The Wizard of Minecraft

Markus Persson, a.k.a. Notch, is gaming's biggest rock star. But he may never make a second album

May 7, 2014 10:00 AM ET
Markus Persson Notch
Markus Persson, a.k.a. Notch, gaming's biggest rock star.
Illustration by Quickhoney; Photograph by Fredrik Skogkvist

It's a wet monday morning in Stockholm, and the door to Markus Persson's office is closed. The wooden blinds to the windows that look out at the 35 employees of his company, Mojang, are drawn; his assistant tells me that he is in a meeting with his officemate, company co-founder Jakob Porser.

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Forty minutes later, I find out why I've been kept waiting: Persson – one of the biggest taxpayers in Sweden, the creator of an estimated $2 billion company – has been at a PC playing a first-person shooter, headphones around his neck, furiously clicking a mouse with his eyes fixed on the screen. Next to him sits Porser, doing the same.

Persson swivels around in his chair and stands. He is bald and bulky, with a brown, scraggly beard, wearing a navy polo shirt and jeans, with a small tobacco pouch shoved under his top lip. He greets me amiably – then returns to the game, Borderlands 2. It's the kind of slick, big-budget game that's radically different from anything his company makes, but Persson says he's been obsessed with it for weeks: "I feel like it's consuming me."

Every Friday, Persson lets his staff play video games or work on personal projects, but you don't get the sense that the rest of the week is terribly hard for them either. The décor is Silicon Valley-meets-ironic-fox-hunting-lodge. In addition to the pool table, pinball machine, cinema room and Wurlitzer jukebox, there's a wall of oil portraits depicting the staff posing in the style of 19th-century aristocrats: In Persson's portrait, he wears an evening suit and a fedora, sitting haughtily in a chair, next to a large globe.

Persson – who is publicly known by his gamer handle, Notch – is warm in person, but often seems like he's holding something back; he smiles so frequently it's almost like a nervous tic, and when he speaks, he radiates low-key bemusement, as if he's endlessly entertained by how his life has turned out. He routinely throws parties featuring arena-level DJs such as Avicii. In 2011, he hired Deadmau5 to perform at a Vegas party that Prince Harry was reported creeping out of in the wee hours of the morning. In 2012, he turned a venue in Paris into an orgy of pyro and LED, with Skrillex and A-Trak playing. Last year, Persson took the whole staff and their plus-ones to Monaco. A photo album on the office's meeting table shows employees arriving via a fleet of private jets, driving around in Ferraris, riding in helicopters and partying on a yacht. "We want Mojang to be the company we always wanted to work for," says Porser.

All of this is possible because of Minecraft: a side project of Persson's that has become the most unlikely video-game success of the decade, attracting an estimated 100 million players to build and explore blocky, Lego-style worlds. There are no directions in Minecraft, no levels to advance to and no obvious goal. Players can explore a nearly infinite world, collect resources, dig tunnels and build just about anything they can imagine (small houses, famous landmarks, entire cities, models of the Starship Enterprise), while avoiding various dangers (plunging off cliffs, drowning, zombie attacks). "There are game-design rules that are carved in stone – about teaching people to play, having objectives, a character, an adversary," says Peter Molyneux, the developer behind Dungeon Keeper. "Minecraft threw all that away." Minecraft can be customized almost endlessly – there is an active, rabid community of gamers who create "mods": everything from playable musical instruments to falling meteors to tornadoes.

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At the heart of this world is Persson, an indie coder who is now a major tech figure – and who seems deeply unconcerned about following up his first success. In 2011, he handed over control of Minecraft to lead developer Jens Bergensten. None of Mojang's current projects are exactly shooting for the stars: Its new game, Scrolls – a passion project for Porser – is profitable but makes "peanuts" next to Minecraft, according to Persson; the company's other new initiative is Minecraft Realms, a monthly subscription service designed to make it easier for groups of players to play together.

Over the course of three days, Persson conducts interviews with me and holds one 10-minute meeting; almost all of the rest of his time is spent playing Borderlands 2. There are weeks when, Persson says, he does nothing but programming, but this isn't one of them. He claims he's starting to miss it. But at the end of the week, he and Porser are taking their families on a 10-day vacation to the Maldives. "So there's no point in starting now."

Persson spent his early childhood in a small, rural town, Edsbyn, three hours north of Stockholm; his father worked for the railroad, and his mother was a nurse. You can hear echoes of Minecraft's simple wilderness in Persson's description of his youth: "We lived in this area that was basically two circular roads next to each other," he says. "There were forests and pastures and stuff. I remember walking around the forest quite a bit." (He now says that the game's landscapes "are based on a very Swedish perception of what these things are supposed to look like.")

The family moved to Stockholm when Persson was seven. When he was about 12, his parents divorced, and his father moved to a cabin in the countryside. In the years that followed, his father suffered from depression. "My dad went to jail for bad stuff – robberies, break-ins – because he got stuck in substance abuse," Persson says. "We had a really shaky period."

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