• Tech

The Mystery of Minecraft

14 minute read

Since December 2011, Jacob Granberry and Will Blew have been overseeing a land-development effort of truly epic proportions. Covering more territory than the city of Los Angeles, it’s about 70% complete and already contains about 8,000 structures. It’s so sprawling and ambitious, though, that nobody knows for sure just what’s there. “I haven’t seen near everything, and I started the damn project,” says Granberry.

Their undertaking happens to be a digital re-creation of Westeros, the fabled continent from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books and the HBO series based upon them, Game of Thrones. And they happen to be creating all those castles, towers, farmhouses, shops and ships in Minecraft, the online game from a Swedish start-up named Mojang that’s inspiring millions of people of all ages to go on building sprees. This virtual Westeros may be exceptional in scale–more than 500 volunteers have participated in its creation so far–but it’s also utterly typical of Minecraft. True, if all you want from a game is the ability to wander around a kingdom slaughtering zombies with a sword, you can get that from Minecraft. Millions do, and the game might have been a hit if that were all it offered.

But it isn’t destruction that makes Minecraft unique. It’s construction. The game is a Disneyland where the attractions are built by visitors. (Sometimes literally: players have painstakingly re-created the Anaheim, Calif., theme park, complete with working rides.) Think of a notable real or fictional locale, from Rockefeller Center to Hogwarts, and the odds are pretty good that there’s a spectacular rendition of it in Minecraft. Maybe several. Plenty of players use it to imagine worlds that exist nowhere else. And everything’s made out of blocks measuring one cubic meter apiece.

Now, insanely addictive video games, it’s fair to say, usually don’t have fabulous reputations among the unaddicted. At best they may be regarded as irritating time sinks (Farmville), at worst as potential threats to society (any violent game allegedly played by someone who turns out to be a mass murderer). Minecraft is different. The deeper you get into it, the more it looks like a form of self-education masquerading as entertainment, which is why parents tend not to see it as a scourge and teachers are bringing it into the classroom. “It follows rules, just like the real world,” says Mark Frauenfelder, the editor of Make magazine, the bible of the do-it-yourself hobbyists of all ages who make up the thriving maker movement. “You put together materials with varying properties. You have to be aware of physics. You have to understand levers and ramps and can even build electric circuits.”

No less lofty an authority than the United Nations sees Minecraft as a tool to improve human life. Last September, its U.N.-Habitat agency teamed up with Mojang to launch a program called Block by Block. It will use Minecraft to digitally reimagine 300 run-down public spaces in the next three years, giving people who live near them the chance to chime in on how they might be improved. First up: a dilapidated park in Nairobi’s business district and parts of its Kibera slum. “Someone says, ‘Ah, we’d like to have a skateboard ramp,'” says U.N.-Habitat’s Thomas Melin. “And click, click, click, there’s a skateboard ramp.”

Mojang–its name is the swedish word for gadget–didn’t set out to create a phenomenon or a big business. But Minecraft is both. It is an indie smash in a video-gaming era dominated by blockbusters, sequels to blockbusters and would-be blockbusters bankrolled by giant corporations such as Activision Blizzard and EA. Mojang grossed almost $240 million in 2012, nearly all from sales of Minecraft, whose PC version sells for $26.95. Other editions are available for Xbox 360, iPhone, iPad and Android. In total, about 25 million copies have been sold.

All that’s happened without any funding from outside investors or much of a marketing plan beyond cultivating a community on Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit and other online hangouts. Still tiny and independent, Mojang is headquartered in Stockholm’s Sodermalm district, far from the industry’s giants, in an area thick with trendy restaurants, quaint shops and small companies. (The area has gentrified considerably since it served as the setting for much of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels.)

Four years ago, Mojang didn’t exist, and Minecraft was a personal project by game developer Markus Persson, whose personal site says, “You can call me ‘Notch.'” (Most Minecraft fans do, and so will I.) Notch, who would become Mojang’s co-founder, public face and resident visionary, created Minecraft for one simple reason: he wanted it to exist. “I designed the game for myself–that’s an audience I know,” he told me recently, when we met in an intentionally gauche, James Bond-inspired Mojang conference room decked out entirely in gold materials.

