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GDC: Notch's Fireside Tales

On the whole, he'd rather be programming

Markus 'Notch' Persson, the designer/programmer behind the smash hit game Minecraft, took to the stage at GDC for a conversation with noted programmer Chris Hecker. Their conversation ranged far and wide, covering many design issues. One of the early questions was about the whimsy in Minecraft, which Notch indicated was not his intent at the beginning. "The game was always intended to be a fantasy game, and it was intended to be serious," according to Notch. However, it ended up tending towards whimsy as a result of decisions made in the course of programming it.

"How do you decide what to abstract?," Hecker asked. Notch's principle was to keep things as simple as possible. His design for Minecraft was not a pre-determined design document, but rather an evolution as he worked on it, trying to do things that felt right. In a way, Notch's design was an exploratory journey in itself, seeking to refine the design by a continual process of playing, coding new features, and playing again.

Hecker asked Notch how much of a role a prior design played, and how accurate were his predictions about how the game would work according to its design. "62.5%," said Notch to general laughter. Notch said that he didn't spend that much time in advance thinking about the game, but rather focused on implementing things, playing it and seeing what worked and what didn't. Some things he put in because it just seemed obvious that it should behave that way. "Anything that's obvious is good game design," noted Notch.

When asked if there are any secrets left in the game, Notch said "There is one thing in the game people haven't discovered." However, it's hard to see what that might be as people have been dissecting the source code to find all the various combinations and things that are possible.

Asked about specific stats about gameplay, Notch admitted that no metrics are collected by the game, but perhaps some day there will be data collection. At this point, though, Mojang has very little data about the game's usage other than what people provide as feedback.

Hecker finally asked Notch: "If you could go back, would you do something differently?" Yes, Notch, said, he would focus on multiplayer much earlier, "because trying to retrofit it was programmer hell."

In the end, one of the downsides of the success of Minecraft for Notch has been that his job is much more complex than it used to be, as he finds himself spending a great deal of time handling business issues. He'd like to get back to being primarily a programmer/designer. No doubt, many fans would agree with that!

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Steve Peterson avatar
Steve Peterson: Steve Peterson has been in the game business for 30 years now as a designer (co-designer of the Champions RPG among others), a marketer (for various software companies) and a lecturer. Follow him on Twitter @20thLevel.