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Minecraft, $2.5 Billion, and the Founder Who Never Meant to Make a Hit

Minecraft's beginnings are not unlike the stories of other indie games, but its future stands in as stark a contrast as it can get.

by Zack Kotzer
Sep 15 2014, 8:00pm

Minecraft's beginnings are not unlike the stories of other indie games, but its future stands in as stark a contrast as it can get. 

After first being discussed over TIGSource, then gaining hype, excitement, feedback that snowballed immensely, the game already had a player base dense enough to be considered a major success by the time it was officially released in late 2011. It had over a million purchases during the beta alone. And that still was nowhere near the zenith point.

Now Minecraft is a game unlike any other. With a demographic that doesn't seem to know any age, the game has hooked those obsessed with creating Lego-like virtual monuments, all while puzzling parents over the near completely lack of violence (a topic that became an entire episode of South Park), being utilized as an educational tool, and becoming a source for mounds of merchandising. 

Minecraft certainly became a huge hit, and people are telling me it's changed games. I never meant for it to do either.

And now, a stunning first for the world of independent games, Microsoft has purchased the studio responsible for $2.5 billion, which Mojang is being pretty frank about. It's tone shared by Markus Persson, aka Notch, as he's decided to leave the company he founded.

"I don't see myself as a real game developer," wrote Persson on his blog today. "I make games because it's fun, and because I love games and I love to program, but I don't make games with the intention of them becoming huge hits, and I don't try to change the world. Minecraft certainly became a huge hit, and people are telling me it's changed games. I never meant for it to do either."

Many, whether they aspire to be a hitmaker or not, may not understand why someone would surrender something that's set someone for life. Even outside of Minecraft, independent games have made overnight millionaires out of alternatively minded programmers. 

The New Yorker has a good piece about the confusing state of success for the likes of Davey Wreden (The Stanley Parable) and Rami Ismail (Ridiculous Fishing, Luftrausers). Making a blockbuster isn't just a fast track to a pile of money. Hitting the big time means a lot of resources delivered to people who moments before had few, mounting expectations for follow-ups, and in the case of many game makers, success means vitriol from complete strangers.

While it doesn't seem directly inspired by recent nonsense that Phil Fish was attacked with, Notch's departing note links to a video critically breaking down the anger aimed at Fish. That video, created by Ian Danskin, describes Fish as a man despised as a concept more than as an individual, someone disproportionately targeted over and over for having so much publicity, and how that anger and attention feed each other like an ouroboros.

"(I) started to realize I didn't have the connection to my fans I thought I had," wrote Persson about watching the video essay. "I've become a symbol. I don't want to be a symbol, responsible for something huge that I don't understand, that I don't want to work on, that keeps coming back to me. I'm not an entrepreneur. I'm not a CEO. I'm a nerdy computer programmer who likes to have opinions on Twitter."

It's doubtful that anything resembling a majority of Minecraft's fans wish any harm on Notch, and given the commercial reception, it's perhaps unlikely the majority of its players even know his name. 

For the larger gestation of video games' existence, they were made by companies, and the concept of there being personas and celebrities developing and creating them is fairly recent. 

Kojima, Bleszinski and Miyamoto's public recognition is new, and if I were to throw Tōru Iwatani's name around, it would be a while before anyone would know that was the person who created Pac-Man.

This is why negative attention can feel so disproportional: an unfairly large percentage of the people who recognize you do so to harass you over differences of opinion and alterations, no matter how small, to your creation. The response feels out of hand.

"Considering the public image of me already is a bit skewed," writes Persson, "I don't expect to get away from negative comments by doing this, but at least now I won't feel a responsibility to read them."

Notch has seemed intimidated by big tech before, like when he scrapped the Oculus version of Minecraft after Facebook purchased the platform, so there may be an element of not wanting to be part of a larger creature. But his parting words seem to ring to other factors: not feeling connected to what he created, and certainly the negative response to it.

He mentions going back to doing Ludum Dares and "small web experiments," like his anxiety loaded and now sort of foreshadowing Drowning in Problems. He got a sample of what celebritydom tastes like for an independent game maker, he has had his face on late night TV, and his nerdy hat recognized far and wide. He's decided he doesn't like it. And while you can't erase yourself from making one of the most successful games of all time, you can attempt to go back to your roots with newfound familiarity.

What this means for Minecraft itself is difficult to say. It most definitely means Microsoft will try to keep it on their own platforms, though it being available on so many at this moment makes that feel like a moot point. (I bet some PS Vita users are a little anxious.) It might mean Microsoft will attempt to cobble together a sequel, though the game was so outside of the system in the first place its concept only lends itself to so much expansion. (Think of the celebration of LittleBigPlanet compared the lukewarm reception to LittleBigPlanet 2, which barely waited to follow.)

It may just mean that, going forward, Microsoft just wants all the money Minecraft will make, and with 2.5 billion invested they seem confident it's got plenty life left. Markus wants to make sure that that whatever Minecraft becomes is no longer perceived as one and the same as himself.

"I love you," writes Persson. "All of you. Thank you for turning Minecraft into what it has become, but there are too many of you, and I can't be responsible for something this big. In one sense, it belongs to Microsoft now. In a much bigger sense, it's belonged to all of you for a long time, and that will never change. It's not about the money. It's about my sanity."