Markus "Notch" Persson, creator of Minecraft, pictured legging it through the streets of Stockholm
I suspect that Minecraft scares the shit out of the video games industry. The traditional video games industry, that is, which remains winningly committed to putting super soldiers or bug-eyed cartoon karate rabbits with names like Noodles McGee on the front of DVD boxes. That’s because in the old days, if you wanted a hit, you played by the rules. You had a carefully staged promotional campaign in which you talked about cover mechanics, enemy AI or why you’d decided your lead character’s sidekick should have a neon buzz-saw instead of a head. You wheeled out a sensitive, quietly handsome nerd to talk about his vision for a game in which most of the supporting cast looked like parts from a hillbilly motorbike workshop. Then, when launch day finally arrived, you hired Kelly Brook to stand outside the palace of Westminster wearing pants embodied with your logo, and you sent everyone in the press a box full of offal and a branded T-shirt. Simpler, more innocent times. I miss them, frankly. Particularly the offal, which is getting expensive these days. Minecraft didn’t do any of that stuff. No Noodles McGee, no buzz-saw heads or cover mechanics. No Kelly Brook and no branded T-shirts. The game doesn’t even come in a sodding box. Instead, you download it from the developer’s website, and the developer—a mild-mannered Swede named Markus “Notch” Persson, who now has more money than the space program—takes almost all of your payment as profit. He doesn’t even mind too much if you pirate it. Why should he? He already lives in a geodesic dome, made of Uranium, buried deep beneath the brittle crust of the moon. Which he owns. What made Minecraft so successful, then? In part, granted, it’s the business strategy. Notch didn’t wait to finish his game before releasing it. Who bothers with that shit any more? Instead, he allowed players to buy into an alpha, and then a beta, while the project was still coming together. Nice move: he built a community, funded development and started spreading the word all off the back of a single Paypal account. The other reason, though, is that Minecraft genuinely is kind of special. It’s a place more than a game, for starters: a giant, procedurally generated sandbox filled with mountains and trees, oceans and bubbling pits of magma, and it’s yours, all yours, to shape as you wish.
A fan-made (natch) trailer for Minecraft
Everything in Minecraft is built from little cubes, and these cubes can be removed by the player and then repositioned, allowing you to construct anything from a simple cave to a scale model of the Moscow subway system. Minecraft is Lego that you live in, with all the wonderful, aimless freedom that live-in Lego suggests. Sure, if you really want it there’s leveling up to do, pigs to slaughter, and a wonky end-game involving a giant dragon. If you fancy, you can play a version of Minecraft where you have to eat to stay alive, and where zombies and other weirdos come out at night and explode, often fatally, in your face. For a lot of players, however, Minecraft’s not about any kind of structure or challenge other than the structure and challenges they bring to it themselves. In other words, it’s about building a cock the size of Grand Central Station that you can also run around inside.
And it turns out that a surprising number of people really do want to build a cock the size of Grand Central Station and then run around inside it. They want to muddle through a largely empty game world, digging holes, accidentally setting themselves on fire or rakishly drowning in unpredictable torrents of blocky blue water. They’ll not only put up with a game with few obvious goals and absolutely no tutorials, they’ll tell their friends about it and then they’ll all grab a server and merrily build giant cocks together.
Look online and the depth of Minecraft love can be almost troubling. YouTube Minecrafters have made themselves famous by talking over videos as they play. Wiki Minecrafters have sounded out every last possibility offered by the game’s strangely delightful item creation system. Notch hasn’t just built an audience. At times, it looks like he’s built an army: hundreds of thousands of virtual architects and landscape gardeners who are fleeing this world to take over another, where the ocean is made of rippling pixels and the horizon is built from thousands of funny little boxes.
Markus "Notch" Persson pictured stuck between reality and the Minecraft game-state
And throughout it all, Notch himself has been so wonderfully reasonable about things: bemused and European in the face of his sudden riches and fame, refusing to stomp through the center of Stockholm with a gold Boeing 747 strapped to each foot and eager to mention the fact that the inspiration for Minecraft came from Infiniminer and Dwarf Fortress (not as sexy as it sounds, alas). Despite that, he’s shaken the video game industry until its teeth rattled, quietly suggested that most games might actually be getting it all wrong anyway, and paved the path for hundreds of other indies who are hell-bent on "Doing a Minecraft" themselves.
At times, it almost looks like he did it all by accident.
Illustration by Cei Willis