The latest issue of GSW sister publication Game Developer magazine, available now for subscribers and for digital purchase, includes an exclusive, in-depth postmortem of the indie smash-hit Minecraft, written by the game's creator, Markus Persson.

The popular indie PC title, currently in beta, allows players to build their own structures and landscapes using a simple set of tools, spawning a variety of complex and impressive creations from players.

The game was originally conceived as a single person project, and after its sudden success, Persson founded his own studio, known as Mojang, and hired a number of other developers to work on the project.

These excerpts, extracted from the February 2011 issue of Game Developer magazine, also available to all conference attendees of GDC 2011 later this month, reveal various "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" highlights from throughout the creation of this eccentric indie title.

Along the way, Persson reveals how he and his team have altered Minecraft to suit the needs of its users, and how, with a bit of luck, Mojang worked through some daunting challenges to make the game what it is today.

Open development

Using feedback from users, the team at Mojang was able to adapt and tailor Minecraft to the needs of its players.

"From the start, I was very open about Minecraft’s development. I talked about it on forums, primarily those on TIGSource, and told people what I was doing and where I wanted to take the game. Fairly soon, we set up an IRC channel for Minecraft for more rapid discussion, and after a while, I set up a Tumblr blog in order to get information out to more people more easily.

Discussing with the players and listening to suggestions, I learned a lot about how the game could be played and what directions were most interesting to others. Usually, people played it in completely different ways than I did. For example, when I added more complex game rules to the basic game engine, it turned out a lot of people really liked the free building from the engine test, so I kept it around and called it “creative mode.”

Sometimes players manage to convince me that something I originally thought was a bad idea actually is a great idea, like with lighting and custom texture packs. With the texture packs, players were hacking the client to replace the textures for a long time, and I resisted the change until I saw a Portal server mod that basically was a simple version of Portal by Valve Software. It wouldn’t have been nearly as cool if it weren’t for the custom textures that really helped set the mood (see here).

Another example of the players being right is the ladders. I resisted this for a long time on the basis that I’ve never ever enjoyed ladders in any game ever, but gave up after being convinced that having huge stairwells took up too much space. It turns out ladders don’t get used as frequently as I feared."

Pure Luck

In the wake of the title's sudden and intense popularity, Persson admits that much of Minecraft's success can be attributed to its lucky timing and placement in the marketplace.

"If you’re not making a sequel, it’s basically impossible to have any idea how well a game will do, especially if you don’t have many years of experience like most publishers. I’ve tried to analyze why Minecraft has sold so well several times, and I come to slightly different conclusions each time.

For example, I think it’s usually fun to watch other people play the game, so that will drive the viral aspect, or that the random levels in the game made it feel more personal, so people would be more prone to talk about their experiences.

However, I can’t escape the fact that a large factor is that I just happened to make the right game at the right time just as the audience was starting to warm up to the idea of paying for indie games.

Platforms like the iPhone, XBLA, and Steam meant players were getting used to paying for games made by small teams, and Minecraft happened to come around at the same time. I had never even considered this, so it came down to just pure luck. I like to tell myself the success is mostly because the game is awesome, though.

The only paid marketing I tried was throwing about $500 dollars into Google AdWords, which resulted in the game getting a very small number of clicks at a cost per user that was way higher than the conversion rate. Talking about the game with media and being public about my content patches always seemed to have the greatest results."


As the game's users skyrocketed, Persson found he could no longer solve the myriad support issues through email alone, encouraging the team to find new ways to aid its customers.

"Email doesn’t scale well. At all. Initially, I replied to all emails I got. Then I started just reading them all and replying to the things that needed replying to. Then I started getting several hundred emails per day and was unable to keep up with them all. Unfortunately, this meant that a lot of support issues also went unnoticed when I failed to see them while skimming through the subject lines.

Now that we’ve got a company, we’ve got more people reading email, and we’re trying to set up a better support system that doesn’t use email at all. We’re still struggling to catch up to the support need. I’m not sure how we’ll deal with this in the coming months.

We’re setting up some systems, but it might end up with us outsourcing support. Outsourced support might be bad, but at least you can get replies from them."

Code Reboot

One of the most difficult challenges the team faced was rewriting the game's code from scratch, adding loads of extra work to add just a few desirable features.

"After many months of working on the same code base, I was growing frustrated with it and decided to start over on a new engine mostly written from scratch. I guess this happens to most programmers.

You get frustrated with some structure you put in place early on, or you think of a feature you don’t think you can work into the current code base, and you decide to do a rewrite. This is almost never a good idea. Not only do you waste time duplicating work, but you end up with fewer features, because you either forget to add them or just never get around to them.

Sure, there were a bunch of cool new features as a result of the code rewrite, like the lighting engine and the infinite map size, but this could’ve been added to the old code as well. It might’ve taken some restructuring to do so, but it wouldn’t have taken as long as the rewrite did and I wouldn’t have lost important features like multiplayer. If you ever get the urge to do a rewrite, resist it!"

Additional Info

The full postmortem of Minecraft explores more of "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" during the course of the game's development, and is now available in the February 2011 issue of Game Developer magazine.

Also in this issue, Google's Chris Pruett examines the 'Two-Factor Theory of Emotion', which describes how emotional states can be modulated by physiological changes. Stressful situations increase engagement and can give rise to often contradictory emotions. It's an idea that has wide implications for game design and goes against the conventional wisdom regarding easy difficulty in games.

Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months' and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of February 2011's magazine as a single issue.