October 25th, 2012 | By Dominic Tarason
Imagine, if you will, a time traveller with nothing better to do. He has journeyed back to hold a meeting with the heads of both Electronic Arts and Activision. To these powerful men, sitting atop their corporate towers, he shows a game. A screenshot of an almost comically simple landscape, populated by blocky little men and monsters. He tells them that some day, this will be the usurper to their shared throne. That some day, people will desire this more than shooting terrorists, or kicking footballs. They laugh, they mock, they call security. It seems impossible, doesn’t it?
As of a report released via Microsoft’s own Major Nelson yesterday, it’s the inescapable truth. Mojang’s tiny titan, Minecraft, has pushed EA’s eternally updated FIFA 13 to second place in total online activity, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 to third. This is a whole lot of firsts – it’s the first Live Arcade title to top the activity list. It’s the first indie title, too. It’s the first game that can’t be easily defined by genre labelling. It’s unprecedented, surprising, and – in retrospect – seems almost inevitable when you consider the astoundingly broad appeal of the game.
Minecraft really does contain something for everybody. The blocky, abstract world looks neither particularly childish nor excessively adult – it just is. The gameplay is flexible enough that just about anyone can draw enjoyment from it, be it from high-risk dungeon crawling, casually bumbling around with friends, building grand structures or hoarding precious resources from the depths of the earth. Combat is an option in the game, not a requirement, and it never presumes to know what the player wants to do with their time. It’s quirky, indie, and mainstream in a way that The Sims never could be.
It’s not all good, of course. Minecraft‘s overpowering influence can be seen in the sad state of the Xbox Live Indie Games rankings, where the top three played titles (by a very large margin) are all shameless Minecraft clones of some form or other. Cthulhu Saves The World developer Robert Boyd laments this state of affairs in this Gamasutra article. Minecraft didn’t have an easy time getting to where it was on XBLA, either – Mojang had to negotiate a previously unheard-of exception to Microsoft’s infamous and draconian patching policy in order to allow them freedom to update their own game.
This, of course, only really applies to Microsoft’s side of the court. Sony seem to be seeing great results in cultivating smaller indie outfits such as ThatGameCompany (developers of Journey, who are now fully independent thanks to venture capital investment), but as this console generation slowly sputters out of life, it’s hard to say where they’ll be able to reap the benefits of indie development in the near future, especially as the PS Vita isn’t doing as great as it could be. As the current consoles wane, the PC (the original home of Minecraft, of course) ascends. As the big corporations falter, the independents gain ground.
The coveted chart-topping spots – previously the domain of games with 100+ man development teams and marketing budgets comparable to hollywood – can now be claimed by a tiny Swedish outfit with practically no overheads, and barely a hint of marketing beyond word-of-mouth. The next few years are going to be a very interesting time for indie development, and with the previous mainstream ‘social’ giants like Zynga faltering, we’re in for some big, scary changes to the industry as a whole. The face of gaming is changing, and it’s looking blockier than anyone could have expected.