The beta brothers

The beta brothers
Michael French

By Michael French

August 5th 2011 at 11:00AM

As Minecraft edges towards its full launch, Mojang's Markus Persson and Daniel Kaplan discuss fame, fortune and the future

The turbulent nature of the games industry can be captured by this one simple fact: The most popular games studio in the world today is an indie group based in Sweden that's barely two years old.

All it took was one game, albeit a pioneering one, and suddenly every publisher in the world wanted a piece of Mojang.

In an exclusive interview, Develop talks to founder Markus Persson and business developer Daniel Kaplan.

[For Develop magazine's editorial on Mojang, go here.]


How you guys are coping with all the attention. At E3 I heard some important people refer to you as ‘the most in demand man’. So what’s your take?

Persson: The thing that made Minecraft grow was that the fans were so dedicated, and because I was working on my own I was very vocal so when the fan base grew they kind of knew me almost as much as the game. It made me a bit famous I guess.

At first all of the fame was over the internet, I could go on forums and people were like ‘oh you’re that Notch’, which was cool. But then it started spilling over into real life which was really uncomfortable, because the internet is just text on a screen.

But I kind of got used to it and its very humbling. I always try to talk to people because I’m really flattered by it and its just amazing for someone to recognise me for something I’ve done. I get a lot of calls because my number’s out there online somewhere – I try to talk to people or just turn it off, especially if I need to sleep.

Has the fame changed you?

Persson: I’m not sure how it’s changed me. I try to be more cautious about what I say in public, like if I make crude jokes I try to make sure there are not too many witnesses because I have a really, really morbid sense of humour. And I’ve stopped cursing because when I started the tweeting and the blogging I decided I didn’t want to curse – and this spilled over into real life. So now I don’t curse that much, but I used to.

As for the growth of the company… We’ve gone from being one person to a group of us, and it’s gone very well I think. We just keep getting more things to do and needing more people and now we’re doing lots of things. The big thing we are looking is attending PAX and planning the Minecraft Con in November.

That’s two big things we’re trying to do. Plus, I’m getting married. But it’s all grown organically and smoothly and we’re fortunate hiring people who fit into the culture so we try to make sure there’s a decent mix and not just the same type of people. There’s definitely a company culture of sarcasm to keep us honest.

That can be very healthy.

Persson: Yeah, irony and being silly and doing proper, real hard work. The result is a very committed team – we have a games room that’s put to little use. It looks nice, we show it to all the people that come and visit. We say ‘this is our game room’ and they’re like ‘wow, cool’. But while Friday afternoons are supposed to be ‘gaming Friday’ it’s more fun to work on our game rather than play others.

When you hired Daniel in September 2010, it that was a key moment for Mojang, acknowledging that Minecraft needed ‘business development’. ‘I’m no longer this one person doing this, this is a real thing.’

Persson: We started talking early, I think he was the to sign a contract.

Had you worked together before?

Kaplan: No, we met the first time in July 2009 at a GameJam in Malmo. We didn’t talk much but we saw each other and said ‘Hi’. It wasn’t like we said down and said ‘Oh yeah we should work together some time in the future’ but I knew about Minecraft at that time. It wasn’t that big but it was still OK considering it was one-man show.

Then I saw Markus’ blog post about looking for new people cause they had too much to do and I applied for the job. It seems to be a great mix, a great fix.

Persson [to Kaplan]: I’m still impressed by the number of people you know and remember the names of.

Kaplan: Well, it’s my job. I’m really enjoying it and it’s been quite a ride. We were discussing in the beginning when I was just starting out, ‘how many copies do you think we can sell? If we’re really good we can sell like two million’. But we’re beyond that. We haven’t seen any dips at all since I joined and it’s just been very stable since. It’s crazy how dedicated the fans are and we’re grateful for that and the great feedback we receive all the time.

You must be getting a lot of corporate attention from those interested in the Mojang secret recipe. And you’ve already signed with Microsoft and Sony Ericsson.

