Lord of Minecraft
Markus 'Notch' Persson on resisting VC, the lure of DLC and why he's open about revenue
Markus Persson, perhaps better known as 'Notch', is a Swedish developer with an eclectic CV: Wurm Online, Luxor, Funny Farm... Oh, and Minecraft, the construction/survival indie game that became a phenomenon this Summer.
With the game at one point selling over 25,000 copies and earning $350,000 a day, Persson found himself able to found his own studio. Days after settling into his new office, GamesIndustry.biz chatted to the softly-spoken Swede about the young company's plans, how he felt about having made his earnings so public and why publishers' abandonment of the PC has been a godsend for indie developers.
Q: You moved into your new office this week, didn't you? How's working as a team rather than on your own working out so far?
Markus Persson: I'm not quite used to it yet. We're trying to get to do scrum and more like proper development, I hope. It's a fairly new experience. I did this for years in a team though, so I'm pretty used to working with people, but I've worked at home for so long that it's so easy to get distracted by the internet, or do whatever I want and figure and I can do work in the evening and stuff.
Q: Plus you've got them all looking to you as the boss this time around, presumably, which must seem odd?
Markus Persson: Yeah, definitely. We're getting a CEO, he's starting in January - so hopefully he's going to do the actual day to day bossy stuff. But I'm definitely going to be more like the creative aspect of, like game design and stuff like that.
Q: Is that because you're not really taken with the idea of being a director, or a more of a purely practical issue?
Markus Persson: Yeah, what I find is find most fun is developing games, thinking about game design, programming and all that. I'm not really interested even in doing business deals - I have no idea what to do there.
Q: What kind of effect has the sudden onset of money had on your game design thinking? How do you resist the urge to just drive off in a sports car for a few days?
Markus Persson: I think the way I did it was to read a book on the scrum, the agile development - it's very like feature driven. If you have a feature you want to add, you just focus on creating that without worrying about the infrastructure and the code or any of that surrounding stuff. Then when you end up in a situation where you need that infrastructure, that's when you add it. If you're going to stick to the scrum, it's pretty much the same except it scales up to a larger team.
Q: How are you finding, not just the game being a success but also being a cult figure online yourself?
Markus Persson: Yeah - with the Notch Twitter account and the blog and stuff, that was pretty fun I thought. At first I thought it was manageable, but then people started recognising me in Stockholm and coming up to say hi. It felt like there was a big clash between the internet world and the real world, which was kind of... I wouldn't say unhelpful, because it was very flattering if people recognise you. But it still made me realise that it can be pain sometimes.
Q: It must be odd to be addressed as 'Notch' rather than your real name too?
Markus Persson: I think it's about 50/50 though. I usually only use it online, rarely hear people actually say it. Basically when I started using computers everyone had nicknames everywhere so I just picked one and now I'm 'Notch.'
Q: What's behind the resurgence in indie success at the moment, do you think? Is it a change in perception or in the market?
Markus Persson: I think it's a little bit of both. The games industry started moving away from PC and into console a lot. While there are a few hardcore PC studios around, most of it seems to be focused on the console versions. They only really port of the PC versions. The indie market really could blossom because people started realising that we're actually doing interesting ideas in the indie games. Something like in the early 90s, games that were made by id Software or Epic - small developer teams who actually took chances because they didn't have huge projects. So the indie scene could blossom; there are a lot of indie games on console too and they're selling really well as well. But I think it's one result of the sort of abandonment of PC gaming.
Q: I was looking at a survey from Nielsen today, which claimed kids over 13 were more interested in owning a PC than they were a console, which seemed to suggest there's still a lot of money to be made on that platform.
Markus Persson: Yes, I think the big rush with getting better graphics cards and getting more and more memory was basically what drove it before - the bigger and bigger gaming rigs. And that kind of got out of control - once you got consoles, it was much easier to make that kind of game for everyone. Everyone knew they had the hardware for the game.
Q: Now, though, a fairly cheap PC will play almost anything... It's good not having to worry about buying £400 graphics cards anymore.
Markus Persson: Yeah. I think that era is gone. [Laughs].
Q: Do you think the consoles could, or even would, emulate something like Minecraft? Not so much from a technical point of view, but conceptually?
Markus Persson: I think there are a bunch of fairly successful smaller studio games. I don't know the numbers, but I think Castle Crushers is doing really good and Super Meatboy seems to get a lot of press. Definitely there's room for small development teams to actually do something good. I haven't seen much advertising for Castle Crushers at all, but it seems always in the top spot on Xbox Live Arcade.
Q: What about in terms of Minecraft's scale and openness - is that something a big console studio would ever experiment with?
Markus Persson: It's hard to see it working on consoles, partly because of the size of the map - it's a really huge map, and there's so much memory requirement. Also for multiplayer, who would host the server? It's very CPU-intensive. It seems like... it probably could work, I don't know how much memory the 360 has, 256MB or something?
Q: 512MB, I think.
Markus Persson: Okay, yeah. You should be able to do something like this then, yeah.
Q: Would publishers be likely to feed off Minecraft, having seen its success, and try and make something like it for a more mass market?
Markus Persson: I hope so. That means more games get made, more types of games get made. I don't know if they think Minecraft is a fluke or if they think it's something interesting.. Because I'm so very open with my numbers, I know there are other indie games which are making fair amounts of money, but they're kind of secretive about how much they're making. So perhaps [publishers] don't know that there's that much money in it.
Q: How do you feel about sharing that financial information now? Are you still comfortable with everyone knowing your business, or do you wish you'd not set up that subscriber stats page?
