Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Man Behind the Mines, Markus “Notch” Persson.

There's been a lot of news lately about the creator of Minecraft, best known online by his nickname “Notch.” As a developer, he's one of the respected pillars of video game culture for being all around decent to his many fans, and with some of the studios out there, the bar isn't set particularly high with regard to customer service. (Yes, I'm talking about you, Sony, EA and Activision.) With the possible exception of Valve's Gabe Newell, I'd go so far as to say that Markus Persson is the best loved industry figure by the vast majority of geeks. With his name in the news a little bit, it seems as though right now is the perfect time to talk about why.

Seeing as how I wore a similar hat and coat throughout college,
I also approve of his fashion sense.

Notch is the founder of Swedish game studio Mojang, and his phenomenal rise to success with indie smash hit Minecraft is well known. (I've even written about it once already.) As a designer and game developer with, Notch had a “day job” working on titles like Wurm Online. What he really wanted to do was to branch out on his own and create something that he could support, and even sell himself. Inspired by Infiniminer from Zach industries and the roguelike game Dwarf Fortress, the combination of procedurally generated block-mining with crafting and monsters in a roleplaying-like setting got him started on Minecraft. Soon after, he quit his full-time job to work on it, a decision that paid off. The success of millions of sales from what started as a personal design project allowed Persson to found Mojang as a company, and to hire a few employees.

As months have gone by, the company has grown, and continued to update their flagship product while working on a follow-up game, an online collectible card game with board gaming elements called Scrolls. Much of the news these last few weeks has focused on Scrolls, as a controversy around the title of the upcoming release erupted online. Bethesda Softworks, the studio behind the Elder Scrolls series of roleplaying games, has had a pretty good relationship with Notch and Mojang. They've been complimentary of each other's work, as Mojang employees are huge fans of Bethesda games and vice-versa. The positive relationship between the companies made it extremely surprising when Notch got a letter from a Swedish Attorney's office demanding that the use of the word “Scrolls” be eliminated from the title of the new game or a lawsuit would be forthcoming.

Yeah, I was just about to confuse this logo with one for Skyrim.

Cue the torches and pitchforks. It is ludicrous that anyone could confuse “Scrolls” with :The Elder Scrolls,” or that use of a single word shared between titles constitutes infringement. Bethesda has been taking a beating in the press over the legal bullying of a much smaller company run by a highly popular developer. In fairness to Bethesda, they are owned by a media conglomerate called ZeniMax that aggressively defends the copyrights associated with their companies, and some of this can be boiled down to a simple overreaction. Copyright law is murky at best, and claiming to know for certain what is legal and what is not is a great way to get into a pointless and frankly boring debate without hope of resolution. What is clear, however, that where there is a case of infringement, a company is required to defend their intellectual properties in court, or forfeit the right to do so later.

While Notch hasn't kept quiet about the situation, he isn't exactly fanning the fires of the angry mob. He's been forthright about the whole thing, saying on his blog that it is “partly lawyers being lawyers, and trademark law being the way it is.” He'd offered before the lawsuit to make assurances that every possible step to avoid confusion between the franchises would be taken, including a promise to never put any words in front of “Scrolls” in the title upon the game's release and in any possible future expansions. Today, (August 17th) Notch further made light of the situation by proposing a “trial by combat” between Bethesda and Mojang, with Quake 3 as the battlefield. Winner take all. I somehow doubt ZeniMax media will go for it, but I appreciate the nod to Tyrion Lannister implicit in the offer.

Casterly Rock approves of this proposal.

Markus Persson also recently celebrated a moment in his personal life with his fans, as he got married on August 13th, and announced a special offer for anyone who still hadn't yet purchased Minecraft. On the weekend of his wedding, a 2-for-1 sale was available on the game, one copy purchased for yourself, and one for “someone you wub,” according to the site. Personally engaging the fan community and attempting to provide some additional content even when personal obligations and the time sink that comes with a one man operation turning into a multinational game studio continues to endear him to geeks. Events like this have converted many users who have pirated minecraft, which has no DRM besides an onscreen acknowledgement that the user is playing with a pirated copy, and lack of access to official update servers.

Notch has been forthcoming about his views on pirating games, indicating his beliefs that major game studios are approaching the problem using ineffective and potentially harmful strategies, while making it clear that he doesn't believe piracy is OK. A member of the Swedish Pirate Party, he's come out publicly saying that “pirated games do not translate into lost sales,” a position that is at odds with most of the gaming (and other media) industries. Though the piracy numbers on Minecraft are high, value is continually added to the game, and the fanbase is engaged on a personal level so that pirates can be converted into customers. As for the pirates that refuse to pay anything, no matter how small, for content, expensive and ineffective tools like DRM won't be a part of Mojang's strategy. In general, those schemes tend to frustrate legitimate customers while doing nothing to stop piracy, and Notch knows it.

Soon to be no longer the scariest thing in Minecraft. I might recommend
Googling "Endermen" for a preview of one of the upcoming monsters in 1.08.

Finally, Mojang has also been in the news about the current release of a mobile edition of Minecraft, the upcoming “Adventure Update,” and the upcoming full release of the transition from Beta to full game at the recently announced MineCon convention in Las Vegas this November. 1.08, the next update and most likely the last content update before the full release of Minecraft, promises to add a LOT of rpg, exploration and combat-type content. A redesign of dungeons, rewards, the combat system, new monsters and NPCs with their own villages are planned for the release. The most significant major content overhaul since the “Halloween Update” that added the Nether or “Hell” dimension, many fans of the game (including me) are eagerly awaiting an official release date. I'm sure that when the time comes, I'll be loading up the game and ready for a full review.
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Alpha said...

Good lord, Endermen are horrifying.

Zombie Ad said...

I don't 'get' it, but I do think it is a superb achievement.

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