Notch talks 0x10c, Minecraft, learning the industry, Diablo 3, and more in this candid interview
It’s hard to talk to Minecraft creator and fedora enthusiast Markuss “Notch” Persson during a show like PAX. He stops and speaks to everyone when they say hello or want to ask a question, and there is always someone who wants a moment of his time. “I can be very late for meetings,” he told me, laughing. That’s the other thing I noticed during our talk; Persson speaks with great enthusiasm, and seems genuinely happy to talk about the gaming industry and Mojang’s place in it. We were able to talk after hiding in a hallway off the show floor, and his insights into gaming proved fascinating.
Ben Kuchera: So you’re one of the more interesting figures in gaming, but I told people we’d be talking, and they all just wanted to know about the hat. So let’s get it out of the way… why do you wear a fedora?
Markuss “Notch” Perrson: Jacob [Porsér, one of the founders of Mojang] started wearing a hat before Minecraft was a thing, and I thought I should try wearing a hat. Just to try it. So I started wearing a hat, I had a smaller hat and kind of around that time I started appearing in pictures and press and stuff, so it turned into a thing, and I bought a fancy fedora instead of the first one I had.
So do you have a room full of fedoras somewhere, or is there just one? Or is there just the one legendary, +1 Fedora?
There’s just the one +1 Fedora! (laughs) I had another one that rolled up that I gave away at the last PAX, then I bought a new one, a beaver fur super-fancy hat which is way more fancy than the clothes I wear, but still. It turned into a thing. It’s fun to have it, and it really works if it’s raining or something.
The early days of Minecraft, and learning the business
When you were young, did you always know you wanted to create things?
No, not necessarily. I still don’t know if I want to create things, I just find programming interesting. Well, okay the last five to seven years I’ve gotten very interested in game design, and trying to figure out what drives gamers, and I like to play with that. But I’m not really interested in stories, I like tools to play around in.
You wrote an interesting blog post about the beginnings of Minecraft, was there a moment that Minecraft stopped being something that was just successful, and it became something that you knew was going to be huge?
I think it started when Valve posted about it on the Team Fortress blog. Valve is probably the company I respect the most, if they ever release Episode 3. When they actually posted about it, and said the reason they did it was to get in contact with me, that’s when I went ‘Oh my god, people actually care about it.’ Which meant a lot.
The numbers were already kind of high, it was selling well, but it felt like it could end at any moment. But that’s when it got some industry cred, and felt like a turning point.
Was it hard to transition from making games with people you know to having offices and dealing with business meetings?
It’s been kind of gradual, just a couple of years, so fast, but kind of gradual. I find it interesting, a lot of it. I wish I didn’t, because I just want to program. But it’s very interesting to think about business implications, whatever that is, and all the buzz words, and trying to figure out why people have those buzz words and if it applies to us. Does it have to apply to us? Trying to figure out what exactly running a company, what it’s like. I don’t run the company, Carl [Manneh] does that, but I’m still on the board.
So what are your day to day responsibilities? Do people ask for your input on key decisions?
The company is me, Carl, and Jacob. We’re the board and we make all the decisions, and it’s usually Carl gets involved with someone who wants to do something or he thinks something is interesting and he asks me or Jacob what we think, then we have like board dinners, we try not to have board meetings because that’s too formal, so we just have dinner we were talk about it. When it’s just three people that works well.
But the day-to-day stuff is basically, right now it’s a lot of sitting around and doing Twitter and email. I try to recharge my batteries for the space game. I haven’t been doing much actual work, I’ve been doing like corporation work, like biz-dev work, whatever that is, but not much of what I want to do, which is game development.
Minecraft was a huge success on Xbox Live Arcade, to an almost surreal degree, and the original game was released and then you built on it. Is it frustrating to have a version of the game so many people are playing where there’s an entity between you and the players?
It’s not that bad, somehow we managed to get in the contract that we can do free updates, which they don’t do. Somehow Carl managed to do that.
Well, not “somehow,” you have a lot of leverage in this situation.
It’s not like you’re a tiny indie hoping someone is going to play your game.
