Minecraft creator Mojang goes into publishing with Cobalt

Mojang is making its first move into the games publishing business to capitalise on the millions of players it has attracted to its lo-fi hit, Minecraft.

Minecraft is a construction game for PCs featuring blocky, retro-style graphics and open-ended “sandbox” gameplay. Since launching last summer, it has acquired more than 12m registered users and over 3m paying customers, putting it on track for revenues of €50m this year. Another Mojang title, Scrolls, is also in the works but the Swedish start-up on Thursday revealed the first third-party title that it’s planning to distribute on its platform.

Cobalt, developed by Oxeye Game Studios, is an action game set on a futuristic Titanic: a lost space-exploration vessel that disappeared just minutes into its voyage.

The game was developed by a team of three – one of whom also works at Mojang and with music by Scrolls’ composer. Oxeye have spent several months working out of Mojang’s offices. So this is a gentle step into the world of publishing and distribution for Mojang, which remains a small, tight-knit team in spite of its rapid growth.

Nonetheless, it’s an important one for both, helping to scale Mojang’s business through a revenue-share deal and giving Cobalt a bigger audience than it might have found alone.

Carl Manneh, Mojang’s chief executive, says that Oxeye was a suitable partner because it shares its “philosophy of developing games, which is staying close to the community and treating it as a service”. He told the FT:

“The growth of Minecraft has put Mojang in a position where we can reach millions of gamers. Collaborating with other indie game studios is something we see as a natural step in order to release great games in a faster pace that we can do ourselves. We will only partner with studios that find our way of developing games appealing, and of course that we personally really like the games.”

Mr Manneh said future games could be of any genre but have to share Mojang’s agile, iterative approach to developing, working off the back of player feedback and results. Mr Manneh and his team must also “really like” any game Mojang publishes. As such, Mojang is taking each opportunity as it comes, with no set number of third-party titles lined up over any particular timeframe.

It’s interesting to compare Mojang’s approach with that of Rovio, a Scandinavian neighbour and developer of a little mobile game called Angry Birds.

Recent reports have suggested that Rovio believes it can achieve a multi-billion-dollar valuation as it seeks to make Angry Birds into a Super Mario-style franchise. Reuters reported on Thursday that in an interview with a Finnish magazine, Rovio marketing chief Peter Vesterbacka said rumours of a $1bn valuation were “too low”.

Speaking to the FT earlier this year, Mr Manneh said several large venture firms and games companies had made lucrative offers but Mojang is trying to stay small and lean for the moment.

While Rovio is pushing into Angry Birds films, soft toys and other merchandising, Mojang – which relies on the open web rather than an app store as its primary distribution platform – is hoping to scale its business by becoming the destination for a certain flavour of lo-fi, modification-friendly indie games. It’s a smaller niche than a crowd-pleaser like Angry Birds, but as its sales figures show (Minecraft is still officially in beta), not an insignificant one.

Mr Manneh says that Mojang can offer other developers “bridges between the games, a unified payment system and login system”, although the precise details are still being finalised. There’s clearly a little way to go before Mojang becomes the next Activision Blizzard.

In the meantime, Minecraft fans will be able to try Cobalt at the PAX gaming event in Seattle later this month. The title will go into closed alpha at the end of September with a commercial release planned for later in the autumn.