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Markus Alexej Persson, also known as Notch, is a Swedish video game developer best known for creating the sandbox survival game Minecraft and founding the video game company Mojang. Despite its humble origins, Minecraft would go on to become a worldwide phenomenon and propel its creator into wealth and stardom.

Notch’s Early Life

Markus Persson was born June 1, 1979, in Stockholm, Sweden, to a Finnish mother and a Swedish father. For the first seven years of Persson’s life, he lived with his family in Edsbyn, a small town in the country surrounded by lush forests. Persson spent much of his free time playing in and exploring the wooded areas. Persson was also an avid fan of LEGO during his early childhood. Both of these details would later provide inspiration for his breakout game: Minecraft.

Introduction to Programming

After moving back to Stockholm at the age of seven, Persson began programming on his father’s Commodore 128 home computer. Persson says that, at first, his interest in programming was purely mechanical.

I was just curious about how it worked and what the weird commands actually meant. The first thing I wrote, when I was 9, was a text adventure. You had to input the exact right text or otherwise you would fail. The story was kind of random. There were four or five different rooms and one of them had a typical Spaghetti Western theme. I used ASCii characters as the graphics.

Source: guru.bafta.org

He became so enthused that he would fake stomach aches so that he could stay home from school and practice programming. He experimented with type-in programs, and produced his first game, a text-based adventure, at only nine years old.

As he grew up, Persson continued to teach himself how to write code on his father’s computer and made games in his spare time. He was about 14 or 15 when he decided that game development was the career he wanted to pursue. From the ages of 15 to 18, Persson also studied design, font setting, and copywriting.

Persson took a one-year online C++ course at his mother’s encouragement, partially to nurture his natural talent and also help get his grades up. Other than that course, Persson considers himself a 100% self-taught programmer. He never finished high school or pursued higher education, but was skilled enough to get a programming job at a small web studio at the age of eighteen.

Notch’s Pre-Minecraft Work

Persson’s job at the web studio lasted about six months, at which point there was an IT crash and he was mostly out of work for a couple years. He held down a job doing web page development for a tiny printing store.

He then got a job at Game Federation, who were making middleware for digital distribution. At Game Federation, he became friends with Rolf Jansson, who he would work with on an MMORPG called Wurm Online.

Wurm Online

Persson and Jansson began developing Wurm Online in 2003. Wurm Online is a sandbox MMORPG with different servers that focus on player vs player combat, realm vs realm combat, and a virtual economy.

In 2006, Wurm Online was released for personal computers via Java (though it would not officially be released until 2012). The game started to turn a profit, and Persson and Janson founded the company Mojang Specifications AB. In 2007, however, Persson left the company and removed himself from Wurm’s development.

This trailer for the game is from 2014, long after Notch had left the project.

Persson wanted to retain the “Mojang” name, so Janson renamed the company Onetoofree AB (which would later become Code Club AB). Wurm Online would live on, but Persson would no longer be a part of it.

Midasplayer (King.com)

While still working on Wurm Online, Persson left Game Federation in 2004. He got a job making Flash games at Midasplayer, the company that would later change their name to King.com. Midasplayer was the company behind Candy Crush and other popular games.

On his experience making Flash games for Midasplayer, Persson said the following:

The most limiting factor was that we were making them so fast. It was kind of intense. We spent one or two months on each game. During my time at King.com I made around 20 to 30 games. I was the programmer and I had a games designer and an artist. That was basically it. The thing I learned there was how to actually finish projects, which was very, very valuable.

Source: guru.bafta.org

While working at Midasplayer, Persson became friends with a developer named Jakob Porsér. The duo soon began writing their own games, but their bosses at Midasplayer didn’t like that they were working on their own side projects. Essentially, Midasplayer allowed them to work on games in their free time as a hobby, but not as a business enterprise. This arrangement did not satisfy Persson.

