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Buying the next generation of coders: Microsoft's Minecraft gamble

Simon Bisson | Sept. 11, 2014
When the newsbroke last night that Microsoft was in negotiations to buy Minecraft creators Mojang for $2 billion, people quickly started asking "why would Microsoft buy another gaming company?"

When the newsbroke last night that Microsoft was in negotiations to buy Minecraft creators Mojang for $2 billion, people quickly started asking "why would Microsoft buy another gaming company?"

It's a good question, as Microsoft's track record with gaming acquisitions hasn't been good. While using expatriate cash to buy companies let Microsoft use its cash pile more effectively, it still doesn't explain just why Microsoft is spending that much on Minecraft.

Games are at the heart of Microsoft's consumer strategy, with its Xbox One console, but there's more to Minecraft than just another game. When you start to explore the Minecraft worlds that users around the world have created, you quickly realise that Minecraft creator Markus Persson (known by his online handle "Notch") created something a lot more powerful and a lot more flexible than just another game.

Minecraft lets players build worlds while struggling to survive against monsters. At least that's how it began, but a popular creative mode lets users build enormous constructions on huge maps. They've been used to map countries, demonstrate physics, and even build working computers. It's a composable environment, one that might help solve one of IT's biggest problems: Educating coders.

The software industry agrees that we don't know where the next generation of programmers is coming from. School courses focus more on using apps and building web pages than on the fundamentals of writing code, and where they do, they skirt the deep understanding good programmers need.

Microsoft has often been accused of losing an entire generation of developers to the web and to open source (though it's been quick to adopt those technologies in its development tools and platforms, either directly or through its Visual Studio integration program). Its response to criticism has been interesting, with the release of free versions of Visual Studio and an intriguing focus on the gamification of programming.

By gamification I don't mean the awarding of badges for bugs fixed or lines compiled. Instead, Microsoft's research scientists came up with games that teach programming. Kodu introduced event-driven functional programming to schools, while Project Spark took the same model and extended into a free-form game-building sandbox on its Xbox platforms and on Windows PCs. The resulting environments are worlds where every element is programmable, and where event-driven functional programming is key to building interactive worlds and games.

Like Kodu and Project Spark, Minecraft is an interesting metaphor for the ubiquitous computing world Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has focused the company on delivering. It's a sandbox where the very elements of the game are used to build new elements, creating new games from the various blocks players mine. You only have to look at the worlds that Minecraft's users have created and — perhaps more importantly — at the many thousands of viewer hours top players are clocking up on Twitch to see just how powerful the environment is, and what its capable of delivering.

 

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