Minecraft was created by a solo developer with a day job in 2009. The graphics are 8-bit and servers will boot you for no reason sometimes. By all accounts, Minecraft should have crashed and burned early.
It is the best-selling video game of all time. Over 200 million copies have been sold. Microsoft bought it for $2.5 billion all the way back in 2014.
Oh, and over 126 million people play it every month.
Today, I want to talk about this scrappy little video game that came out of nowhere, outsold any given generation of Pokemon games, and made its creator a billionaire. All while having glitches that inexplicably allow rowboats to move at the equivalent of 168 miles per hour.
What on earth is Minecraft?
First things first, I want to say that Minecraft is an absolutely amazing game. I’ve been playing it off and on for over a decade now and I’ve seen it develop from a weird indie game played by supernerds and bored college kids to an unstoppable juggernaut that teaches kids how to make wiring diagrams.
My first encounter with the game was in my sophomore year of college. I discovered the game during finals week, and played it for 12 hours straight the first night I downloaded it. Not coincidentally, this semester was the one in which I had the lowest average GPA.
It’s a truly special game, but I’ll do my best to describe it here for the sake of readability. Minecraft is a sandbox video game, which means you can basically do whatever you want in it. There are no set objectives, and it’s up to you to decide how you are going to spend your time. If you want to build a house, you can do that. You can also explore mountains and caves, become a wizard, and fight a dragon. You can become a rail tycoon, sculptor, farmer, mayor, or just about anything else you put your mind to.
Minecraft is also a procedurally generated game. That means no two Minecraft worlds are alike, as the computer creates new landscapes for you from scratch. Every landscape is rich with different biomes from jungles to tundras, deserts to vast oceans. You can go to Hell (The Nether) and to space (The End).
Everything in the world is made of blocks, and you can move them around until your heart’s content. It’s like a really large, really complex world made of Legos.
It’s a survival game. You must hunt and farm for your food, build your meager shelter and scrape out a living until you can slowly work your way to a better life. All while being chased by skeletons, giant spiders, and exploding green creatures known as creepers.
It is also a creative game, with a whole mode dedicated to letting you build whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want, however you want with no restrictions whatsoever.
Lastly, it is a massively multiplayer game. You can play with your family on a private server, or with the general public on a huge public server. The choice is up to you.
No matter what you choose, though, Minecraft is a game that rewards you for sticking to a world and fleshing it out. And to tether my more poetic explanation of what Minecraft can be, I’d like to show you what it is by simply linking some videos of what real people have done with the game.
What do people do on Minecraft?
Some people build grand cities, with proud skyscrapers and cozy suburbs.
Some people build functioning computers.
Others still fight dragons.
I could do this all day, but I won’t because this is a business blog! Suffice to say that anything you can imagine, you can find a way to make it in Minecraft. And while you’re at it, you can probably make it a group activity too.
During the coronavirus quarantine, when everyone’s nerves were shot, I called up my family and got them on a group Minecraft server. We built a cozy metropolis of different towns and cities, all linked by a series of rail stations, waterways, and ice highways (it’s a thing). It was a way to calm our nerves and keep us connected during the scariest year that any of us had ever experienced.
Minecraft’s marketing budget was basically $0
Given the multi-billion dollar success of Minecraft, you might be tempted to conclude that it succeeded by the merit of a massive marketing budget. This simply isn’t the case. Indeed, Minecraft more or less didn’t make any serious effort to market.
It succeeded almost entirely because of word-of-mouth. The people who played Minecraft fell in love with it so much that they sucked their friends into it, too.
Chalking the success of Minecraft up to word-of-mouth might seem glib, but it’s really not. It’s in fact the only real explanation when you have a game this successful without any budget. And it’s not like the creator Notch himself was knocking on doors to get the game sold. He clearly had lightning in a bottle with the game, and it couldn’t help but spread.
But it happened this way for a particular reason, and I’m going to explain why as a marketer and a Minecraft fan who’s been playing since it was in alpha.
Minecraft was unlike any other game ever made, and that made up for its flaws
Minecraft was clearly a happy accident. If you read about the development of it, you hear about a guy who basically wanted to make an open-ended mining game. It was a dead-simple concept that was in no way obviously going to turn into a massive open-world game of infinite possibility. Yet the creator kept adding features incrementally until Minecraft just sort of…happened. Out of chaos, the game emerged.
The game is a brilliant piece of programming. It’s light on the computer and you don’t need fancy hardware despite its massive open world. The only game I can think of with more clever programming is Roller Coaster Tycoon, which was written in assembly code – the raw and unprocessed language of machines. But Roller Coaster Tycoon, while a very well-selling, critically-adored game, didn’t become Minecraft.
Minecraft, especially early on, felt like an accident. Stuff fell through walls. You would walk around and suddenly die for no reason and lose all your stuff. Servers would inexplicably boot you off. Your whole game would crash.
And yet improbably, the glitches gave it charm. Somewhere deep down, between fighting the elements and fighting the game itself, the game became deeply social. Up until that point, most video games were about shooting something, battling someone, or otherwise fighting. Minecraft just let you chill.
