Hindsight is 20/20, right? Let’s hop back in our time machines to the year 2000 and review some game studios that Microsoft has bought since then and what happened. We had just narrowly escaped the end of days and new, exciting video games were coming. The XBox 360 was still a few years away.

By no means is this a complete history. For more information, check your local library.

A Brief History of Microsoft and Game Studios
I love me some Halo. The storytelling and gameplay were both fantastic. Bungie had previewed Halo and Microsoft quickly announced they were buying them. 7 years and 3 Halo games later, Bungie was spun back out and on their own. Microsoft retained the rights to Halo and Bungie kept it going. One thing fans never saw though was the rumored explosion of this universe into the mainstream. Sure, there were Halo comic books, novels and Mega bloks, but there weren’t television shows, movies or LEGO sets. All this despite Microsoft having its own XBox Entertainment Studios.

In 2002, when Microsoft bought Rare, it seemed to be more so for the talent than the franchises. After not doing too much during the 2000s, Rare was basically unwound in 2010. In 2006, Microsoft bought Lionhead Studios. This may be the most comparable to today’s announcement with two exceptions. First off, the main talent isn’t coming over. Second, while Lionhead Studios’ Fable game was popular, it wasn’t on the scale as Minecraft is today. Fable II was a critical and commercial success, but was it worth $375 million?

In 2011, Microsoft bought Twisted Pixel Games and they haven’t done too much since then. Granted, it hasn’t been too long, but still.

Similarly to Halo, Microsoft has announced that (instead of purchasing Epic Games), they purchased the rights to Gears of War. Again though, no game was available for the XBox One at launch.

Microsoft seems to have a bad history of purchasing video game studios. So, what is different this time around with Microsoft’s purchase of Mojang? Let the speculation begin!

An Afterthought
Minecraft is arguably the top selling game of all time or soon will be. In the wake of this announcement, some articles out there are asking why Microsoft would make such a purchase at potentially the height of its popularity, especially with everything stated above. Certainly, this is a good question, but  here are some other Minecraft things you may not know about.

A live action movie is planned. In case you didn’t hear, movies based on blocks are awesome and make money Why not take a page from LEGO and see what happens? Speaking of LEGO, they have just become the world’s top toy manufacturer and even they have boarded the Minecraft train with several Minecraft sets. Maybe this isn’t such an afterthought after all. There is definitely some things in the works.

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Lastly, this is certainly one way to ensure Minecraft arrives on Windows Phones.

What if this is just the beginning though? Let’s take a look at some potentially sweet ways Microsoft could grow Minecraft beyond the game.

Licensing
If there’s one thing I know, it is LEGO. Wired published a great, short infographic recently on LEGO’s positive turnaround in 2003 pivoting against their ability to license. Now think about what Minecraft is. It is basically a digital LEGO world. Minecraft modders all over the world have proven that this platform can be used to develop licensed material and XBox already has licensed skins for Minecraft. How about Microsoft goes furthers and builds entire games in Minecraft based on these licensed properties? It seems to be working for Traveler’s Tales Games. LEGO has even expanded the LEGO Star Wars universe into its own television show as well, not to mention their other original properties, Chima and Ninjago. Couldn’t Microsoft go down this path?

With the announcement to close XBox Entertainment Studios, Microsoft could finally move to a LEGO-like model for content production. Microsoft may be on the cusp of realizing that you don’t have to produce the content, just own the rights and distribute. Also, they are a very different company than Sony, which has a potential advantage in producing and distributing the content through their own Sony Entertainment, like they are with the PS3 and their foray into original programming. Sony Entertainment isn’t tied to the PS3, like Microsoft XBox Studios was.

Clicks and Blocks
Minecraft is LEGO-like for certain, but LEGO has something Minecraft-like in its new Fusion line. Is there a closer partnership developing here between the world’s largest software company and the world’s largest toy manufacturer? It could go either way. LEGO and Minecraft seem to be playing pretty nice now and Microsoft now has a massive platform for LEGO to build on. Fusion, on the other hand, has real world toys creeping into the digital and could turn into a massive platform in its own right. This partnership could be a huge windfall on both sides.

A rift here would likely be messy (and potentially a legal disaster) once the digital franchises start playing out. Imagine if Disney pulled Star Wars licensing from LEGO and gave it to Minecraft or if Microsoft made it cost prohibitive for LEGO games to be developed on XBox. I’ve pre-ordered my LEGO Batman 3 already (complete with Plastic Man minifig), so say it ain’t so! I think this scenario is as unlikely as Microsoft buying Mega Bloks to compete directly with LEGO, but stranger things have happened!

Virtual Worlds
Well folks, here’s where I’m going off the deep end. Back in 2012, there was a patent filed by Microsoft for an Environmental Display. Just imagine what Minecraft could be on this type of platform! Paired with a Kinect, you could actually mine and build with your hands instead of a controller and be completely immersed in this virtual world.  The sky is really the limit here. You could redecorate your room, take your kids on a wild adventure or even romance your wife in a blocky Denmark (ok, maybe not that last one).

What about interfaces? People spend a lot of time in Minecraft. What can it teach us about immersive words and 3D interfaces for future software releases? Could a Minecraft-like interface be built for Windows Phone or the ubiquitous Windows interface itself? It worked with Unix in Jurassic Park (with apologies to SGI)!

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Bananas, I Say!
There is one last thing that could be a massive game changer for Microsoft that would be even more bananas than mining in your living room. Minecraft has a unique combination of dedicated and social gamers. Microsoft could leverage Minecraft’s quick popularity to determine the next social network. Amber Mac nails it on the head in this article in my opinion and Minecraft surely has to be an easier and more relevant study on success in the gaming industry in relation to social networking than My Little Pony.

Not only that, the users have driven the changes from the bottom up in Minecraft through community. Microsoft could learn development and product lifecycle skills through studying the interactions between the Minecraft gamers and developers. The modders play risk vs. benefit on massive scales daily and somehow keep the popularity of Minecraft going. Think about how else this could be applied to another piece of software that you might want to improve.

Help Me Microsoft, You’re My Only Hope
Microsoft seems to have a love/hate relationship with game studios that it acquires. I’m not sure if the studios are too independent once they are folded into the mix or if they are kept to their franchises, but they just don’t seem to produce (except for Bungie, which ended up getting split out again and maybe Lionhead Studios). I’m not too worried about Microsoft squashing down modders or forcing competing platforms to pay so much for the licenses that Minecraft becomes platform specific and unbearable with in-app purchases. Even with the ever growing hunt for exclusivity on gaming platforms, that just isn’t Microsoft’s style these days.

Microsoft has the potential to do some amazing stuff with Minecraft. I mean, if someone can build a working hard drive in Minecraft, what else might be possible? Microsoft would be missing out on a huge opportunity if this just became another game studio that released a sequel and was then shuttered a decade from now.