Interview: The Minecraft man

Interview: The Minecraft man
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

October 28th 2010 at 11:00AM

Markus Persson took the industry by storm last month, but who is he, and what is Minecraft?

The snowballing success of indie triumph Minecraft has been near impossible to miss. The world-building game, created by the relatively unknown Swede Markus Persson, made the headlines when last month it started to clock sales of €300,000 a day.

Initially conceived early in 2009, Minecraft is still only in beta, but has already enchanted game development’s most fashionable opinion formers, and given new hope to the small studios playing the self-publishing lottery.

Keen to find out more about how Minecraft has become the year’s indie sensation, Develop tracked down Persson for a rare interview, and asked him how he did it.

What has caused the recent burst of enthusiasm for Minecraft? Was there something you deliberately tapped?
Something about the game makes it entertaining to both show to other people and to watch other people play it. I think this is what caused the word of mouth to spread so fast.

Then lately a number of large internet sites and magazines started talking about Minecraft, and that’s certainly helped. I haven’t intentionally tried to tap into this, but I have spent a lot of time trying to make the game as accessible as possible.

So how much is luck part of the equation when being successful with a self-published game?
I think originality and easy access is much more important than luck. If you make a game that’s genuinely good, and it’s relatively unique, you can get a lot potential customers.

If you make sure they don’t have to jump through too many loops to play or even pay for the game, you can convert those into actual customers. To get as popular as Minecraft has become, I think you might need a bit of luck, but I don’t think it’s at all impossible to reach a decently large audience just by hard work.

Do you think you could take what you’ve learned and repeat that success?
I used to think I would be able to repeat it, but then it started spreading even faster. I doubt I will be able to reproduce the current level of hype, but I will certainly try.

One thing that’s in our favour is that we have a lot of followers already in Minecraft, so we can get the word out about new games much faster than before.

Minecraft seems to have particularly captured the attention of games developers. Why do you think that is?
Minecraft started out on the tigsource forums, where a lot of indie gamers hang out, and it’s always been developed as an indie game.

There are other commercially successful indie games out there, but relatively few of them are open about exactly how much they sell.

I think Minecraft is a combination of a somewhat original game, and an indication that indie games are really an alternative to more traditional development styles. That has probably got a lot of different people’s attention across the world.

Can you tell us a little about your previous career in the games industry?
Many years ago, I developed a game called Wurm Online with Rolf Jansson. That game is still running, and he’s been doing that as his day job for many years now.

After that, I worked for King.com where I made a whole pile of small Flash games, each having usually one-to-two months development time. I briefly joined Avalanche Studios during this time, but went back to King.com almost immediately. Working in big machinery is not for me.

How important was the tool and tech choices you made to defining Minecraft’s success?
I chose Java because it’s really fast to develop in, even if it’s a bit verbose at times, and because applets were starting to become much less annoying than they had used to. Without something like Lightweight Java Game Library, it wouldn’t have been possible to make a game like Minecraft at all in Java.

I probably could’ve made the game in C++, but then I wouldn’t have had the browser-friendly applet, which I think is a large part of the success.

I’m a bit worried now that Oracle owns Java, though. They haven’t shown any interest at all in client-side Java.

Why make so much of your game available to buy before it was finished?
I wanted to work on games for a living, and I realised that the biggest obstacle to that is that people would have to actually pay for the game. So I decided to just get that out of the way as early as possible. And why not? If it’s fun, people might be willing to pay for it. I think it’s a really interesting model for studios with small budgets, and it also lets you have a much more personal relationship with the players instead of just developing the game behind closed doors for two years, then hoping it’s good.

What are the challenges in keeping people interested in the coming months? How do you keep up the momentum and avoid becoming a fad?
Once we get the company up and running, we can hopefully ramp up development speed a bit, and get the multiplayer mode fully functioning.

Once that’s in place, I think there’s a huge potential in competitive multiplayer modes like capture the flag and so on, which should keep people – including myself – interested for a long time.

For the single player game and co-op game, I plan on adding some kind of overarching narrative to the game to drive the player forward and provide a sense of direction, and add many more new features, like monster towns and alchemy.

Is there any satisfaction in knowing that every Euro spent on your game is a Euro taken from the giant publishers?
I don’t think it’s a zero sum game. Heck, my biggest expense is computer games, so some of the money goes to them anyway, via Minecraft. There is room for all types of games, and I personally love a lot of big budget super games. Some of them, like BioShock (not the sequel) and Dragon Age, actually have soul. Others are just mindless fun for an afternoon.

But I find it very comforting that people are willing to pay for games even if they’re not made by huge publishers. Even if they don’t sell as well, it means that small teams of indie game developers could actually make a reasonable living.

Do you intend to stay in the self-published space, or are you looking to use Minecraft as a launch pad for a career with a bigger studio?
I’m investing in starting up a new studio, actually. We’re hiring people and getting an office, and all that. Initially, I will keep working on Minecraft and get some help on it, while a friend of mine will lead development of another, unrelated game that we’ve talked about doing for some time now. Everyone in the company will be involved in both project to some degree, and once they’re both complete the plan is to move on to a third game as a team.

www.minecraft.net