Four years ago Tuesday, Microsoft closed its $2.5 billion acquisition of Mojang, developer of the video game Minecraft. It was Satya Nadella's first multibillion-dollar deal since taking over as CEO in February 2014.
As it turns out, Minecraft had more to offer Microsoft than just a wildly popular game with 91 million monthly active users and 250 million downloads. The technology is now being used to help employees get acquainted with a refresh of Microsoft's sprawling campus in Redmond, Washington.
Earlier this year, Microsoft enlisted Blockworks, a company that uses Minecraft's digital building blocks for designing real-world projects, to create a miniature rendering of the campus facelift, which is scheduled for completion in 2022. They're using graphics that are far more immersive than two-dimensional photos and videos.
Microsoft's corporate headquarters occupies 500 acres of land and houses more than 100 buildings. Rather than setting up an entirely new campus (or two) like Amazon, or following Alphabet, Apple and Facebook in expanding into new areas, the software company is updating its existing one, tearing down old buildings and erecting new ones, while also adding cricket and soccer fields and room for retail businesses.
While Minecraft was designed for gamers, its immersive nature and the ability to quickly move around and construct edifices makes it easy to see how new buildings will look when inserted into an existing landscape. Microsoft recognized the potential of the game and introduced an education edition two years ago. It has racked up 35 million licensed users.
"When you build in Minecraft, you build everything in the perspective of the player, constantly being aware of the sense of scale," said James Delaney, a managing director at Blockworks, which says on its website that it uses Minecraft "to create experiences, communities and learning environments."
It's only natural that a kid was involved in the idea of using Minecraft to miniaturize the new campus.
Riku Pentikainen, who until recently was director of global workplace strategies inside Microsoft's real estate and facilities group, saw his son playing Minecraft earlier this year and was intrigued by how the game could help the company with its transition. Employees could learn and get excited about the remodeling long before they could check it out on foot, and in a more dynamic way than what was available through typical renderings.
Microsoft brought in architecture firm Gensler, along with Andrew Yang, a project manager, to work with internal staff, including Peter Zetterberg of Microsoft Studios, and Amy Stevenson, Microsoft's archives manager, who provided pieces of history about campus landmarks. They got approval from Phil Spencer, Microsoft's executive vice president for gaming, to use Minecraft for the project, Yang said.
From there, the group issued a request for proposals, ultimately deciding on Blockworks, which had done work for Disney, Warner Bros. and the Museum of London, as well as Microsoft. The mandate for Blockworks was to have a virtual campus set up within a few weeks, in time for a Microsoft hackathon on July 27.
A half-dozen people at Blockworks began constructing buildings off drawings from Gensler. Delaney said Minecraft forces designers to sacrifice some accuracy because structures in real life don't always have the game's squared-off look, but the speed and ease of use more than made up for those deficiencies. It might take just 10 minutes to wrap up a single building, he said.
Minecraft also appeals to a broader audience of younger people, who might not know how to use computer-aided design, or CAD, programs, which require extensive training and aren't as collaborative.
"Traditional CAD tools don't allow for that sense of awareness," said Delaney, who explored the use of Minecraft as a way to democratize architecture during his studies at the University of Cambridge.
Microsoft employees — and anyone else with the education edition of Minecraft — can now take a digital tour of the new campus and see how plans are developing. Outside of Microsoft, that access requires a subscription to Office 365 Education.
Yang said people are impressed with what they've seen, but improvements are coming. For example, he expects to add details like more realistic building interiors and additional people walking around the campus.
"We're trying to be very, very selective in how we're going to do updates," Yang said. "We want to make sure the next update is going to be meaningful and isn't going to be updated too quickly."