Bearded, cherubic and self-effacing, Notch looks like a gamer, though not necessarily the leader of gamers he has become. Like most programmers, he began young, writing an adventure game for his father’s computer at the age of 8. Now 33, Notch cheerfully admits that he didn’t summon the concept that became Minecraft out of thin air. He says he drew crucial inspiration from Dwarf Fortress, a famously innovative, idiosyncratic and opaque fantasy simulation released in 2006. (Tech site Ars Technica called it “the most inscrutable video game of all time.”) An even more direct ancestor is Infiniminer, a 2009 game that was much like Minecraft–except for the fact that its inventor lost interest in it almost as soon as it was finished. Unlike Infiniminer’s creator, Notch kept plugging away. At first he worked on the game in spare moments while continuing in his job at a Stockholm company that made photo-album software. But long before the game was finished, he found that people were willing to pay for it. “The idea was to be self-sustaining,” he says. “I started charging for the game a couple of weeks in.”

A little over a year into the effort, he went full time. By early 2011, Minecraft the project had turned into Mojang the company, complete with a real office and actual co-workers. Along the way, Notch was quietly courting the growing community of Minecraft fanatics. He released experimental versions, blogged about his game-design decisions as he made them and uploaded teaser videos to YouTube. He also let players mold the game in ways he had never envisioned, using customization programs known as mods to add everything from volcanoes to zeppelins to their Minecraft worlds.

What those players were so enthusiastic about was a game that was both simple and deep. Minecraft, Notch says, “has a lot of complexity–but most of that complexity is optional.” There are two primary ways to play. In Survival Mode, you can’t even begin building stuff out of blocks made of various materials, from iron to sandstone to quartz, until you’ve fashioned your own tools and mined, found or otherwise acquired the blocks. Assuming you’re not killed on your first night by a horde of monsters. No matter how adept you are, building an accurate copy of something like the Arc de Triomphe in Survival Mode might be impossible.

That’s why the game also offers Creative Mode, which eliminates risks to the player’s well-being, adds the ability to fly and provides an unlimited supply of construction materials. Essentially, it’s the world’s greatest box of Lego pieces. For the record, Notch says he wasn’t thinking about the iconic Danish building toy when he created Minecraft but concedes that it was probably a subconscious influence, since he played a lot of Lego as a kid.

In either mode, the world of Minecraft doesn’t look that much like our world. Everything is rendered in a first-person view but with a low-resolution, pixelated effect, a little as if it were the most impressive new game of 1988. Players are represented by a default character nicknamed Steve–a swarthy blockhead with no neck, hands or feet. Even the monsters are too cute to be monstrous. Minecraft’s graphics are so rudimentary, Notch says, because they were the best he could muster when he was getting started. But his lack of artistic ability turned into one of the game’s defining traits. “A tree doesn’t look like a tree, but you know it’s a tree. It makes it feel more real, because a larger part of it takes place in your imagination.”

In November 2011, notch officially completed work on Minecraft 1.0. Then he did something unexpected: he fired himself just as his creation was becoming a huge success. “I played it for too many hundreds of hours,” he remembers. “After a couple of years at a job, I get bored at it and want to start something new. It starts to get frustrating after a while even if it’s fun.”

Notch began hatching plans for a new game and turned over primary responsibility for the game to his right-hand man, Jens Bergensten, 34, a ponytailed redhead better known in the Minecraft community as Jeb. Conspiracy theorists may have trouble accepting the notion that Notch truly handed off Minecraft supremacy to Jeb while remaining on the Mojang premises. (Obvious parallel: Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis cohabiting in the Vatican.) But both men insisted to me that the transfer of power has been real and effective. “When [Notch] stepped down as lead developer, he stopped playing Minecraft, more or less,” says Jeb. “He was afraid that if he came with suggestions for the game, he’d be commanding what we should do.”

The long-term vision that Notch and Jeb share for Minecraft consists in part of not obsessing over long-term vision. Mojang releases a few updates with new features each year; at the time I visited the company in Stockholm, it had just shipped version 1.5. “When it came out, we were already working on 1.6,” Jeb says. “That’s very unusual that we knew what was coming. For 1.7, we have a couple of options. But what it looks like in a year, I have no idea.”

Judging from Minecraft’s history, it’s the game’s players, at least as much as its creators, who will determine its future. They’ll continue to design new worlds and useful mods, share their work on YouTube and generally provide most of the incentive for fellow players to spend time with the game. For Mojang, getting in the way of the players would be more dangerous than making sure they have free rein to build, build, build.

A lot of those builders are kids. Minecraft attracts enormous numbers of teens, preteens and nowhere-near-teens; children as young as 3 are entranced by it. Notch says he didn’t plan it that way and isn’t positive why kids like Minecraft so much: “I might be a little childish,” he muses. “Or maybe children have really good taste in games.” Even if it was an accident, Minecraft is a game that both kids and their parents can love. While there’s combat and conflict, it has nothing resembling the graphic ghoulishness of 2012’s best-selling game, Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops II, which features severed limbs, exploding heads, gushing blood and rotting bodies, all rendered in as much detail as possible. “I’m grateful that Notch said from the beginning that he didn’t want gore,” says Jeb. “There’s violence, but it’s cartoonish.”

