Markus Persson has the body of a politician but the features of a rock star: Fixed, handsome eyes and a deep-dimpled smile that offsets his baldpate and thickening torso. Perhaps this is why, when he visited Las Vegas in 2011 for the first international convention held in honour of Minecraft, the video game he designed and built, a young mother strode up and asked him not to kiss her baby, but to sign it. “I lean in with the pen and the child immediately starts crying,” he recalled as we talked in the stratospheric hotel suite he was staying in for the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last month. “I recoil and apologise – I mean, it’s not like I’m setting the kid on fire or anything – but she insists. It was a frightening moment for me, and not just that natural shock of making an infant cry.”
Since the game’s release in 2009 Minecraft has sold in excess of 20 million copies, earned armfuls of prestigious awards and secured merchandising deals with LEGO and other toymakers. It has also made Persson rich. Last year the 33-year-old programmer earned over one hundred million dollars from the game and its merchandise. Unlike the young San Franciscan tech millionaires, with their start-up chic and Ivy League determination, Persson – better known to his global army of teen-age followers by his internet handle, “Notch” – has a raggedy, un-marketed charm. He is, by his own admission, only a workmanlike coder, and he is not a ruthless businessman. “I’ve never run a company before and I don’t want to feel like a boss,” he said. “I just want to turn up and do my work.”
Persson and his game continue to confound the wisdom of videogame critics, consultants and publishing mavens. For one, Minecraft looks nothing like the multi-million dollar blockbusters that usually line GameStop’s shelves; its graphics and sound effects are rudimentary. It is also wilfully oblique, with no instruction manual and few explicit goals. At first, you are deposited in a unique, procedurally generated world built from a palette of colored 1×1 square building blocks comprising its mountains, valleys, lakes and clouds. Faced with this canvas, at first your task is mere exploration, charting the terrain around you.
Then night falls and monsters rise: dead-eyed zombies, skeletons, and camouflaged creepers that pursue you with terrifying single-mindedness. Now you are fighting for survival, digging a shelter with your bare hands and cowering in the dark till the sun shoos your tormentors back into hiding. The next morning you can choose to turn your cave into a castle, venturing out to gather the necessary raw materials to laminate your new abode’s floor or to build a stove onto which you can cook your meat. Or you can dig down to the centre of the earth, searching for rare materials to fashion gleaming armour or indestructible pickaxes. Other players embark upon a grand design, recreating some famous piece of architecture, or monument using the game’s fundamental materials. However you choose to express your creativity, every night you must retreat into your creation to hide.
This disempowerment runs contrary to the ideas of most video games. “Infinite power just isn’t very interesting no matter what game you’re playing,” Persson said. “It’s much more fun when you have a limited toolset to use against the odds. Usually a new player to Minecraft doesn’t make it through the first night. They’re just not prepared for the danger. It’s a harsh lesson but it establishes the rules.”
Persson stopped working on Minecraft in December 2011 in order to pursue new projects. One, a complex virtual boardgame with card game elements, dubbed Scrolls is set for release later this year. A second, the unpronounceable 0x10c, a trading game set in space influenced by the U.S. science fiction television series Firefly and the seminal 1984 British computer game, Elite, is still in the early stages of development.
Is Minecraft a once-in-a-lifetime success — a “Tainted Love,” a Tetris? — or a foundational work for the next great video game auteur, like Sim City and The Sims creator Will Wright? Persson is unequivocal. “I definitely think Minecraft is a freak thing, a once-in-a-lifetime success,” he said. “There’s no way you could replicate it intentionally. And yes, I’m starting to feel writer’s block as a result. I’m not sure if it’s pressure to repeat…” He paused, looked to the floor, groping for the source of this creative impasse. “Actually it is the pressure to repeat. And with Minecraft it was just easier because nobody knew who I was. Now I post a new idea and millions of people scrutinise it. There’s a conflict between the joy of being able to do whatever I want and the remarkable pressure of a watching world. I don’t know how to switch it off.”
Persson grew up in Edsbyn, a provincial town near Sweden’s east coast. “My strongest early memory is of my dad dragging me through very deep snow on a sled,” he said. “I looked up at him and he seemed annoyed at me. Perhaps it was tough work dragging me, or perhaps I had been crying. And I realised that — hang on — he’s actually a real person, with his own perception of things. It’s not just me looking at things; he is also looking at things.”
