A few months ago, my friends and I decided to start a new Minecraft server. This wasn't something new for any of us - we've dabbled with Minecraft here and there for years, and the need for a chilled out experience away from competitive multiplayer games would occasionally draw us back into its peaceful cuboid world. But we weren't the only players with the bright idea of jumping back in. Minecraft celebrated its 10th anniversary back in May, and whether players like us realised it or not, this brought the game back into the forefront of everyone's minds.
Minecraft isn't experiencing a short-lived resurgence either, oh no. A decade in, its community only continues to grow. Thanks in part to a regular stream of updates, Mojang is able to show off a 112 million-strong monthly player count. And there's plenty of other projects in the works - the Pokémon Go-like Minecraft Earth, Minecraft Dungeons, a couple of Minecraft books, and even a Minecraft film - which have all helped Minecraft reach a level of popularity I don't believe anyone truly expected. This isn't to say Minecraft ever really went away, but a quick look at Google Trends shows you it's as prominent now, 10 years on, as it's ever been.
Minecraft has had a hell of a year, and a hell of a decade. But how has it got here? And what do the next 10 years hold? I caught up with lead developer Jens Bergensten and Minecraft Earth executive producer Jesse Merriam ahead of Minecon Live to talk about how Minecraft has stayed so successful - and what it must do to stay on top.
"For me it's the core game mechanic - the way you interact with Minecraft is such an engaging way to play, you really feel that your imagination is the limit," Bergensten said. "There's always something to do, and it's very much up to the player to scour what they want to do, and that of course creates a lot of potential and gameplay.
"We really want to make sure we keep giving the community new things to play with and new things to scour, so that's why we keep doing these massive feature updates."
The most recent of these huge updates to be announced is The Nether update, which implements brand new biomes, mobs, structures and more into the vanilla game. Over the last year we also saw the charity fundraising panda and bamboo additions, as well as the Village and Pillage update, which introduced Wandering Traders and the hostile Pillager mobs.
Fuelled by these, Mojang has noticed Minecraft's pull on former players to return.
"I play Minecraft every day and I see the attention of people around me wanting to play coming back, and it is because it's present in people's minds," Merriam said. "The kids I interact with are talking about pandas and villagers and it's so powerful in Minecraft how proud players are of their knowledge.
"You hear about people who played Minecraft who're jumping back in saying, 'Wow! It's changed so much, I'm learning it all over again.' People's Minecraft experience is very personal to them and, in many ways, with the continuing feature updates and expanded games that are coming they get to have that experience one more time. The people I talk to are really excited about getting to do it all again."
Mojang's understanding of its community is evident. It's doubtful a game that relies so heavily on player creations could manage a five year lifespan, let alone a decade, without an ear to the ground listening to what its players really want. A prime example happened over Minecon Live, where Mojang put it to a vote to see which Overworld biome should get an update next.
"We do have a feedback site where we look for popular requests and see if they fit into the plans that we have, and we often do quality of life changes or fixes that include minor suggestions the community has been asking for," said Bergensten.
"That's how Minecraft wholly works," Merriam added. "With the Nether Update coming, as with the Villages update, all of those things are influenced by the feedback, because like Jens said, we look at that feedback every day.
"We find it really powerful for the experiences we create to have the interactive feedback loop with our players, and so Minecraft of course operates that way, and for Minecraft Earth we've used that as a model because we want this to be authentically Minecraft, and connect with its players in exactly the same way."
But what does the community itself think? There aren't many more embedded in the Minecraft fandom than its hugely popular content creators. A few notable names have been picked it up again over the last few months, but some never left the game, and have watched Minecraft's rise through 2019 from a slightly different perspective. Jerome "JeromeASF" Aceti - who plays Minecraft on YouTube to more than 5.1 million YouTube subscribers - agreed how much the game had changed, and that it still felt felt refreshing to jump back into vanilla Minecraft.
"Just five or so years back, it felt like it was still in beta. The game was still being improved upon at a steady pace, but nowadays it feels like every update coming out is an expansion pack on the game - but it's free, it's not a paid for DLC," Aceti said.
"Every one adds so much content that it can completely change the way the game is played. I've played Minecraft consistently but I spend a lot of my time playing older versions of it because of its modding community, so for me just dipping my toes in the newest version I find it to be almost relearning the game again for a second time."
This isn't necessarily an influx of all-new players, Aceti agreed. Over its 10 year lifespan, early players who have grown up alongside the game, watched it evolve and update year on year are now being drawn back in through the power of nostalgia.
"From what I've seen, a lot of people are coming back to Minecraft, not just initially finding Minecraft. I don't think there's a recent surge in people just downloading it for the first time - to me at least, from what my friends have shown and from what I've heard from my audience is that a lot of these people is really just old players from back in 2012 - 2013, that may have moved on from the game, and now seeing all these new updates coming out are willing to give it another try."
It's not just content updates, either. Cross-platform play and the ability to play where and when you want has made Minecraft one of the most accessible games on the planet.
"In the past you could make the argument there has always been a Minecraft mobile, that's been around for five to six years now, but up until recently it always seemed to be lacking or lagging behind the PC version," Aceti concluded. "Nowadays, even if you don't have a powerful enough computer to play Minecraft, you can play it across Xbox, mobile, etc. and it allows more players to have access that normally wouldn't."
So, what's in store for Minecraft's future? It sounds like Mojang has a continued balancing act in mind - of new updates to the vanilla game that don't disrupt the feeling of its core creative principles.
"Our goal is to make sure that even 10 or 20 years from now, the experience of starting to play the game should feel similar, or close to what it is today," Bergensten explained. "We still want to leave the game open for the player's interpretation, but of course we want to help people get started. Some things are really hard to figure out on your own in Minecraft and we will help people get into the game better, but it's still important to us that it's up to the player to create the story and discover what they want to do."
"We want to add a lot of content because it's fun, but at the same time we want to make sure we keep the core experience intact, so that's why it's so great to have these other games like Minecraft Earth and Minecraft Dungeons where we can explore different kinds of gameplay within the Minecraft universe."
I don't doubt in 10 years time I'll still be playing Minecraft, sporadically returning to some village I made with my university housemates to tend to my bees and explore whatever creative new landscapes Mojang has cooked up by then. Who am I kidding? I'm the friend that runs off and dies in increasingly complicated mining disasters - but that's the beauty of it, there's so much to do! Even while playing with a server full of other players you can do your own thing - and Minecraft allows for different play styles for different people.
"There's no real need for a Minecraft 2, I would love to explore like different styles, staying within Minecraft but offering... maybe like a different planet if you might imagine, but still staying inside Minecraft 1 [laughs], so not a sequel," Bergensten said.
"But the player community is also helping that with mods and adventure maps, and even the mashup packs they create - there's so much going on in Minecraft, it's like a never ending game."