The Minecraft Phenomenon

Because he was not able to monetize his own games while working for Midasplayer, Persson left the company in 2009. He began working for jAlbum instead, where he could continue to work on his own games in his free time and attempt to make money off of them. Persson began pumping out games, and would write the initial code for Minecraft in just a week and continue to add to it in the following months. Eager to move on to the next game. Persson released an early version of Minecraft (at the time known as Cave Game) before he considered it finished, but this did not stop it from becoming a sensation.

As many already know, Minecraft is a sandbox game that requires players to acquire resources in order to survive and build items and shelters in a procedurally-generated environment. The game is characterized by its “blocky” visual style and the huge degree of freedom it allows its players to build, explore, and determine their own goals.

Though the entire world is composed of blocks, Minecraft is full of lush and intricate natural environments that were inspired by Persson’s early childhood in the Swedish countryside. The game’s building mechanic also bore a passing resemblance to LEGO bricks, which Persson had enjoyed in his youth. As with LEGO, Minecraft allowed its players to build with uninhibited creativity and imagination.

Alternate link.

Persson quit his job as soon as it became apparent that Minecraft was a large enough success to support him full-time. In its first year, Minecraft was downloaded about 20,000 times, but by the end of the following year it was receiving about that many downloads every single day. Minecraft was entirely without a marketing department, but was advertised just fine via word of mouth

As Minecraft became more popular, he realized that he could not keep up with the demands of the game on his own and decided to start a company.
He called his old friend Jakob Porsér, who was still working at Midasplayer/King, and said he was starting a new company. Porsér, responded that he would quit his job the next day.

Persson and Porsér

In 2010, Persson officially founded the video game company Mojang along with Jakob Porsér and Carl Manneh. As of 2011, additional employees included another game developer, Jens “Jeb” Bergensten, an art developer called Junkboy, and Tobias Möllstam, a web developer. The company would continue to grow, and as of today the Mojang website has seventy-one employees listed.

In the 2012 documentary Minecraft: The Story of Mojang, Persson noted that he had been more comfortable just taking things one day at a time with no long-term plan, but that approach didn’t really work when you were running a company.

From its unofficial release in 2009 to the official launch of the game in 2011, Minecraft sold about a jillion copies and put many kronor in Notch's pocket. Persson had quickly become something of an icon in the indie gaming world. In March 2011, Persson attended the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, which was essentially his first big opportunity to talk to the press and meet the Minecraft fanbase.

Persson acted as the lead designer of Minecraft until the game officially launched in 2011, at which point he gave creative authority to Jens Bergensten, who by that point had been working as a programmer on Minecraft for a long time.

Notch’s Other Minecraft-era Games

Catacomb Snatch

In 2011, under Persson’s direction, Mojang spent a week making a Steampunk/Egyptian-themed RTS entitled Catacomb Snatch for the Humble Bundle Mojam Event.

$77,000 bundles, which also included the games of two other developers, were sold. These sales earned $458,208.95, which was donated to charity.

Catacomb Snatch screenshot

Persson also donated $8,000 to Doctors without Borders in 2011. The donation was made through a charity drive organized by the atheism subreddit.

Persson commented on Reddit:

I’m an atheist, and I feel a moral obligation and personal need to donate to charities that need the money more than I do.

Source: The Daily Dot; Reddit

Scrolls

Persson and Porsér came up with the idea of a game called Scrolls, which elements typical of board games and collectible card games. Porsér actively developed the game, while Persson remained on the sidelines.

On August 5, 2011, Persson announced that he was being sued by Bethesda Softworks’ parent company, ZeniMax Media, over the “Scrolls” trademark. ZeniMax claimed that the title conflicted with The Elder Scrolls series of games. On August 17, 2011, Persson challenged Bethesda to a Quake 3 playoff in order to resolve the naming dispute, but unfortunately, we never got to see such a contest take place.



On September 27, 2011, Persson announced that the trial was going to court, and the lawsuit settlement was decided in March 2012. The settlement allowed Mojang to continue using the Scrolls name for the game, while Bethesda would retain rights to the trademark and Mojang would be prohibited from making potential sequels using the name.