Yeah, I think we managed to convince them based on the fact that it worked on the PC. So that’s how we did it, I understand why it happened. But it’s kind of… it’s a unique position to have. And we have 4J [Studios] doing all the development, so it’s kind of two layers between us and the player. It goes through Microsoft and through 4J to get it out there. But it’s an older version of the game, it’s playing catch-up and will never be the same as the PC, and the PC has mods and everything.
To me it feels like a time machine, like players playing an old version, the Xbox version. So I feel like I already had that interaction and I know how well the older version worked. Yeah, it’s frustrating. I wish we could do more cross-talk on that.
You’re very outspoken on Twitter, and there’s even been jokes where you tweet that anything will be a story on Kotaku just because you tweeted it. Do you find yourself policing how you interact with people?
I try not to censor myself on opinions, because I want people to have opinions and we don’t have any investors to be careful about. The only risk I guess is getting sued. I don’t curse that much, and I try not to have controversial political opinions, expect for things I really care about like patents and stuff. So I don’t necessarily say who I’d vote for in the American election, so I do kind of censor myself that way. I don’t think people follow me for that reason. But I will state opinions on the game industry and I’ll do stupid jokes and stuff.
You’ve kind of had a rocky relationship with the games press, do you feel like you’ve been burned in the past?
No, 99% of the gaming press are awesome people who care about games. Then you have a couple percent who don’t really care about games, they care about clicks, and that’s very frustrating, because you take the time to do an interview and a photo shoot and some of the things turn out good and they run some tabloid crap.
Yeah, I pick and choose who I talk to.
0x10c and finding the fun in games
So how playable is… I hope I’m going to say this right. Ten to the see? (A quick note: I can’t begin to explain this game within the context of the interview, so dive in. Emulated computers and all. Also, spelled out it looks like 0x10c)
Yeah! You can pronounce it any way you want.
Is it in a playable state? There’s almost no information out, and people are hungry for news.
There’s a physics engine you can walk around and a room builder thing, so it’s kind of playable, but it’s nowhere near final. Which is frustrating. So I’m going to back to that now after PAX basically. And I might possibly start over, because it feels like… it’s not fun, the stuff you’re actually doing. If it’s not fun to walk around the spaceship then the game isn’t fun. So I need to figure that out and try to, not necessarily gamify, but add more instant gratification.
I was reading the game’s website and the information you’ve released and looked at everything I could, and it seems so ambitious, with the emulated computer, but it’s hard to nail down what the game is going to be. Do you know in your head what the players are going to be doing on a moment-to-moment basis?
I have no idea what’s going to be fun and engaging. We’ve discussed some scenarios, and talked about things like how realistic should the physics be, and it should be super-realistic, but then we talked about what if you crashed into a planet, because landing a space ship is difficult. What is the most fun experience, crashing into the planet and you just go and die? That could be fun, like a Rogue-like could be fun, more like a simulator.
But it would probably go more of the angle like the Star Trek series where you crash into the planet and your engine breaks, and you have to go around and scavenge parts and have to repair the ship. So try to get the emergent stuff like that happening is kind of what I think will be the fun thing. And of course space battles, because space battles are pew pew fun.
You’ve said that when you go out into the multiverse, because of the processing power that’s going to be a monthly fee. Do you know how that’s going to scale, and how much computing power you’re going to need to run that world?
We’ve actually managed to tie that into the game design, fortunately, so every ship will have a generator, which has a constant wattage of power, and even with singleplayer and multiplayer because that’s fun, you need to shut off the lights to have a cloaking device, that’s a fun game play element. And we can actually calculate the cost of things, like how much is the physics cost for opening a door, how much for an emulated CPU.
We can kind of scale that wattage. We’re going to avoid the temptation of allowing people to pay more to get two generators, and rather encourage people to work together, because we don’t want it to be pay to win. I don’t know how we’re going to stop people from having fake accounts, but we’ll try to figure out some game play that helps that.
Then we calculate the cost of a CPU and guesstimate the cost of doing the physics for the space ships. We have it fairly nailed down, and we’d like a fairly good margin, we’re thinking like five euros [a month], but we’ll think about what we’ll actually land on.
Do you have a time frame of when you’d like to see the game released?
