This weekend Minecraft had its very own global live streamed convention, Minecon Earth, in which new developments and updates for the game were announced. Jessica Alouette talked to corporate VP Matt Booty about the big picture.
Minecraft’s next evolution is called “The Update Aquatic” and will be focusing on the wildly popular game’s ocean environments to add coral, explorable shipwrecks, undersea creatures, and a new weapon – the Trident.
Another announcement during this event was that Microsoft is beginning to form official partnerships with Minecraft fan conventions. These partnerships will be open to groups seeking to work with Microsoft, allowing them to use official branding and get support from Microsoft, says the VP in charge of Minecraft, Matt Booty. “We hope that [these partnerships allow us] to reach a wider audience, and allow there to be events around the world throughout the year, which is just something that [Microsoft] just couldn’t support on our own.
“So, for example, if there’s a group in Australia, a group in New Zealand that would want to put on an official Minecraft community event, we’d love to work with that group and figure out how to make that happen in an official capacity, just because it always got just a little fuzzy when we had people kind of working outside an official agreement.”
Minecraft has proven itself to be a cultural force in recent years, finding both massive fandom in as a game and use in education and beyond. It’s sold over 120 million copies and has a dedicated “Education Edition”, with over 2 million users. In Aotearoa New Zealand, Minecraft has seen use in collaboration with the Parliament and some ingenious students have even paid for their uni costs by creating and selling Minecraft content.
I had the opportunity to ask Matt Booty a couple of questions about the upcoming updates, Minecraft’s uses in education and outside of gaming, and where Microsoft and developer Mojang will be taking it next.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jessica: I’m someone who’s been away from Minecraft for a little while. What are some of the things that you and the team have added recently that you’re the most excited about? And which one of the announcements from MINECON Earth are you most excited to see players try out?
Matt Booty: The last year has been really, really busy for us, and I think that the most dramatic change or sort of the most impactful addition that we’ve made in the last year is to switch over to what we call our Bedrock code base, which is a code base that runs on PC, mobile, and console, and allows players on each of those consoles to play together. With the theme of wanting to bring the community together and make sort of the biggest possible audience for people to find players and play, that was a really important move for us, because up until that point, the mobile version, the console version, and the PC version had really been islands unto themselves, and we’re excited to bring those together. We are doing work to bring that code base over to Nintendo Switch; we’ve announced that.
There’s been a lot of online discussion about what we do with Sony and how that’s going. I can just say that we’re in the process with Sony. We haven’t officially announced it, but the process is going well, and we feel excited about one day everybody on every console being able to play multiplayer.
So, that’s been really the big news for the last year, and the update that brought that code base out is called our ‘Better Together’ update. Then in terms of the fun stuff at MINECON, I think the Update Aquatic will be really cool, just because it’s such a kind of expansive addition to a major part of the Minecraft world, and there’s a lot of cool surprises in there. I think people will be really excited when they see that.
As a follow up to that, the Sony discussions, are you allowed to discuss anything related to that? I know you said you haven’t announced it in any official capacity, but that’s something that I think people will be interested to know.
Yeah, so I’m not in any way trying to be coy about this, just being very straightforward. Sony is a great partner. You know, we ship Minecraft on PlayStation, we ship it on PS Vita. Sony of America, Sony of Japan, they’re just great partners. We are working through the process of how we can bring all the updates over to PlayStation, as well, so again, we don’t have an official date. We don’t have something that we can confirm officially, but we are actively working with Sony and they are a great partner in all of this, especially as it relates to Minecraft.
In Aotearoa New Zealand, Minecraft has inspired folks across the nation to take part in new projects and career paths, like you were kind of talking about there, and you have kids learning to make maps, and being inspired to study architecture, and there’s all this stuff that’s happening outside of the non-game aspect of Minecraft, I guess you would say. Do you have a favourite story that has come out of this phenomenon?
Well, the stories that really resonate with me come out of our education edition. I think that one of the things we were concerned about and put a lot of attention on is making sure that as Minecraft became part of the bigger Microsoft family, that we didn’t lose the spirit of the game, and that we didn’t do things that were unnatural for the brand. One of our goals as the leadership team around Minecraft has really been to look for places where we can use something that Microsoft is naturally good at, and combine it with something that is authentic to the game.
I think one of the best success stories we’ve had there is the education edition that we’ve done just for schools, because it uses Microsoft’s ability to deploy software into large scale school system, it helps schools manage student logins, and manage software deployment, but we’re delivering a version of Minecraft created just for the classroom.