Later, on April Fool’s Day 2012, Mojang satricially launched a website for a new game entitled Mars Effect, poking fun at Bethesda’s lawsuit against them. The gameplay elements teased for Mars Effect were actually being developed for Persson’s other project, 0x10c.

Ludum Dare Competition

Persson has also participated at seven different Ludum Dare competitions before and during the creation of Minecraft. Ludum Dare is an accelerated game making competition that gives a contestant 48 hours to create a game. The entry must be coded in that time by a single person (or Persson, in this case).


A screenshot from Breaking the Tower, one of Notch's Ludum Dare entries

Persson produced several notable entries, including:

  • Breaking the Tower: Entry for the Ludum Dare No. 12 competition (2008), in which the player must gather resources and train soldiers in order to take down a large tower. You can view gameplay here.

  • Metagun: A 2-D platformer created for the Ludum Dare No. 18 competition (2010). This game allowed the player to use a gun that shot out little men, who also had guns. Gameplay can be seen here.

  • Prelude of the Chambered: A 1st person dungeon-crawler done for the Ludum Dare No. 21 (2011). Gameplay here.

  • Minicraft: Entered for the Ludum Dare No. 22 (2011), this game was written in Java and is a top-down adventure that draws upon elements from both Zelda and Minecraft. Gameplay.
     

His other games are listed on Notch’s Ludum Dare page.

Many contestants chose to upload screenshots of their process, or even livestream it. Below is a  video of the live-stream that’s been speeded-up.

Tragedy Strikes in Notch’s Personal Life

Despite Minecraft’s uninhibited success, Persson was not as fortunate in his personal life. In December of 2011, his father, who had struggled with drug abuse, committed suicide. Just half a year later, in 2012, his marriage to Elin Zetterstrand also came to an end.

Persson began working on a new project in March 2012, 0x10c (pronounced “Ten to the C”), which was an alternate reality space sandbox game. However, in August 2013 Persson halted production and abandoned the project.



Following his fruitless work on 0x10c, and likely still feeling the effects of his father’s death and divorce, Persson entered a creative funk.

Fortunately, Persson was not under any pressure to produce a new game because Minecraft was still going strong enough to carry the team. In May 2012, Minecraft was released for Xbox 360 and sold over a million units in just the first week. In 2012, Mojang had around $230 million worth of sales.

Notch’s Disillusionment

Regardless, Persson began to get burned out on Mojang, particularly in regards to online drama regarding the game’s End User License Agreement.

On this subject, Persson later told Forbes:

We had the End User License Agreement say you can’t charge for the game. You can host the service but you can’t charge for the game. So if you host it on your server it has to be free.

So we went through this really long process of clarifying the rules and saying what’s legal and what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. We changed the rules so we made them way more open, so you could charge for some things. So we made more liberal rules, but we made it clearer as well. For some reason the narrative online became that I had decided that we should have an End User License Agreement and that I was like ruining the game for everyone. And I wasn’t even involved in Minecraft development at this point. So I got really frustrated. I couldn’t deal with all these fans that just get the wrong idea and just get pissed off at me and I hadn’t even done anything.

In June 2014, he got fed up and tweeted, “Anyone want to buy my share of Mojang so I can move on with my life?”

After receiving many offers, Persson sold his 71% majority share of Mojang to Microsoft, with the cooperation of Jakob Porsér and Carl Manneh, who owned 21% and 8% shares, respectively. The sale finalized in September 2014, with the company being sold for a total of $2.5 billion.

Post-Minecraft: Notch’s Billionaire Blues

Rolling Out the Big Bucks

Following the sale of Mojang, Persson took a celebratory trip to St. Barts and Miami with Porsér and Manneh, who had also sold their shares. In an interview, Persson said that the other employees at the company were angry with them for selling and this reaction hurt him.

Persson also expressed disillusionment with the Minecraft community that influenced him to sell the company. Though at first the community surrounding the game had seemed like its biggest asset, he eventually realized that the huge fandom came with a price.
 