Minecraft gave people something they didn’t know they needed
I believe that Minecraft was the first game to seriously tap into a deep psychological need that was hitherto unmet: the need to create and cooperate. In a world where everyone was being sorted into social media echo chambers, Minecraft became a room where anyone and everyone could get together to build something beautiful and strange.
Even when you play alone, though, you’re not truly alone. At the time Minecraft was taking off, Let’s Plays were taking off. At one point, Minecraft accounted for 41% of fan-made videos on YouTube. Even solo players couldn’t resist saying “look what I’ve made!”
And this isn’t just an online phenomenon. If you know anyone who’s played Minecraft, they likely asked you if you wanted to see what they’ve made. They would then proceed to show you something that you found incredibly interesting or unbelievably vapid. (There is no middle ground.)
Not only can anyone play, but anyone can play the way they want to
The other remarkable thing about Minecraft is how accessible it is. While the initial learning curve is tricky (current tutorials have done a good job of smoothing this out), the game itself is very approachable. Kids as young as 6 can build dirt huts to get away from creepers when the sun goes down. Yet adults can dive deep into the Minecraft wiki to make marvels of engineering.
Minecraft is perhaps the only game where a second-grader can make a house and be perfectly happy, while their dad creates a hulking agricultural center to automatically grow and harvest wheat. The kid fights whatever monsters are there while their dad sets up pistons and redstone using complex wiring and timing mechanisms in tandem with water-based converyor belts and elegant light systems. The kid can explore caves while their mom creates strip mines under lava lakes in hell to mine ancient debris to fashion into ultra-durable black metal.
My own Minecraft world has two separate mass transit systems to travel quickly between towns that are kilometers apart. All created by digging out tunnels and lining them with powered railroad tracks. But one need not do that to enjoy the game – I just got a kick out of the challenge of it.
Minecraft started as a weird, glitchy indie game
Minecraft has always been a geeky game, but from 2010 to 2012, it was a weird, underground game that was passed from friend to friend. The community was already growing at a breakneck pace by then, but it was primarily geeks who played the game. They tolerated the glitches and pushed the game as far as it could go.
This attitude of fighting the game and working around its limitations with unbounded creativity was baked into the soul of the community. That spirit has never left the game, even 10 years later as a massive success.
When Microsoft acquired Minecraft, they realized that what they had was very special. Microsoft wisely left the glitches in and didn’t try to milk the game for money the way, say, EA would. Nor did they inhibit creativity the way Nintendo would. They became caretakers, figuring out what people wanted added to the game and finding out how to do that. They figured out ways to make a little extra money by selling skins for the game, but that’s not essential to the basic experience of Minecraft. It’s ancillary, like hats in Team Fortress 2.
When Minecraft showed up on the Xbox in 2012, the floodgates opened
When Minecraft was poised to go live on Xbox in 2012, I was anxious, as were many players. It could have very easily become our Eternal September, with wave after wave of outsiders coming in and destroying what made the game fun.
That didn’t happen.
Oh sure, Minecraft going live on Xbox is what led massive amounts of children to get into the game. And yes, this is exactly what caused Minecraft to change from being a weird indie game to being a massive mainstream success that’s being used in schools and to literally smuggle forbidden literature into dictatorships. But for whatever reason, the game’s basic vibe stayed intact. It’s kind of a miracle.
Remember how I said that Minecraft was the kind of game where a player desparately wanted to show you their world? Well, early on, the people that could do that were the ones who had desktops and laptops, would be willing to put up with glitches, and knew how to install a Java runtime. The game was already spreading with those limitations.
Then when the game became publicly available on the absurdly successful Xbox 360 system, those hurdles went away overnight. People could super easily share their worlds, film their games, and get together to play socially. That also opened the floodgates for a thriving community on YouTube, which further spread the world.
In short, the Minecraft community was around for long enough to develop into something special. Then distribution problems went away as the game became available on a popular console. A struck match met kindling, and the all-engulfing blaze of Minecraft spread across the whole world. To this day you can still get Minecraft merch at Hot Topic.
Minecraft is going strong, and it’s not going to stop for a long, long time
The popularity of Minecraft reached its peak in 2013, but at no point since 2011 has it been anything less than extraordinarily popular. Its most recent resurgence was during the COVID-19 pandemic as people stayed at home with nothing to do and a desire to socialize.
Like Tetris or Pokemon, Minecraft is going to be around for a really long time. It will wax and wane in popularity as seasons change, but the cultural impact has been nothing less than extraordinary.
Ideas don’t often take off with no effort. That’s why we’re so busy at Pangea – marketing is an essential part of business! But sometimes when an idea is just right, product-market fit alone can push a product farther than you could ever imagine.
Minecraft is one of those ideas. Its success is plain and simple, a case of pure product-market fit. Or to put it another way, Minecraft was everything that gamers didn’t know they needed – unlimited creative freedom and a world worth sharing with others.