The Minecraft Model: A Case Study

There’s little doubt that Minecraft has been an unprecedented success, attracting literally millions of sales in a reasonably short space of time for an indie developer. We’ve written about it before, from an initial review and extra coverage on new versions to a tutorial on setting up your own Minecraft server. It’s continued to be popular, enough that it’s every bit as relevant today as it was when we first wrote about it.

But what could we — and app developers of all types, not just games — learn from everyone’s favorite block-building simulator? In this article, we’re going to take a look at some key factors of Minecraft’s business and design that we hope can influence other Mac apps in the long run.

Platforms, Platforms, Platforms

Minecraft is one of those games that you can get on almost all your devices, in one form or another. Of course, the game is developed primarily for a Mac and PC audience, but versions of the game are available on iOS (for both iPhone and iPad), Android and the Xbox 360. An edition for the Xbox One is also planned following the console’s release.

While there is certainly compatibility issues between some of these platforms, due to various unavoidable limits and constraints, it does mean you can play Minecraft in your living room on your TV, at your desk on your Mac or PC and on the go with the special Pocket Edition. There’s also a range of third-party tools and apps available for both desktop and mobile platforms to achieve tasks like server administration without even needing to be in the game itself.

Minecraft is available on a number of platforms, including Xbox 360.

Minecraft is available on a number of platforms, including Xbox 360.

This isn’t something exclusive to Minecraft. But Mojang has created a strong example of a good practice, by providing users access to near-identical gameplay across a wealth of platforms. Too many apps’ effectiveness suffers at the hands of single-platform development, especially productivity apps where you might not be able to access a service when on the go, however good the OS X app is.

Modding and Extension

Minecraft is home to a vibrant modding community, with thousands of mods available to manipulate or extend your gameplay. Some mods have allowed players to add brand new items and gameplay dynamics to the game while others have allowed multiplayer Minecraft worlds to have their own meaningful economy.

Minecraft has an incredibly active modding community, with mod packs like Feed the Beast proving very popular.

Minecraft has an incredibly active modding community, with mod packs like Feed the Beast proving very popular.

By supporting modding, Mojang have provided an almost endless supply of extension strategies for when players get bored of the core, vanilla gameplay. This is a valuable trait to have in any app, especially when it powers an ability to manipulate what the app offers into something more useful. Thankfully, this is a practice not exclusive to Minecraft by any means. For example, WordPress and most CMS services offer the ability to add plugins which, in turn, make them a more universal, versatile option. Many more apps could benefit from an ecosystem like this.

Updates

If you’ve been a Minecraft player for any significant length of time, you’ve probably received at least one or two updates bringing brand new content to the game. Even since the game’s official launch in 2011, the game has received six “major” updates amongst other, smaller incremental additions. Most recently, Minecraft was updated with 1.6 adding new horses with new armor options, colored clay building blocks and new player effects, along with a wealth of smaller additions. The update was provided entirely free to owners of Minecraft, with no need to purchase DLC or expansion packs.

Mojang only just recently released Minecraft 1.6, implementing a number of new additions including rideable horses.

Mojang only just recently released Minecraft 1.6, implementing a number of new additions including rideable horses.

Of course, this is not to make paid DLC offerings look bad by comparison. In fact, if Mojang requested payment in return for these updates, I’m sure many of us would be happy to put up the cash in return for a new DLC installment. The praise comes simply in return for offering any official expansions at all, paid or not, and seeing developers continue to add new features and optimizations is something we love to see. No one needs to go as far as The Sims-level of expansion packs, but continuing to make changes is always going to be welcome, especially when it’s based on feedback from the…

Community

Community support is a really valuable trait in any app, especially when changes to the software or game are effected by community feedback. That’s been the case in Minecraft where updates have been partially crafted based on community demands and, in the case of the recent addition of horses, originate from community-led modifications. Integral to the early beta releases of Minecraft was community feedback where original creator Notch was able to shape the game into something the community wanted.

Minecraft has a strong following, including on sites like the /r/Minecraft subreddit.

Minecraft has a strong following, including on sites like the /r/Minecraft subreddit.

Of course, that’s not as easy to do if your app or game is already developed and released. However, listening to your community is not only an action that will be appreciated by many members but also something that can lead to better satisfaction. It’s Business 101 to meet the demands of your target audience, but so many developers fail to reach out in the same way that Mojang does.

Final Thoughts

Minecraft is an excellent example of some best practices we’d like to see evident in all developers, and, from the lessons it’s learned as an indie developer, it might even have a few things to tell the biggest of AAA title-makers. Ensuring cross-platform availability, a constant supply of updates and optimizations (especially those influenced by the community) and allowing extensions by users are all traits that Mojang has embraced with Minecraft and that pretty much all apps — not just games — could benefit from employing.

However, in a world that’s being faced with a reliance on platform exclusives and paid DLC, it might take a while before some of the big guys change their stance. Until that time, we’ll be left praising the indie developers for their hard work towards building a better app.


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