I always miss my terms, but I’m hoping to get something done in like six months, where people can actually play it without the multiverse and everything, preferably even sooner. It depends on how into the flow I get. If I find something that’s actually fun, like running around and repairing something is fun, then I just sit an entire week and work on it, so it might be faster. If I keep running into problems, which are very boring and I have to do this and it’s not gaming, then it’s going to take way longer.
Steam and Kickstarter
Have your feelings on Steam changed at all? They’re doing things like Greenlight, but it seems like you’re very hesitant to put your own games on Steam.
I think Steam is a very good service for the customers. The only thing I don’t like is that they reserve the right to remove all your games and account, which is bullshit. I understand the legal reasons, and they have to do it for their partners, and I don’t think they’re going to do anything, they’re not going to remove it. But having that constant threat is not cool. I want to buy a game and be able to play it in 20 years. I still play Doom, I don’t want it to be Valve closes down and I can’t access my games, and then I have to do it through piracy. That’s the only thing I don’t like towards the players.
But with us we have so many registered users, and with Steam we can’t really control those users. So for us it can’t really go on Steam. But for many other developers it makes a lot of sense.
Do you ever think you’ll reconsider that on a game per game basis in the future? You could release something that would be a very good fit for Steam.
I’m constantly debating whether or not we should put it up on Steam anyway. Because the people could even get a Steam code if they buy the game, I don’t know what they would really do. Or if we should just not do Steam at all and try to come up with our own thing, or whatever. Right now we don’t know what we’re going to do. We’re just focused on the games still. It’s an interesting opportunity, so we try not to waste it.
How many emails do you get from people asking you to back their Kickstarter, or to promote it?
Quite a lot. Most of them are people who understand what kind of games I like, they say they think I’ll like it and I look at it and think it’s pretty cool. But I don’t tweet all of it, I try to only tweet the really good stuff. The hardest parts are when people I’ve met a couple of times, they have a thing going on and it’s not in my genre of games. I try to do something like I don’t tweet a request, which sounds like a policy thing? Which is kind of true, when someone asks me to retweet something, I kind of knee-jerk and don’t.
What draws your eye to your Kickstarter? I always get the sense you have fun with Kickstarters.
You also donate at the large levels, you’re always very enthusiast, and you seem to really enjoy it. What kind of things do you look for in a Kickstarter?
Nostalgia unfortunately works great on me. The teams that are passionate about their product. Like the Planetary Annihilation stuff? They are so passionate about the project. It seems like a cool team, I’ve met a couple of those guys before, and that was just a pre-rendered video so it’s like.. I don’t know. I shouldn’t be excited about it. But it’s such an over-the-top concept, like you can throw stuff at planets! Sure! That seems like something I’d like. It looks like Total Annihilation.
You’ve tweeted about it a few times, but have you had a chance to try an Oculus Rift?
What did you think?
It’s awesome. I’ve always been interested in VR, but it’s always kind of been so bad it loses traction immediately. I think this one is just about the threshold of gaining traction. I think people are going to start doing clones of it, doing their own thing, perhaps that would be bad for the guys if other people started doing it. But it’s very good. It’s still low-resolution, and there’s some blurring when you’re looking around, but it’s very, very good. I put it on and the room I was in just vanished. I noticed that I’m very short in Doom. I’ve never noticed that in the game before, but I’m very short!
We had a conversation with them yesterday, and they said Carmack had to actually shorten the player in this version. So you are shorter!
You are! I see.
What have you learned about the industry by coming out with a monster hit first. You had a strong base to build from. Do you think the way you view the industry is colored by that?
I think it’s almost like we don’t have to view the industry. We can do our thing if we want. Because we have such huge success, we can kind of go and find our own thing. I’ve been in games for so long that I don’t think we want to do that, I still want to be involved in the industry. It’s interesting, because I’ve been retroactively learning about all this stuff that I haven’t been involved with, like being a game developer. I did free games, and competitions for a while, but Minecraft was the first thing I charged for, and that blew up.
I’m still an indie at heart, but I’m trying to learn about the actual industry, whatever you want to call it.
So what have you learned? If you had a magic wand, is there anything you’d change about how games are made?
