“When the trigger is pressed, the sun has just sunk behind the Greenfield skyline. Skyscrapers and streetlights bathe the city in a twilight mood. But if you look closely, you will see the secret that the image really hides.
It consists of blocks, millions of small building blocks, all fictional and digital – just like the city of Greenfield itself, an online replica of the metropolis of Millions of Los Angeles. 400 people have crafted it over nine years in “Minecraft,” the world’s best-selling computer game. Since 2009, Sweden’s Mojang Studios, which is now part of the US group Microsoft, has sold 200 million copies of it.
The game works like a digital box full of Lego bricks, from which everything that players can only imagine can be built. You can design castles, cities and castles just as you can dig deep into the earth and hunt virtual treasures and monsters. It can quickly become an absolute hour-eater, because there are hardly any fixed tasks. Instead, unlike real Lego bricks, the stock of the colorful blocks that can be installed is infinite.
Although the graphics are dusty, the sound simple and the menus confusing, the principle behind it is still successful: around the idea there are fashion brands, radio plays, documentaries, novels and even a separate trade fair. Replica “Minecraft” worlds are on display at the Tate Gallery in London and the Museum of Modern Arts in New York. In the Coronavirus pandemic, the Protestant state church from Upper Lusatia even celebrates a divine service in the block world.
And “Minecraft” has been an integral part of the German children’s rooms for years – despite new box office hits like “Fortnite”. According to a study by the health insurance company DAK, 72.5 percent of young people in Germany regularly play computer games. 15.4 percent of minors are considered so-called risk gamers and exhibit risky or pathological gambling behavior in the sense of a gaming addiction.
Every year, the Southwest Media Educational Research Association examines in its study “Youth, Information and Media” what exactly the youngsters play. Last year’s result: For 24 percent of 12 to 13-year-olds, “Minecraft” is the absolute favorite game – even before “Fortnite” and the football simulation “Fifa”. Even in the adult group, one in ten still remain true to the block hype.
The billion-dollar empire is run by Helen Chiang. Joined microsoft as an intern in 2005, she marketed the Xbox game console for nine years. Since 2018, it has been at the forefront of the “Minecraft” brand.
WORLD: “Minecraft” looks like a bunch of digital Lego bricks at first glance. What makes the game so special?
Helen Chiang: “Minecraft” is an open game world that allows and encourages all creativity. Players can tell any story and create any world. So the comparison is true: the game is an inexhaustible toolbox in which there are no right or wrong decisions. Our fans love to discover things and adventures without fixed rules.
WORLD: But since its release in 2009, the game has become much more than just a computer game. How big is the “Minecraft” universe today?
Helen Chiang: Since Microsoft took over in 2014, the number of employees working on “Minecraft” in our double studios in Stockholm and Redmond has almost tripled – to more than 300 people. “Minecraft” has teamed up with major global retailers and licensees such as Uniqlo, Lego and Mattel to create products for our community. In addition, since the launch of the title in 2009, our community remains one of the most active in the field of video games. More than 126 million active players from virtually every country in the world and more than 200 million copies sold each month speak for this. Last year, “Minecraft” ranked first in the most watched gaming video on YouTube with more than 100 billion views.
WORLD: Do you remember the moment when it was clear: “Minecraft” is the most successful game of all time?
Helen Chiang: We realized the potential long before Microsoft took over the developers of “Minecraft”. At the time, I was responsible for the business forecasts of the “Xbox Live Arcade” series, and “Minecraft” has exceeded all expectations every year. Nevertheless, it took some time to realize what a phenomenon the game has become. That’s why we’ve been thinking for a long time about what makes “Minecraft” so special and how we’re expanding this universe.
WORLD: How exactly do you develop such a “world brand” without the appearance that it is being exploited?
Helen Chiang: We take a very conscious and measured approach to growth. When we look at new product divisions, we proceed very carefully and consider all possible scenarios in advance – the same applies, incidentally, to the opening up of new markets. We work with best-in-class companies that share our values and love of Minecraft. In addition, we prioritize the creation of customized and unique in-house products before we combine our brand or logo with a third-party product. However, the wishes of our fans are decisive for the further development. Our role is to give the player the opportunity to be creative. After all, we do not build all these worlds ourselves. That’s why we always ask ourselves: What are the best new partners and content that suits our community?