Persson: I think everyone wants to work with us. There are a couple of companies who don’t contact us but we don’t really need to contact other companies. I personally try to stay away from it because I can’t deal with business. I get stressed out.

You have to be nice to people. I am nice, but in that context, you’re obligated to be nice. That’s why Daniel and Carl [Manneh], our CEO, are involved.

VC companies that want to throw money at us, he deals with them and says ‘why would we need money?’ and they say ‘Err, We’ll get back to you’. So we basically don’t need it. Then we have the actual day-to-day business talks that both Daniel and Carl deal with.

Kaplan: One of main reasons Markus jumped off the train of the prior company he worked was because he wanted to stay independent. We’re trying to create a company where we decide everything we do and we can only blame ourselves, not be trying to ‘stick it to the man’ or blame someone else.

Everything we’re doing is our own and we want to stay like this as long as possible I guess.

You were working for King.com before, right, Markus?

Persson: Yeah, I made like 30 games in four and a half years so that was lots of games produced in a really short amount of time. It was good because I learned all aspects of the gaming cycle, I wasn’t gaming designer, I was a developer but I had a lot of free reign to design stuff within the scope of the games.

So that was very valuable. It’s a nice place to work but four and a half years of doing just small games, it really gets repetitive so I decided I’d just try to do games for myself. And the first thing I did happened to be Minecraft.

Daniel, can you tell us more about why you joined?

Kaplan: Well I was working at another company called Luminosity. We were creating small games but we weren’t as successful as Markus was.

We had different opinions on how to run the business, because we were more friends just starting up the company from university so we were all equal when we started out.

I was the CEO of that company and we had a lot of discussions on how to develop the company and the games we were doing, and I felt that my thoughts and ideas were not the same as the rest of the guys’.

I felt that maybe I should just move on and find something new. I saw that Markus had put out a note on his blog that he wanted extra people helping him out so I applied.

How did the Microsoft deal come about? Was that an approach from them?

Persson: I knew our key account manager, Peter Zetterberg, before joining Mojang and he contacted me and said that he would love to work with us. I said yeah, sure, Xbox is cool, Microsoft is cool.

It took us quite a while before we decided what to do and how to do it but we’re really excited about the Xbox project. It’s going to be our first console game.

None of us have done any console games before because it takes quite a lot of resources, which is why we’re using another company called 4J, in Dundee, Scotland. They have great experience in working with Microsoft and seem to be a perfect fit for us.

How does that work? How involved in that are you?

Persson: We try to do as much as possible. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say these things… Apparently nowadys we have marketing and stuff that I am supposed to adhere to. It’s kind of frustrating but I do understand it, it’s a completely different market.

[Persson ponders how to phrase the plan for Minecraft on 360 before answering.] The way we’re going to do it is similar to how we did Minecraft on the PC. So we’ll do a beta version first or something like that and then try to get feedback – find out which parts are actually fun to do, what do you like doing when playing on the console as opposed to the PC. I think there will be a big overlap in terms of both console and PC players, and they can help us figure it out.

So the things we are starting with right now is just trying to make the game playable on 360. But the biggest challenge at the moment is figuring out the crafting, because just porting it straight out the box turns what is really fun on PC into boring data entry on a 360 pad. That’s the thing we are working on right now. The Kinect feautures are going to be one of the more interesting aspects, too.

So will it be the full game package?

Kaplan: It will be the full game but it will be different because stuff like mods won’t be on the Xbox version because its really hard to test out to see if they don’t do anything nasty, but maybe we will be able to create stuff like that later on.

The update frequency will not be that fast as we have to test everything to make sure it doesn’t break the Xbox system.

And what about the Android version?

Persson: We’re doing that in-house. For Android, it’s similar to PC, we can just release whenever. I don’t think that Android gamers are as used to having games in a certain way like when I’m playing games on a console. Consoles are ‘I play that to relax with my friends’ and there’s a definite purpose to it. With Android gaming, it’s like ‘oh there’s this cool game turned up so I’m going to play it.’ It’s much more similar to how we do PC games so we’re doing that in-house. We’ve got one guy working on it.

