off the block

Earlier this week, one of the gaming industry’s biggest figures began his exit. Markus Persson, better known to fans as Notch, sold his baby off and has decided to move on. Reactions run the gamut, naturally, especially in this land of the internet where hyperbole is the only accepted form of communication. In less than six years, what started as a pet project for Notch eventually grew to a community of tens of millions, worth $2.5 billion. If my math is right, that means Minecraft made him over a million dollars a day, not counting the sales of the product itself. If those sales are accounted for, that adds another billion or so to the total, raising the daily breakdown to $1.5 million, for something that started as a mere personal project for amusement. Mind boggling.

It’s not about the money. It’s about my sanity.

In his personal blog post, Notch revealed that after the sale is finalized, he will leave Mojang, along with its other two founders, and go back to his own personal tinkerings. Many reacted with shock that he would abandon something so popular, so large and so profitable. In his closing line, “it’s not about the money. It’s about my sanity,” he exposes a larger problem that has surfaced in recent years in the gaming industry. It’s incredibly easy for someone to become famous, and sometimes the wrong people get put on the pedestal.
With the release of Minecraft, Notch’s little project almost instantly began to get attention. Just two and a half years after the first public alpha release of the game, Notch and 5,000 people gathered at the Manalay Bay in Vegas to celebrate his game. Less than a month after that, Jens Bergensten was given complete creative control over Minecraft, and Notch more or less became a CEO in function. In his free time he pursued new projects like Cobalt, Scrolls and a very experimental concept called 0x10c. While showing promise, 0x10c eventually failed to pan out, and Notch cancelled it. Already he was finding his personal limitations; while he now had the time and money to pursue whatever project he desired, he didn’t always have the ability to make it work.
Of course, this isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened. History is replete with instances of common individuals who do something otherwise innocuous and suddenly gain massive fame and wealth from it. In recent decades, people like George Lucas, John Carmack and Mark Zuckerberg have risen from obscurity to worldwide fame in months. But therein lies the rub–not everyone is cut out to be famous. Our most recent example of the wrong person can be found in Phil Fish, another game developer. Fish created Fez, a very complex game with very simple basics, which became another indie hit and propelled him into the spotlight. Fish turned out to be impulsive and vindictive, often doling out harsh personal insults to people who criticized him. In perhaps the most remembered moment of recent Internet history, Fish went on a rampage on Twitter and cancelled the development of his game’s sequel.
Notch saw Phil Fish, and worried that he might become that man. He realized he wasn’t meant for the spotlight he was in when Mojang announced changes to the Minecraft EULA and users across the internet instantly targeted Notch, who had not been involved in the EULA changes. He realized he had become something different to his fans and his players, and he wasn’t what they wanted him to be. He would rather sit in obscurity and toil on his own pet projects, which he is now free to do for possibly the rest of his life. Will he be remembered as one man who flew in from the night, changed indie gaming forever, and then vanished? Or will he be remembered as the man who started a phenomenon, and then gave his baby away to a company with a less-than-stellar track record with acquisitions? We’ll see.