Mojang's Daniel Kaplan talks about his role on Minecraft, what's next and how hard it is to say "no"
Mojang's one-man operation is a thing of the past. After Minecraft exploded onto the PC scene last year, the profits from Notch's experiment in selling pre-alpha code on the promise of free updates was proven to be a huge success. Money was in the bank, the company's name was on the lips of both public and press. What Mojang needed next was a payroll.
Alongside a small team of new coders, Markus Persson hired Daniel Kaplan as business development director. But when the world is already knocking at your door, how hard can that job be? Well, as Kaplan has discovered, it largely consists of saying "no".
Q: I was taking a look at your previous project earlier, Ludiosity, what can you tell me about that?
Daniel Kaplan: It was my last project - I hired an indie developer called Daniel Remer, who created lij, Hero core, and had huge success with both those. We knew him from before, at university. So I told him, come work with us, we love your work and we'd love to work with you. So we co-published Garden Gnome Carnage, for flash.
It was basically a download version at first, so we turned it into a flash game. It turned out quite successfully actually, we got around three or four million plays. It was nice to work with him because he's a really talented guy so he made everything himself and I was just supporting him.
Q: How were those projects monetised?
Daniel Kaplan: The flash games were purely advertising, but we have done some consultant work for the Swedish rescue service agency and Volvo in Gothenburg. We've created some serious games, it's been nice. So it was the old monetisation model.
Q: Are you splitting your time between that and Mojang now?
Daniel Kaplan: Nope, I'm not working on anything at Ludiosity now, I'm just working full time at Mojang. But I still have dealings with them from time to time, we catch up, let each other know what we're doing.
Q: And how are things at Mojang? You've had the staff ramp up, there's plenty of cash and resources flying around, you have no deadlines... It's pretty much the dream situation isn't it?
Daniel Kaplan: We are in a great spot right now, we can basically do whatever we want to. The hardest thing for us right now is to say "no" to all the deals we're being offered. There are tonnes of opportunities out there for us right now. But we have to wait it out and figure out what's the best thing for us to do.
We get requests every week, it's quite hard to sort them out, to figure out, okay, this is what we're going to do. If you take one path then you can't take the other, you know?
Q: So are these offers from developers looking for a publisher?
Daniel Kaplan: Well they're from hardware manufacturers, other publishers, ad networks, all that stuff. We're looking into publishing our own games too though, bringing indie games under our own brand. We're still having to figure out how that's going to work out.
We hope to have something out this fall at least, some co-published games.
We hope to have something out this fall at least, some co-published games.
Q: You're working on Scrolls as well - is that the main development focus at Mojang now or is it still Minecraft?
Daniel Kaplan: The biggest team is the Scrolls team, but that's just three people, it's still very small. We like to work in small teams, because we believe we can make decisions faster, or have shorter meetings, more creative freedom for the teams. So they're small but very multitalented.
But the focus is still really Minecraft, that's the core business right now. Eventually we'll, not phase out, but, eventually Minecraft will have to start going down, then hopefully Scrolls will start to take the pace at that time and cover it up.
Q: I don't think it'd be unfair to say that there was some luck involved in the success of Minecraft - will you be pursuing the same business model again?
Daniel Kaplan: I truly believe that model will work for some games, but for others it won't. The whole Minecraft game is based around one specific core, where you remove blocks and add blocks. So you just add different kinds of blocks for more content. The core game was finished after about 2-3 weeks, and we just kept adding on top of that. So that worked really well with that kind of model.
With Scrolls you have to build up a huge catalogue of cards before we can launch it, because that variation is important, when you're playing. But absolutely, yeah, we're hoping to use the same kind of paradigm - we'll release early and then update it. It's like a service.
Q: So a free alpha to start?
Daniel Kaplan: At first it'll be a closed alpha, yeah. I don't think we'll take any money at all to start. I'm not sure about that though!
Q: Your role is business development - that's a pretty comfortable position right now I imagine?
Daniel Kaplan: It is! All doors are open for us right now. Like I said, the hardest part is the saying no - that's the hardest part, trying to figure out what we should do and what we shouldn't.
But still, we have to think about what we'll do when Minecraft starts to decline? How do we set a pace with our new games, how do we set it up so that people understand that this is our new game and don't think that the company is just Notch and Minecraft. I think we're trying to educate our users to understand that there's a whole company around Minecraft and Notch. But we're still pushing Notch. We like to push the key figures in the company.
People like to hear about the story, people love the Minecraft story. How it all started with one guy and became such a successful brand.
Q: Notch seems very hands on, is he still a full time programmer?
Daniel Kaplan: He is. He's working full time, he wants a 100 per cent focus on coding. As far as he's concerned, he doesn't want to be going to any meetings at all so he can just sit down and code. He's working 40 hours a week, just like we do, so he's very active in the company.
Q: There have been a few games which have looked very much like Minecraft, both before and after, and I know there's one on the way to XBLA - Notch always previously said that was fine, that was the sort of inspiration he wanted to encourage, does he still feel the same now so much money is on the line?
Daniel Kaplan: We're always looking for new platforms, and consoles are very interesting for us, obviously. There are huge possibilities for us there. But I try to believe that Minecraft will be looked at just like Doom was. That created the first FPS game, if Minecraft is the first game to start a genre of voxel engine, sand box games, whatever you want to call them, we'll be really proud of it.
There will always be copies of different genres in games, so the only thing we can do is to be even better. They're challenging us to become even better. If they want to compete with us then we'll happily compete with them.
Q: What about approaches from the platform holders and big publishers?
Daniel Kaplan: We're talking with everybody. Maybe we won't need a publisher this time, but maybe the next thing we will need a publisher. We're really just trying to connect with everybody so we can decide which one to go to later on. That's our plan right now.
When it was just Notch with Minecraft, he wanted to just be a coder, now we can back him up and connect with great people.
We're talking with everybody. Maybe we won't need a publisher this time, but maybe the next thing we will need a publisher.
Q: Are there any offers that would turn your heads in terms of an approach from a big publisher?
Daniel Kaplan: I think most of my co-workers joined because they wanted to work for a small company. Personally I think that's the right way to do it because we can make whatever we want to make and we don't have to depend on anyone else. I don't think it'd make much sense if we joined another company.
Q: And what about the other way round? You must have to funds to start approaching other indies now?
Daniel Kaplan: That's our plan, to co-publish. We hope to help people, to keep them involved in the process and create a successful game, to make sure people know about their games so they can create better games later on by themselves. So we'll see how well we can work that position.
Q: What was the point when you knew you had something special on your hands with Minecraft?
Daniel Kaplan: It's really hard to tell. We still don't really know how big Minecraft is - we have to update ourselves! Last year the huge blogs like Kotaku and Penny Arcade wrote about it - that's when we realised, wow. It was already going well, but when those guys wrote about it it started to go great. They made a huge impact on our sales and brand. We are very grateful.
Q: How important is that press engagement to a smaller studio?
Daniel Kaplan: Well for Minecraft it wasn't that important because the game was already selling, but if you don't have that formula, or your game isn't selling, you really need to work hard on press relations. If nobody knows about it, how are you going to make your next game?
You need to make sure people are reading about your game, so they want to play it, and eventually pay for it.
Daniel Kaplan is Mojang's business development director. Interview by Dan Pearson.