We have seen students recreate all kinds of things. Yesterday morning in a meeting I saw an example of students building lenses in Minecraft to show how lenses bend light. We’ve seen an example where a teacher actually gave an assignment to students to build in Minecraft parts of a river, because they were studying how river ecosystems work, how there are streams that feed into a river, that then empties into a delta. The students, entirely on their own, went off and used the redstone logic functionality in the game to create all kinds of switches and the ability to flood water through the river and cause things to happen in the river ecosystem. It’s just amazing to me to hear stories like that where the students are using their kind of natural affinity and understanding of Minecraft to take a learning situation even beyond sort of what was presented to them as the task.
There’s just been a bunch of those. It’s tough to single one out. We see Minecraft being used to teach everything from, like you said, architecture, it’s great for teaching mathematics skills, particularly around geometry and spacial problems. We’ve seen it used for language arts. We see it used for religious studies, social studies. You asked for the one story; my one story is that I just think it’s great that teachers have embraced really leaning into the idea of using Minecraft as a curriculum delivery tool. I think it becomes more than just a way to keep kids occupied. I think their engagement with the game really lets them take some of the lessons even further than what was intended in the beginning.
Can you talk a little bit about the vision that you guys at Microsoft and Mojang have for the future of Minecraft, and particularly in the non-gaming space?
We always have … it’s kind of this curse of working on a game where you’ve probably got more ideas than you could ever actually put into production. So we’re always going through the sort of painful process of trying to figure out which of the few things can we tackle in the next year, because there’s probably 20 things that we would love to actually go do.
One of the places that I think we want to explore more, it gets back to this idea of community. Some of these servers that run on the Java version have massive concurrency, tens of thousands of people that are playing at once, and I think there’s some really interesting things that we could do around concurrency and the ability for people to gather in a unified space online. A lot of the way that these servers work is there might be say 30,000 people concurrent, that they are broken into smaller groups, what’s called shards, and it would be interesting to think about the idea that everyone could actually be in a linear congruent concurrent space.
So, here’s just an idea. Wouldn’t it be neat if in five years, we could actually have MINECON happen online inside Minecraft, that we would actually build an event space, that there would be seats that people would come and sit in seats that they built in Minecraft? We would actually have Minecraft take place with every player that wanted to go to MINECON in the game, and they would join a massively concurrent multiplayer universe where they could go and participate in an event. The idea of doing that is pretty far beyond what we’ve got right now, but I think it’s a neat vision to hold for where the game could go.
The other place where I think we would like to go forward is around what I call digital citizenship, which is how are the community behaviours and the things like cooperation and education that players are learning in the game, how does that translate into the real world.
I don’t know if you are familiar with our non-profit organization that we run called Block by Block, but Block by Block is a charity that we run in conjunction with the UN Habitat. We go into underserved communities and provide them Minecraft to use as an urban planning tool, to plan out public space. It turns out that it’s actually a pretty good tool, because it flips on the dynamic on what usually happens where it’s the older people or people outside the community that come in and really drive that planning process. Giving them Minecraft we lose our concerns about sort of architectural fidelity, and it also gets young people more involved in the process, which is fairly atypical in a lot of places.
Then what we do is we actually go in and fund the physical construction of these public spaces, like playgrounds, and parks, and fountains, and public gathering spaces based on the designs that were come up with, and we fund that through normal sort of fundraising processes. Many of our licensed partners contribute to Block by Block, and when we get into situations with infringement or settlements and those sorts of things, we usually like to resolve that by having folks also contribute to Block by Block. We feel that that’s just a great way to encourage digital citizenship and think about how some of the skills and like technology that are emerging from gameplay can actually be used to impact the real world.
If you go to BlockByBlock.org, you can learn quite a lot more about it. It’s something we’re pretty proud of, and again, that’s a great example of a place where Microsoft, which has the ability to manage a global scale foundation and a global scale non-profit is able to come in and help, because that’s something that three years ago a 30 person team in Sweden probably would have, you know, that’d be a much different challenge for them.
Minecraft has come a long way in the last year or so, and the news that that Sony and Microsoft are in talks to bring cross-play to Minecraft and that “the process is going very well” is likely welcome news for gamers who may not even be interested in Minecraft. Sony has appeared thus far to be resistant to the idea, as it is the last major console maker who has not enabled cross-play with the other major console makers. While notable cross-play exceptions exist, including Street Fighter V, they only allow PS4 players to play with PC players, not with any other console manufacturer. In September, a “configuration error” meant that Fortnite players on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were briefly able to play together, proving that this sort of play is possible. The idea of a unified future of gaming may not be far out of reach, as long as everyone can come to the table. It raises unique challenges surrounding managing communities, such as asking how users can be reported if they’re acting in bad faith, even if they’re not on the same platform. Let’s hope Minecraft can encourage both Sony and Microsoft to come together and unify the gaming community.
The Update Aquatic for Minecraft’s release date is yet to be announced, but we’ve been assured it’s coming soon.
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