Out of how many in total at Mojang?

Persson: 12 or 13 depending on how you count – one intern and one other person joining us.

Do you like being a small company or do you want to get bigger? What’s the plan?

Persson: I love being a small company, but I also love doing cool new stuff. Lots of people are getting really stressed out at Mojang – I mean everyone is still really happy with it, but if we keep doing things this small for much longer, people are gonna get too stressed out and we’re gonna have to stop doing some of the cool things we want to do. So I think we’re going to grow.

We have to have some kind of limit when it turns into a ‘big company’ and different people tell us different sizes are good to still be ‘small’ but I think we’re going to need to expand.

If we could keep growing slowly and keep that atmosphere going, then we can hopefully foresee if we’re getting too big. Not when we’re having to say ‘well, let’s just fire the last four people’. But as long as people feel like they actually affect the way a business works, you can get the best out of them.

Kaplan: At the same time we have managed to find really great people who are independent, take hold of their job and do it. We don’t have to micro-manage everything like you would have to in a bigger company. We want to avoid that by giving a lot of freedom to developers and the other guys working in the company. They get a sense of freedom and at the same time responsibility. It’s not like ‘here’s a task’, its more like ‘we want to do something like this’ and they can then figure it out. It becomes their own project.

There’s a generation before us that’s used to a very rigid studio structure and having people tell them what to do. But now indie games are teaching a whole generation of people they can do things for themselves. It’s interesting how that ethos is becoming the norm, not the exception.

Persson: We believe we need that kind of atmosphere to be able to attract the best people in the world.

In terms of growing Minecraft, you sell T-shirts – and things and the Steve heads were really popular at E3 – so there’s an apetite for that amongst fans. Are you interested in putting out more merchandise? Many studios now see this as a major source of revenue.

Persson: We’re working on doing a Steve head we can sell, actually. Something like the ones from E3, but which we can sell. The thing is, they’re kind of expensive. I can’t remember how expensive, but people wouldn’t like buying them. But we’d definitely want to sell something like it. They’re just too cool not to sell.

It’s so stupid but I like ridiculous ideas like that. It works and the fans love it. It’s like the 3D feature on the 3DS: not really comfortable to wear and you can’t really use it, but it’s just good to know it’s there, for the cutscenes.

You made a joke on Twitter recently about having to finally do some marketing. How much promotion have you had to pay for so far?

Persson: None. We’ll be doing MinecraftCon which will be our biggest and only promotion. It will be a celebration of the release of the finished game, but as the budget looks now it’ll make a loss, no matter how many people come. But it’s for the fans.

How many are you expecting to attend?

Persson: I did a poll online and asked how many would come and 40,000 said they’d definitely come but I don’t think it’ll be that big.

Well, Activision are only expecting 6,000 at their Call of Duty event in September.

Persson: I don’t want to jinx it.

What’s the schedule MinecraftCon?

Persson: We got a bunch of stuff. Carl and Minecraft Chick – who we hired from the community to help us – have been working on it to try and set up all the schedules and asking me ‘Would you be OK doing a dinner with fans?’ and stuff like that.

We’ve got a couple of secret stuff lined up. But the main thing will be the actual release of the game. I’ll go up on stage and *click*.

You’ll just press a button?

Persson: Yeah, and the game is live. And it’s going to be exactly the same as the week before because we just keep releasing it! But the beta come off the site. We’ll change the logo, make it greener, I don’t know.

It’s pretty amazing to release a game a year ago and already have a sizable business about it and be launching an event about that game within a tiny period of time.

Persson: It’s two years ago now, but the beta was last year. But there is a big fan base: I went to Bellvue to talk to Bungie and Valve before we even started Mojang and informally I said online ‘I’m coming to the US do you want to meet up?’ and 100 people showed up. We just called it the MinecraftCon then - that was kind of like the first one.

