This article originally appeared in issue 246 of PC Gamer UK. Also check out our article on The Future of Minecraft
"I think I was already fucking rich by the time I realised, 'I'm gonna be fucking rich.'" That's how quickly it all happened for Markus 'Notch' Persson.
He'd made a game called Minecraft – you may have heard of it. It did rather well. Is doing, actually: three and a half years after the alpha version went on sale, Notch's studio, Mojang, is still selling 43,420 copies every day, and that number continues to climb.
You'd be forgiven for thinking Notch was one lucky nerd. But unlike the stories of instant, frictionless wealth that are so popular in these recessionary times, luck plays the smaller part in the story of Minecraft's meteoric rise. He's more than a geek who stumbled into the zeitgeist and came away with a multi-million selling game. And Minecraft is now more than Notch. In fact, it's now more than a game.
It's at least two. One is a procedurally generated sandbox that can be sculpted at the players' whim, enabling the cooperative construction of everything from architectural wonders to computing devices. The other takes that malleable world as its setting and imposes an RPG on top, forcing the player to scavenge for resources, craft tools to modify the landscape and fend off nefarious creatures.
Yet Minecraft is more even than this. Much of what it is exists outside the game Mojang have made: it's a generously adapted platform for player creativity, spawning countless videos, maps, mods, spin-offs and clones. It's a global community that meets online, in classrooms, activity centres, convention halls and, in the case of MineCon 2012, a themepark. It's even an educational tool and an unusual conduit for urban regeneration projects.
Notch has not achieved all this by himself, as the power of his celebrity sometimes seems to suggest (Urban Dictionary defines 'Notch' as another word for Jesus). But if his status as the king of indie, amplified by his vocal and occasionally pugilistic presence on Twitter, has somewhat eclipsed the efforts of those around him, neither was Notch simply in the right place at the right time. He was also exactly the right guy: a talented, self-motivated programmer whose avid taste for games crisscrossed a Venn diagram of instant gratification, hardcore toil and DIY construction. At the centre of which, Minecraft squarely rests.
In fact, to hear of his early encounters with games makes Minecraft sound a little like destiny. His childhood furnished him with a Commodore 128, a glut of pirated games, and an ever-curious, dilettante father.
“My dad was one of those really nerdy people,” says Notch as we squeak back into the plush leather seats of Mojang's boardroom – which, like the rest of the Stockholm-based studio, is decked with ironic ostentation: part gentleman's club, part supergeek playpen.
“He's the kind of person that just has new hobbies all the time. Like: 'Oh, I'm going to start building my own fishing rods.' He did that for a couple of years. And: 'I'm going to learn computers,' – and he builds his own modem.”
Perhaps, in some other universe, Notch is a fly-fishing champion. In this one, however, his diet of gaming segued quickly into a desire to create.
“I enjoyed Shoot 'Em Up Construction Kit,” he recalls. “I couldn't really make anything in it, but I used to like the sprite editor, doing animations that I didn't even put in the game. I just animated weird stuff and played it back.”
Code samples in a Swedish computing magazine made Notch aware of more expansive possibilities. He and his sister copied this cryptic language into the Commodore to create rudimentary games.
“I figured out that if I made typos, it did something else,” he says. “That's kind of how I learned programming. My big dream was always being able to make Doom. I was so impressed at the leap from Wolfenstein to Doom, both in game design and technology. I was just totally blown away – well, everyone was. Are we allowed to do this? Can games be this interesting? I guess I had real, actual dreams about making something like Doom.”
Though Notch's entries to code-jams often dabble with 2.5D engines of Doom's ilk, the releases he's most commonly associated with could not be considered action games. Instead, they're complex, sprawling systems, in which players are encouraged to invest hours upon hours of digital graft. In the case of Wurm Online, a game he co-developed with Rolf Jansson, the result was a world of dizzying richness, entirely created by a self-organising society of players.
It's a gruelling experience, however. Everything in Wurm must be created from scratch, and the raw materials harvested. Doing so takes such a long time that a division of labour among cooperating players is the only way to achieve anything – but the game offers no helpful, predetermined structure for this, no foremen or leaders.
