One Hundred Million Copies of Minecraft

The news popped up yesterday that Minecraft sales had exceeded 100 million copies.

Who buys which version where...

Who buys which version where…

The number, as of June 1st was actually a bit past 100 million.

Complete with delusions of sovereignty

Complete with delusions of sovereignty

Probably more surprising is that the game has sold, on average, 53K copies a day in 2016.  Not bad for a game getting to its fifth birthday.

Over on his blog SynCaine attributes this to the idea that good games simply do well.  That is underselling the achievement by a long shot.  For a cross platform title that puts Minecraft behind only Tetris, which has sold nearly 500 million copies in the last 30 years, appearing on platforms as diverse as programmable calculators, iPods, just about every gaming console ever, and whatever OS you happened to be running back in the day.

SynCaine then proceeds to bait the bear that is World of Warcraft, opining that if only Blizzard hadn’t started to make the game suck after The Burning Crusade the game would still be growing today.

This is a bad argument.  Or, at a minimum, an argument that doesn’t necessarily follow from Minecraft’s success.

To open with, the comparison appears to be subscribers versus total sales.  Total units sold would be more apt.  But we do not know how many copies of World of Warcraft Blizzard has sold.  Furthermore, even if we did, I would argue that for this measure, we should count not just copies of the base game, but also every copy of each expansion as a sale, at which point it isn’t hard to get to a number that surpasses Minecraft, at least on the back of a napkin.  WoW had already passed 100 million accounts created two and a half years ago.  (Complete with required infographic.) All of them may not have bought a copy of the game, but a lot of them bought a copy and an expansion or three.

The orc says, "Look at me!"

The orc says, “Look at me!”

WoW has been growing this whole time, if you just count people who have played as opposed to those currently subscribed.  After all, one item you can derive from that Mojang chart is that 66 million people who bought Minecraft don’t bother playing it on any given month even though it is free.

Then there is the whole pricing aspect, because WoW and every expansion has cost more than a copy of Minecraft, and then there is a subscription on top of that, something that chases some people off.

But there is really one key difference between the two games that will keep WoW from ever having a chance to do what Minecraft has done with such a small team.  You can leave aside things like price, expansions, subscriptions, and all that, because to my mind it comes down to one main item:

Mojang doesn’t make content.

They make the client and an open source version of the server… but all you need is the client… and have left nearly everything else to the community that has formed around the game.  It is all in the hands of the players.

Don’t like the default settings?  Change them!  There aren’t enough settings?  Run a third party version of the server!  Don’t like the looks or want some new feature?  There is probably a mod for that!  Don’t like the current version?  Set the client to run an old version!  Want somebody to host your server?  So many choices!  Play solo?  Check!  Play with friends on a closed server? Check!  Make an open server for anybody?  Check!  PvE?  Check!  PvP?  Check!  Creative mode?  Check!  Hardcore perma-death?  Covered!  Special maps?  All over the place!

And yes, not ALL of those options apply to the three versions of Minecraft.  Again, the PC Master Race gets the greater range of flexibility.  But even on the console version, the most limited of the three, Mojang still doesn’t make content.

Meanwhile Blizz needs to come up with new content every year… though they can only manage to do it every other year… and every new change or expansion alienates somebody from the installed base.  There was no perfect path forward that would please everybody.

And you can’t just set the client to run WoW 1.8.1 or some such because you liked how things were in 2006.  Meanwhile the market closed in as the flip side of everybody making what essentially became niche WoW clones means that the player base has other options when the current batch of content wears out.

Even League of Legends, which SynCaine also brings up, depends on Riot not screwing up balance too much and to make new variations of the game and to stage big events and the like to draw attention to the game.

Mojang has created a sandbox game that has achieved a life of its own.  Even the space-sim-sandbox of my heart, EVE Online, has to provide content for its players.  Minecraft just drops you in a fresh world and tells you to punch a tree.  You want something?  Go build it.  They don’t even care about a player economy.  Design it away?  It’s been done.

