Markus 'Notch' Persson: The mind behind Minecraft (Q&A)

Two years after the sandbox indie game went public, its creator is now an industry celebrity. We talk with Persson about his favorite player creations and the current direction of the game industry.

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Markus Persson, known also by the online handle "Notch," is an indie game success story like no other. Not only did he create Minecraft, one of the most popular independent titles in gaming history with more than 33 million units shipped worldwide, but he also released it to the general public and then walked away. Lead development was handed off to Persson's friend and fellow developer Jens Bergensten and Mojang -- the Sweden-based studio Persson set up in 2009 to take charge of Minecraft development -- shortly after the game's launch in November of 2011.

Since then, Minecraft has ballooned in popularity, becoming a cornerstone within video gaming's greater assimilation into pop culture. "South Park" recently featured Minecraft in an episode about the game's addictive nature. And thanks to unbelievably detailed creations ranging from the worlds of "Star Wars," "Star Trek," and "Game of Thrones," the sandbox game has often been compared to a limitless virtual Lego set. Thousands of attendees each year flock to a location of Mojang's choosing for MineCon, a real-world conference that in only its second year secured Disneyland Paris as a venue. This year's MineCon, held in Orlando, Fla., just last week, sold out of its first batch of 2,500 tickets in three seconds.

All the while, Persson himself became an industry celebrity with a reputation for modesty; his personal site looks nearly identical to that of the very first World Wide Web page. But while he's not working on Minecraft full-time, he is keeping busy: An outspoken critic of major publishers like Electronic Arts , Persson has thrown his weight behind software patent reform, and commands a Twitter audience of 1.4 million. And Mojang, of which 42 percent is owned by Persson's Notch Enterprises, has only 35 employees and yet pulled in an annual revenue of almost $240 million last year.

After making roughly $101 million in 2012 alone, Persson half-jokingly told Reddit he might now buy a car. But he also happened to return $3 million in Mojang stock dividends back to its employees.

On Thursday, Persson will be making his late night television debut with CBS talk show host Craig Ferguson on the heels of the release of "Minecraft: The Unlikely Tale of Markus 'Notch' Persson and the Game that Changed Everything," a new book by Swedish journalists Daniel Golberg and Linus Larsson. We got in touch with Persson to discuss his thoughts on Minecraft's astounding evolution and where the game industry stands in 2013.

Q: What are the drawbacks of the increasing sophistication of modern-day gaming graphics? Do you think it takes away from the spirit of early games to shoot for photo realism, and what do you think the reception of Minecraft's pixelated style says about the retro nostalgia building in the indie game community of late?
Persson: Retro nostalgia has always been a big part of indie games, possibly because it doesn't take huge teams to produce non-photorealistic graphics, and because a lot of indie developers want to re-create the feeling of imagination and adventure found in older games. I think the more realistic you try to make the graphics and the experience, the more you limit yourself to a single vision.

"A simpler graphics style can really enhance the mystery and sense of adventure for the player."

With more iconic graphics, more of the game takes place in the player's mind, letting them create their own ideas of what's going on. Depending on what type of game you're trying to make, this might or might not be the right idea. Racing games or sports games, for example, really benefit from super realistic graphics, as they have a very clear single vision of what they want to be.

In more open games based on exploration, such as Proteus, a simpler graphics style can really enhance the mystery and sense of adventure for the player.

From interactive music instruments to full-blown working computational devices, Minecraft users have used your creation to make unforeseen and oftentimes mind-boggling in-game inventions and structures. Save for the "Game of Thrones" recreation -- we'll get to that soon -- what are the most astounding creations you've come across?

A fully functioning recreation of Valve's multiplayer shooter game Team Fortress 2 was built entirely within Minecraft by YouTube user SethBling. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET
Persson: I've recently rediscovered SethBling on YouTube, who makes small experiments that really push the boundaries of what Minecraft can do.

Instead of just exploring the world within the game, he's exploring the game mechanics themselves, and as the developer, this really speaks to me. Being a big Team Fortress 2 fan, I think his Team Fortress 2 recreations are the most fun and impressive.

Speaking of the Game of Thrones recreation project WesterosCraft, did you ever foresee Minecraft being pushed to such high levels of sophistication and detail? What are your thoughts on those projects and do you want to see them expand even further into other stories' universes?
Persson: Personally, I'm not much of a builder in Minecraft, so I don't really understand how much work goes into these big projects. Seeing the flyby videos blows me away, and I have no idea how people do it. It's kind of an unknown area of Minecraft for me that I should probably explore more.

Given the success of direct distribution with Minecraft, what's the future of game delivery and more player-friendly digital rights management? Is Steam really leading the way with PC games out front, and has Microsoft's missteps with the Xbox One set consoles back considerably in this regard?
Persson: By the nature of how a personal computer works and how open they are, modding has always been a big part of PC games, and it can really enhance the experience and extend the lifespan of a game. On a console, I feel like the player expects something completely different. You just want to sit down, pop in a disc, and have the game work. You don't want to fiddle around too much with settings or mods, you just want to play the game as everyone else plays it.

Steam is not really leading the PC in any creative way, but it certainly has proved that the PC is a viable commercial platform by having a product that is amazingly easy to use for the end user, to the point where it's easier to buy a game on Steam than it is to pirate it. I'm worried about the future of computer operating systems, as they all seem to be sliding towards a more controlled experience, taking away much of what makes PC games so much fun.

Minecraft's robust community is a constant source of interest for the general public, and has even inspired a recent "South Park" episode. What do you think allowed Minecraft in particular to generate that kind of passion and dedication?

A recent South Park episode explored Randy Marsh's journey into the Minecraft universe after Stan inadvertently makes him an addict, noting the game's steep learning curve. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET
Persson: Minecraft is to a large degree about having unique experiences that nobody else has had. The levels are randomly generated, and you can build anything you want to build yourself. This leads to it being more interesting to share with others than if you know what you just played is the exact same thing as what other people have played.

In general, watching other people play games over the Internet has become a huge thing in the last few years, combining strong and charismatic personalities with the fun of watching a game. You're no longer just watching your friend play a game, you're watching a show about a friend (or friends) who play the games you like.

Independent games and studios have had a somewhat coming of age moment over the last few years. Do you think there are any negative aspects of indie developers and titles being somewhat assimilated into the mass market gaming community?
Persson: When I was young, we didn't have indie games. We had "garage developers" or similar terms, who were just small teams making games out of passion.

"I do think people seem to make their most interesting and innovative games early on in their careers."

One of these small teams went on to make Doom, one of the best games ever made, and have since them become part of one of the biggest examples of mass market. I don't think indies getting integrated into the big, boring machine is a new thing -- or necessarily a bad thing -- but I do personally think that people seem to make their most interesting and innovative games early on in their careers, when they're still small and "indie."

What are the most interesting independent titles in your opinion and how do you think the current gaming landscape is affecting the way those developers are thinking about game creation and delivery?
Persson: I can't really answer this. The most interesting indie titles always tend to come out of nowhere for me. That's part of the fun for me.

Gaming is going on as usual, and then suddenly a game like The Stanley Parable or Papers, Please comes out and feels like it changes everything. Hopefully the people making these games won't be affectedat all by the current landscape.

Editor's note: This interview, conducted via e-mail, has been condensed and edited for clarity.

 

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