The video game industry is laboring through its cultural adolescence, and like most adolescents, suffering a severe identity crisis—minus the piercings and bad music. On the mainstream side, big publishers are spending more money on making games than ever before, which has led to major technical achievements, but also a dearth of original IP. No one at EA wants to throw away millions of dollars developing a game that might not make any money, a real risk when creating original games. The sum of all this has resulted in stagnation in the AAA game space, leaving veteran gamers starving for something new to spend $60 on.
What if the $60 price point is the problem? The indie game scene is making a strong case that this may be true. Developers like Double Fine, Rovio, and Johnathan Blow have used limited resources and immense creativity to create games that are cheaper—usually $15 or less—and more innovative than anything coming out of the big studios. No person or game makes this more clear than Swedish game designer, programmer, artist, webmaster, and any-other-game-job-you-can-think-of Markus Persson, aka Notch, and his as-yet-unpublished-but-insanely-popular game Minecraft.
If you haven't heard of Minecraft by now, you probably haven't visited WonderHowTo very often. It may have changed the world of video games forever—innovative in its customized gameplay and wildly popular, as well as profitable. At the beginning of the game, the player finds him or herself alone in a giant, randomly-generated world. They are given no instructions, and there is no stated goal. The player is allowed to use the game's mining, building, farming, and limited combat mechanics to construct whatever world they like. Almost 2 million people have paid between 10 and 15 Euros to do so (making Persson a very wealthy man, very quickly), and several million more have chosen to pirate the game and play it for free.
Persson—pronounced "Passion"—has been making games on a classic Commodore since he was eight years old. He got his start in the games industry at casual games site King.com, where he worked for four and a half years as a programmer. During this time he also co-created Wurm Online, a still-running MMORPG (he is no longer involved), which is similar to Minecraft in that the players use tools to create their own world. He ultimately left King.com to work for jAlbum, a web-based photo album software company, and it was there in May of 2009 that he started working on Minecraft as a side project. He released the Alpha version of the game only a week after he began. It wasn't long before it took off, and he was able to quit his day job to focus on developing Minecraft full-time.
In September 2010, Persson co-founded Mojang AB and finally hired a staff to help him further develop Minecraft, as well as other game projects. To this day, Persson continues to sell Minecraft through Mojang's website—with no publisher, no DRM, and no fear of piracy whatsoever.
And that's where Markus Persson (pronounced "Passion") becomes a truly unique figure in the industry. The piracy rate for Minecraft (the percentage of people who have obtained the game illegally) hovers around 70%, a figure that would have big publishers like Ubisoft scrambling to hire more lawyers and invent draconian new DRM (digital rights management) software to embed in their games. But not Persson. A member of Sweden's Pirate Party, he issued statements at GDC and the Independent Games Summit this year that offer an unusual take on the issue:
"Piracy is not theft... If you steal a car, the original is lost. If you copy a game, there are simply more of them in the world."
Persson lays the blame for disappointing sales figures and piracy at the feet of developers rather than consumers, further stating that game developers should, "Treat game development as a service... Make a game that lasts longer than a week. You can't pirate an online account."
Persson certainly has. Part of the reason that Minecraft has inspired such a rabid following is its constant development. The game has never seen a formal release—in fact, it's still in Beta and is updated almost every Friday. Persson and the Mojang team work on the game constantly, improving it and adding new value to their consumers' purchases. Bioware has done something similar with Mass Effect 2, adding to the game world frequently (though, unlike Minecraft, they do charge you for it), which has kept player interest alive much longer.
Another reason Persson may not be worried about piracy is scale. Activision has to support thousands of employees with its game releases, so each game has to rake in a high gross to pay their expenses and then some. When Persson sells a million units of Minecraft at 15 Euros each, the vast majority of profits go directly to him as sole creator and owner of the game.
Perhaps the most ringing endorsement for Persson was recently stated by BAFTA Fellow, Peter Molyneux, programmer and designer responsible for Populous, Theme Park, Black & White, and the Fable series. The BFTA's membership includes Elizabeth Taylor, Billy Wilder, Jacques Cousteau, and Stephen Spielberg, as well as the four biggest names in the history of video game design: Nolan Bushnell, Shigeru Miyamoto, Will Wright, and most recently, Molyneux.
When asked by IGN UK who in video games Molyneux thought would be receiving the honor in ten years time, Molyneux didn't name the lead designer of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Mass Effect, or Street Fighter 4. He named Markus Persson.
I hope for the sake of gamers everywhere he's right.