October was not a great time to request an interview with the Minecraft team. These folks were just a tad busy.
It had been a little over 10 years since Mojang, once an independent, grassroots gaming label, launched that very first beta test — before they were purchased by Microsoft in 2014 for over $2 billion. But, this year, the developers aren’t looking back. They all gathered in Barcelona, Spain on a company retreat of sorts to think about and brainstorm the future.
Nov. 12 marked the U.S. beta launch of Minecraft Earth, the company’s Pokémon Go!-esque augmented reality mobile game in which players create their own 3D structures by collecting “tappable” building pieces in their area. In one week, Mojang saw 1.4 million downloads across the App Store and Google Play, per external stats logged by Sensor Tower. As of this week, that number reportedly rose to 2.5 million — and we’re not even at the “official” launch stage yet. Then there’s the forthcoming debut of Minecraft Dungeons, the franchise’s first foray into the “dungeon crawler” arena. It’s crazy to think how, in the span of 10 years, what was once a small indie title built itself into one of the most influential, best-selling videogames of all time.
When Lydia Winters, the chief brand officer at Mojang, finally has a spare moment to speak to EW over the phone, the feeling seems mutual. “Originally, our feeling was that we would make games about anything and so we had other IP games,” she says. “But as Minecraft grew in popularity, we realized we had something so unique that we should continue to build on what Minecraft is because it resonates so well with people. Instead, we’re thinking about what new genres can we take Minecraft in.”
Considering how fast the popularity of this craft-and-combat adventure game grew, Mojang came to this realization pretty early on. Minecraft was first just a digital sandbox in which users could create. It was “a fun hobby project,” as Winters put it, something for Swedish creator Markus Persson (a.k.a. Notch) to put out into the world and evolve through player feedback. (This was before what we know now as beta launches became so popular.) Back then, Minecraft wasn’t even called Minecraft. Winters, who herself got started as a fan recording gameplay for YouTube videos, remembers when the game was called Cave Game, “because it was just literally a game where caves were generated.” Through user feedback, the title became Minecraft Order of the Stone until Notch shortened it to just Minecraft.
This pretty much sums up how Minecraft has always evolved into the next big thing: user feedback turns to action.
2012 began the company’s partnership with the United Nations, called Block by Block, a foundation that uses Minecraft in real-world architectural planning. (You can’t say that about Pokémon Go!) “That was from a Swedish [architect] whose son was like, ‘Why don’t you use Minecraft for that?’” Winters says. Minecraft: Education Edition came in 2016 after Mojang saw “teachers just using Minecraft in their classrooms because they loved it.” Winters adds, “Very quickly as a company we realized that Minecraft had unlimited potential because people were using it in so many ways.”
Today more than 112 million gamers play each month, and the studio, whose success raised the bar for indie developer potential, is still looking to see where they can take Minecraft next. Despite a false alarm this year, thanks to a Twitter trend, that does not include Minecraft 2 — even though fans seem to bring up that topic over and over again.
“If you think about what Minecraft was at the beginning and what it is now, we’re far beyond a sequel at this point with the number of updates and cool things being added to the game,” Winters says, putting that topic to rest. “I would be so curious from our community, What would Minecraft 2 be? Because we’re just continuing on Minecraft as it is and building out the world even more.”
Winters also confirms there are no plans at the moment to keep the Telltale Minecraft series alive. (The award-winning Telltale Games studio, which produced releases around The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, shuttered this year, but a separate holding company is now trying to open its doors again.) Winters remarks, “When we thought about what we can do next, we really thought more about how we can push things further and make things really different.”
Those answers include Minecraft: Dungeons, birthed out of an internal love at the company for dungeon crawlers, as well as the free ray-tracing update through a partnership with Nvidia that gives these virtual blocks a major glow-up. Dungeons, specifically, feels like “a new era” for the franchise, according to Winters, because it “really opens up a very very different style of gameplay than we have in core Minecraft.” She adds, “You have combat but it’s not one of its biggest features.”
Perhaps the biggest new territory for Mojang is feature filmmaking. The Minecraft movie, which has been in development for quite some time, is currently scheduled to hit theaters on March 4, 2022. Players can already “go to YouTube and see all kinds of animated things,” Winters says. That’s why there will be a live-action component to the film, directed by Peter Sollett of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist. “Obviously, since we’re quite a few years in, it’s proving a bit more difficult. But, for us, it’s about getting it right. And Minecraft doesn’t have a story, so how do we create a unique story that will resonate with our huge player base? It’s a very exciting challenge.” The story for the movie is briefly described as the tale of a teenage girl and her unlikely group of adventurers who set out to save Overworld from the malevolent Ender Dragon.