'Minecraft' deal could be key to Microsoft's survival

"Minecraft" is the videogame world's equivalent of lightning in a bottle—an indie gaming sensation that grew organically, eventually becoming one of the industry's biggest franchises. It was a game that opened the doors for several other independent developers, who, in turn, brought a new burst of creativity to the industry.

So Monday's news that corporate behemoth Microsoft was buying Mojang, the developer of "Minecraft," for $2.5 billion might seem an odd fit to some, but it could be a key strategic move for Microsoft.

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To understand the deal, it helps to understand the loyalty of the "Minecraft" audience.

A still from Minecraft
Source: Minecraft | Facebook
A still from Minecraft

Its players are among the most fervent in the gaming world. They not only play the game, they feast on other media related to it, which has given rise to some of YouTube's biggest celebrities.

Microsoft bought "Minecraft" as much for that community as it did for the game itself. "Minecraft" players skew young. While adults might play it from time to time, tweens (and younger) are its most ardent fans, wearing "Minecraft" clothes and carrying the stuffed animals.

By capturing that audience at an age when it hasn't yet formed its larger online habits, Microsoft can help assure its future—specifically, the one that CEO Satya Nadella has been leading the charge on for some time.

Nadella, since taking the top job, has been herding the company's Windows, mobile and Xbox gaming divisions toward a unified platform, and "Minecraft" could be key to that, letting those young players transport their games (and the worlds they have created within them) from platform to platform using a Microsoft account.

Older "Minecraft" players, meanwhile, aren't likely to rush out to buy a Windows Phone or an Xbox One just to play the game, but they're tastemakers, and their approval and use of the unified platform could encourage others to use it more.

That's not to discount the expansion possibilities of the game. Microsoft, which had greatly trimmed its in-house game development studios a few years ago, has slowly been re-entering that world.

Earlier this year, it acquired the rights to the "Gears of War" franchise, and in April, Phil Spencer, head of the Xbox unit, announced there were a "couple" of internal game studios that had not yet been revealed.

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"Gaming is critical to the consumer devices and platforms that Microsoft is on," he said at the E3 trade show in June.

Also, by purchasing the biggest Indie game around, Microsoft may also hope to quell some of the buzz that Sony's PlayStation 4 has been garnering in the gaming world for its indie-friendly approach.

And independent games could become more and more important as the current generation of game systems matures.

"If Sony or Microsoft or Nintendo can come up with a game property that is rapidly iterated on, is always fresh and forces people to come back because they're so engaged, then that's going to be a defining characteristic of the back half of this generation," says John Taylor, managing partner of Arcadia Investment.

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"Minecraft" has been a phenomenon since its introduction. The game has been downloaded more than 100 million times on PC alone since its launch in 2009, and console sales have since topped those on PC.

On the Xbox 360, "Minecraft" has sold more than 12 million copies, just 2.5 million short of the total that "Halo 3" managed to sell (despite that game's five-year head start). Despite its age, "Minecraft" is regularly among the 10 top console sellers each month, according to The NPD Group.

Mobile is a potential growth area for the game, as well. "Minecraft" is one of the top grossing games in Apple's App store, but Mojang has refused, so far, to create a Windows Phone version, because of that product's low sales, a decision that will likely be reversed in the coming months.

Still, while Mojang and Microsoft have been partners for a long time, the relationship hasn't always been a smooth one.

Marcus "Notch" Persson, co-founder of Mojang, has repeatedly criticized the company. He has publicly pointed out the weaknesses of the Windows Phone division several times.

And, in 2012, he tweeted that he had "rather have 'Minecraft' not run on Win 8 at all than play along. Maybe we can convince a few people not to switch to Win 8 that way...."

For Persson, though, the Microsoft deal lets him escape the high-profile industry role he never actively sought, he says.

"I've become a symbol," he said on his website when the deal was announced. "I don't want to be a symbol, responsible for something huge that I don't understand, that I don't want to work on, that keeps coming back to me. I'm not an entrepreneur. I'm not a CEO. I'm a nerdy computer programmer who likes to have opinions on Twitter," he said.

"As soon as this deal is finalized, I will leave Mojang and go back to doing...small web experiments. If I ever accidentally make something that seems to gain traction, I'll probably abandon it immediately.... It's not about the money. It's about my sanity."

—By CNBC's Chris Morris.