WORLD: The latest addition to the franchise was “Minecraft Dungeons” – more of a typical action adventure. Why?
Helen Chiang: Our team has always found these kinds of games exciting. We wanted to create a typical experience – but with varying degrees of difficulty and increasing complexity that appeals to many people. I’ve tried it with my four-year-old daughter. So it’s just as suitable for first-time players as it is for experienced players because it provides enough depth. Even after the first days of sales, we see players playing the same sections over and over again to discover every corner of the world.
WORLD: As a game developer, the Corona crisis is important to you. How has this affected your business?
Helen Chiang: The safety and health of our team is of course our number one priority. But we adapted to the circumstances and had a game in development that was to be released this year and that our fans were looking forward to. Our team has worked hard to make this possible – because of course now is the ideal time for new games, especially when you can play them with friends over the distance.
WORLD: How much does the ailing retail trade hurt when it comes to sales? How important is direct sales in the first place – how important is digital sales?
Helen Chiang: For us, it is crucial that access to the game is possible on as many platforms as possible – never as it is bought or played. We spend a lot of time coordinating the different platforms when we release games and updates. Our job is to make sure our products are available everywhere.
WORLD: Nevertheless, you also have to cover the development costs. Some games cost more than a Hollywood blockbuster. How expensive is a “Minecraft” game? And how much do you earn from it?
Helen Chiang: “Minecraft Dungeons” was three years in development. It is perhaps surprising that only a very small team has worked on it – but very passionately, as you can see from the many details of the game world. I can’t give an exact number, but the development has cost only a fraction of what it costs to run the “Minecraft” core game.
WORLD: How important are the games at all – compared to the royalty revenue from T-shirts, books, bed linen?
Helen Chiang: What we appreciate so much about “Minecraft” are the many different facets. But the core of all economic considerations is the game, the origin of the franchise. Everything we’ve built around it – partnerships in consumer goods, the film we’re working on – is there to solidify the brand. But the focus is on the game and its fans.
WORLD: So the games are a self-running game? This sounds like a relaxed day-to-day work. How do you lead a team that “needs to be” creative?
Helen Chiang: I encourage the team to think big and realize dreams – that’s how I understand my role: I help remove obstacles and overcome barriers with the team that the confusion in the way of these dreams. This is, for example, about securing the financing of new projects. Because there are countless ideas. The hardest part is figuring out how we grow wisely. We know all the brands that have grown up too fast. We therefore always ask ourselves: How do we preserve the special while at the same time expanding the brand?
WORLD: And how does it work?
Helen Chiang: The experience every single player out there has is incredibly valuable to us. That’s why we spend a lot of time listening to them, going into dialogue and implementing the feedback in the form of new game content or optimizations. Our goal was never to clap our logo on millions of products. That wouldn’t be in the interests of our team either. We want to ensure that all our products are unique and of high quality. We don’t want to give “Minecraft” for consumer goods, which you throw away quickly. That’s why we only enter into partnerships that help our franchise and not just benefit from us.
WORLD: But at the end of the day, it’s all about making money – especially since unique ideas aren’t inexhaustible.
Helen Chiang: We are not experts in everything and never wanted to be. That’s why we partner with selected partners to develop ideas for the markets in which they are the experts. The game is different: we organize jam sessions there and let our employees develop ideas on projects that don’t actually affect their day-to-day business.
WORLD: And how do you turn these ideas into money?
Helen Chiang: There is no royal road. This is another reason why there are so many different “Minecraft” products worldwide. With the fashion label Cloak, for example, we have developed many similarities and developed a partnership especially for our new game. With Lego, this is something else: we already have a cooperation here, which we are continuously expanding.
WORLD: And that always goes on? They have finally ruled out that there will ever be a sequel to the main game, i.e. a “Minecraft 2”.
Helen Chiang: Our goal is that “Minecraft” exists for generations. That is why we are trying to make all the decisions in the long term. We are not chasing the fast money. That’s why the brand will live longer than anyone who is currently working on it.
WORLD: What makes you so safe?
Helen Chiang: Many video game series release a new spin-off every year. In doing so, they are dismembering their community. Some continue to play version 9, others buy version 10. We never want to do anything like that because our great community makes the game so special. We don’t want to ring them away from something they’ve put a lot of time into. That’s why we always try to build bridges to everything that’s new to the brand. This is the only way to develop the investment in the game with them – and to remain true to “Minecraft”.