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Microsoft buying 'Minecraft' isn't as crazy as it sounds

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Could 'Minecraft' make you use a Microsoft account?

Microsoft is close to buying the developers of Minecraft?

The same Minecraft that has sold over 50 million copies, created by the outspoken Markus "Notch" Persson? The same Notch that accused Microsoft of "trying to ruin the PC as an open platform" with Windows 8? Who said he'd "rather have Minecraft not run on Windows 8 at all" than put it in the Windows Store? Who canceled an Oculus Rift version of Minecraft the second the VR startup got swallowed up by Facebook? On what planet would Notch consider allowing such a thing?

This very planet, if reports are to be believed. Indeed, according to Bloomberg, it was Notch that made the initial approach to Microsoft. The deal is said to value Mojang, the Swedish studio behind Minecraft, at over $2 billion, and could be confirmed this week. Notch, who did not respond to a request for comment, would reportedly quit as Mojang chairman after assisting in the company's transition to Microsoft ownership. It would be Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's first major acquisition since taking over earlier this year.

Microsoft has a mixed record with video game acquisitions

So what would Microsoft want with Mojang? Well, Minecraft. Notch hasn't actively worked on the game's development since 2011, and neither he nor Mojang seems interested in pursuing new projects with anywhere near the commercial potential of their current world-building blockbuster. Mojang's next main project is Scrolls, a fantasy card game, and Notch has released (and occasionally canceled) various esoteric titles in the past couple of years. The real question is what Microsoft could have in mind for Minecraft, an offbeat indie hit that no-one could have predicted would become such a world-dominating success. The blocky 3D game is often compared to Lego, but Microsoft wouldn't be buying a ready-to-assemble pirate ship — it'd be more like a huge bucket of random, assorted bricks that the company would need to put together itself. At first glance, the acquisition seems a serious mismatch.

To compound the issue, Microsoft has a mixed record when it comes to acquiring video game studios. The most famous and lucrative buy was Mac-focused developer Bungie, whose Halo games turned into the flagship series for Microsoft's Xbox consoles. Peter Molyneux's Lionhead Studios was bought in 2006 and has exclusively released Fable games ever since, to varying degrees of success. Rare, the British developer that made massive games like GoldenEye 007, Donkey Kong Country, and Banjo-Kazooie for Nintendo consoles, has never replicated its success with Microsoft; after titles like Perfect Dark Zero, Kameo, and Viva Piñata fizzled out, the studio has been relegated to Kinect Sports and the Xbox's Mii-like avatar system.

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Notch will be all too aware of this, and wouldn't want to leave Mojang or Minecraft in unsafe hands. And yet from Microsoft's point of view, there can't be that many more people to sell $27 copies of the existing Minecraft to. The game is so popular already that there's unlikely to be much more growth in that direction. But Minecraft isn't an ordinary game — it's a platform, a set of rules, a way of life. Own Minecraft and you own a huge, young, captive audience. Microsoft's muscle and management could be a way to secure the future of Minecraft as a game and brand, something that Notch personally may not have much interest in doing himself.

If the reported $2 billion figure is accurate, it suggests Notch may not have chosen Microsoft for the money — he said after the $2 billion Facebook and Oculus deal that he'd been offered similar amounts already. (He also once said "My price is two billion dollars. Give me two billion dollars, and I'll endorse your crap," however, so.) And it follows that if he did approach Microsoft first, there must be some assurance that the software giant won't sabotage Minecraft. After all, despite Notch's views on Windows 8, Minecraft turned out to be a huge success on the Xbox 360 with over 13 million copies sold, and a new version for Xbox One (and PlayStation 4) was released last week. "Hey, Microsoft!" Notch said in 2012. "You might be a big and scary American company that likes secrets and meetings and such, but I love working with you!"

'Minecraft' might just be the stickiest reason yet to use a Microsoft account

Just as Minecraft is what you make of it — the game doesn't hold your hand but allows for limitless expression — there are endless possibilities for where it might go in the future. It won't be about selling more Xboxes or even more copies of Minecraft itself — with the company's new focus on cross-platform experiences, Minecraft might just be the stickiest reason yet for someone to use a Microsoft account, whatever system they're playing on. That's something Microsoft is in real need of, with flagging consumer interest in its Windows mobile products and even Xbox to some extent. Video games are "the single biggest digital life category in a mobile-first world," according to Xbox boss Phil Spencer, and there aren't many games that resonate with people's lives as much as Minecraft. The potential for new games and product categories based off the IP is also huge, and there have already been cross-promotional tie-ups like downloadable Doctor Who content packs. If Microsoft insists on staying in the gaming market, Mojang is about as useful a purchase as it could make.

And with Minecraft as the building blocks, the sky could be the limit for Microsoft even beyond video games. Education is one area where Microsoft could help Mojang, for example. In the face of encroaching competition in the mobile space, Microsoft is desperate to keep kids learning on Windows PCs, and to any Minecraft fan under 16, the game is probably the most important thing they do with their computer. Minecraft has been pitched as a tool that can actually aid people in various ways, too, from designing urban slums in Africa and Haiti with the UN to teaching kids how to code. It's exactly the kind of thing Microsoft would be best placed to extend.

It's also worth noting that Microsoft keeps much of its cash overseas and would be able to use this to pay for the acquisition, rather than bringing funds back to the US and getting taxed on a similar buyout back home. As for Notch, who knows what he'd do with the money? This is the guy that offered to personally fund a sequel to Tim Schafer's semi-obscure platformer Psychonauts, though later balked at the cost. With a Microsoft nest egg, Notch would be much better placed to carry out such video game philanthropy. Or, after leaving Mojang, he'd have more freedom to keep on developing the kinds of unique titles we've come to expect. Or he could buy more ultra-rare Aphex Twin LPs.

Of course, it's more than possible that Mojang could be another failed purchase like Rare, with a clash of company cultures driving Minecraft into the ground. Microsoft's efforts to court PC gamers have been disastrous for years, too, with initiatives like Games for Windows Live garnering nothing but resentment among the players and publishers it tried to court. But Notch is no fool, and it's more likely that he's leaving Minecraft with a steward he trusts at the height of the game's popularity. If Microsoft plays it right, this could be a deal that works out well for everyone involved — maybe even including Minecraft fans.