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Future Talk: Notch On Steam, Windows 8, What's Next

The Man Behind The Hat, Pt 2

Yesterday, we ran the first part of my chat with Minecraft creator and needer-of-no-introductions Notch, wherein we largely talked about life after Minecraft and what he's been up to recently. But there's more to this world than Minecraft (at least, until we discover our entire world is actually a block-by-block Minecraft reconstruction of the real world), so today, we're forging ahead into the future. And also the present, but the other thing sounds cooler. So read on to see Notch discuss copycatting in games, his ideas for non-games ala Proteus, a virtual reality version of Minecraft, Steam, Windows 8, and heaps more.

RPS: Obviously Minecraft is huge and has pretty much caught on everywhere, and its influence is starting to show a lot - in many cases simply as an inspiration. There are a lot of games with blocks and constructing things. But it’s also, in some places, been cloned pretty heavily, like on Xbox Live and things like that. What’s it like watching your creation be split into so many things and applied in so many different ways?

Notch: I love people cloning stuff, because that’s how we get better games. Is it really fair to say it’s a Minecraft clone, or is it more of an Infiniminer clone they’re making, because Minecraft is very similar to Infiniminer? They probably got the idea from Minecraft. They were probably thinking they cloned Minecraft. But everything everyone makes is based on something else. There’s very, very few original ideas. Almost everything is somehow derivative. You improve on stuff you’ve played before. So I’m all for clones. If people are doing direct clones only to monetize, making iOS versions of something…

RPS: Ninja Fishing…

Notch: Yeah. Not going to name any names. I don’t think it’s nice to do that. But I feel like it’s extremely important that you’re allowed to do that, because otherwise we get into this really scary territory of owning IP and stopping innovation. I’d rather just go, “Ugh, these guys are being dicks.” But they should be able to do that, rather than trying to stop people through laws and stuff. I think copyright and trademark is fine. I don’t want people deceiving customers by saying, “This is Minecraft.” But if you take that idea and make your own game, that’s fine.

RPS: On that note, right now EA is suing Zynga on the grounds that their games are too similar. So do you think that’s dangerous territory? Do you think that could lead to someone just holding dominion over and idea or something like that, and suddenly nobody can iterate on it and make new things?

Notch: Yeah, I think it’s very dangerous territory. In the case of EA and Zynga, those games are deceivingly similar. It looks like they’re trying to almost trick the customer into thinking it’s the same game. That’s when I think you should be able to stop people. I don’t want them to be able to trick people into thinking it’s the same game. If it’s the same idea, fine, but if you’re trying to move into the concept space of what Minecraft is, for example… It’s hard to express the exact difference. But trademarks fine, patents bad. That’s kind of the short summary.

RPS: You said Minecraft is similar to Infiniminer. Is that weird for you, then, that so many people associate the idea with Minecraft, even though you were directly inspired by something else?

Notch: It depends, but yeah. Infiniminer didn’t have crafting. It didn’t have the blocky characters with the armor on. It didn’t have as many settings. It depends which part people are cloning. Terraria, they say they’re inspired by Minecraft, and it’s a great game. They’re more inspired by the things I added to the genre than the actual essence of the thing that’s similar to Infiniminer.

But the Xbox Live games you mentioned, they’re more inspired by being able move boxes around. Which is more like Infiniminer. People are like, “They cloned your game!” No, they had the same idea that I also had from some other game. Partly, anyway. I get slightly too much credit. I just assembled a bunch of ideas. They’re not original in any way.

The strength of Minecraft is the way everything is tied together. I think that’s where the magic is, in how the pieces are tied together. Not necessarily what the pieces themselves are. There’s nothing revolutionary about the concept of a diamond sword. But the way it works in Minecraft is pretty entertaining.

RPS: Do you have any ideas for games that are completely out of left field, though - that nobody’s ever done before? Or rather, for something really non-traditional? Like, if someone looked at this hypothetical game, they wouldn't be able to say, “Oh, duh, that’s an action game, that’s an RPG…”

Notch: Oh, yeah. I’m kind of getting into this idea of making electronic toys. I played Proteus, and it had a profound effect on me. The level of awe I feel, like, “Wow, this is so beautiful” - even though it’s the most simple graphics possible. The sound design is obviously brilliant. And it’s not even really a game. When I’m playing it I kind of go through all of this… What am I doing? Why is this entertaining? I try to think through it as a game designer and everything. It’s very entertaining still. That’s kind of inspired me to maybe look into doing things that aren’t necessarily “games,” and aren’t necessarily “art” either. They’re just some experience, an interactive experience. Those would be very hard to classify. There’s no real name for them yet.

RPS: If you were to do something in that space, what would it be? Proteus already has the sort of “very cool island environment” locked down.Do you have any ideas in terms of where you’d go with that type of concept? That sort of interactive space?

Notch: The things I’ve thought about are very vague ideas. Like there’s a city populated by a bunch of autonomous agents that go to work and come back and have their thing going on. And there’s no real goal to it; it’s just that’s the space, and you can play around with that. That’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while. It’s hard to define exactly what it is. This simulation of a very lightweight city. I don’t know exactly what you’d do. The idea is that you’d play as a character who can go to work and come back and earn money to pay the rent, and that’s the game. The art style of the game… Remember School Days? It’s an old, old game. I was thinking of that as the art direction.

