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Markus 'Notch' Persson Talks Minecraft

As Minecraft fever still possesses the internet, we grabbed creator Markus "Notch" Persson to ask him about the experience of going from hopeful indie developer to ruler of the gaming universe. What's it been like to go through all those changes that accompany success? He tells us what difference (or lack of a difference) money has made, the experience of starting a company, and plans for in-game video recording. And why he's not ready to retire just yet.

RPS: Before you started on Minecraft, you’d quit a fulltime job to work as an indie developer. That must have been a terrifying decision – what inspired you to make that change?

Markus Persson: I was working for king.com, making smaller Flash games. When I started my job there, we were just eight people, and managing my side projects (game development competitions and hobby programming) wasn't a problem. As the company grew to almost 100 people, stricter policies meant I kind of had to choose between staying there or doing my own thing. I started working for jalbum.net and started working on Minecraft. I dropped down to part time after just a couple of months, and on June 1, I quit it totally to focus on Minecraft.

RPS: What lessons did you take with you from having worked on Wurm?

Persson: I learned that striving for photo realism is hard work and probably not worth it unless your game relies a lot on atmosphere. I think the art style of Wurm works great for the pace in the game, but for something quicker like Minecraft, you can really get away with more iconic abstract art.

RPS: Clearly you saw a lot of potential in Minecraft, but presumably you hadn’t envisaged the scale of its popularity. Where had you seen the project going?

Persson: When I started work on Minecraft, I expected it to be about 6-12 months of work, and that it might hopefully earn enough money to fund development of the next game, whatever that would be. I never expected it to do this well, and I'm trying to learn as much as I can from the success. I do think there's a small amount of luck and timing involved, though.

RPS: It’s been extraordinary to watch. It must be remarkable to have lived. We vicariously sneak a peak at how many copies you’ve sold, and then imagine the castles we’d buy. Can you describe your own reaction to the success of the project? How has your life changed?

Persson: The biggest step was probably once it started making enough money to make a comfortable salary. It felt really nice to have made something on my own that I could live off. It kept growing after that, though, so I got a bit cautious and just stuck all the money in the bank. Other than starting up a self-funded company with a couple of friends, my life hasn't changed much. I still live in a suburb just outside of Stockholm, I still don't own a dishwasher, and I still spend my free time playing games. I have a nicer watch now, though, and I get to eat at fancier restaurants.

RPS: You’ve recently found an office. And we understand that you’ve been recruiting staff. How has this process been?

Persson: As I'm writing this, it's actually our third day in the office. It's not fancy, but it's got lots of charm, and I think we can really make this place feel great once we paint the walls and replace the carpet flooring. For recruitment, I talked a bit about us looking for help on the blog, and we got many hundred emails. We looked through them as closely as we could, and managed to find two people willing to move to Stockholm who are perfect for the job. Early next year, we'll be six people; three programmers, one artist, one business developer and a CEO. We're going to need more people soon, though…

RPS: Are you nervous about starting a company? Is there not a part of you that considered buying a yacht or flying back and forth to Hawaii for the rest of your life?

Persson: I'm too young to retire, I'm much more interested in being able to work with talented people, making games in a small team where everyone's will can shine through. I'm trying to save up money though, so I'd be able to retire in the future if I ever should feel the need in like ten years or so. I was more nervous about starting the company before we signed the great people we've got on board now.

RPS: As your player-base has increased, and the community has grown, it must be increasingly difficult to introduce changes without there being a great deal of noise. Are you taking any steps to avoid letting this influence your decisions, or are you embracing this democratic imposition?

Persson: I try not to worry too much about it, and I think the players have gotten used to me making fairly large changes to the game. There's always been a certain element of not wanting to remove the parts that people enjoy, however, which is the reason Minecraft Classic (the free-to-play creative mode only version) is still around. The game itself is fairly forgiving, too, so if there's a new feature some people don't enjoy, they can usually just ignore that feature and they will never notice it.

RPS: With success of course comes negativity too. How do you handle the criticisms you’ve received?

Persson: If it's openly hostile, I just ignore it. I've gotten much better at not getting upset by it. If it's a legitimate complaint, I try to think about the reason, and see if I agree. Often I do. I try not to apologize for every single missed deadline or new bug in the code, but instead focus on the positive parts.

RPS: Talking of changes, the Halloween update has mixed things up. What do you see as being the new elements that will most affect how Survival Mode will play?

Persson: The Halloween update meant a bunch of changes to the code, which was great. I hope to make the game much more about exploration, and that will require interesting areas to explore, and some way to travel there faster. Hopefully the portals and the Nether can fill both those roles.

RPS: Do you have a particular place you’d like to see Survival Mode have reached by the time you reach a 1.0 build of the game?

Persson: I definitely want the modding support to be in place, and I'd like to see some competitive multiplayer modes like Capture the Pig or Team Furnace. I'd also like to have some kind of narrative built into the game so people know what's (supposed to be) driving their character. You can ignore that narrative, of course, but at least it should help get people started in the game.

RPS: You’ve mentioned an interest in building an end-game. Do you have any idea how that will eventually work?

Persson: No, heh... Hmm... I probably should think about that.

RPS: What’s surprised you the most about how people have approached the game?

Persson: The number of videos on YouTube is pretty stunning. There are more movies about Minecraft than about Quake on there, and trying to understand why is very interesting. It's probably related to people wanting to show off what they do. It would be really interesting to add in-game video recording capabilities.

RPS: Thanks for your timecraft.

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Once one of the original co-founders of Rock Paper Shotgun, we killed John out of jealousy. He now runs buried-treasure.org