It was in Edsbyn that his father, a railroad worker, taught Markus to use the family computer, a Commodore 128. “We had a number of bootleg games — some weird Mickey Mouse tower game and Balderdash. The first game I actually bought myself with my own money was The Bard’s Tale.” Computer magazines of the day would print strings of code on their back pages, which could be transcribed by the reader to create a playable game, and this code-by-numbers task gave Persson his first experience of what would later become his profession. “My sister would read the lines out to me and I would tap them into the computer,” he says. “After a while I figured out that if you didn’t type out exactly what they told you then something different would happen when you finally ran the game. That sense of power was intoxicating.”
When he was seven, the family moved to Stockholm. Persson fell in with a crowd of schoolboy programmers when he was thirteen, and they competed with one another to create the most impressive effects on their Atari STs. “One time I managed to fill the screen with huge text that scrolled incredibly quickly,” he recalled. “My friend was on vacation so I put the code on a disc and attached a post-it note saying ‘Look what I did!’ and left it in his mailbox. ” By 1994, Persson knew he wanted to make games for a living, but his teachers advised him to study graphical design, which led to his first job as a web designer. “I didn’t stay there because I was a bit arrogant and thought I could just go and make games,” he says. “But then the dot-com crash happened and I couldn’t get a job.”
After two years living at home with his mother, Persson landed a job at a web game company, where he worked as a programmer and designer on no fewer than thirty Flash games. In his spare time, he continued to work on his own projects, entering competitions to make games with tight memory constraints in order to focus his creativity. “I was learning things about game design in my day job,” he said. “But really it was the puzzle-solving nature of programming that appealed.” When Persson began work on Minecraft in early 2009, he knew that this was the game he had been waiting to make. He went part-time at his job in order to free up more time to work on the game and finally, handed in his notice on his birthday, June 1, 2010. Despite the bold step into full time indie game development, he never envisaged Minecraft becoming such a widespread success. “I expected it to be about 6-12 months of work, and hoped that it might earn enough money to fund development of a subsequent game.” He released the full version on TK and within 12 months the game had been downloaded more than six million times, and Persson was struggling to keep up with player requests for new features and bug fixes while simultaneously trying to deal with problems closer to home.
During Persson’s teen-age years his father relapsed into substance abuse, an illness with which he had battled with for years, unbeknownst to his children. The drinking ended Persson’s parents’ marriage, and he became estranged from his son for a few years. Persson’s father moved away from Stockholm (“both to avoid the city’s influence and to isolate himself”) but remained interested in and engaged with his son’s work. “He usually gave me the fatherly version of game criticism, saying they’re all brilliant, of course,” says Persson. “When I decided I wanted to quit my day job and work on my own games, he was the only person who supported my decision. He was proud of me and made sure I knew. When I added the monsters to Minecraft he told me that the dark caves became too scary for him. But I think that was the only true criticism I ever heard from him.”
Persson would occasionally visit his father in the Swedish countryside. On one spring visit a few years ago, the pair drove to a frozen lake to walk his father’s dog. While drinking coffee and eating sandwiches on the water’s edge, the dog ran out onto the ice, which gave way moments later. The pet plunged into the paralyzing water, thrashing for a few moments, before dozily resting its front paws on the lip of the ice. To Persson’s dismay, his father lay down on the ice and began hoisting himself towards the dog. “I’m running around all over the place, looking for a long stick,” he said. “I don’t know what I was planning on doing. It just seemed important to find a stick right then. I found one, turned around and saw my dad right next to the dog at the exact moment the ice broke loose, and tipped him in. I screamed. A moment later, he stood up. The water only came up to his hips.”
Persson says the most upsetting thing about the episode was the speed at which a beautiful scene turned into disastrous one, and the dizzying effect of instant shock turning to instant relief. This emotional journey was later echoed in 2011 when Persson was planning his father’s return to Stockholm. Persson had just rented an apartment for his father on the outskirts of the city, when FATHER’S NAME shot himself in the head. “I now have an entire life to live without him existing,” he wrote on his website last Christmas. Persson not only had lost his father, he began to worry about protecting himself against the demons he had battled with. “I feel like there is this looming cloud over my life. Those quiet thoughts: ‘Oh, it happened to him and this stuff sometimes goes in generations.’ I think I just have to ensure I don’t isolate myself. That’s what he did he did, out there in the countryside.”
This pressing desire to integrate, to live in community is reflected in Mojang (Swedish for gadget), the company Persson founded when Minecraft’s maintenance and development became too much for one man to bear. The company, which employs twenty-odd people, has a flat management structure and loose working hours. “When you have the kind of success Minecraft has brought you can just choose yourself the way you want to do things,” said Persson. “I don’t want to feel like I’m in charge or anything. Of course, it doesn’t really work that way because we all know I’m the founder but I try to have a studio where people go to make games for the fun of it, not just because some investor has said we have to make money.”