That disconnect became so clear to me. I don’t have the relationship that I thought I did with my fans. Maybe I did early on when I had a couple thousand fans but it’s not like us anymore. It’s the idea of Notch and the Minecraft community. It felt like a burden at the time. And it felt like I probably don’t need to bear this burden and put this on myself. Maybe I could just sell this and move on with my life. That was really eye opening.

Source: Forbes


Persson and Porsér rented a small office in Stockholm while they figured out their next move. At first, they tried prototyping new small games, but would always return to just playing video games without making much progress.

With seemingly no idea what to do with his newfound wealth, Persson outbid Beyoncé and Jay-Z for a $70 million house in Beverly Hills, at the time setting a record for the most expensive home ever sold in the area.


A picture of the 70mil house -- it looks like Notch got ripped off, as the house didn't come with any walls

Persson also said that he became friends with Skrillex and attended his birthday party, but that Skrillex never replied to his messages so it was difficult to tell if he liked him or not.

Twitter Controversies


Persson remained active on Twitter and was involved in several minor controversies.

On June 29, 2017, Notch tweeted that anyone who was against the concept of Heterosexual Pride Day deserved to be shot. This sparked many arguments via Twitter and received some coverage from the media.

Later the same day, Persson backpedaled a bit on his statements, saying, "So yeah, it's about pride of daring to express, not about pride of being who you are. I get it now."

In November 2017, Persson was again part of a Twitter controversy, after tweeting “It’s ok to be white,” and later stating that he believed privilege to be a made up metric. Persson was accused by various parties, including The Root, of either denying or outright celebrating white privilege. Nothing really came of this controversy and it soon fizzled out.

Sad and Aimless?

Unfortunately, the creative stagnation that Persson first began feeling following his abandoned work on 0x10c went on and on, and it seemed he was no longer capable of working on games with the same focus and passion that allowed him to create Minecraft and so many other games in the first place.

Following his sale of Mojang and the beginning of his billionaire lifestyle, Persson has become increasingly melancholy turning mainly to Twitter to share his feelings aimlessness and lack of motivation.

On August 29th, 2015, Persson tweeted:

The problem with getting everything is you run out of reasons to keep trying, and human interaction becomes impossible due to imbalance.

Aside from becoming aimless and bored, Persson has also expressed feelings of loneliness, isolation, and abandonment.

On the same day as the previous tweet, Persson said:

When we sold the company, the biggest effort went into making sure the employees got taken care of, and they all hate me now.

Despite a couple employees responding that they didn’t hate him, and it was just a shock when he sold the company, he responded that they had never once told him that or reached out to him.

His loneliness extends to his love life as well:

Found a great girl, but she's afraid of me and my life style and went with a normal person instead.

TFW when you find a great girl but she goes with a normal Kong instead

On the same day as all this, he was also supposedly stung by a jellyfish, which probably didn’t help his mood.

IRL photo of Notch being stung by a jellyfish outside his home in Beverly Hills (2015)

It’s a well-known saying that money doesn’t buy happiness (at least once basic needs are accounted for) and this certainly seems to be true for Markus Persson. While it’s difficult to feel bad for a man that is literally worth 1.6 billion USD as of 2019, it is concerning to see the negative effects that success and wealth have had on his life.

While Persson once came across as a passionate game developer that cared deeply for his creations, employees, and fans, he has lost all of those things to some degree. Without his friends at Mojang, he doesn’t seem to know who to call his friends anymore, and without the drive to create, he has no purpose or drive left in his life.

Fortunately, in more recent news, Notch reported in January 2018 that he was working on a new and exciting project. Whether or not this project ever finds mainstream appeal or is even released, remains to be seen. Given the recent lack of update, it’s possible that Persson will abandon it for something else.

Regardless of what happens with that particular project, it is gratifying to know that Notch may be on the road to rediscovering his passion and that he hasn’t permanently lost his sense of creativity that allowed him to develop Minecraft and inspire countless people.

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Louis Cicalese is a person who has written about the hacker known as 4chan, the hacker known as 2channel 5channel, lesser-known search engines, CSS color namesLeeroy Jenkins, hiring Kermit the Frog impersonators and various other topics.


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