Kids become fans for different reasons. “For me, it’s like, you can do anything,” says 12-year-old Noah Sokolsky of Fanwood, N.J. “There’s always a surprise–every block you break, every block you build, every step you take. It’s exciting.” Among the things Noah has constructed in Minecraft: a lighthouse, a waterfall that splits in half to reveal a hidden door and a machine that spits out cobblestones. Noah’s 9-year-old brother Joshua is a fan too, but for more primal reasons: “You get to have all these weapons and fight monsters. I rarely build.” Eric, their father, has a guardedly positive attitude toward the game, though he does worry about its tendency to become a 24/7 fixation. (He admits to once secretly unplugging the household’s Internet router to foil plans by Noah and a sleepover buddy to begin playing Minecraft at 3 a.m.)

The luckiest young players get to spend time in Minecraft at school as well at home. MinecraftEdu, a partnership of Minecraft enthusiasts in Finland, Spain and New York City, helps teachers use the game as a virtual classroom for everything from geography to math to art; the company has sold its education-ready version of the game to about 1,200 schools to date. “We have been looking at 10% to 20% growth per month in schools that are using it,” says co-founder and CEO Santeri Koivisto. “We don’t see any end to this.” As with other aspects of the ever-expanding Minecraft community, the game’s creators are supportive of its uses in education but happy to let someone else take the lead.

Mojang’s willingness to hand off oversight for key parts of the Minecraft ecosystem reflects its desire to stay small, quirky and beholden to no one. Co-founder Carl Manneh, who serves as CEO, says one of his principal responsibilities is turning down proposals from would-be investors and producers of merchandise. “In business decisions, it’s easier to say yes, but I hear myself saying no all the time. With the success of Minecraft, all these doors are open to us. You have to step back and ask if it’s really right for us, and usually it isn’t.”

The company’s offices show signs of only minor splurging, like a wall covered with lavish faux-vintage portraits of staff members commissioned from a Chinese painting mill. The team can still squeeze around one unusually lengthy dining-room table, but those days can’t last forever. “We’re growing too fast,” laments Jeb. “When I started, the plan was to be no more than 15 people. Then suddenly, no more than 25. Now we’re almost 30 and looking to hire more programmers.” (The industry’s largest company by revenue, Activision Blizzard, has 6,700 employees.)

Mojang is expanding, cautiously, because it’s getting ready to branch out beyond the game that put it on the map. Minecraft Realms, an upcoming subscription service that lets players create and explore worlds on servers provided by Mojang, will eliminate the slightly nerdy task of setting up one’s own server–something players must do for now if they want to share the worlds they’ve built. The company is also planning to release a beta version of Scrolls, a long-awaited strategy game with card-trading elements reminiscent of Pokémon and Magic: The Gathering.

No Mojang game will inspire greater expectations than 0x10 c , Notch’s current project. (He pronounces that “10 to the C” but says others are free to call it whatever they want.) The space-travel saga is set in the year A.D. 281474976712644, and he’s already releasing tantalizing videos of his work in progress, just as he did when Minecraft was new. I wouldn’t expect 0x10 c to show up anytime soon, though: he told me that it’s going “very, very slow. I feel creatively trapped. I’m stressed out from it–it’s hard to tell if the game is going to be fun.”

In fact, Notch sounds nostalgic for Minecraft’s earliest days. “It was easier when nobody knew who I was,” he says. “Now, if I tweet a picture, millions of people scrutinize it. I’m still having fun, but I feel like I’ve drifted away from programming.” You get the feeling that he’d at least be willing to consider exchanging his present fame and fortune for the freedom of having nothing to lose. Which is good, because success in the video-game business is usually temporary. There are no guarantees that Minecraft will be a worldwide obsession indefinitely or that the company’s upcoming games will achieve even a fraction of its success.

For now, Mojang is treating its Minecraft windfall as an insurance policy that makes it, at least in the short term, indestructible. “We can pile up money from Minecraft and make games,” says Notch, sounding upbeat again and perhaps just slightly boastful, “and even if they’re not successful, we can still make games.” To use Minecraft’s language, the company is playing in Creative Mode, not Survival Mode, and it intends to keep doing so as long as it possibly can.

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