“With Wurm, Rolf and I wanted a game in which the player actually affected the world. MMOs are usually just parallel singleplayer campaigns basically – there is not much interaction going on. So we wanted something where it's actually like: here's a world, have fun. Well, not 'have fun' actually. Work really, really hard. Then it becomes fun, because you're invested in it.”
Mass-market appeal, however? That's not really Wurm's thing. It could not be a day job. Instead, Notch earned his crust at King.com, a casual games company that has since become the second largest game developer on Facebook.
“I started working as their eighth employee, I think. I worked there for five years and made my own games on the side. Jakob joined something like a year after I got there.”
“Me and Markus just hit it off,” recalls Jakob Porsér, a fellow developer at King and a future co-founder of Mojang. They make a pleasingly asymmetrical pairing: Notch wry and demure, Jakob open and effervescent. The latter now helms the development of Scrolls, a card battler whose origins lay in the discussions and debates Notch and he would have over lunch.
“But as King got larger, it started to be a problem for people doing games in their spare time,” Notch says. “They didn't want people to make anything that could compete. So I left and joined jAlbum [a developer of photo gallery software]. They were totally fine with me doing stuff in my spare time. And then, months later, Minecraft was making a profit.”
Minecraft as it exists today was not quite the initial plan, however.
“It was going to be Dwarf Fortress, basically, but in a Rollercoaster Tycoon type engine. Real 3D but with a fixed isometric camera. I'm a big fan of Dungeon Keeper, so I thought I'd do some kind of 'possess spell' where you could actually look at your constructions in first person – it wasn't meant to be the way to play it. I added that and everything got really blurry because the textures were low-res. I thought: I won't have this mode because it's too ugly. And then I saw Infiniminer, which is basically just blocks with huge pixels instead of filled textures. I thought, oh I can just do that – and then it basically turned into the same game.”
Minecraft owes a very clear debt to Infiniminer, a game by Zachtronics, later the developer of SpaceChem, but they aren't really the same game – certainly not any more. The shared block-building fundamentals were just the first stage of considerable iteration, the goal always being the RPG-infused survival mode.
“My idea was to make a fantasy world interactive, and probably some of the things we did for Wurm carried over,” Notch says. “I tried thinking a lot about instant gratification. When you pick up a block, what does it sound like? If it's not fun walking around, you're not going to have a fun game.”
Minecraft went from preliminary dabbling to paid alpha very quickly, a pragmatic approach to online retail that has served Mojang well through its subsequent endeavours.
“I thought, if I don't charge I'll never get paid,” Notch explains. “If I wait until the game is done, it's never going to be done because I won't have the money to sustain development.”
He found exactly the right place to pitch his half-made game: TIGsource gave him access to a community of developers who were not only willing to offer constructive feedback but whose influence quickly made the game viral. Word spread that Valve were completely obsessed with Minecraft. Little of the game functioned outside the free build mode – which at the time was more a symptom of the ongoing development than an intended feature – but Notch was soon making a lot of money.
“It was very difficult for me to trust the numbers,” he says. “Like: this is just going to stop selling any day. So I stayed with jAlbum, working two days a week for nine months, even though I didn't really have to because the money I got from Minecraft was way bigger than my salary. I just wanted to play it safe. I grew up in the suburbs of Stockholm, not having much money, and I never really cared because I didn't have any expensive hobbies. And since I didn't really use the money [from Minecraft], I didn't really feel like I was rich.”
One increasingly obvious outlet for this wealth was to establish a company, employing extra hands to smooth out Minecraft's ongoing development, and enabling the long-anticipated collaboration with Jakob.
“And then Valve contacted me,” says Notch. “It was interesting. I got to do programming tests and stuff. They said, 'Well it's obvious you're self-taught. You're going to have to learn some new habits if you're going to work in large groups.' Which I absolutely agree with. But the timing wasn't right at all. I needed to really give Minecraft a chance.”
