I wish I had invented it, as well...
I'm kind of glad they didn't - it would be full of fire trucks and cops.
Zachary Barth probably wishes he had invented it -- or wait, he did, as Infiniminer was Minecraft before Minecraft. He's actually being cool about it, saying the success of Minecraft is "flattering", but it's weird how copies of things sometimes overshadow the original. Same thing with Crush the Castle vs. Angry Birds.
I was really disappointed that they got rid of their online "MMO" type game. It was a perfect way for kids to experience and try out a game like that, which was reasonably safe and pretty much free from griefers and jerks.
Didn't Douglas Coupland invent it in Microserfs?
I need a time machine!
Not to mention endless brand tie-ins and specialized, next-to-useless "bricks." While you can still buy sets of straight up bricks from lego, anything like "build whatever your heart desires from generic, useful bricks," which would be the spirit of minecraft, has not been a recognizable trait in quite a while...
Been buying a fair number of legos recently (kids of the correct age), and to me the sets don't seem as bad as they were fifteen years ago, but I think they are creeping back in the wrong direction with lots of very complicated unique parts to which fiddly decorative bits are attached.
According to a short documentary I recently watched Lego was approaching bankruptcy not long ago with money loosing side businesses and generally high expenses.
btw: roblox, a kid oriented sandbox building game, was released 4-5 years before minecraft and I see lots of kids playing that at the library. Minecraft hardly invented the genera (though it is fantastic, of course).
From the perspective of a long-time Lego fan: the brand tie-ins saved the company, and brought us to both a new golden age of creative set design and a return to "build whatever your heart desires from generic, useful bricks".
In the 1990s, the company was foundering, losing popularity and money. They apparently concluded that Today's Youth couldn't cope with complexity and creativity, and shifted to trivial-to-assemble sets with the "specialized, next-to-useless" pieces you bemoan. This was not working, and things got worse, and the company seemed to know no path but doing that more -- trying to make Lego compete with Playstation and Xbox and Nintendo on the game consoles' turf.
But fortunately, the Star Wars deal came along. This gave a needed infusion of money, but more importantly, the more expensive, more complicated sets sold. This let them edge back in to selling other advanced sets, and, timidly at first but I think rather assuredly by now, to sell whole lines focused on creative building. In the early 2000s and late 1990s, you couldn't even buy a bucket of basic bricks. Now you can, and there's Pick A Brick, like the insert catalog from my youth in the 1970s/1980s but expanded to almost 1600 choices. That's awesome!
That's not really fair to Lego. I don't think it's unreasonable, or indicative of some foolish corporate blind spot, for Lego to expect any tie-in games to clearly revolve around Lego bricks. You can get a lot of interesting things that way, but you can't get Minecraft, because Minecraft isn't fundamentally about building blocks, it's about a vast and shapeable world that happens to be quantized into cubes for convenience. I would be pretty confused if I bought a Lego-branded game that exclusively used 2x2 standard-height bricks, even if it was a great game.
Infiniminer was neat, but it was never going to be Minecraft. It had a strictly confined play area and was built around team vs. team battles, not freeform exploration and building. Notch borrowed the basic shape of Infiniminer, and did give credit for it, but his ultimate plan was vastly more ambitious, and I don't think Barth would ever have gone in that direction himself; he tends towards intricate but tidy, self-contained systems, and in any case he'd already abandoned Infiniminer before Notch released anything.
The interesting part that ever since the dawn of MMOs there's been occasional discussions out there "man a lego mmo would be awesome, let you build anything you want!" This did produce Second Life, but that was quickly turned into something very much not child friendly.
Point being the idea was out there, it was just waiting for someone to listen. Unfortunately Lego missed that chance.
I graduated from highschool in 2000, so the lean years/flailing described in your (much appreciated!) brief history of Lego lines up nicely with my confused late teenage nostalgia and rejection of growing up that made me defensive of my childhood passions. I brought a bucket of bricks to college, and continued to have building nights with friends, but have since boxed them up awaiting my own offspring. It's entirely possible I've lost touch with the State of the Brick, and am railing at a bygone era.