Markus Persson: Personally I like sharing that information, because I'm generally an open guy. But it feels a bit sometimes like it's a bragging page or something. That wasn't the intention, because originally it was for the people who had brought the game could see like a number increase on a webpage or something. I'm not going to remove it now because it's so mega-big... I think it's a good sign, if you're actually open with your development and you're also open about the sales, it feels like you're genuine in some sense.
Q: Do you have a sense of where, if there was a proper universal downloads chart, those sales might put you?
Markus Persson: I've checked around a bit, but it's a bit hard to find the right numbers. I think when we were doing really well we would have been in the top 10 list; right now it's probably somewhere lower down. But still, it's doing very, very well for us.
Q: What are your projections on sales over time - spikes when there are updates and when you go to full release, or diminishing returns now the big explosion has happened?
Markus Persson: It's very hard to tell. Traditionally it's been very much tied up to how much I update and blog, the more I talk actively about what I'm doing on the game. But may be earlier on people were buying it much more based on the promise of what it might be perhaps. Now I'm really focused on setting up the company over the last month, now I'm fixing bugs for multiplayer... So it's going to be really fun to see what happens when we go into beta and start polishing and focusing on new content. That's when we can really start to make some predictions, I think.
Q: I know you're working on new projects as well, but how much do you plan on the company to be primarily the Minecraft company?
Markus Persson: Yes, we do have more games coming out after Minecraft. We're going to try and stay as a small studio, so I don't think we can realistically expect the next game to do what Minecraft did, because I think that's part skill and luck. But I think we should definitely be able to pull off some games that do some of what it did. We're in a really fortunate position, the community is really great - and really involved, so if I talk about making a game on a website, they know about it even though I don't advertise it. It's really nice. [laughs]
Q: Would you plan to use the same kind of business model - a discount for early access, ramping up the price when the game's more complete?
Markus Persson: I'm not sure. We haven't really decided on the payment model there. I think one kind of small problem with Minecraft is it's kind of cheap, and people who want to pay more can't pay more. I'm a bit opposed to pointless DLC, but I think trying to think about the model a bit more makes some sense. Especially now that we're running a proper company... I'm not sure what to think about it really. I know I enjoyed some DLC before, when it feels like it's an expansion to the game which wasn't just there.. Like when I was playing Mega Man 9, and I have bought content that I have already downloaded, that felt a bit weird. But the Fallout 3 expansions, I enjoyed those. If you do it right, you can do it in a good way, I think.
Q: So you're hoping to find some way to increase revenues from Minecraft, given that the bulk of its potential player base has already paid the low alpha rate?
Markus Persson: Yeah, if I had more business sense I probably would have raised the price a while ago. [Laughs]. But I try to , if I promise something, stick to that... And Minecraft is making silly amounts of money so it doesn't need to do that. If we weren't self-funded, the board would probably insist on it.
Q: What kind of audience do you think the game has now, after that explosion? I know it kicked off on Something Awful and a number of gaming sites, but has it extended beyond that now?
Markus Persson: Yeah, the people you mentioned are probably the largest group, but there are a lot of children who are playing it with their parents. I know a few of them in real life who do it, and I get emails from parents. That seems to be a fairly large group, actually.
Q: Will you try and target that a bit more as you get closer to going gold?
Markus Persson: Possibly not, because I'll be trying to target the game as much as I can towards myself - I buy a lot of games, so if we can make games I like then there's probably other people on the internet who like the same games. But if I get feedback that the game's too scary or something, I might add like a scary-free mode or something like that.
Q: There was reportedly some interest from Valve and Blizzard, but are you still being courted by big companies now you've become a studio?
Markus Persson: We're getting other types of interest now, people who want to throw money at us. I don't really understand that world that much, so I don't really know what it means. I'm getting the business people to talk to them. I'm just focused on the development so I'm not really in the loop there.
Q: In theory, would you be interested in that kind of investment?
Markus Persson: I'd rather have it just be self-funded, because we can run the company we want. If we fail with a game it's because we failed it, not because we had to rush it to meet a deadline.
Q: You've also said that you'll release the source code for Minecraft once you've completed it - are you still planning on that?
Markus Persson: Yes. I haven't really talked to other people in the company, but personally I still want that. I don't think they're going to object that much. It's basically because the game has so much potential for features that can be added, so it would seem a bit unfair if I just stopped working on it. It's a fairly interesting base for a game as well. My to do list is longer than ever, it keeps growing. Every time I do something I have to add two new things, basically.
Q: Would you take people on to help design the game, or do you want to keep it your baby entirely?
Markus Persson: We're going to get some more programmers as well. One is starting on December 1st and is going to get involved in the Minecraft source code almost immediately. In case I get hit by a truck and go to hospital for three months, he can work on it - and also to help me to move the development speed and polish it. But I don't think it's a good idea to have like 10 developers on it, because then you just get different opinions. But if you have two or three people working on the source code, I think that could work really well.
Q: How open are you to those guys' suggestions? Is there a fixed, mapped out plan of what you want the game to be, or are you still making it up as you go along?
Markus Persson: I stick fairly close to the original idea, but I feel like I'm just adding things kind of randomly. But it seems to always turn out that I meant it, and I blogged it five months ago or something. I try to stay open to new ideas, definitely. There's some kind of vague game feeling about what works - like I won't have guns, because it doesn't feel like it fits, but I can't really explain why it won't fit.
Q: Of the stuff that the players have made, like a to-scale Starship Enterprise and a working in-game CPU, how much does it feed your own plans?
Markus Persson: Yeah, it does. When people started programming in it, that's when I added Redstone, so people could actually make their own computers. That what made sure that the game was Turing complete. I told my fiancée "someone's going to make a computer now" and then they did.
Markus Persson is the founder of Mojang Specifications. Interview by Alec Meer.