And they succeeded!

Furthermore, as far as I can tell, Mojang barely markets the game… and still they are selling 53K copies a day.  And then there is all the revenue from licensed products like shirts and foam picks and LEGO sets.  They have created something special here.  It is beyond being a game, it is practically an ecosystem.

Minecraft is one of those odd exceptions, beyond merely “good game sells well,” one of those games that was in the right time and place for success.  But then again, so was WoW.

15 thoughts on “One Hundred Million Copies of Minecraft

  1. SynCaine

    They may not created content ala new dungeons (although even that they kinda do, with the nether being added and such), but they do update the game with new features/graphics/etc, so I don’t think the comparison is as far-off as you write.

    They could have, for instance, made an update to the game that made all crafting/gathering 10x faster by default, or one-click crafting vs the current system. Now sure, people could change that default, which you can’t do on the official WoW servers (but can on private WoW server that still require you to buy the WoW box), but how many Minecraft players out of that 100m are playing the base game vs heavily customizing it, if they even COULD revert the change?

    Point being, just because of the content delivery isn’t the exact same, doesn’t mean Minecraft couldn’t have received a WotLK or Cata-style update that turned a lot of people away from the game. Plus my point wasn’t as much about the 100m as it was the daily buys, because while 100m is very nice, the daily buys shows that 5 years in, Minecraft is still good, while current (and for years now) WoW isn’t, based on the trend of users coming/going.

    That plus the whole ‘market saturation’ nonsense some people still believe about 12m being the magical “that’s everyone” number for WoW. Or the other nonsense about “Every MMO eventually loses people” as to why WoW stopped growing during WotLK, despite the ‘when’ of that being wildly different for different MMOs based on update quality.

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  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @SynCaine – “They may not created content ala new dungeons (although even that they kinda do, with the nether being added and such), but they do update the game with new features/graphics/etc, so I don’t think the comparison is as far-off as you write. ”

    Nothing Mojang does is at all comparable with the sort of content… quests, dungeons, raids, gear, over-arching story… that Blizzard has to do for a release. What Mojang put into the latest 1.9 drop doesn’t even compare to some WoW patches. And certainly what Mojang puts into a release pales in comparison to the community additions to the game.

    Anyway, we’re going to get into that argument about what constitutes content. Creating a framework that allows others to do what they want is, at a minimum, a different sort of content than what somebody like Blizzard puts out for a theme park, so comparing them seems silly.

    And, while Mojang could slip up and release a bad update they are inoculated against that in at least two ways. First, their updates tend to be small and focused and somewhat easily fixed and, second, as I noted in the post, you’re free to run the old version so long as you want. I would guess that most people using mods are still back on 1.8 or 1.7, since it takes a while to update them. But that is okay, Mojang allows for that. There will never be the “vanilla WoW” issue so long as Mojang lets you play whatever version you want.

    And, in the end, all entertainments fade after a while… except The Simpsons. The Simpsons will go on forever.

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  3. bhagpuss

    I still have never played Minecraft. Fairly good chance I never will although occasionally I toy with the idea. I might buy the next WoW expansion though, despite not being a great WoW fan and no kind of Blizzard fan at all.

    I think comparing the two is about as meaningful as comparing apples and alligators. I barely see them as part of the same class of entertainment let alone the same genre.

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  4. Eksemplar

    I read a study on the average length of a wow “relationship”, it’s around two years. With a decade of 2-12 million subscribers this could easily amount to around 50 million sold copies.

    If you were to count expansion sales it would easily break into the 100s, and honestly, with wow expansions costing much more than mine craft why wouldn’t you count them?

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  5. Mazer

    Nit picking a bit here, but unless I’m confused neither the Minecraft server nor the client source are open. Both are decompiled and deobfuscated by the mod platform devs (Forge / Bukkit / etc) so that other modders can take it from there. An official modding API is basically Mojang’s dance studio. : P

    I find it pretty fascinating how vast the mod community is considering how little support they get.

