5 Things I Learned from Minecraft about Community, Ecosystems, and Business

I went to Minecon — the official Minecraft conference — for the first time this year. Picture 10,000 delighted gamers (some kids but even more adults) convening for two days of geeky fun.

I think everyone who learns about Minecraft has a moment of wondering how they pulled it off — how they’ve become so phenomenally popular (they currently have more than 100 million registered users worldwide), and how they maintain their level of fanatic loyalty and delight.

In this 19-minute episode, I talk about:

  • Why so many fun things to do in Minecraft weren’t created by the company
  • The point at which community tips over to ecosystem
  • How a robust ecosystem works as the world’s most powerful marketing system
  • Other companies that have captured a little bit of the Minecraft magic
  • How we can start building “cult brands,” even when we’re small

The Show Notes

5 Things I Learned from Minecraft about Community, Ecosystems, and Business

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Sonia Simone: Greetings, superfriends! My name is Sonia Simone. These are the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those who don’t know me, I am a co-founder and the chief content officer for Copyblogger Media.

I’m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules. As long as you don’t lie and you don’t hurt people, this podcast is your official pink permission slip to run your business or your career exactly the way you think you should.

Today, I want to talk about an experience I recently had. I recently came back from Minecon. Minecon is a live conference that is run to celebrate the game Minecraft. They pulled 10,000 obsessed Minecraft fans together. Some kids and lots and lots of adults from all over the world, and they get together for two days of geeky fun.

First thing we want to get out of the way, you are not going to create Minecraft. I am not going to create Minecraft. If any of us is ever lucky enough to touch the hem of the garment of a business this successful, we will be lucky. It is unbelievably popular — especially for a game that is funny looking, that has graphics that would charitably be described as amateurish, that’s hard to learn, has no real user manual for how to get started.

It was recently bought by Microsoft. Minecraft has more than 100 million registered users. The latest information I’m finding, it’s the second most popular computer game of all time, after Super Mario Brothers. It’s the bestselling game ever on the PC.

It’s a funny thing, but if you think about business and you think about content and community, and you look at Minecraft, you really want to figure out why is this game so successful. It was never really expected to be this successful. The originator of the game certainly didn’t think he was creating a multi-billion dollar winner in any way. He was playing around and having fun. Nobody who saw the game — at first, people loved it, but they didn’t think it would be this successful.

I want to take a stab at some of the reasons I think make it what it is, hopefully, with an eye to pulling some of those qualities maybe into our own businesses to get some of that magic for ourselves.

Why So Many Fun Things to Do in Minecraft Weren’t Created by the Company

Games tend to be loved products anyway. People love to play games, of course, because they’re fun. They’re entertainment. They’re some of our wonderful times spent with our friends playing. But Minecraft has some definitely special sauce. I think most observers would probably agree that a lot of what is special about Minecraft — in addition to the fact that it’s open-ended, so you can play a lot of different ways — is the ecosystem that it has created. Some of the most fun things to do with Minecraft are not developed by Mojang, which is the creator of the game.

Minecraft has something called ‘mods,’ which are modifications people have made to the game to totally change the rules of the game, totally change the way that it’s played. It has skins, so your character can look all different kinds of ways. Those skins are created by the community. They’re not created by the company. As any parent knows, it has YouTube videos — millions and millions of YouTube videos talking about different ways to play different aspects of the game.

It was Microsoft that bought Mojang, but honestly, it could just have easily been Google. YouTube is, arguably, the most important way that people learn about Minecraft and share what they know about it. One of the weird things about Minecraft, it’s actually very hard to learn how to play. It’s very confusing when you start playing, precisely because it is so open-ended. You could do all different kinds of things. You can build things. You can fight monsters. And there’s all kinds of things you have to do at once.

You have two options when you start playing Minecraft. You can either get a friend to sit down next to you and help you figure out what to do. Lots of people do that. Or, you can start watching some YouTube videos. There are YouTube videos about any style of play you can imagine, from building really cool things to fighting all kinds of monsters, to funny things like adventure maps and parkour, which is where you jump around on structures. Building entire cities or replicating the Starship Enterprise.

If there’s something you would like to figure out how to do on Minecraft, there are whole collections of YouTubers out there to show you exactly how to do it.

In a weird way, that difficulty, the learning curve, the difficult learning curve at the beginning of the process pushes the gamer outside of her own bubble. Most games, we sit there in front of our computer or our device. We figure out the game, and we play. We put hours of practice in on our own.

In this game, you have to go outside of your device almost immediately to go get the answers to find out how to do what you want to do. The YouTuber community, I will tell you, are celebrities. I mean really celebrities. There are people like Joseph Garrett. He goes by the name StampyCat. If you have a younger child in your life, you have heard StampyCat, I’m sure. He had 2.2 billion views on his YouTube channel in 2014.

Close behind is a guy named Daniel Middleton. He goes by DanTDM. He had 1.6 billion views in 2014. These guys are really celebrities, even the ones with the smaller numbers. There’s a very technical guy named SethBling, who used to be a programmer for Microsoft. He packed a 1,000-person capacity room at Minecon, talking about something called ‘command blocks,’ which are very technical mini programming functionality within Minecraft.