I get frustrated by the publisher-developer relationship, where developers get none of the money and the publishers get to make all the decisions and they have the sequel to a game be made by a totally different studio and it sucks. So that frustrates me. I want the same team to make the sequel if you’re going to make the sequel, I don’t just want the same name.
How much do you get to actually play games?
Quite a lot! It depends on what’s released, if a good game I really like I’ll play it basically non-stop except for work and sleeping. I was playing Diablo III for a very long time until I noticed the end game was bad. But up until then? Many, many hours and it’s the best time I’ve had, but then a brick wall and no more fun.
How many hours did you play? I understand what you’re saying, but from my point of view I play so many $60 games where they’re over in ten hours. And then you hear people who put hundreds of hours into Diablo III…
Oh yeah, absolutely! I don’t regret buying it. I was expecting it to be more like Diablo II kind of the end game, or like Dungeon Siege, which I really liked, especially Dungeon Siege II. Where you build your character towards the end game, and then there is no end game, it kind of feels like you’ve wasted your time. Because you’re expecting there to be some kind of payoff for it. But if Diablo III was the first one in the series, I would have loved it.
Who else in the industry do you look for in terms of inspiration? Who else is knocking out it out of the park?
There are a lot of people who are doing that. Valve obviously, I still play TF2 a lot. What else do I play? There are many indie games I like, Fez was awesome. I still have three of the anti-cubes to find. I’m going to look at the spoilers soon, I feel stupid.
Do you have the serial killer book with all the scribbles and notes?
Yeah! I decoded the alphabet before I found the cheat thing, because I went for the first anti-cube speech and I kind of figured it out. I said that is probably ‘hi’ or ‘hello’ or something and I just kind of worked it out.
There’s a lot of them. I haven’t played it yet, but I’ve been looking at DayZ a lot, but I haven’t managed to install it.
It’s crazy, I can’t get it to work. I’ve been wrestling with it.
Yeah, but I’ve been using computers for a fair bit of time! I should be able to install a mod for a game. I watch Youtube videos of it and stuff, and I think I’m kind of scared to play it because it’s going to take up all my time. The new Spelunky I really liked, Plants vs. Zombies I’ve bought on like five different devices. It’s weird because I shouldn’t like that game because it’s too easy, but it really works for me.
Do you find you’re easily distracted by other games when you’re trying to get things done?
No, not really. When I’m programming, I’m programming. When I’m playing games I’m playing games. Well, if there’s a new good game I will sacrifice worktime to play it. On Oblivion, I had about 60 hours before I started the main quest. I tried liking Skyrim, but there’s something about it I didn’t like. Maybe it’s too gray.
How much of a day-to-day schedule do you keep? Do you get up and code every day?
I keep fairly regular hours. Okay, recently I’ve been kind of late for work, like around ten. I try to get in the same time as everyone else, but I kind of… I’ve been a bit late in the summer. But I work until five or six and go home, play games, and then I try to only play during lunch hour or the gaming Friday that we have in the office. After lunch on Fridays, we play games. We call it research. So yeah, it usually works, but the speed of the development definitely depends on how inspired I am or how fascinated I am by what I’m doing.
So if I’m doing something that’s not really fun, it’s way slower. Even if I force myself to actually write code, it’s somehow very slow. That’s why I like the 48-hour challenges, because then it’s like… for two days and after 48 hours I’m done. It’s easy to force yourself to do stuff, but then you’re a mental brick by the end of it.
So I have one last question, and I’m not sure if this means anything, but people wanted me to ask it: what was your old Quake tag?
My old Quake tag? No. I’m not going to do that. (laughs)
I don’t get it, what’s going on with your Quake tag?
Oh my god. I used to have a nickname, and I switched to Notch, and I think it’s very fun not to tell anyone. I’m not going to comment on my old Quake name.
Are there people out there who do know?
Yes, there are people who know. I’m proud of them for not telling the general public. It’s turned into this stupid thing where I keep it a secret. If I give you the name of who knows it you’re going to find them, so no! I do like it, it’s funny. Sometimes people come up to me and call me that nickname, and I know they knew me from a while ago.