They made a huge impact on our sales and brand. We are very grateful."

No offense to Kotaku or Penny Arcade, but with Minecraft having sold its 200 millionth copy last year, I suspect their coverage of Minecraft doesn't get quite the same reaction from Mojang these days.

Maybe Ubi oughtn't be in pictures?

In 2010, Disney released the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a big-budget blockbuster film from a proven director starring Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley and big-name actor Jake Gyllenhaal as the Persian prince, somehow. Despite a respectable worldwide box office total, the film was not well received by critics and generally regarded as a flop.

The experience working with Disney apparently left a bad taste in Ubisoft's mouth, as the publisher in May of 2011 launched its own film and TV production arm Ubisoft Motion Pictures, with a mandate to control every aspect of the film creation process.

"We want to keep ownership, retain control over the film content, and we're open to work with studios on the development of our projects, and eventually collaborate on the pre-casting, pre-budget and script," Ubisoft Motion Pictures head Jean-Julien Baronnet said at the time.

The approach would seem to make sense to anyone who had learned the lessons of other game developers who jumped into movies without that control, most notably Nintendo, Capcom, and any publisher who worked with Uwe Boll.

Ubisoft Motion Pictures' first four projects were movies for Assassin's Creed, Splinter Cell, and Ghost Recon films, and a TV series for Rabbids. In 2013 it also announced Far Cry, Watch Dogs, and Rabbids movies.

It didn't take long for Ubisoft's approach to ruffle feathers, as Vulture later in 2011 reported that Ubisoft was demanding "an unheard of amount of control" in its partnership with Sony for the Assassin's Creed film, with one source telling the outlet even Steven Spielberg wouldn't be able to have Ubisoft's level of control over the film's various elements, including budget, cast, script, and release date.

"The level of control Sony gave up means, effectively, that Assassin's Creed will never -- and I mean never -- get made"

Anonymous film industry insider

That report included one insider promising, "The level of control Sony gave up means, effectively, that Assassin's Creed will never -- and I mean never -- get made." And while it did eventually see release five years later, it wasn't Sony releasing it. By then the project had been turned over to 20th Century Fox.

Even with full control of the production, Assassin's Creed was another in a long line of game-to-film adaptations that flopped. It had even worse reviews than Prince of Persia, didn't do as well at the box office (albeit with a larger return on investment given its smaller overall budget), and led to the exact same number of sequels.

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I'm not saying Ubisoft was wrong to want control, or that the apparent failure of Assassin's Creed is evidence it misused what control it had. But the movie business, much like games, is littered with the corpses of outsiders who saw a trendy, lucrative industry and thought: "How hard could it be?"

The Ubisoft Motion Pictures release slate is evidence enough of this. The Rabbids Invasion TV show came together just fine and even lasted for four seasons, but Ghost Recon (directed by Michael Bay) and Splinter Cell (starring Tom Hardy) are nowhere to be seen. This is particularly stunning to me as I was under the impression you could put the Tom Clancy name on anything, leave it in a cold, dark, damp place for a few months and a movie would just sort of happen.

We haven't heard anything about Watch Dogs and Far Cry movies in years (although I still hold out hope Far Cry will be a canonical successor to the Uwe Boll adaptation of the series), but the Rabbids movie is apparently still a thing, with Ubisoft announcing Lionsgate as its partner in late 2019.

The difficulty in getting those adaptations off the ground hasn't deterred Ubisoft, as its film and TV division has in recent years announced new movies for Beyond Good & Evil, Just Dance, and The Division, as well as multiple Assassin's Creed series for Netflix. Oh, and there's even a TV series of the oft-delayed Skull and Bones in the works, which might go down as the the most faithful game-to-TV adaptation ever simply by not coming out.

In fact, Ubisoft's most successful film and TV projects of late haven't exactly fulfilled the ambition of bringing its biggest blockbuster franchises to new media. Those would be Mythic Quest -- a comedy series set in a fictional development studio and currently in its second season on Apple TV+ -- and Werewolves Within, a comedy horror film based on the 2016 VR game set to debut at the Tribeca Film Festival next month.

