In May of 2009, Markus Persson, better known as Notch, released the alpha version of a game called Minecraft. It operated on a unique model – players could buy discounted versions of the game while it was still in development, and the money used to purchase the game in turn funded more development. As time went on, Notch added more and more features, enabling the players to build, mine, explore, and fight zombies. In December of 2010, Minecraft officially entered its beta development phase, and it will be officially released as a full game this November at MineCon – a Minecraft convention to be held in Las Vegas.
Even though it has yet to be released as a full game, it’s become a bona fide sensation. To date, almost three and a half million people have purchased the game, and thirteen million have registered to play the free version. It’s won a bevy of awards, including PC Gamer UK‘s Game of the Year, Rock Paper Shotgun’s Game of the Year, and the Grand Prize at the Independent Games Festival. It’s inspired a huge fan base, been used in the classroom, and is flexible enough that if you wanted to, you can build a working computer in it.
This success has enabled Notch, fellow software developer Jakob Porser, and Carl Manneh to found their company, Mojang, to develop Minecraft and other games. Notch is working with other developers at Mojang to finish Minecraft in time for its November release. In the meantime, Jakob Porser is leading development on Mojang’s next game, Scrolls, which is a multiplayer online game based on collectible card games. Additionally, Mojang is moving beyond just game development – last month, Mojang CEO Carl Manneh announced that Mojang was partnering with Oxeye Games, a Swedish independent game studio, to distribute and market their upcoming game Cobalt, and Mojang hopes to partner with other independent game studios going forward to assist in distribution and marketing.
As long time readers of this blog know, I am a huge fan of Minecraft, and I was excited to be able to get a chance to interviewl Notch and Jakob via email about Minecraft, Scrolls, and the business of independent gaming. Here are their thoughts.
Notch, a couple of years ago, you were coding Minecraft in your spare time. Now it’s sold over 3 million copies and you’ve founded your own software company. What has that experience been like for you?
Notch: The change from working on it alone to creating a company was fairly gradual. Me and Jakob started playing around with the idea of starting a company a bit over a year ago. We spent some time trying to find people to work with, and once we found Carl [Manneh], the CEO, things started really happening. I still get to do pretty much whatever I want in the office, so in day to day work the only major difference is that I don’t have to sit alone at home any more. As the player base grew larger, it’s gradually become more and more difficult to keep the same level of personal contact with the players as I used to. I kind of miss the early days sometimes. On the other hand, the success has meant we can keep making games this way for a long time, and the thought of doing this for the rest of my life makes me very happy.
I couldn’t help but notice that at Mojang, you’re listed as a developer, and Carl Manneh runs the business. It’s pretty unusual for entrepreneurs to relinquish that kind of control. Why did you make that decision?
Notch: I’m not an entrepreneur, I’m a game developer! As the business grew, I’ve become more and more interested in it, but at my core what I really want to do is just sit down and work on games. When Jakob and I started the company, we split it up so I work on Minecraft, and he works on Scrolls. We realized we’d need someone to help out with the business side of things, so we quickly hired Daniel [Frisk] and looked around for a while before we found Carl. Having people dedicated to the business side of things is great as we can just forward anything “serious” to them. Both of us are on the board, though, so we’re involved in the long term decisions of the company.
What do you think are the prospects for other independent game programmers to enjoy the same kind of success you’ve enjoyed with Minecraft?
Notch: I don’t think you should ever count on something being a runaway success. If you’re passionate about your game, it might be easy to expect too much from it. Success depends not only on having a great product, you also need a big portion of luck (or “timing”, if you prefer) in order to reach the critical mass needed. Instead, for indie game developers, I think it’s a better idea to play their strengths. When you have a small team and you do digital distribution, you have next to no costs at all, so breaking even on a product becomes much easier. The most important step is to actually dare asking people to pay for your game.
And of course, the most important advice of all is “don’t listen to advice”. You don’t become unique by repeating what someone else did.
Speaking of Minecraft, it’s been insanely popular as just a sandbox/building game. Why did you make the decision to add more traditional gaming elements to it?
Notch: The original plan always was for Minecraft to be slightly more of a ”Real Game”, whatever that is. A big portion of the inspiration is roguelike games like NetHack and ADOM [Ancient Domains of Mystery], where the game is very open ended and free, but there still is a strong game element to the game. You rarely, if ever, win those games, but that isn’t the point. The fun lays somewhere else. It’s more about emergent gameplay and about unique experiences.
What challenges have you had in adding those gaming elements to Minecraft?
Notch: The biggest obstacles have been with trying to balance tweaking the existing game with moving forwards. I’ve gotten stuck just trying to improve what is there several times, and that puts the game close to stagnating. There is so much potential in what can be made with Minecraft, it would be a shame to see it get stuck as being just a block building game.
Let’s talk about Mojang’s next game, Scrolls (assuming the name doesn’t change). Is it going to follow the same model as Minecraft with discounted alpha and beta releases for sale, or will it be released as a finished product?
Jakob Porser: We will try to stay true to the release format of Minecraft as it has been working very well for us, but there will be slight modifications. For instance, Scrolls will not be released as early in its development cycle as Minecraft was. Partially because the success of Minecraft has brought higher expectations from our player base, but mostly because of the format of the game. Scrolls simply needs a higher degree of content in order be enjoyable.
As for a discount/special offer for early adopters, this is something we really want to do, and we are currently looking at the best way of doing this.
Can you tell us a little about what we can expect from Scrolls?
Jakob: Scrolls will be about strategy from start to finish. The player starts out with a collection of magical scrolls. From this collection they must design a deck to take to battle against other players. As they win matches they gain points which can be used to acquire new scrolls to improve their deck or maybe create a new one. As they do battle they must use their deck to outmaneuver their opponent. Summon minions to fight for them, blasting their opponent with spells, have siege weapons wreck havoc with the enemy defences, all while managing the resources needed to play the scrolls in their possession
Scrolls is a very dynamic game and with a steady addition of new scrolls inserted over time, the players will have to be on their toes in order to be successful.
Do you think there might be challenges in selling a game with so many board and card game elements to computer gamers?
Jakob: There are, but there are also many opportunities. Moving a typical board/card game to computers lets you add elements to the genre that would be cumbersome or even impossible to manage by hand. It will also make the game more accessible as the player can find opponents to play against at all hours of the day and regardless of their current location. Scrolls will have a good mix of the strengths of traditional board/card games as well as computer games and that mix will be what makes Scrolls great.
Finally, Notch, over the past few weeks you’ve gotten married, gone on honeymoon, and have been working furiously to get Minecraft finished by its release date. So have you had any time to hone your skills in case Bethseda takes you up on your offer of a Quake 3 duel?
Notch: No… If they did that, we’d probably ask the community for Champions to defend our honor or something. 😉 I’m pretty decent at Quake 3, but I’m nowhere as good as I was back in the day.