From indie game hero to billionaire schmuck: What the story of Minecraft can teach your company about innovation
Notch, Minecraft, and Microsoft
On the morning of June 14, 2014, Notch – born as Markus Persson – fired a momentous tweet. Worn down by social media haters and unmatchable expectations of his fans, he asked: “Who wants to buy my company?” Someone in Redwood picked up the phone, and Microsoft eventually bought Mojang and the game Minecraft for about 2.5 billion dollars.
But how indie game designer manage to bootstrap his way from Edsbyn, Sweden, to a tasteless 80-million-dollar mansion in LA? An estate, Jay-Z and Beyonce, also wanted to buy but were outbid by Persson. Was it sheer luck? God-given talent? Or did he (maybe unknowingly) apply some universal recipes which promise success in different circumstances?
The gaming industry has written a tremendous success story in the past decades, and its success has attracted curious observers from different sectors. Huge gaming companies achieve great things with even higher piles of money. They invest in great talents and new technology.
But there are also some indie game studios which manage to snatch a piece of the pie. Sometimes with ingenious creativity, sometimes by outsmarting the market through game thinking. Like Notch, they apply the game thinking rules of thumb. So, let us have a closer look at Notch and Minecraft’s story and see if there are some secrets of success that can also help conventional companies step up their innovation game.
How was Minecraft created, nourished, and exploited?
There is a genius part: Notch broke the mold and basically every written and unwritten law of game design. The game had only e few rules, no story, and no dynamics. Instead, it was just a giant sandbox with ridiculous aesthetics. Some of his early companions say that Notch was his own one-man-army. A universal genius with sufficient skill in all traits necessary to create a game. Some arts, some design, some sound, definitely coding skills, and maybe even an in-depth knowledge about the theory and history of games and play. The game is so unique in many ways that Persson will probably never create anything groundbreaking, let alone commercially successful. Persson was obsessed with making games. He quit his old job, not only because of Minecraft’s success but also because he was banned from making games in his spare time.
But there are two and a half patterns which are applicable in the real economy:
Immediately after finishing the first prototype of his game in May 2009, Persson pushed his work from his apartment onto a public stage. He wrote about his project on TIGSource – a forum for independent game designers. Five weeks after starting to work on Minecraft and four weeks after the first public mentioning of the game, he began to sell copies of his alpha version for ten bucks apiece. Within two days, he sold 40 copies.
As he didn’t provide any manual or even basic written rules, people started to discuss the game vividly on sites like 4chan and Reddit. The game provided a steep learning curve for its players, but still most preferred to ask other players. Notch participated in those discussions and had a very open ear for all input provided by the players. Some early fans said he literally answered every question – game related or not.
Until March 2010, he had sold 6400 copies. On average he sold 24 copies per day, but in the last days of that month sales already reached 200 copies per day. A few months later, sales reached 15.000 games per day and he decided to quit his day job and founded the studio Mojang together with two junior partners. At the same time sales got another boost up to 200.000 copies. The beta version was priced at 20 Euros and got released in November 2010. In January 2011 one million copies had been sold. By April, it was at two million units. In August, three million. In November Minecraft sold its four millionth copy.
Through all this time, Notch released a new version of the game every Friday. Feedback was gathered and integrated into the next week’s update. Instead of fencing the game, he opened it up and facilitated the creation of mods by players— Notch even incorporated the best ones into the official game. Minecraft became a platform.
Hundreds of VCs tried to grasp a piece of the action. Notch turned down every offer they made. Not taking their money did prevent his shares of the company from diluting, and built up his image of an indie game messiah even further.
In 2012 the nerdy Notch was a solid two-digit millionaire and celebrity of the gaming industry. This was a lot to stomach for him.
When the transaction with Microsoft went through, Minecraft was already the best-selling video game of all time. On its 11th anniversary in May 2020, Microsoft announced that Minecraft had reached over 200 million copies sold across platforms with over 126 million monthly active players.
So which rules of game thinking do emerge in the story of Notch and Minecraft?
Rules of game thinking #1 – Focus on super fans
Notch did neither rely on market research nor think he was a mastermind able to develop a game hit without asking for feedback. He set up a connection to his fanbase and used its input as the primary compass for the game’s development.
The input was valuable, indeed. It enabled Notch to decide which parts of the idea and the game drive the player experience and which elements shall be dumped or adjusted.
The fan-community created a priceless boost for Minecraft’s sales. Without spending a single Euro on advertising, Minecraft achieved a humongous media coverage.
If the Notch had thought about target groups and dynamics, the game would never have reached the market. With the help of the community, the player-base incrementally outgrew everything that was imagined having been possible.
The players’ experience was not only about the game itself, but also the community experience. People played for the appreciation of like-minded players and the joy of creating worlds with Minecraft.
Rules of game thinking #2 – Make them pay for your ideas.
The first unfinished version of Minecraft was priced and sold for 10 € and the beta version for 20€. Selling the game so early impacted the story of Notch in two ways: First, it had an indirect financial impact. The cash flow was sufficient to stay self-financed. It not only covered the development costs and also paid for rents and meals of the founding team. Indirectly, staying independent enabled the team to adhere to their quality standards. For a long time, no decision was made concerning VC’s necessities but only concerning the player community’s needs.
Furthermore, the business case for Minecraft was rock solid in a very early stage. You only know you are onto something when people open their wallets. You often do not get honest feedback for ambitious ideas. People will rather say, “I love your idea” to protect your feelings than say, “I would never pay for this crab and who does pay for it is either your mother or fucking stupid” to protect you from investing your time and money into a ridiculous venture.
Rules of game thinking #3 – prototype with what you have.
This rule means testing your idea with the cheapest means, which still give you valid data. Notch did not only get inspired by other games but also used the free and publicly available source code of the game Infiminer. The blocky graphics characteristic for Minecraft is not an embodiment of Notch’s minor skill, but his will to get player feedback as soon as possible. He was too impatient to polish the graphics and was confident that the core mechanics could be tested either way.
Rules of game thinking #99 – create a playful organization.
A playful organization creates an environment that enables employees to reach their full potential through playful approaches to almost every challenge.
Mojang had some aspects of a playful organization: For example, every Friday, all employees could play video games or work on their own projects not related to Minecraft. The management would also organize creative breakouts and team events regularly. And for a while, this atmosphere motivated the larger share of the team. But the organizational culture also had some negative aspects. Play and purpose were abused to replace a remuneration perceived as fair. Employees had the chance to work on the biggest game ever and to participate in spectacular team events. Still, everything was only granted at the management’s discretion without any formal base.
And this is not a resemblance of our idea of a playful organization: There was no sufficient degree of employee participation. Neither concerning strategic decisions nor financial success.
The controversy about Notch
When the sun sets in Minecraft mean creatures appear in the game. And there is also a darker site to Markus Persson. His subliminal homophobic and racist tweets suggest he is a schmuck. Some of his remarks were so unbearable that Microsoft did not invite him to celebrate Minecraft’s 10th anniversary.
Some people even say the Notch stole his game. The developer of Infiminer is the actual creator of Minecraft and Notch can only be respected for his sense of business but not for his genuine creation.
Some other fans still worship him. Notch has furthermore returned to what he loves most: creating games. He participates in game jams all over the world and is said to be a modest guy.
About the author
I am a Game Thinker, Consultant, and fanatic believer of theory Y. My wife says I am unintentionally amusing. On average only 2 out of 100 people become more stupid by talking to me.
Co-Founder of Monokel Consulting, Serious PlayScape and RokaEnergy.