There was just people in a rainy park, very cool. The first couple of hours was just people asking questions about the game, all really enthusiastic. Afterwards we went to a burger place and actually got to talk to people which was very, very cool. So we need to have a Q&A session at the big Con. Although that’s going to be exhausting!

Other very famous designers have a wall of PR and people around them, and rarely engage with their fans on a face to face basis. It’s impressive you’re keen to embrace it.

Persson: I feel like I owe it to the players. They’re playing my game. If they talk to me I should reply. Stuff like email doesn’t really scale so I can’t reply to emails, because I get so many. I really like Twitter because I can just go on there and dip in and out. But when I meet people face to face its only one person at a time and that’s fine. But E3 was tense.

I was checking out Minecraft at the Sony Ericsson stand and as I was playing it there was queues of asking the booth staff ‘Where’s Notch?’, ‘Where can I meet him?’.

Persson: The movie industry is the same. The director can bring a face to the product and then no one knows who wrote the script, for instance. But I do hope that developers come forward more and become famous and we get more faces like Hideo Kojima, Cliffy B, Peter Molineux, those guys. I think it’s better for the business and better for the fans to actually see the actual people behind the game doing all the hard work.

Markus, what does your fiance make of the sudden popularity and star status you’ve earned?

Persson: She’s very, very proud. We became a couple before I even started Minecraft, which was fortunate. She’s very, very grounded. She thinks I’m a bit silly with my ideas, like ‘I’m gonna buy a Rolex’. She’ll ask: ‘Why?’ Well, because I can afford one. ‘That’s not a reason to do anything’.

She doesn’t stop me she just gives me the advice that I know deep down I actually agree with. She’s lovely. One thing I did spend money on was a new expensive apartment because that’s the kind of thing that affects your quality of life.

You mentioned earlier how everything has been driven word of mouth – surely at some point you’re going to have to start paying for marketing?

Persson: I’m not sure. I think once we became a big deal on YouTube that’s when the speed really started to take off, a mass-market kind of effect. It would be interesting to do some tests with marketing, but I’m kind of afraid of anything that could turn us into a company that I don’t want us to be.

So if it turns out that marketing works really well, who knows? Perhaps we might start doing [Evony spoof] ‘Come mine now my lord’ type of ads.

Are you concerned that marketing, or being seen to promote yourself, could put off the fans?

Persson: I think for Minecraft it doesn’t really matter that much because people tend to play on their own private servers so the first players of Minecraft were techie, indie games developers and now there’s a big young kids audience and they don’t interact that much. 

So I think ads could work for us. I think that, now we’re working with real companies, there’s probably going to be some marketing eventually

One of the stories that people used to love talking about Minecraft and yourself was about how much money you were making. Are you still seeing the kinds of revenues and sales figures that you had disclosed last year?

Persson: Ever since the begininng of this year it’s been extremley consistant. I think we were averaging 10,000 sales [of the $15 beta] per day back then and now its averaging 9,800. It really depends on when we do a release and maybe the summer months plays into things. Today [interview was conducted on Wednesday, July 20th] we’re over 10,000 again – 10,600 or something on a work day.

You’re at the coalface of a real revolution in games really – you can monitor your sales on a per-transaction basis, live. And you’re sharing the data with the rest of us.

Persson: I think it hopefully helps the entire industry that we have made our numbers public. It’s kind of a disturbing trend to not reveal the numbers so you have no idea how much a game’s selling.

Kaplan: And talking about these numbers help people understand why people used to rely on sequels – they took such a big gamble to actually create a new IP or whatever so they just remake it basically when they have a hit on their hands. On the flip-side, that means we just focus on improving this game without a sequel, and we have no idea if a totally new game will be a fraction of the success of Minecraft.

Persson: It would be very presumptious to think that, yes.