If you don’t have 100 million customers yet — and I definitely do not have 100 million customers yet — how do we pull some of this magic into our business? Here are a couple of thoughts that I have about it.

First and foremost, I think the most important lesson is that Minecraft probably would not have gotten off the ground if they had been serious control freaks about the game. They left areas of permeability. They left areas in the game that kept the game safe. It’s not open to hackers, but it is open to modifications.

They embraced the mod community that creates these modifications to the game that can let you totally change the rules of the game and totally change the style of play. A lot of companies would have thrown up walls around the brand and the trademark. They do their deals. They do licensed merchandise, but they also leave that room for the community to make cool things, too.

There are a lot of knock offs, especially on mobile. There are a lot of knock-off games on Minecraft. The concept of the game is not that complex. You have blocks, and you make things out of blocks. But you can’t knock off that ecosystem. You can’t knock off that rich experience that are created by the mods, the skins, the resource packs, the YouTubers. The knock offs, they get downloads. They get views, and then the gamer gets bored and goes back to Minecraft.

The Point at Which Community Tips Over to Ecosystem

I want to talk about five things that stand out to me about how Mojan Minecraft does things.

The first is one that is oft repeated in the social business world. Any product that gets used by a community is more likely to create a community. When technology let people play games with other people over the web instead of having to come to your house to sit around your console or sit around a deck of cards, the popularity of a lot of games exploded. People like to do things together. If your product is used with other people, you have a big head start on creating communities and, eventually, maybe ecosystems.

The second thing that strikes me is looking for how you can create more room in what I call the ecosystem. A community is a group of people who like your product, use it, feel like they’re part of something larger by using your product. I’ll talk about some examples of that a little bit in a couple of minutes. An ecosystem is where other people or other companies actually make some of the experience with you. The company doesn’t make every piece of the experience. That is revolutionary.

There are other companies that do it, but there aren’t very many. If you think about with your project, with your business, with your Kickstarter, whatever it might be, is there some way that other people could help create and build on the experience of using your product or your service? Is there any way that you could create an ecosystem where other people bring their expertise to the table? I’ll talk about what that looks like.

If you can make room for that kind of ecosystem, the third thing that strikes me about Minecraft is, they celebrate the ecosystem. They don’t just tolerate it. They don’t just allow people to create a resource pack, which is a collection of image files that totally changes what Minecraft looks like. Minecraft notoriously looks very blocky and primitive, but you can get resource packs that make it much more high resolution. Much more beautiful. Lots of different visual styles. Minecraft embraces that and welcomes it.

They invited those YouTubers to the conference and gave them time on stage. They invited the people creating the modifications, the different game styles, to its conference. None of those people works for the company, but they were celebrated at the conference and embraced. So, if you can create an ecosystem, it’s not just enough to make room for it. Then, I think, it’s really important to open up, embrace and welcome, publicly celebrate the ecosystem for doing the work that they do.

How a Robust Ecosystem Works as the World’s Most Powerful Marketing System

Why would we do that, right? Why would we give up control of our company? Why would we give up control of our user experience? The reason being, when you have certainly a community, but even more so an ecosystem that has co-created the experience, that ecosystem does the work of getting the word out. They do all the hard work of your advertising. Minecraft spends virtually nothing on advertising. They don’t need to. All over the world, 9 and 10 year olds are talking to each other about Minecraft. They’re talking to each other about their favorite videos and their favorite style of play.

Once you have created that rich collection of human beings getting together to make your product even more awesome, those human beings will be your evangelists. That’s why they have 100 million registered users. It’s not because they bought all the advertising in the world. It’s because they have an army of passionate users, not just kids but as adults as well, talking to each other about the game.

The fifth thing that I think the Minecraft company does well is, that change is inevitable. Change is part of the world we live in. It’s especially true if you have a technology company or if technology touches your company. Within that environment of change, protect your community and your ecosystem.

When Microsoft bought Mojan, there was widespread worry/panic that Microsoft was going to come in and interfere with the ecosystem. For example, that they would stop people from being able to modify the game so freely. But you know, touch wood, Microsoft seems to get it. They seem to be embracing it. They understand that, that rich experience is why this game is so popular and successful. Instead of interfering with that ecosystem, they’re right behind Mojan celebrating it, embracing it, and maybe giving them some more resources to be able to do that even in a deeper way.

Other Companies That Have Captured a Little Bit of the Minecraft Magic

Because Minecraft is such an oddball, I thought I’d dig up some examples of some other companies that do some of these pieces well. The closest analogy I can find is WordPress, the content management system. I blog on it. If you blog, you blog on it. Rainmaker Platform is built on it. It’s a wonderful platform. Incredibly robust and rich. WordPress really has that ecosystem.

