As a child, Markus Persson played endlessly with Lego, using the blocks to build increasingly complex designs, says the FT. When his father brought home a Commodore 128 when he was seven, he switched to computer games, occasionally inventing stomach aches so he could get off school to play.
As an adult, Persson combined those two activities to create Minecraft, recently described by Rolling Stone as “the most unlikely video game success of the decade” (see below). Last week it netted him a personal windfall of around $1.8bn when he sold his company, Mojang, for $2.5bn to Microsoft.
Known in the industry as “Notch”, Persson is “perhaps the first superstar games developer”. Bald-headed with a thick beard and “almost-ever present fedora”, he’s a figurehead to millions of pre-teens and other fans of Minecraft – a sort of digital version of Lego, which has attracted an estimated 100 million players worldwide.
Over the past week, he’s been accused of selling his soul by some of his 1.7 million Twitter followers, says The Independent. A vocal critic of big tech corporates (including Microsoft) on grounds that they destroy creativity and stamp on the digital rights of individuals (“Facebook creeps me out”), he was derided by many young fans.
For Persson, the matter was much simpler. “It’s not about the money,” he wrote. “It’s about my sanity… I’m not a CEO, I’m a nerdy computer programmer.”
Born in 1979, the son of a railroad worker and a nurse, Persson grew up in Edsbyn, a provincial town near Sweden’s eastern coast, says The New Yorker.
The family then moved to Stockholm, where he fell in with a group of schoolboy programmers, but a shaky period followed when his parents divorced and his father became depressed and went off the rails. Persson was devastated when he committed suicide in 2011.
Persson knew before he left school that he wanted to make games for living and eventually landed a job at Midasplayer – the developer which later evolved into Candy Crush Saga-maker, King.
However, he came to feel that the company, which churned out dozens of highly similar titles, “stood for everything he disliked”, says the FT. He began work on Minecraft in 2009, hoping to earn just enough money to fund development of a new game. Within 12 months it had been downloaded more than six million times.
Minecraft has always been highly profitable and Persson lives in a monochromatic luxury Stockholm apartment. His extravagances, notes The New Yorker, “are somewhat practical”: he flies to events in private jets and throws parties for fans.
In 2011 he gave away his £2.2m Mojang dividend to employees. The globe-trotting lifestyle, he explains, contributed to the end of his marriage. But at heart he is a shy man, increasingly keen on “simplifying his life”. First the wife; then the company, what next?
An unlikely billion-dollar success story
The runaway success of Minecraft has always “confounded the wisdom” of video-game critics and publishing mavens, says Simon Parkin in The New Yorker. For one thing, it “looks nothing like” the usual multi-million-dollar blockbuster: the graphics and sound effects are rudimentary – and it is “wilfully oblique”, with “no instruction manual and few explicit goals”.
You are dropped in a world of coloured square blocks, comprising mountains, valleys and lakes. Your first task is merely to chart the terrain around you. But when night falls, monsters rise and “pursue you with terrifying single-mindedness”.
Unless you dig a shelter, they’ll get you. At daybreak, when they retreat, you’re free to range around and build whatever you want. But however you express yourself, “every night you must retreat into your creation to hide”.
Some game-design rules are carved in stone, developer Peter Molyneux told David Peisner in Rolling Stone: “teaching people to play, having objectives, a character… Minecraft threw all that away”.
A “rabid community” of gamers has customised it endlessly, building everything from a copy of Denmark, to the Taj Mahal, to the Starship Enterprise. “I was sent a ‘cease and desist’ letter by Universal studios,” says Persson. “I had to explain we hadn’t made it.”
A community quickly sprang up: YouTube channels mushroomed and players shared their adventures. It became “more than a game – it was a platform”. Tapping into that community was a key attraction for Microsoft.
For Persson, success has always been double-edged, says Richard Milne in the FT. He has the money he needs to do what he likes, but it has blocked him creatively. He doubts he can ever repeat the success of a game whose inspiration began in childhood. But he’ll have a go, free from the pressures of management.
“I’m finally programming again,” he told Rolling Stone. “Probably won’t lead anywhere, but I feel productive.”