30th Dec, 2022
Minecraft, the creator of online multiplayer gaming, has changed the rules. Will the blocky world collapse?
Gregory Bylos has been a successful Minecraft player for the past few decades. Mineplex, his company, manages a server network for Minecraft fans. Bylos and his team have created a variety of Minecraft modes, challenges, and maps that allow players from all over the world to collaborate on building. You can play Castle Siege, which transforms Minecraft into a full-on fantasy warfare game, or Super Smash Mobs which recreates the Nintendo fighting game series Super Smash Bros but in Minecraft.
It is extremely popular. Mineplex is visited by over one million people every month to enjoy its community features and modifications. Bylos says that Mineplex has been used by 25 percent of all PC Minecraft accounts purchased in the past eight months. This is a lot, as there are over 100m registered users and 14m PC sales.
But there is a problem. Mineplex, along with hundreds of other Minecraft server providers may be violating the End User License Agreements (EULA) provided to the game's creator, Mojang. The once benign Swedish studio has begun to take a stand and there is now a split in the once peaceful Minecraft community.
The beginning of the war
Mojang posted a statement to its website on Thursday 12 June, in response to Twitter disputes about how server companies could make money from custom Minecraft content and services. Owen Hill, a Mojang spokesperson, explained that server providers can accept donations from players as long as they are not exchanged for items and power-ups that will give players an advantage in the game world.
He stated that servers could charge players entry fees and for personalisation items such as silly pets and cool hats, but not for items that could affect gameplay like powerful swords and potions. Mojang wanted to stop servers offering customers a "pay-to-win" model.
But the servers providers refused and a Twitter storm ensued. Within days, there was a hashtag #saveminecraft that would be seen and liked by more than 500,000 people. There were many unfavorable comparisons between Mojang, Activision and monolithic videogame publishers Electronic Arts and Activision. These latter are often criticised online because of their restrictive digital rights management.
The main complaint many Minecraft fans had was: despite these terms being in Mojang's Minecraft EULA, they were never enforced in the three years since its launch. Mojang had always promoted a laissez-faire mentality. It had pushed Minecraft to be an open platform that could be customized by both players as well as server providers. Now it was tightening the belt. People were furious.
Because of a few rotten eggs, my friends and other server owners will lose their jobs. #SaveMinecraft
Two days later, Marcus 'Notch" Persson, the creator of Minecraft and founder at Mojang, took to his blog to defend his company's position. He wrote that some privately-run Minecraft servers charge for in-game items for xp boosts and access to certain game modes. Some of them charge quite a bit. I don't know how many emails we've received from parents asking for the 100 dollars back that their child spent on an item package on a server we don't control. We didn't allow it, but we didn't stop because we are so overwhelmed with other work.
The issue balance
There are many Minecraft server providers out there who are just looking to make money by charging players to purchase in-game items. Mojang is right to ban them, but there are many who claim to offer a more sophisticated service. The Hive, Hypixel, and Mineplex all offer competitive player-vs.-player matches where players can purchase "ranks", which are basically packages of in-game abilities like faster movement or better armour. These ranks are balanced so that no one has an advantage over the other - they're just different.
Bylos explains that one of our games is focused on small, free-for-all matches between four people. Each player picks a Minecraft character to play with. All kits have pros and cons. A character that does more damage may be slower than one that can fly long distances. This model is very popular in multiplayer online games, such as the highly successful team-based battle game League of Legends. Players can purchase different classes of characters with different strengths and weaknesses.
Bylos wrote an open letter to Notch arguing that Mojang was making it impossible for large server providers like Multiplex with large staff and infrastructure overheads. Bylos wrote, "I discussed our rank system last year with a member from your business team at Minecon and he confirmed that we were in compliance the EULA." "The only rule was not to sell Mojang IP (ie. access to a diamond blade, which is what none of the large networks offer."
Mojang, for many in the Minecraft server industry, is trying to crack a nut using a diamond sledgehammer. Delyth Angharad manages a small server called Minesquish that is family-friendly. She finances it with simple donations but she also understands the grievances of larger sites. She says that Mojang's main goal is to stop unfair extortion. "That's fair, but they also prevent more balanced monetisation strategies under those rules."
Bylos regards the services offered by server companies as an integral part of the Minecraft ecosystem. While many Minecraft fans love the "vanilla" version of Minecraft, others prefer the custom maps and modes that Mineplex, Hypixel and others create and run. He says that Mojang recognizes the value we bring to their player community. "Last year, we were called the'second-tier of content' at Minecon. That's exactly where we see ourselves. The top servers receive more than a million players each month, while thousands of smaller servers are available. It would be difficult to argue that we are not keeping players interested in Minecraft.
Are Minecraft Realms to Blame?
There is a second side to this whole argument. Mojang launched Minecraft Realms in May. This service allows PC and Mac owners to create their own servers for up to 20 people. The service costs PS8 per month and is being called "the easiest way to host a Minecraft online world." Some Minecraft server community members suspect that Mojang's enforcement of its EULA, which came just one month after Realms was released, is a way to get users to buy its product. Towncraft, the server provider, wrote this blog post:
If the EULA clarification was about protecting players, Mojang might have intervened against "pay-to win" servers long before their Minecraft Realms service appeared [...]. Mojang can only sell so much Minecraft before they have to find another way to monetize them. Realms was only a start.
Mojang's Nathan Adams rebutted this tweet, stating that there is no comparison between a service providing small groups of friends with a personal server and a business that offers custom content, maps, and mini-games. As with any online game community, conspiracy theories are common. Many feel that Realms is a Trojan Horse for a more ambitious multiplayer offering by Mojang - one which would directly compete against Mineplex et al.
What now? Mojang did not respond to our request for comment. It has given server permissions until August 1st to comply with the EULA, and remove features that charge players for skills items and ranks, however balanced they may be.
Some server providers are questioning whether Mojang is legally allowed to enforce user agreements after years of not paying much attention. Jas Purewal, founder and CEO of Interactive Entertainment Law Firm Purewal & Partner, stated that there is no time limit for EULA enforcement. "Like any contract, they can become more difficult to enforce if they have a long gap between the contract beginning and enforcement starting. Or if the developer claims they won't enforce them and then changes their mind after the buyer relies on that claim in a concrete way - in the UK and other common law countries, this is called 'estoppel'. The details and circumstances of what was said and done, and when, will determine if these arguments can be successfully used against the game developer.
Although it is likely that server providers will comply to the updated EULA rulings but there are concerns about the nature of custom communities that will forever change. Stompzcraft's owner has posted a video expressing his concerns:
Bylos says, "At the moment, we're examining all options and trying to get Mojang involved in discussing the issues they face and how we can help contribute towards a solution that may prove less damaging to the existing multiplayer servers." Although I believe we will survive it I fear it will have a major impact on player experience. Some major servers are already cancelling ambitious projects or putting them on hold due to the new guidelines.
"The Shotbow Network's lead developer made a very insightful comment a few days back: "I can only hope that Mojang listens (a little too much) to their community and trades out the sledgehammer in exchange for a scalpel."