Hey, Kids—Microsoft Is Buying Minecraft

Courtesy Minecraft via Youtube

Microsoft has an image problem: It’s not cool. Microsoft products are not thought of as elegant or inspiring. It is yesterday’s technology empire, which is by definition the exact opposite of what a technology empire wants to be.

One stab at fixing this type of image problem is to buy a chunk of the future when the opportunity presents itself. And Microsoft may well have just done that, spending $2.5 billion on Mojang, the Swedish game company that makes “Minecraft.” Microsoft gets one of the most popular video games ever along with an added $300 million per year in revenue and 50 new employees. Mojang gets a deep-pocketed overlord that may or may not take Minecraft to new heights.

Microsoft also gets an obsession. If you’ve run into a child over the past couple of years, there’s a good chance she has spent as many of her waking hours as possible playing and thinking about Minecraft, which is more of a universe than a game.

Players start out with virtual Lego-like blocks and can build basic things, such as a house to keep them safe, before advancing quickly to the creation of farms, ovens, and electrified carts for hauling around possessions. Soon buildings, then cities—even entire worlds—become part a player’s Minecraft skill set.

Minecraft is not like actual Legos in that kids playing it are not restricted by physical objects. The limits on imagination are minimal. Children can invite their friends to visit their world via the Internet, and they can all modify things together and socialize. The more you see what people are doing with Minecraft, the more you start to realize that it’s one of our most advanced examples of virtual reality. The game feels as if it has a mind of its own.

Minecraft is a true phenomenon and—much like Legos—it has the potential to last. The challenges present within Minecraft and its social element would seem to make it far more than a fad.

For Microsoft, the game represents an opportunity to be part of something vibrant and cool, and frankly, to influence the young once again. It’s a weird thing that the Xbox, which is beloved by many, has never really kicked back much shine to the Microsoft brand. Then again, it’s hard to have “Halo” and Office occupy the same headspace.

Simply owning Minecraft does not solve this problem. It does, however, give Microsoft a chance at solving the problem. Do something good with Minecraft. Take it in a fruitful direction we weren’t expecting. Keep the fantasy thriving. Flash the Microsoft brand along the way to a few hundred million kids—and you probably end up somewhere decent.

(An aside: Microsoft has to be regretting choosing this year to make its big splash with the NFL. All Sunday its products were hawked alongside talk of hitting women, child abuse, and coverups.)

Microsoft needs to get to where people are willing to give its products another try. Its phones, its entertainment and other online services, and even its new Surface computers really are quite something. But the only way people will find this out is if they come to see Microsoft as forward-thinking and part of their digital future. For $2.5 billion in overseas cash, Microsoft bought one heck of a stab at recharging its image.

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