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  6. Dersen Lowery

    What’s amazing is that they don’t even tell you to punch a tree. It’s here you are, good luck, you have ten minutes to figure out how not to die.

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  7. Azuriel

    I agree 100% with this post.

    On top of everything else, it’s actually possible that, even now, WoW sells more boxes per day than Minecraft does on PC. An average of 23% of Minecraft is on PC, which means it sells ~12k/day. WoW’s churn has historically been 5% of the playerbase per month, but it’s probably more now. So, back of the envelope, at 5m subs and 10% churn, WoW cranks out 16.6k new accounts a day to hold at 5m. Of course, WoW probably is not holding steady, but… unless you believe WoW will be at 3.34m a year from now, it still matches or exceeds Minecraft’s 12k/day.

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  8. Talarian

    Yeah, I’m going to have to agree with Wilhelm here over Syncaine. Content != Feature Work. Very different skill sets, very different amounts of work involved, both creative, grunt, and testing. From a dev-month perspective, Minecraft is both simpler and smaller than WoW by an incredibly large margin, largely to do with the fact that Minecraft doesn’t build content in the sense that many game companies build content.

    Game companies tend to have very small core programming teams–a team of 100 people might only have 6 – 8 programmers, for example. Most of the rest are content designers, artists, and testers. Minecraft doesn’t have much need beyond a single artist at most, and has literally no content designers in the sense that WoW does, as Wilhelm mentioned.

    That doesn’t reduce the achievements of Minecraft–far from it, they’ve managed very well with a small team. But you can’t really compare Minecraft’s dev cycle to Warcraft’s.

    But Minecraft’s focus on sandbox and allowing for mods makes the game evergreen–it’ll continue rocking the charts as long as the community keeps making the content.

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  9. flosch

    I was very surprised by the number of console licences sold. They seem to significantly oustell the PC version. I wonder how you actually play Minecraft on a console? Isn’t a game pad limiting? And aren’t console players generally used to self-contained, immutable boxes of games? And how do you mod Minecraft’s console version? I’d argue (mind you, as someone who hasn’t much experience with Minecraft) that this is one of the main selling points that got the game to those numbers.
    Don’t you need to get your hands dirty at some point to get your own Minecraft servers? How do you get console gamers to get into that mindset? And wouldn’t you be 100 times better off then with the PC version?

    Or maybe this just shows the the last console I’ve ever played on was a PS3, and my impression of the console world is completely dated.

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  10. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @flosch – I’ve watched my daughter play it with some friends on an XBox 360. It certainly has its roots in the same place, the options are just slimmed down quite a bit. It seems suited to the controller input though. Of course, this was with a couple of twelve year old boys in the mix, so there was a lot of making little forts, then running off to destroy other people’s forts, kill them, take their stuff, and smug about it there in person.

    A number of my daughter’s friends play all three versions, so I wonder how many actual customers there are out of the 106 million sales. We own three copies of the PC version and a copy of the Pocket version.

    And even the PC version alone has sold more than 23 million copies at this point, which ranks it up there with best selling Pokemon titles and ahead of perennial favorites like The Sims and The Sims 2.

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  11. Pingback: Reminder: Big numbers are big | In An Age

  12. Dobablo

    “Furthermore, as far as I can tell, Mojang barely markets the game…”
    A quarter of my XBox home screen is devoted to advertising items from the store and Minecraft has road blocking one of those slot since before Christmas.

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  13. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Dobablo – But is that Mojang or is that Microsoft? If I went by what popped up on my PS3, I wouldn’t know Minecraft was a thing. Even with a DVR and FF through commercials, I still see ads for a lot of games on TV… most recently Overwatch… but I can’t recall seeing anything for Minecraft the game. Minecraft LEGO sets sometimes, but not the game itself.

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