Persson is an outspoken critic of publishers, whom he believes curtail creativity in the games industry in search of short-term gains. He once accused Electronic Arts of “methodically destroying the games industry,” a criticism his independence from the studio system frees him to make. “Publishers might be a necessary thing,” he said. “But it’s inevitable that they will shift the focus from games being made by people who want to make good games to people who want to make money.” That the power balance in the video game industry is shifting in favour of independent creators – in 2012 the Xbox 360 version of Minecraft overtook Activision’s blockbuster Call of Duty: Modern Warfare as the most played game on the system – benefits players more than anybody, in Persson’s view. “The more studios that can remove themselves from the publisher system, the more games that will be made out of love, rather than for profit,” he said.
An outspoken defender of digital rights and freedom of speech, Persson also campaigns against those who would seek to financially gain from controlling the internet. (In December, he donated $250,000 to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the US-based international non-profit digital rights group.) “The internet is this great and generous piece of human evolution and then we have corporations and governments trying to lock it down for short term profit,” he said. His interest in freedom of expression can be seen in Minecraft’s DNA, a game in which players have recreated everything from the Taj Mahal to the Starship Enterprise, the latter of which has attracted litigious interest. “Soon after the impressive video of that creation went around the internet I was sent a cease and desist letter from Universal Studios. I had to explain that we hadn’t made it. It’s a bit like sending a letter to Adobe because somebody drew a copyrighted image in Photoshop.”
It is this sort of stand that has made Persson a well-liked figure in the independent game movement. But at the same time, he can afford to take the anti-corporation stance. Each Minecraft sale flows straight to Mojang’s pocket – there are no middlemen – and, since the game is digitally distributed, there is no physical product to manufacture, store, or ship. After Minecraft, none of his subsequent games need to turn a profit. In 2011 he gave his £2.2 million Mojang dividend to his employees. “The money is a strange one,” he says. “I’m slowly getting used to it but it’s a Swedish trait that we’re not supposed to be proud of what we’ve done. We’re supposed to be modest. So at first I had a really hard time spending any of the profits. Also: what if the game stopped selling? But after a while I thought about all of the things I’d wanted to do before I had money. So I introduced a rule: I’m allowed to spend half of anything I make. That way I will never be broke. Even if I spend extravagant amounts of money, I will still have extravagant amounts of money.”
Even so, Persson’s extravagancies are somewhat practical. He flies to events in private jets and throws large hospitality parties for fans, such as the one held in San Francisco a few days after we met. (When Justice, the A-list DJ he had booked to play the event, was refused entry to the US at the last minute, Persson phoned Skrillex to perform as a stand-in). “Other than that I don’t know,” he says, picking his ear. “I have the latest computer?”
With his expansive following, Persson is able to spread the wealth too, at least indirectly. Getting ‘notched’ — whereby Persson directs his followers towards a new game — is the dream of every indie game maker. It can result in tens of thousands of sales. In a very real sense, Minecraft’s maker is a kingmaker in the video game realm. “There are so many sides to that,” he says. “I try to tweet about the games I love and feel passionate about. But it got to the stage where I could ‘make’ a small studio and so it began to feel like a duty. I started promoting games that I wasn’t so enthusiastic about.”
Following his father’s suicide, Persson has been simplifying his life. He has moved on from active Minecraft development, and he has committed to not being coerced into promoting people and products in which he does not fully believe. Last year he also divorced from his wife – a former moderator on the Minecraft forums – whom he had been dating for four years, and married to for one. “I’m a little confused by love,” he said. “I am a romantic person and maybe have this Hollywood perception of love… but then it’s never really like the movies. I didn’t really have much luck with women when I was younger so on some level I feel like I don’t really belong. Maybe everyone feels like that to some degree.”
The sense of not belonging is, of course, the essence of teen-age existence, and perhaps it is this enduring quality that Persson’s youth following responds to, as well as the example he presents of the nerd made good, of success in the face of a certain emotional vagrancy. It’s this innocence that has, to date, informed his games. Minecraft is at its most beguiling when experienced with a child’s ambition: to explore, to create and to share those experiences with others. But the 18 months following Persson’s departure from Minecraft’s development has changed his life in irreversible ways. It will be harder for his next game, 0x10c to express the same artful simplicity. Regardless of whether he can successfully break the writer’s block or not, at 33 Persson is moneyed and storied. What ambitions remain for the epitome of the indie success story? “I have the ability to get code done but I’m impatient and it’s scrappy as a result,” he said. “Maybe that helped me with Minecraft as it came quickly. But, well, at some point I’d like to actually become a good programmer.”
This article first appeared in The New Yorker.