GDC 2012: A few words with Minecraft's Markus 'Notch' Persson

In an intimate session led by SpyParty's Chris Hecker, Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson shared his thoughts on game design, his career, piracy, and much more.
As one of the industry's most successful indie developers, Markus "Notch" Persson knows how to make it as a game creator. He's grown from an independent programmer to an industry giant, and at GDC 2012 on Wednesday he took a moment to reflect on his design practices and how he came this far. In an intimate chat with SpyParty's Chris Hecker (complete with virtual fireplace), Persson reflected on a wide range of topics and issues, ranging from Minecraft's creation, his career progression, piracy, and much more. Hecker opened the session by asking Persson about his approach to balancing realism and abstraction in Minecraft. The game follows a number of principles from the real world -- fire spreads appropriately, for instance -- but other elements, like gravity, behave in very odd ways in the game world. Persson argued that it isn't about making things realistic or believable; he only wants to make a smooth experience for the player. "When you're playing the game, I wanted to try to make it as simple and possible and tailored for what the player is doing." Gravity, he added, doesn’t work realistically, because otherwise whole mountains could fall in on themselves and ruin players' hard work -- not to mention that it would be taxing on a technical level. Persson said that when he sets out to design gameplay mechanics, he looks at the experience at a very high-level, hoping to determine large-scale, overall goals. Once he starts actually creating the game, the smaller details start to work themselves out. "Whenever I make a game, I write down a bunch of visualizations and goals of what I would like it to be, but I don't really think about the mechanics of it," he said, adding that he refines his mechanics by looking for fun at an early level -- if something works well, it stays in the game. Building on mechanical design, Persson believes that it's important to settle on a consistent theme or setting to create a cohesive overall experience. Minecraft's primitive, outdoor theme, for instance, makes chopping down trees and gathering materials appropriate and satisfying. It also helps prime the player for what he or she may encounter. "The [game's] theme sets the expectations for the player," he said. "If you're playing a fantasy game, you'd want a sword, a horse -- which we don't have in Minecraft -- and that affects the game mechanics. That's why you don’t have a laser or something," he said. He also mentioned Super Meat Boy, arguing that if players controlled a realistic, human character, the game's jumping mechanics would stand out as odd and inappropriate. It's the game's cartoon theme that makes those mechanics fit.
Later in the session, Persson took a moment to reflect on his own personal development over the course of his career. He explained that his job has only gotten more complicated in recent years, spanning design, business, PR, and much more. "But what I identify myself as is a programmer, not even a game designer," he said. "I think because the company started from me working on my own, I became the public face … almost by accident." "Before I handed over [Minecraft's] lead role to Jens [Bergensten], it was frustrating not to be able to do stuff… but now it's more fun, but I hope to get to be more of a code programmer if I can," he said. Despite his programming background, Persson said he has become much more of a designer in recent years, and added that he built up those skills through sheer practice. After designing games long enough, he began to feel what he described as "an increase in courage." "I didn't know necessarily how to design a game, I was thinking like other people, but then I learned how to encourage the player, how not to encourage them," he said. One particular piece of design advice was that developers should play their games early and often. Only by going hands on with the game can they identify the game's successful (or unsuccessful) elements. "It's even more important [to play the game] when it isn’t fun," he said. "That's when you're nailing down the core mechanics. If the core mechanics aren’t fun, the game will never be fun." Near the end of the session, the conversation turned to piracy, and Persson noted that it really isn't as big of a problem as developers might think. One pirated game doesn't always mean one lost sale, for instance, and piracy doesn't mean your game won't make money. He also pointed out that new business models can also help curb the problem. Minecraft, for instance, allowed players to pay for a work in progress version of the game, and thus real customers gain access to all future updates and patches. "If you have a model like Minecraft's, you have lots of opportunities to convert pirates to paying customers," he said. "I still think piracy is wrong, but it's like if I tell my friend 'you're an idiot.' It's such a minor thing, it's ridiculously small!"

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