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Beyond Minecraft: Notch On Fame, Pressure, Sequels

The Man Behind The Hat, Pt 1

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Notch is Minecraft. Minecraft is Notch. A year ago, those statements might have been true to some extent, but not anymore. The man behind the most pervasive invention since the wheel (which he achieved by simply putting the corners back onto the wheel) hung up his pick axe late last year. That does not mean, however, that he’s escaped from the shadow of the monolith he created. Notch and his creation are still synonymous, for better or worse. And so, during PAX, I spoke with the quick-to-smile yet surprisingly introverted developer about the pressures of overnight fame, having people hang on (and quote) your every word, the current status of 0x10c, and tons more.

RPS: Minecraft has gone completely nuclear. It sort of did it overnight, though. Not overnight from the standpoint of when you started making it, but whenever people noticed it, they really noticed it. How has that been for you? To go from just making games at some company, to making games on your own, to having millions of people know your name and follow you on Twitter and quote every word that comes out of your mouth – including the ones you’re about to say?

Notch: I still haven’t gotten used to it. I’m slowly getting more used to it. It’s been weird to feel, because it’s a very surreal thing to have happen. I still feel like I’m just this programmer guy, but all of a sudden I’m involved in this big company with, like, 25 employees. To have people recognize me on the street is kind of weird, because it made me realize I’m not anonymous here anymore. But it’s fun. The fans are the reason I’m even doing this. I always try to make sure to take the time to say hi and all that. It’s kind of weird. But it’s fun.

RPS: Has it changed the way you do things at all? Because I’d imagine it’s very difficult not to be affected by that in some way or another. 

Notch: Huh. I have to think about what I do in public, because people could be watching. That’s basically the only thing. It’s changed me in that now I talk to more strangers than I did before. I’m actually kind of an introvert, where I prefer to be alone, really. I feel like when I talk to people, I’m spending energy rather than getting energy. I used to not talk to many people at all. But now I’m forced to talk to fans, because people say hi to me and I can’t really be rude. I think I’m slightly better at talking to other people now. I think my self-esteem has gone up as well [laughs].

RPS: Is there a flipside to that, though? Whenever something happens in a game that you’re working on that people just don’t like, do you get a bunch of people saying, “I can’t believe you’ve done this! You’ve ruined everything”? How do you deal with that side of it?

Notch: I used to take it really hard. Because the most vocal people are the people who are disappointed. When people are content, they’re just… They just go along and don’t say much of anything, unless they’re real superfans. I’m the same, I guess. Most people are the same. I’ve never sent letters to John Carmack or something. I haven’t done that, even though I love everything he does.

When people are vocal about something they’re disappointed with, it’s easy to think, “Oh, everyone hates it.” I took it really hard. But I figured out that’s not true. If you just look at the numbers, a lot of people play it. Even if I get like 20 e-mails, that’s a very small portion. So I started getting better at understanding the reason people send that and trying to ignore the insults. I got very good at that. “Well, it’s just some guy, and he’s upset.” I got used to it. But it took about a year.

And after a point, you realize that it’s just…people on the internet. The sense of anonymity. People can be ruder than they actually are. They probably don’t mean it as harshly as they say it.

RPS: You’re still really active on Twitter and things like that, though. In this day and age, a lot of developers take a very cautious stance towards those sorts of things. They won’t reveal anything new online. They’re very careful with their words. You, though, tend to be pretty open – even though it’s come back to bite you a number of times.

Notch: Well, I’ve always been like that. I’m fairly open. I don’t really like secrets that much. I think it’s more fun to talk about stuff, and hopefully people understand that you can say something and then possibly change your mind later on. Most people do understand that.

Gamers are very good at getting excited about things when there’s not very much to be excited about. I do that. I’m excited about Half-Life 3, which is never going to be released [laughs]. But I’m still excited about it. It’s a difficult line to walk because I’m dealing with very dedicated people. I try to make sure there’s at least some significant chance that something is going to happen before I talk about it, and when I talk about it I try to phrase it as, “My intention is…” and stuff like that.

RPS: I imagine you get, like, a billion emails. Do you try to respond to every one?

Notch: Oh, I’ve given up on responding to all my e-mails. I kind of skip through them, because there’s so many, but I can’t reply. I wish I could do that. You have people like Gabe [Newell], who actually replies to random emails. Which is a pretty cool thing. But it takes up too much time. Another thing I had to do is stop going on forums. It took up all my time. I’d just be on forums all day. Now I’m actually on Reddit a bit too much, I need to scale that back. But Twitter’s fine, because you can go in and spend 20 minutes and be done with it. But forums… Reddit takes up a whole day if I do it.

RPS: A lot of the bigger companies, especially, don’t feel like there’s a human component to them. You get a lot of people who are like, “EA and Activision are evil,” and stuff like that. They’re still being run by human beings, and there are actually people there. Just, you know, lots of them. But I think it’s even possible for the people in those companies to lose sight of that. And then you’ve got Mojang, which isn’t exactly tiny anymore. But obviously, you still have a very human, underdog-ish image. Is that intentional? 

Notch: Yeah, we’re not that small anymore. We try to make sure we feel like we’re small. And we definitely want to have a personal touch to it, where we talk to the fans. We try to develop games that way. We’ll talk about them and release them and try to get the fans’ feedback involved. It’s hard to use that feedback in a good way. We don’t let the crowd decide everything about the game. It’s a difficult balance. We want to be the ones designing the games. I guess that’s actually what the fans want too, the games that we’re making. It’s an interesting balance to deal with.

