02 March 12
The Swedish developer behind the phenomenally successful game Minecraft received the Special Award at the GAME British Academy Video Games Awards on Friday 16 March.
Words by Jamie Russell
When Swedish programmer Markus Persson was nine, he wrote his first game: a punishing text adventure. In his teens, he became known by his online nickname ‘Notch’. At 31, he became a millionaire thanks to Minecraft, a game that wasn't even finished.
Like his constantly updated hit title, a blockbuster game about building with blocks, Persson's career is a work in progress. Today the 32-year-old has the industry at his feet, even turning down a job offer from Valve, the Pixar of video games. "I'm still a bit shocked that I did that," he laughs.
Minecraft’s 5 million plus sales are a rallying cry to indie developers to believe in themselves.
For many, he's an inspirational figure. Released without a publisher or marketing, Minecraft isn't just a poster child for digital distribution and user-generated content: its 5 million plus sales are also a rallying cry to indie developers to believe in themselves. When British developer Peter Molyneux (creator of Fable and Populous) was awarded a BAFTA Fellowship in 2011, he was asked who he thought would receive that honour in ten years’ time. Persson's name was the first from his lips.
"I don't really think of myself as an innovator," Persson says when quizzed about Minecraft's impact. "Most of the things I've decided to do were things I saw other people do. I've maybe just popularised some stuff and perfected the combination of certain elements, like letting people play a game before it's finished."
Such modesty is typical of the bearded, trilby-wearing Swede. A self-taught programmer, he spent his early years working for print shops, web studios and middleware software developers while making games in his spare time.
It was only when he joined King.com, an online portal for Flash games, that his hobby became his day job. Working with a designer and artist and tasked with creating a new title every 4-8 weeks, he thrived on the adrenalin. "You had to put a lot of effort into a short space of time but then you had something to show for it, which was very rewarding," he explains.
Minecraft lets players satisfy that same creative urge. It's the 21st century's answer to LEGO, a toolkit that doubles as a game ("a very difficult level editor with monsters" is how its creator describes it). Since Minecraft's release as a prototype in 2009, players have built everything from the Taj Mahal to scale models of the Starship Enterprise and a working 16-bit computer out of 1x1 retro-looking blocks.
"When I started out, I was hoping Minecraft would make a couple of hundred dollars a month; enough to pay for the bandwidth," he laughs. Today, it's earning over £160,000 a day in revenue and has allowed Persson to build his own empire, from dev studio Mojang to improbable but lucrative merchandising deals with, among others, The LEGO Group.
The coder turned entrepreneur is already thinking about his next game, albeit with trepidation. "If Minecraft is my magnus opus then I'm done," he frets. "I don't want to live in a perpetual anti-climax." As Peter Molyneux would probably agree, the chances of that are very slim indeed.
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