There’s the company that creates WordPress and keeps it updated. There’s a community of programmers working on the open source code. Then, there’s an army, an ecosystem of WordPress developers, plug-in developers, graphic designers. Again, some of the neatest things about WordPress are not built by WordPress. They’re some of the plug-ins and extra functionality that’s been created to work nicely within the CMS.

WordPress and Minecraft always remind me very much of each other, but I did find a couple of other examples. We can’t all be WordPress and Minecraft. I got on Twitter and asked the question about some of your favorite companies that have an ecosystem.

One person mentioned, and I hadn’t thought about this, FreshBooks. FreshBooks has a lot of add-ons to its functionality that have been created by partners. Now, it’s not as much of the plug-in that was created by one passionate user. They are more created by company partners, but nonetheless, many of the great things you can do with FreshBooks were not created by FreshBooks. There is definitely an ecosystem going on there.

Another example from the gaming community is a company called Roll20. They have almost a million user for table-top games, role-playing games. They describe it as a community marketplace and community-based help and character sheets for people who like to play games like, let’s say, D&D, which is Dungeons & Dragons.

The cool thing about that is that Dungeons & Dragons itself is co-created by the people who play it. There are players who play the game, and then there are dungeon masters who actually write scenarios for the game that other people can play. It is a game where a company built some rules, but the community creates the experience. That’s a cool double example.

Finally, Logan on Twitter told me about a really cool project called hitRECord.org. It’s an open, collaborative production company. I looked at their website. It’s really fascinating. Here’s what they have to say.

“Think of it as a studio where artists collaborate on projects together and remix each other’s work with the potential to contribute to money-making productions. It’s open to anyone (13 years of age and older) who wants to upload original audio, video, text, or images, as well as public domain, with the understanding that their work may be downloaded by other members of the community for the purpose of being remixed. For example, a piece of writing may inspire an illustration, which then could be turned into a piece of animation.”

That is an extremely cool example of an environment — hitRECord.org is a context, an environment, or a platform — where creative people can come together, collaborate, use each other’s stuff, make something cool, and turn it into a business. Really, really amazing. Very much a 21st century project, only because the technology allows the old artist’s workshop idea to scale in a way that’s really exciting and really makes it something different.

That’s some of the ecosystem-based companies. They are kind of rare, and if you have some examples, I would love it if you would drop a comment into the PinkHairedMarketer.FM website. Let me know of some other examples of companies that really create that ecosystem where part of the experience is being created by somebody other than the company.

How We Can Start Building ‘Cult Brands,’ Even When We’re Small

I’m also going to talk about community. Community will tend to be the one more of us can leverage. The most commonly seen community element is to let the community speak for you by creating what some people call a ‘cult brand.’ I have a brand new favorite cult brand, which is Saddleback Leather.

Their tag line is “They’ll fight over it when you’re dead.” They make great stuff. Very, very well-made stuff out of leather, mostly bags, briefcases. They make suitcases that are just epic. I travel a lot. I would actually not use one of their suitcases. They’re just not as practical as my super-technical, wheeled suitcase, but dang they’re beautiful. They are just beautiful.

Saddleback, they have a small but really passionate following. I love something that the founder said on one of the pages on his site, which I have been compulsively reading and re-reading for days now. He said, “We want to be a household name, but only in a few households.” I thought that was just sort of beautiful.

They are really smart on social. They’re very engaged. They have a great voice. They have a great product. They’re really using sites like Instagram incredibly well because their stuff is beautiful. There are no model photos on the site. You can’t see what the bag looks like on a person’s shoulder until you go out to social — Facebook or Instagram or Twitter — and see the photos that people have shared of themselves using the products. Really cool.

The other one that you guys have heard me mention in the past was Goulet Pens, which is a fountain pen and good paper company online. Wonderful little business. I’m going to get Brian Goulet onto the podcast to talk about that business because I just think they’re wonderful. I love how they do things. They really create a combination of content and community that really, really works. If Saddleback Leather and Goulet Pens ever get together, they will create something quite scary and beautiful. I hope that will happen someday.

But also think about something like the microlending groups like Kiva. A lot of the charity groups are getting very smart about creating a cult brand with their charity. Creating a memorable experience that people feel like they’re part of something larger. Again, there are now hundreds and thousands of these kind of businesses, these niche cult brands. Hugh MacLeod called them global microbrands, and he was talking about this years and years ago. This experience is only getting richer and more dynamic.

If you have a favorite one, a little cult brand where you feel like you’re part of something by owning their products and using their products, drop it into the comments. I think that would be just great fun to hear about.

That is the community and ecosystem experience that almost all of us can create — by creating something more remarkable, by engaging more with our audiences and our customers, by trying to build products and services that are really meaningful, and then creating that experience of community.

That’s something that almost all of us can do, even if maybe we’ll never be quite as cool and quite as amazing as Minecraft. We can create something really remarkable and beautiful that makes people feel special and important for being part of.

That is it for today’s Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer.

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It’s just been wonderful talking with you today. I hope to see you again soon. If you’d like to leave a star rating or review over on iTunes, that would be just fantastic. Thank you so much, and I’ll see you next week. Take care.