Markus “Notch” Persson and the Far Lands of Minecraft

Minecraft screenshot

If you go far enough in Minecraft, you’ll reach the end of the world. The playable map only extends for 30 million blocks in each side. Past that point, you discover a weird, shimmering boundary, and if you start to cross that boundary, you suffocate as if you were stuck in a solid block.

I’m getting all this from the official Minecraft wiki, because you can really only get there by teleportation. (Despite this, someone is walking there by hand – that would be Kurt of Far Lands or Bust. At his current pace, according to the New Yorker, he’ll get there in 2036.)

Markus Persson created the tech demo for Minecraft in 2009 and released it officially in 2011. Last week, Microsoft acquired Mojang for around $2.5 billion dollars, and now Persson is leaving Mojang and Minecraft behind. He has a few reasons for doing it, all outlined in a letter on his website, but he starts out by saying:

I don’t see myself as a real game developer. 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.

Back in April, I attended a panel at Vericon and heard author Patrick Rothfuss talk about the experience of being an immediate success. In Rothfuss’s case, his debut novel (Name of the Wind) received extensive acclaim, including being named one of the best books of 2007. He’d written it as an anonymous nobody over the course of 9 years, and suddenly his publishers and fans wanted the sequel out immediately. Rothfuss’s agent almost apologized to Rothfuss for the book’s success – “This is one of the worst things that could happen to you.” The sequel finally became available in 2011.

For Rothfuss, there was direction. His fans wanted a sequel. (The Kingkiller Chronicle has been a trilogy from the beginning.) But between the Minecraft creative lead at Mojang (Jens Bergensten) and thousands of eager Minecraft modders, Persson hasn’t been the driving force behind Minecraft’s development since 2011.

After you succeed, what do you do?

Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, finished his strip in 1995 after ten years of intense popularity. His public statement said that his interests had changed and that he needed to move beyond “the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels”. Always a private man, he dropped out of the limelight entirely. In his rare interviews and appearances afterward, he has always confirmed that he will not revisit Calvin and Hobbes.

J.K. Rowling finished the Harry Potter series and tried to change direction. She published a crime novel under the name Robert Galbraith, but sales were lackluster at best (1,500 copies in 3 months) until her true identity was revealed.

Dong Nguyen, the creator of the original Flappy Bird, saw his game spiral suddenly from obscurity to the #1 free app in the iOS store in January 2014. Nguyen pulled Flappy Bird down from the store the following month, citing concerns about the game’s addictive nature.

Having that kind of success, being under that kind of public eye, is a transformative experience – and not necessarily a positive one. Rowling told Stephen Fry that Harry Potter’s success destroyed her ability to write at her favorite cafe. Flappy Bird players sent death threats to Nguyen over both his game’s mechanics and his decision to remove it from the App Store. And the success of Minecraft turned Markus Persson into a symbol, when all he wanted to be was a guy who made games.

Persson is off to his personal Far Lands now. What will he find there? Not even he knows yet (though I hope it’s a little less grim than Minecraft’s version.)

But I’m glad he can set Minecraft down. I’m glad it doesn’t have to mean the end of Minecraft for all the rest of us. I’m glad he can take a journey somewhere new.

I hope he comes to a place where he doesn’t have to be a symbol – where he can just be Markus Persson, instead of Notch.

And when he gets there, I hope making games is fun for him again.

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