RPS: I'd love to see one of these types of "immersive experience" games with something like Oculus Rift.

Notch: Yeah. I got a demo yesterday. Holy moley, it’s good. VR has always been so bad it couldn’t catch on. This one, I feel, is just above the threshold of actually catching on. The immersion I got was superb, and I got very, very nauseous, but I tried moving my head back and forth. It doesn’t do position, it just does rotational tracking right now. So if you move your head, you kind of go up, down…

Then you feel sick. Which is a good sign. That’s not a pleasant experience, but it means it’s actually working. You’re really expecting it to move. I’ve talked to those guys, and I’m definitely going to look into having that for the space game. And I’ll try to convince the guys to do it with Minecraft.

The problem is it has to be 60 FPS, and that’s very hard to guarantee with Minecraft, because someone could make a very complex city and you can’t render that at 60 FPS. So we’ll see.

RPS: You've been fairly outspoken about Steam in the past - not in a bad way, but with an air of caution. Valve's gigantic and completely ubiquitous, after all. If there's not a Steam sale this winter, it will actually count as Gabe Newell canceling Christmas. That sort of thing. So, with Greenlight in the picture and Valve making more of a grab for small independent developers, are you worried at all about Steam's lack of a viable competitor?

Notch: I think Steam is very ridiculously good, but it’s too big. I don’t want the PC to be a closed platform. And now we have one de facto store - which is probably not good. I’d rather have it be like the browser thing, where you can choose between Chrome or Firefox or, if you’re insane, Internet Explorer. Actually I kind of like Internet Explorer. It's just fun to make fun of it.

RPS: I’ve been hearing that from a lot of people. That doesn’t make sense to my brain.

Notch: It’s actually not bad, it’s just fun to make fun of it. I recently switched from Firefox to Chrome, though.

RPS: You say a closed platform in relation to Valve, though, which is interesting because Windows 8 is about to launch. And... yeah. That could be trouble. Meanwhile, Valve's trying to fight for openness on PC by embracing Linux and things like that.

Notch: Yeah. I understand why Microsoft are doing it. I just wish they didn’t do it, because it’s…yeah. It could ruin a lot of things for a lot of people.

I understand why Valve wants to do what it's doing, too. But then they would be the de facto store again, and you’d still have the Windows 8 situation in practice anyway. Because everyone would be using Steam. Is that better than only using the Windows store? I don’t know. It’s more open, because you could use an alternative, but if nobody does... I hope that Valve chooses to work with others. Like, I wish they would have worked with Desura instead of making Greenlight.

RPS: Part of what Valve could stand to do is just bring a bigger audience to that kind of thing. Linux is a very open platform. The way that Gabe Newell puts it is that games have a way of making people try new platforms. So the stated plan, anyway, is to be a gateway drug. To draw people to Linux - onto a more open platform - and give it some more market share. Or at least, that's my understanding, anyway. 

Notch: Yeah, maybe. I think that Steam is too large, though. I think it’s going to take over. If people would install Linux just to be able to play Steam games, then we would have a Steambox, essentially. That’s all it would be used for. I think Valve has their heart in the right place. It’s just that because there’s no competition, they’re automatically going to take over. Or there is competition, but Valve is so far ahead. I think that’s what’s going to happen.

Also, Windows 7 is awesome. It’s good, it’s very open. You can do anything you want with it. Windows 8 seems like they’re moving in a more closed direction basically because Apple is doing that.

RPS: Yeah. They want to have interoperability between PC and tablet and mobile and stuff like that. Which requires a more closed platform - at least with the way they’re doing the mobile stuff.

Notch: And they want to own the store. Which makes perfect sense. But it’s bad for consumers and bad for competition.

RPS: Yeah. I’ve also heard from people trying out Windows 8, saying it’s not user-friendly or nice or good…

Notch: I haven’t tried it myself, so I don’t know about those bits. Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me, because every other version of Windows has been horrible. And 7 is great.

RPS: How do you see the whole situation shaking out, though? Do you think people will just stick with Windows 7 until Microsoft realizes 8 is a terrible idea, or are you worried that we could be stuck in this for the long haul?

Notch: I think there are several threats against the PC being an open platform. I think Steam did a lot of good as far as introducing digital downloads in a very viable way. It basically killed PC retail. But I think that’s good. That way we don’t need publishers anymore. But now you kind of need a publisher anyway because you need to go on Steam. So now they’re taking the 30 percent instead of someone else. So where’s the benefit?

And then if Microsoft tries the same thing and they control their OS, that’s another threat against it. So I think both of those are dangers that we kind of have to live through. I do think there’s some demand or need for an open OS for computers, an open system for it. I don’t think Linux is it, because there are a few good distributions that actually are user-friendly, but at its core it’s made by nerds for nerds. For people who understand computers, it’s awesome, because you can control the entire computer. For corporations or families, it’s not really what they want. They just want to be able to use the computer in an easy way.

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