“I got a Skype call from Bellevue,” says Jakob. “Notch was like 'I met with them, they want to hire me, obviously I'm not interested in this so let's just make it happen. Let's start this business.' I was like, OK, I'll quit my job tomorrow.”
Mojang had already existed in a less formal form – started by Notch in 2009 at the launch of the alpha. But employing people demanded a more legally robust entity.
“We had some extremely stupid ideas about how we were going to make it,” recalls Jakob. “We'd set up this company, and it would borrow money from Notch's company, maybe, and we'd hire people but they'd also consult for Minecraft. It was just idiotic – because we hadn't set up a business before.”
They turned to Carl Manneh, jAlbum's then-CEO, for advice. He advised them to hire him as Mojang's CEO. Notch and Jakob duly took this advice, and the trio went on to co-found the company. Others soon flocked to their banner. Daniel Kaplan joined to help with business development, Jens 'Jeb' Bergensten was hired to develop the backend technology for Scrolls, and prolific pixel artist Markus 'Junkboy' Toivonen came aboard to sculpt the game's visual style.
“When we started we said we're not going to be more than eight people,” says Jakob. “That obviously didn't work out. Minecraft started selling three or four times as many copies per day as it had: we needed more people to handle the support.”
There was also the small problem of unfreezing Notch's money: Paypal had seen fit to limit his account on the grounds of suspicious activity, just as Minecraft sales were spiking, leaving 600,000 Euros stranded.
“Initially we were just putting out fires,” says Notch, “Making sure the server hosting worked, trying to fix the damage from working on a game that large on your own. Some of the good things remain, though. The physics was solid from the start, but that's because I always tried to make sure that jumping from block to block was fun.”
The plan had been to call the game a full release when the multiplayer survival mode had been finalised, but Notch's weekly updates never charted a straight path to that goal.
“I kept thinking of new things!” he says. “I had a list of stuff that I would add after the game was done, but the most interesting features of those kept creeping up the list, so it took a long time to finish the full version.”
Even now that the game can be considered a full release, it continues to evolve. Notch, however, has stepped away from the project, leaving it safely in Jeb's hands.
“I think I'm more interested in doing new development of new games, rather than maintaining a game,” Notch says. “I have this tendency of getting bored or frustrated with things after three to five years. Jeb turned out to be a really good game developer, who was very compatible with how I felt Minecraft should be developed.”
Notch is keen that Jeb has autonomy, and tries not to stick his head into Minecraft's ongoing development too often. Consequently, its additions continually surprise him: the arrival of the three-headed floating Wither Boss, which shoots exploding skulls; the ever-astounding uses of red-stone, a block type that conducts current, enabling the construction of elaborate circuitry; the modding scene's many and varied offshoots, adding nuclear weaponry, teleporters and new biomes.
Jeb, for his part, is resigned to the fact that the addition of bats to the game will always headline above his hard work on the game's underpinning technology.
Meanwhile, Mojang have grown to around 25 people, whose work encompasses the porting of Minecraft to other devices, organising the game's swelling community and using its renown and accessibility for charitable purposes. Mojang donated all of their royalties from a partnership with Lego to charity, while a collaboration with the UN brings the game to communities in the developing world.
Minecraft is many things to many people – and that's always been the strength of this most malleable of games. But who does Notch now think it is for? Is it still for that audience of largely adult, largely male developers and like-minded nerds who buoyed it to early success?
“I think we're still developing for that group,” Notch says. “That's kind of the target audience, because that's who we are. But then younger kids like it as well, which either means we're immature or the kids are more mature than you think.”
And Notch himself – has his fortune changed him? He's practically insouciant compared to the nervous man I interviewed over the phone back in 2009, at the tipping point of Minecraft's early success. He no longer needs to prove himself, perhaps – at least, not to me. But ask him about money and suddenly he's still the same boy from the Stockholm suburbs, the geek done good, coming to terms with what it means to be a wealthy man.
“It's nice not having to worry about being able to pay the rent,” he says, possibly with a mischievous twinkle. “So that's a benefit.”