Mojang tells Develop why it must remain indie under the pressures of stardom
Earlier this year, EA CEO John Riccitiello took a flight to Stockholm.
His destination was not EA DICE, the much-admired Swedish studio responsible for Battlefield.
Instead, he was heading for a meeting with games development’s most wanted: Markus Persson, creator of Minecraft. As an acquisitive CEO, you can imagine Riccitiello’s intentions.
It’s just one example of the attention cult-hit-turned-commercial-smash Minecraft has afforded Persson and the team at his micro studio Mojang. This unassuming man from Sweden, nondescript without his trademark hat, is one of the games development elite.
He launched his construction game in alpha in 2009, adding a paid-for beta last year. Since then he and his game have soared, in terms of reputation and bank balance. The beta, which includes a free copy of the final game, was an instant cash cow.
Minecraft’s fans are happy to pay for the unfinished game, and offer feedback and support in the form of devoted forums, wikis, YouTube videos. They have taken Minecraft from game to phenomenon. Persson himself has gone from man on the street to superstar. He even has a verified Twitter account (@notch, FYI).
With plenty of fans amongst the development community, last month, Develop made the success even more real, with a triple-whammy of Develop Award wins – for Download IP, New Studio and Micro Studio.
FAME AND FORTUNE
His story is sensational; celebrity in games (he was asked for autographs while sat at the Develop Awards). How’d that happen?
“The thing that made Minecraft grow was that fans are so dedicated,” he tells Develop. “I originally made it on my own so when the fanbase grew they knew me as much as the game, which made me famous, I guess.
“At first all the fame was on forums – ‘oh, you’re that Notch?’ But the fame started spilling into real life, which was uncomfortable. The internet is just text on a screen – but people coming up and recognising me when I walk around Stockholm, that’s strange.”
It’s the kind of star power usually reserved for CliffyB, Molyneux, Miyamoto… but a young 32-year-old coder who previously churning out casual games for King.com? Unheard of.
“So I don’t know if the fame has changed me… But I have tried to be more cautious about what I say in public. Less crude jokes, and I have a very morbid sense of humour, so I need to be careful. I’ve stopped cursing online too.”
ON THE MONEY
Regular readers and spectators of the Minecraft phenomenon will know that the popularity has brought commercial rewards.
Persson is very upfront with his sales figures. At one point he was making $250,000 a day. Revenue so far is estimated around £33m. Minecraft tends to sell 9,800 to 10,000 a day, depending on the time of the week, and time between game updates. At $15 a pop for an unfinished game, that’s astonishing.
The game turned Persson into a millionaire. He doesn’t mind being asked about money, but doesn’t bring it up himself. He seems bemused by it, more than anything. And he thinks the rest of the industry can be enriched if it follows his lead in being so open with numbers: “I think it helps the entire industry to share data. Because there is a disturbing trend to not share them. How can we learn if we don’t share?”
Some of the cash has been used to form a more professional outfit, Mojang Specifications, which is working on new games including RPG Scrolls, as well as finishing Minecraft. The studio is now at over 10 staff.
Mojang’s first hire was 25-year-old Daniel Kaplan as business development. He was the first employee to sign a Mojang contract, joining in September 2010. The pair met at an indie gamejam in Malmö.
“I knew about Minecraft, but it wasn’t big,” says Kaplan. “I saw Markus blog that he needed help, so I applied. It seems to be a great mix.”
He’s not wrong. “I’m still surprised by the amount of people he knows and remembers the name of,” says Persson, complementing his employee/colleague. But witness them together and you see a friendship and enthusiasm that’s ambitious but untainted by corporate expectations, and still full of surprise.
Adds Kaplan: “When I started working with Markus we asked ourselves – how many can we sell? We thought two million was a crazy number. But we’ve already shot beyond that. We have a really stable sales rate and some very passionate fans.”
THE LONG CON
To celebrate the passion around his game, Persson is organising a Las Vegas MinecraftCon. It will be the ultimate expression of the fandom around him – it’s for the fans, not the bank account.
