Microsoft has agreed to buy Mojang, the Swedish developer of the Minecraft PC and console game, for US$2.5 billion, the companies announced Monday.
The deal comes two weeks after Mojang released a version of its world-building game for Microsoft's Xbox One game console. A version for the PlayStation 4 came out a few days earlier.
Minecraft is the most popular online game on Xbox, while PC users have downloaded it 100 million times since its 2009 launch, according to Microsoft. It touted the loyalty of Minecraft players, saying that 90 percent of paid customers had signed in on the PC version within the last 12 months.
That loyalty may make the acquisition a rough ride, though. When rumors of the Mojang-Microsoft deal began circulating last week, some Minecraft fans reacted angrily, accusing the independent software developer of "selling out."
They recalled Mojang CEO Markus "Notch" Persson's response to Facebook's plans to acquire Oculus, the maker of a virtual reality headset for which Mojang was developing a version of Minecraft. Persson initially suspended development of Minecraft for the Oculus Rift, although he later posted a message to Twitter saying he was "officially over being upset about Facebook buying Oculus", raising hopes that development had restarted.
Mojang said that the decision to sell the company was down to Persson, the company's majority shareholder.
"He's decided that he doesn't want the responsibility of owning a company of such global significance. Over the past few years he's made attempts to work on smaller projects, but the pressure of owning Minecraft became too much for him to handle. The only option was to sell Mojang. He'll continue to do cool stuff though," wrote Mojang spokesman Owen Hill on the company's blog.
Indeed, Persson has devoted much of his time in recent weeks to a whimsical effort to reimplement the rendering engine of the 1990s first-person shooter Doom in Dart, looking only at the unofficial technical specification issued by Doom's developer and without reference to the original source code.
Persson and other Mojang founders will leave the company, Hill wrote, but Microsoft said the rest of the development team will join Microsoft Studios, the company's game division. It hopes to close the deal by the end of this year.
Later, Persson gave his own take on the deal, confirming his departure in a post to his personal blog.
"As soon as this deal is finalized, I will leave Mojang and go back to doing Ludum Dares and small web experiments. If I ever accidentally make something that seems to gain traction, I'll probably abandon it immediately," he wrote.
Although he stepped back from development of Minecraft some time ago, people still see him as the leader, he said. "I've become a symbol. I don't want to be a symbol, responsible for something huge that I don't understand, that I don't want to work on, that keeps coming back to me."
Microsoft didn't say how long it had been negotiating to buy Mojang, but in his blog post Persson recounted the events that led him to invite bids for the company in a June 16 posting to Twitter, saying: "Anyone want to buy my share of Mojang so I can move on with my life? Getting hate for trying to do the right thing is not my gig."
That post came about, he said, when the company attempted to clarify how the Minecraft end-user license agreement (EULA) allowed third parties to make money from the game.
"The internet exploded with hate against me over some kind of EULA situation that I had nothing to do with," he said in Monday's blog post.
The furore led him to realize he no longer had the connection to the game's fan base that he had believed he had. "I'm not an entrepreneur. I'm not a CEO. I'm a nerdy computer programmer who likes to have opinions on Twitter," he wrote.
He acknowledged that the blog post about the deal contradicted some of his previous statements on the subject, but said he had no good explanation for the turnaround.
Thanking the game's fans for their support, he said of Minecraft: "In one sense, it belongs to Microsoft now. In a much bigger sense, it's belonged to all of you for a long time, and that will never change."
As for selling the company, he concluded: "It's not about the money. It's about my sanity."
Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at [email protected].