EDIT: for more thoughts...
The current surge of excitement around Maker Culture hopefully bolsters the position of Lego in the world as Lego certainly had a role in shaping the minds of the proponents of the movement. I hope they Lego are reaping the benefits of the seed they planted in all of us. I now work for an early childhood non-profit and we have long conversations about open ended play, and people around here love blocks of all kinds, and hold them up as one of the fundamental coughbuilding blocks of meaningful early childhood development, so any news about the strength of the core of Lego is happy news to me,
Part of Lego's problem is their shift from a purely building toy, to trying to market it as an action toy.
Depends on what you're trying to build. I find the buckets of generic primary-colored bricks rather dull and clunky, but I love idly fiddling with a pile of weird little fiddly bits and suddenly realizing that if I fit this notched bar and that O-ring together I get something that looks very convincingly like a Gatling gun, and this T-bar plus a couple of vertical C-clamps makes a sturdy, useful, small-scale joint, and etc etc.
A lot of builders these days are really into small-scale, highly intricate designs, and it's just fascinating seeing the uses they find for specialized little "decorative" pieces. Lego's designers put a lot of thought into things, and you'll often find that what appeared to be a purely aesthetic knob or strut will actually lock together with various standard parts.
Here's a really good example. Notice how the designer uses minifig hands; minifig tools like screwdrivers, binoculars, and ski poles; and even Technic rubber bands to add character to the vehicle. Or how about this? Instantly recognizable, iconic shapes made from a handful of assorted non-brick pieces. Searching Flickr for "microscale Lego" will turn up tons more like these.
Yeah, no, I didn't mean to restrain my favorite bricks to just literally rectangles. I definitely consider the little barrell shaped things, the translucent button "light" bricks, and the minifig hands to be part of this collection. I too love the specialized pieces that increase brick diversity and integrate well, and can expand a model. I built a giant bee in my later days using the prefab cockpits of an iceplanet model as the abdomen, and all kinds of joints and technic pieces and even the ice planet "laser chainsaws" articulating and adding detail. The tiny pieces and intricate bricks are great, and the things people think to do with them are really exciting. It was the large, clunky, overly molded, single vehicle elements or rock formations, overly decorated building elements for branded sets, etc... that gave me a sour taste. To some degree it's a little like the supreme court and pornography I suppose, but there is a difference between adding detail and subtracting usability, or turning lego into "model building" as opposed to creative expression.
From the front page of the wiki:
Minecraft is a sandbox construction game created by Mojang AB founder Markus Persson, and inspired by the Infiniminer, Dwarf Fortress and Dungeon Keeper games
They're right up front about their forerunners, and regularly give them credit.
Lego made a pretty mindblowing Minecraftish app for SIGGRAPH '96. Think it was running on an SGI Onyx, using datagloves and VR goggles for interaction.
Visionary artist Dent-de-Lion ("Dandi") du Midi is the LEGO Group's director of R&D. His
team uses the database with Multigen's immersive 3D scene assembly package,
SmartScene, to create LEGO Virtual Village, a networked collaborative play
space. Dandi explains, "We're using a two-handed immersive interface because
it's a better way to play with the data we work with." Instead of using
networked VR to link people separated by distance, the Village enables two designers
in one lab, each wearing VR goggles, to "play" together in virtual space.
Here's how. The designers enter LEGO Village after putting on their Virtual
Research or n-Vision headmount displays and Fakespace Pinch gloves, equipped
with Polhemus or Ascension trackers. Inside, the designers access a virtual
palette that provides hundreds of photorealistic LEGO parts and textures. With
a fingertap, a designer picks any part; it appears in mid-air, ready to grab by
hand for building. The designers can grab "the fabric of space," as Multigen
dubs it, to navigate through the scene, shrink to LEGOman size, or swell to
giant size to look over LEGOdom. After the scene is complete, the system
generates a parts list. The designer can collect the appropriate plastic parts
for assembling the plastic LEGO scene from that created in the Virtual Village.
If it looks great in physical reality, it could be ready for the toy store.