Good Call, Bad Call

BAD CALL: "I think most of my co-workers joined because they wanted to work for a small company. Personally I think that's the right way to do it because we can make whatever we want to make and we don't have to depend on anyone else. I don't think it'd make much sense if we joined another company." - Mojang's Daniel Kaplan, in the same interview from the first section, explaining why the company wasn't interested in being acquired by a bigger company.

GOOD CALL: NPD's Anita Frazier correctly identified what seems more obvious now, that the money people spend on mobile games often isn't cannibalizing console spending, saying: "While there is clearly some substitution for spending on traditional forms of gaming among 40% of consumers, the majority of mobile consumers indicate that this spending is incremental to their spend on console or portable games, which makes sense since the games and devices provide for different types of gaming occasions and experiences."

Ten years down the line, even that 40% number sounds high considering the rush to follow in Call of Duty Mobile's footsteps.

BAD CALL: Encouraged by then-recent innovations like smartphones and Microsoft's Kinect, industry veteran Ed Fries was quite comfortable that hardware would continue innovating but was more concerned about software. He was bullish on mobile and social as opportunities to innovate, but was less rosy about the AAA console/PC space, saying people can only play so many Halo and Call of Duty games.

"You can only go on making sequels for so long. Viewers decline. People want something new"

Ed Fries

"These experiences can only go on so long," Fries said. "You see that in the movies, right? You can only go on making sequels for so long. Viewers decline. People want something new. They want something different and surprising."

Ten years later, Kinect is dead. The big console innovation this generation has been quicker load times. Apple's headline selling point for the latest iPhone reveal was that it comes in purple.

Meanwhile, Activision is all Call of Duty, all the time, making all the money. Sequels dominate the charts as much as ever, and the days of mobile being a place for small developers to find their fortune through experimentation are long gone, to the extent they ever happened at all.

GOOD CALL: During Disney's post-earnings conference call, Richard Greenfield of trading firm BTIG was deeply skeptical of the company's gaming strategy, particularly because it had lost so much money trying to build a beachhead in the console space with Black Rock Studios, Junction Point Studios, Wideload Games, and Propaganda Games.

"Looking at people's reaction, people are just kind of shocked at the size of the Interactive Media losses, and so there's a lot of questions like why did Disney need to be in this business versus just licensing its content," Greenfield asked Disney CEO Bob Iger. "Why is this so important to you?"

Iger acknowledged that console had been risky, but basically said he had a really good feeling about the $763 million bet Disney made getting into the social/mobile area the year before by acquiring Playdom.

Neither bet paid off. Five years and way too many layoffs later, Iger's Disney gave up on making games and took Greenfield's advice, treating the segment exclusively as a licensing opportunity.

MOSTLY GOOD CALL: Silicon Knights founder Denis Dyack believed that the social gaming business was in for a downturn, saying, "The trend that I see is it's probably going to be one of the biggest bubbles and explosions that our industry's seen in a long time and I think when it crashes it's going to crash very hard. I don't think there's an economy there."

Dyack was right in that many of biggest social gaming names of the time -- Zynga, CrowdStar, Playfish, Playdom, Digital Chocolate -- hit the skids for at least a while, with the latter three shutting down within a few years and the close clones of Farmville generally falling out of favor.

But many of the general tactics at work in the social games of the time have been adopted across the industry. Just as social games borrowed and then built on the "to-do lists" and "make the number go up" appeal of traditional strategy and role-playing game progression, so too has the rest of the industry since borrowed liberally from social games, slathering layers of monetization tactics and engagement boosters over every genre of title, and for every target market.

GOOD CALL, EVIL CALL: Mark Zuckerberg predicted that as just as social integration had changed the face of the games industry at the time, so too would it change the face of other media, like music, film, and news.

"We don't have the DNA to be a music company or a movie company," Zuckerberg said. "But I hope we can help those companies become more social. We're going to see a lot of the transformation in these industries over the next three, five years that we have with gaming so far."

He added, "People listen to music with friends, you read news and discuss it with friends. These industries can be rebuilt from the ground up with social."

Zuckerberg was absolutely right, so long as you replace "rebuilt from the ground up" with "hollowed out and subverted to maximize engagement for profit no matter the harm it would do to users and society at large."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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