Independent game developer Mojang has sold more than 20 million copies of Minecraft across three different platforms since its official release in November of 2011; the PC version has sold nine million copies, the Xbox 360 version has sold five million, and Minecraft Pocket Edition on Android and iOS has sold seven million. That it has done so without brick-and-mortar retail distribution, without expensive, in-your-face advertising campaigns, and without the backing of an Official Publisher should serve as an ear-splitting, foghorn-blowing, pants-shitting wake-up call to the entire gaming industry. It won’t.
Since its official release on Amazon in July of 2011, independent writer Hugh Howey’s Wool has expanded from a standalone science-fiction short story to a full-blown, eight-volume saga that reportedly earns its author close to six figures per month. That it has done so without brick-and-mortar retail distribution, without expensive, in-your-face advertising, and without the backing of an Official Publisher should shine an eyeball-melting, skin-crisping, brighter-than-a-thousand-suns spotlight into the face of the publishing industry. It won’t.
In spite of inhabiting two completely different hemispheres of entertainment, Minecraft and Wool do have a couple of things in common; the first is that they’re both spectacular examples of their respective arts. The second is that they’re both developed and written by independent creators. And the third is that they’re both beating the pink paisley baboon shit out of games and books that cost exponentially more to produce, market, and distribute. Score two for the Browncoats.
The Sun Came Out, and I Walked On My Feet
In survival mode on the PC, Minecraft drops you into the world right at dawn, with absolutely nothing to aid you in your quest to maintain a state of aliveness. There’s no tutorial, no hints, no hand-holding, no nose-wiping, no wrench, and no giant Duplo arrow hanging in the air or glowing breadcrumbs on the ground to show you where to go next; it’s just you, your fist, and the elements, of which there are plenty. I’m not going to go into a step-by-step breakdown of the game’s mechanics, other than to point out that it’s called survival mode for a reason.
Things seem rosy enough at first. Maybe through blind luck or a Raymond Babbitt-esque affinity for open-world survival games (or looking up crafting recipes online), you’ve managed to fashion a few rudimentary tools. A pickaxe. A hatchet. Maybe a shovel. By noon on your first game day, you’re convinced that you’re the biggest badass ever to walk the planet; chickens fear you. Sheep give you a wide berth. Cows low in nervous cud-chewing consternation as you pass by. And then the sun disappears below the horizon and every shambling, rattling, skittering, and exploding thing outside of
Hoboken the Nether comes around to nosh on your ass. That’s when you realize that you’re not as tough as you thought, so you do what any self-respecting planetary badass would do under such circumstances; you dig a hole, cover yourself with dirt, and cry until the sun comes up.
And then you do it all again, buoyed a bit by the fact that you made it through the night. Almost. You adjust your strategy and shoulder on, and pretty soon you’re holding your own well enough. You’ve built a house. Got a little farm going. You’ve learned to fish. Not long after that you realize that you’ve been divorced in absentia and hey, guess what, that smell is you. Damn. Well, one more hour won’t hurt. Ooh! Diamonds…
The Sun Goes Dark, and Chaos Is Come Again
Minecraft likely never would have been published if Mojang had shopped it to EA, UbiSoft, or Activision, or if it had, it would have been an entirely different and vastly inferior game:
“What? You want to make a game that’s based on…building? Creating? Okay, yes, I can see that, but let’s go with just a little less creating and lots more destroying. And instead of a thoughtful, slow-paced methodical survival game with RPG overtones, let’s go with destruction. And killing. And then, later on in the series, some killing. Killing is the new creating, you know.”
There’s nothing wrong with big-budget games like Halo 4 and Call of Duty 12³, nothing wrong with shooting random strangers and simulating dunking your genitals on and around their deceased virtual embodiments, but once in a while you just want to relax and build the Taj Mahal without some repressed, basement-dwelling 38-year-old with the Gamertag of M4nB00B5McG33 trying to jam his energy sword in your ass every time you respawn. (And you just know that fucker’s dressed like Sailor Moon, the camping douchewad.) Had Minecraft been an Officially Published Big Release, there would be no mod community, which means no texture packs, no adventure maps, no skins, none of the very same user-created content that has helped to make the game as successful — and compelling — as it is.
Similarly, Hugh Howey’s Wool might have attracted the attention of an agent or editor, if he managed to break out of the slush pile, or if he’d gotten a personal introduction from an established writer to an agent. With that hurdle overcome and the book sold (conditionally, of course) he probably would have faced three-to-six months of intense rewrites in order to fit his story to suit an editor’s idea of what it should be like, or his editor’s boss’s idea of what his story should be like, and later, when the books didn’t sell as well as they have as indie titles, he would have received the publisher’s critical and financial censure for creating an inferior product, and been relegated to the lower-midlist. Or worse. He’s recently signed a deal with Simon and Schuster to publish a bound edition of Wool; hopefully, he hired an agent who never stops swimming.
No Power in the ‘Verse Can Stop Me
Independent creators eat or starve by their own ability. They live on the ragged edge, with nothing but their own minds to keep the darkness at bay, and their own hands to shape the world to their design. Big Huge Publisher (whether of novel or game) sees the independent creator as a threat, as an easily replaceable, imminently dispensable gear in their machine, as though writers and game designers exist to foster The Industry, instead of the other way around. Big Huge Publisher, which must please a board of directors and a passel of stockholders, must start with an eye on the dollar and create from there. Big Huge Publisher needs to sell three hundred thousand copies of a book and three times as many copies of a game before it’s considered successful. Minecraft was successful (by its creators’ standards) even before it was officially released.
Big Huge Publisher, much like Big Huge Game Console Manufacturer, must remain mindful of the fact that things have changed; specifically, their business, and the way that people interact with it, has changed. Otherwise, Mojang and Hugh Howey will be remembered as the two best examples of how it doesn’t necessarily take a comet to wipe out a few dinosaurs.