But also, with regards the numbers and the money… One thing I’m trying very carefully these days to point out is definitely the luck factor. Because, sure, Minecraft did well but there are tons of other people who make interesting games and they don’t get the mass of users and don’t really take off. Timing issues count against them, or they talk to the wrong people or press or whatever so theres a big aspect of just luck.

But at least indie developers can learn from your success. And maybe even media and journalists like myself need to be more proactive in covering the burgeoning indie developers.

Persson: Actually, the original idea was just be transparent with the numbers as a reward people for buying. ‘You buy this game and the number increases, and that means I can afford to eat.’ In all honesty, I still had a part time job so I was never under that kind of pressure.

But I’m a bit afraid that people might start doing indie games because they think they can become rich. The global market means it’s very cheap to distribute, and if you’re very small with low costs you don’t have to sell many orders to make a profit.

But becoming rich? As in all other businesses, it’s the same. Take music - you hear lots of talented musicians on YouTube but not many of them get a recording contract, but some who are talented, through a combination of luck and skill become popular, rich and mass produced.

Kaplan: My advice to new game developers is ‘Don’t give up your day job’.

What other advice do you have for young people getting into the industry?

Kaplan: Try to finish every project that you start. I think that’s the hardest part. Starting is not that hard because you have a lot of enthusiasm, it’s finishing a project that’s very, very hard because the last part of a project takes more time to do. That final extra polish takes a lot.

Persson: My only advice is don’t listen to advice. But the most important thing is that you should be able to continue living even if your game is failing. That’s the point of doing this big risk, it takes a lot of time and you should understand that it could probably fail and most of the time it will fail because of all the other games that are out there. So make sure you have your own back covered. But it’s a very fun hobby.

Mojang announced Scrolls at GDC. How is that progressing?

Persson:  We’re waiting to say more – which will be in a month or so, I think. One thing I can say is that our ambition for the presentation of the game grew a bit so its going to take a bit longer to do all the art we’re gonna need.

You’re hiring some artists?

Persson: Yes we actually did but I takes some time, two months’ notice to leave their old jobs. But so far it is looking really good.

Are you hoping that Minecraft fans will play this or is it an entirely new launch?

Persson:  It’s a kind of different game and that’s the point: I don’t want us to just do the same type of game over and over again.

That might not make perfect business sense, but hey. For the first people who bought Minecraft, I think it’s a perfect match because it’s definitely traditional gaming, an RPG, done our way. But for the people who are only interested in Minecraft because of the constructing aspect and fun to play with your kids, it’s not going to be as good a match, but it might mean we get a whole new audience

There’s a story doing the rounds that EA’s John Riccitiello visited you personally at Mojang’s office. I can guess what he wanted.

Persson: Well, EA came to see us. I think they had plans, but the picked up the vibe. Nothing has been said since – it’s all very high politics.

Kaplan: It’s very cool when you have the CEO of EA in your office having lunch with you. We are very humbled having all the exposure we have got so we are still trying to keep our feet on the ground.

Persson: We were invited to their Partners dinner after GDC, too. 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.

So many publishers have wanted to buy you now. EA, Activision, I imagine they’ve all knocked at the door saying ‘do you want to be part of the family’. Why have you guys resisted? Do you always want to be independent?

Kaplan: I think so, yes. Most of the guys working for the company have their own interest of being independent too. I know that some of the guys we’ve hired would probably quit their job if someone bought out the company.

Would you?

Kaplan: Maybe. One of the main reasons I joined was because of Markus’s ideas about running the company in this way.

I take it you’ll always want to stay in Sweden?

Kaplan: I love Sweden. It’s a cool place to be. Sweden is small so you get to know other people very fast and, you know, just hang out and be friends at Gamejam or games conferences and get to know a lot of people very fast.

There are great indie developers in Sweden and I think they can be even more successful if they just try to be more open.

There are developers like Cactus, who are great, and people like Erik Svedäng who made Blueberry Garden and won IGF two years ago. They’re all good friends of mine but I think they could be more successful if they go out and do more interviews and promote themselves.