Sometimes the fans are right, too. Like ladders. I did not want ladders in Minecraft at all. Ladders are never fun. They’re not fun in Minecraft either. But they’re a very good utility. It’s an easy way to get straight up without having stairs going back and forth. So I added them anyway because the fans convinced me.

RPS: In a lot of ways, Minecraft also gave a face to the burgeoning smaller and independent games movement. So that’s also on your back. It’s sort of amazing to me, because you have all of these different sides. You have Minecraft, which is its own phenomenon. You have the whole independent community. And yet you still seem relatively, well, sane. Meanwhile, there are tons of other developers who nearly need straightjackets while simply keeping track of their own games.

Notch: Yeah. I made Minecraft because… Back when I was doing hobby games, we were called “garage developers.” Then it kind of made a big breakthrough again, but we were called “indie developers” that time. So I’m inspired by a bunch of other games, like Mount & Blade, Dwarf Fortress, two of those games, they’re an inspiration for why I did it. If I can inspire even more people to try and finish games and charge for them, instead of just making prototypes, that’s awesome. There’s so much room for interesting games, in addition to triple-A games. Well, there are interesting triple-A games, but usually they kind of play it safe.

RPS: Right. Is there any component, though, of being afraid of messing up on such a big stage? Doing something that makes… I don’t know, that upsets a bunch of people and tarnishes the legacy of your game, or what you’ve done so far? 

Notch: I’d rather make those mistakes than censor myself. I mean, I made a bunch of mistakes. I’ll have to own up to them and move on. It sucks when you make a mistake and you have to try to fix it, but that’s life I guess.

RPS: That’s led to you being very open with your development process. Here’s a weekly build of this game, it’s an alpha, it’s going to be buggy, but everyone play it and see what you think. Now it’s becoming a norm instead of an exception. Valve, for instance, is encouraging that mentality with Steam Greenlight. Do you think that’s good for everyone, though? Or does it put some kinds of games at an immediate disadvantage? 

Notch: I think it depends on what kind of game you’re making. If you’re making a story-driven game, it doesn’t make any sense, because you’re going to spoil the story immediately. I don’t think I would want to play LA Noire that way. But for more open games, I think it’s the perfect way to do it. I took the idea from roguelikes, where the first release is really early, really buggy, and then they do upgrades to it based on feedback and bug reports. Minecraft is very complex, like a roguelike is, so that’s the way that Minecraft was being made. It’s probably going to be the same way with the space game [0x1oc] as well. But if I ever do a story-driven game, I don’t think I could do it that way.

RPS: Do you think you’d ever do a story-driven game?

Notch: No, I’m not much of a storyteller unfortunately. I would want to, because there’s something very appealing about the concept of telling this epic story. But I’m not much of a writer.

RPS: What about if you could hire on a writer to help out?

Notch: Yeah, maybe. I’ve been thinking about that. I think there might be some frustrating conflicts between the game design and the story if it’s not the same person doing it. Maybe? I don’t know. I haven’t tried it.

RPS: You’ve done Minecraft, and you’ve passed the reins on that. A lot of people in your position would say, “Okay, I’m going to keep doing stuff in this vein. I’m going to do a sequel.” That’s obviously not what you’re doing. You’re moving off in a very specific direction – something a lot more niche. Obviously it’s something you want to create, but did the thought ever enter your mind, “Maybe I should do a sequel? Maybe I should keep doing this thing that people adore me for?”

Notch: That would probably be the sane choice. I’m interested in making games and exploring game design. I don’t think I’m the most edgy game designer out there. I think I can manage some of the crazy things. If I have an idea and I want to do it, I just do it. A lot of people can do that too, but… I don’t know.

The space game is a game that I’ve wanted to play because I’ve been frustrated with… A lot of games focus on the spaceship and not the person in the spaceship, which is something I’m frustrated with. I think I could change that. And I want the spaceship to be a personality, where you feel like, “This is my ship. It has these quirks and these other things about it.” That’s why I wanted it to have a programmable computer. That’s what spaceships do. They have a computer. It kind of works. Also, I really like it when games allow me to be very nerdy about a specific component of it. It’s an actual working computer. It’s very niche, but it’ll probably be fun for the people who enjoy it. I hope so [laughs].

RPS: Whenever you’re making something like that, how much do you consider the audience? Is your impetus for making things more like, “Here’s this thing that I wish would exist for everyone,” or “Here’s this thing I want to be able to play, and I also have the ability to make it, so obviously, I’m going to do it”?

Notch: It’s the latter. I would like this game to exist, and I’m making it. Usually, when I start something like that, that I want to exist, I talk about and people say, “Well, there’s this game and this game and this game.” It already exists. There are cool spaceship games out there. It has been done before. But I’m still going to try to make something with my own personal touch on it.

RPS: How is 0x10c coming along, by the way? We haven’t heard much about it in quite a while.

Notch: It’s been… I haven’t really touched it for months now. The summer has been kind of rough, privately. So I’m just trying to take it slow and deal with corporate stuff and PR stuff instead. Now things are slowing down, so after PAX I’m going to be able to get started again. Obviously, as soon as it’s fun, I’m going to release it, but we don’t know how long that’s going to take.

Check back tomorrow for part two, in which we discuss Minecraft clones, the sorts of games (or, potentially, not-games) Notch wants to design next, Steam, Linux, Windows 8, and pretty much everything else ever. Maybe even you. OK, OK, I’m lying. All we talked about was you.

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Nathan Grayson

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