“As the budget looks now, we may make a loss no matter what, but… it’s for the people that love Minecraft and made it what it is,” says Persson. “Online 40,000 said they would go. That’s crazy.”
Kaplan tempers the excitement a bit: “I don’t think that many will, but if 10 per cent of that came, that would be amazing.”
Certainly – Activision, majordomo of gaming, expects just 6,000 Call of Duty fans to its first XP expo next month. If MinecraftCon attracts two thirds of that, it’ll be clear which has the more passionate army.
MinecraftCon will include dinner with Notch himself, plus merchandise and sessions. But the grand moment will be the live release of the finished game. Thousands will assemble to watch a friendly, portly Swedish games designer walk on stage… and press a button. “I will just go up and… click,” he jokes. “And really, nothing will change. It’ll be the same as the week before because we’ve kept updating it.”
But it’s a key moment that will sum up everything. Game developers can have fans now – fans that want to watch them build, and want to be part of the release.
GROWING THE CRAFT
Minecraft is expanding too. Through partnerships with Sony Ericsson and Microsoft, Minecraft is heading to mobile and 360.
Says Persson: “Yes, everyone says they want to work with us. We don’t really need to contact anyone, they often come to us. But personally, whatever. I try to stay away from all of it as I can’t really do the business side.
You have to be nice all the time. That’s why we have Daniel and Carl [Manneh, Mojang CEO] on the team.
They’re better at that than me. We have VC companies that want to deal with us – but we have to keep saying to them ‘Why do we need your money?’ And they tend not to have an answer. We don’t need them.”
Persson has rightly spent a bit of the cash on himself – a new house, and a wedding this month to his long-time girlfriend.
“I was able to get an expensive apartment and pay for our wedding. That stuff has really changed our quality of life.”
What does his fiancé make of being married to a video games superstar?
“She’s grounded – and she’s seen it grow as we’ve been together,” he says. “She thinks I’m a bit silly when I have ideas like ‘I want to buy a Rolex’. She gives me advice, the comments that on the inside I know are true. She doesn’t tell me what to do, but she’s always right.”
NO GLITZ, NO GLAMOUR
This is the biggest difference between Notch and other designers, and Notch and the rest of the industry.
There’s no glitz once the money has rolled in, and there’s a total respect – almost caution – for the fans.
“I really feel like I owe it to these people – they are playing and paying. When we started hitting the big numbers, it was clear it was a mass audience game when the sales really picked up. But even then, I’ve been afraid of marketing, or anything that could turn us into a company that I don’t want to be. But I don’t want us to seem sleazy or horrible. That’s difficult to shake off if you do it, but also difficult to avoid.”
He adds: “The one thing I always say to people, is that there is definitely the luck factor about what I have achieved. Sure, Minecraft is successful, but there are loads of other indie games that don’t get the exposure I did, and no press. There is a huge aspect of just being lucky.
“I’m afraid people will think indie games make a lot of money – they don’t, and you won’t get rich off them, probably. I was lucky, few are as lucky. Only one or two get – bam – that moment which catapults them. That was me.”
Kaplan, who also started out making his own games and forming his own studio, agrees: “My advice is always ‘Don’t quit your day job.’ You should be able to keep living even if your game is failing. Creating a game takes a lot of time.” After all, he infers, Minecraft wasn’t an overnight success, even if it seems it today.
Kaplan and Persson say Mojang will expand selectively to support a team of collaborators, not a team of drones. They don’t say it, but it’s clear they are defending their independent spirit from the trappings of success.
Yet success attracts attention no matter what. So what of that meeting with Riccitiello?
“Well, EA came to see us,” says Persson.
“I think they had plans, but picked up the vibe.” He laughs, but the joke isn’t private. His spirit is an unmovable object that met the unstoppable force of EA head-on.
“Nothing’s been said since – it’s all very high politics,” he adds. “I play their games, and they make great games, but we are too far from each other. They can make their games, and I’ll buy them. We’ll make ours, and they can buy them. Not the property – that’s ours. But they can play it like everyone else.”
Persson’s thousands of fans wouldn’t have it any other way.