Minecraft is more than a game, as we explained before Monday’s announcement of its $2.5 billion acquisition by Microsoft. The Mojang game is a platform for creativity, and players can do almost anything inside of the game.
But some of those players then go a step farther. The PC version of Minecraft is also host to a thriving community that makes changes to the game itself. These unofficial modifications, commonly known as “mods” and made by “modders,” can range from realistic graphics and lighting to new games layered on top of the Minecraft world.
Plenty of games have mods — this one for Skyrim, in which an attacking dragon is replaced by Thomas the Tank Engine, is one of my favorites — but Minecraft’s modders are particularly active and talkative online.
“The community of people who modify Minecraft is larger than the total audience for lots of other games, so we naturally socialize online and help each other out,” said modder Daniel “dan200” Ratcliffe. “A lot of this happens over IRC, forums and Twitter, and some of it happens in real life at events like Minecon, where Mojang has been gracious enough to give several of us the opportunity to talk to fans directly on panels.”
Ratcliffe is best known for a mod called ComputerCraft that adds programmable computers and robots, running the Lua programming language, into the game. As The Verge explained in this excellent story about parents who encourage their children to play Minecraft, kids gain a “gateway to the world of computer programming” from playing mods — or, in some cases, from learning to make their own.
Much as Twitch built a billion-dollar company around content freely uploaded by its users, modders have poured hours into tweaking Minecraft for free, although many then go on to take donations or Patreon pledges to support continued updates.
“I was waiting for the Minecraft Beta 1.8 update, some three years ago, I got bored playing, so I started modding,” said a modder who goes by the online handle CovertJaguar. “And since I had a background in Java, it seemed like fun.”
That boredom-born lark led him to make one of the most popular Minecraft mods, a suite of minecart improvements that then became a full-on train simulator called RailCraft. On his Patreon page, CovertJaguar says RailCraft accounts for a “not insignificant percentage of my meager income (and a significant percentage of my time).”
The big question is, what happens to these mods once the acquisition has closed? In its instant classic press release confirming the acquisition, Mojang bluntly said it couldn’t promise Microsoft wouldn’t try to change things. Some modders online seemed concerned by the official rules for Microsoft’s gaming IP, forbidding fans from “reverse engineering” games or otherwise “do[ing] things that the games don’t normally permit” to create additional content.
However, there’s no reason to assume that those rules will not be updated to accommodate Minecraft’s already-huge audience, which Redmond will want to court and pamper. Xbox boss Phil Spencer gave a shout-out yesterday to the “user-generated content and servers that have made this such a vibrant and active community,” pledging to work with that community as the game evolves.
Still, not everyone is ready to trust Spencer and company.
“If licensing changes and mods are no longer allowed, then I will likely move on to developing games of my own,” said Mithion, the creator of Minecraft mod Ars Magica. “I know of a few people who have decided that this transaction marks the end of an era, and have decided they are done modding. I know others that plan to remain and see what happens.”
Ratcliffe said Microsoft should officially support modding — something the community has been calling on Mojang to do for some time now — and turn Minecraft into a “platform as a base to innovate on.” Another make-it-official advocate, ScriptCraft creator Walter Higgins, said the community was already on its haunches after a modding tool called CraftBukkit was hit with a DMCA takedown notice earlier this month.
“Personally, I hope that Microsoft [will] throw some resources at creating an official API so that the current state of affairs is fixed,” Higgins said. “I’m going to wait and see what Microsoft announces — a roadmap for the API release would be great.”
Most of the modders I talked to agreed with that “wait-and-see” approach.
“I’m somewhat personally invested in the community and being forced to leave it would upset my life a fair bit,” CovertJaguar said. “I plan to stick around as long as Microsoft lets me. But yes, I expect there will be changes, but I can’t say if they will be good or disastrous yet.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.