The increased usage of the Internet and the recent proliferation of Web 2.0 applications have fundamentally changed the way we think about the software development and release cycle. In a world where Web services are becoming the new standard of delivering software solutions to the end-users, agility in the development process is absolutely crucial and daily operations are becoming increasingly a core competency. The well-know open source mantra, “release early and release often”, has been incorporated into this new model of product development to the point where users are treated almost as co-developers. One of the most important benefits of involving the end-users in the incremental product development process early on is that the company can get instant feedback on a particular new feature, harnessing the collective intelligence of their users in the form of polls, feature requests and user comments. The importance of this simply cannot be overestimated—while is it certainly true that one can make certain assumptions on what their users might want or find useful, the ultimate judge of the usefulness of a given feature is the collective opinion of the end-users. Clearly, a company employing such “release early, release often” practices would gain an enormous competitive advantage over their rivals who still follow the development practices of yesteryear, since this enables them to pinpoint the exact needs of their customers with great accuracy. Additionally, the perpetual beta development strategy leads to fewer bugs, shorter time-to-market feature delivery times and greater customer involvement with the product, which often leads to greater end-user satisfaction.
The “perpetual beta” pattern has permeated the whole software industry, including game development as well. Many MMORPGs of today (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games), such as World of Warcraft and EVE Online, employ the pattern to deliver incremental upgrades to the gameplay over time. Probably the best example of this is Minecraft—an independent video game originally created by a single Swedish developer, Markus Persson—which benefited enormously from the adoption of various Web 2.0 practices. Since the first alpha version release of Minecraft on 17 May 2009 (just after seven days of development time!), in true Web 2.0 spirit, the author has been regularly updating the game with new features based on user feedback. By the summer of 2011, the number of registered Minecraft players rose to over 10 million with 4 million copies of the game being sold, earning well over 50 million dollars in revenue—while the game being still in beta! Clearly, this level of success is extremely rare even in the professional games industry and can be attributed in large part to the adoption of Web 2.0 practices on Persson’s part during the development of the game.
“Minecraft is a game about placing blocks to build anything you can imagine. At night monsters come out, make sure to build a shelter before that happens” is the succinct official description of the game by its author. The most unique and compelling aspect of Minecraft is that it can be used as a creative tool of self-expression. Due to the absolute lack of plot or end goals that the player must achieve, there is absolutely no concept of “winning” the game. Players simply spend most of their time “mining” virtual materials called “blocks” (hence the name of the game), from which then they can build and craft various objects like houses, landscapes, fortresses, sculptures or even entire cities, bridges and roller coasters. In fact, the whole block-based building mechanism is very similar to the concept of Lego. The sales statistics show that, for quite a few people, Minecraft is the ultimate tool for unleashing amateur creativity in the digital age.
What makes the game truly outstanding is that since it’s initial release, Persson has made continuous updates and improvements to the game, ofter several times a month. When making such changes, he always listened closely to the feedback of his users—an act clearly inspired by the “Perpetual Beta” Web 2.0 pattern—which is one of the major reasons behind the game’s success. The updates have included interesting and fun features such as new discoverable items, new types of building blocks, an alternate “Hell” dimension, changes to the game’s behaviour and wolves that can be tamed to assist the player.
Persson makes no secret of his success at all, in fact, he publishes real-time sales statistics on the game’s homepage. As of 21 April, 2012, “Minecraft has 26,897,720 registered users, of which 5,632,320 (20.94%) have bought the game.”
Potential legal and ethical issues
Mojang, the company behind Minecraft claims no rights whatsoever in the creations of its users and does not even host the content. All screenshots and game videos belong solely to their creators, which is quite unique in the gaming industry. Since Minecraft provides no centralised servers or mechanism for sharing game screenshots, articles, videos and such, users are encouraged to share their work in community wikis, internet forums and YouTube or Vimeo. This removes Mojang from legal disputes around potential copyright infringements of in-game created content and also encourages users to share their creation and building upon each others work.
The open-ended nature of the game has already inspired quite a few of its fans in totally unexpected ways: if you just take a look at the gigantic scientific calculator built by a 16-year-old kid recently that can “can multiply, divide, trigonometrize, figure roots, graph quadratic functions”, or at the site MinecraftEdu.com, a collaboration between United States educators and the games’ authors to create a modified version of the game to engage and educate students, it becomes evident that the game has virtually infinite potential in exploring the vast uncharted territories of human creativity of the massess in the digital era. Minecraft is a testament to what can be achieved if users are invited to take an active role in the development process of a software and it’s without doubt that many other companies will learn this important lesson from Mojang.
Minecraft – About the game
Minecraft Beta: December 20, 2010
Minecraft as Web 2.0: Amateur Creativity & Digital Games
Minecraft, “Open-Source Culture,” & Networked Game Development
Video: A Giant Scientific Graphing Calculator, Built Out of Minecraft Blocks By a 16-Year-Old
tvtropes – Perpetual Beta
Minecraft Goes Gold
Making Your Own Fun, One Brick At a Time
The Rise Of Minecraft [Infographic]
Bringing Minecraft to the Classroom