The Wizard of Minecraft

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

Markus Persson Notch
Illustration by Quickhoney; Photograph by Fredrik Skogkvist
Markus Persson, a.k.a. Notch, gaming's biggest rock star.
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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."

Persson had taught himself to program on a Commodore 128 computer; he never finished high school, but at age 18 was hired as a programmer at a web-design company. He cycled through tech jobs during the late Nineties and early 2000s.

Stockholm was home to an indie gaming scene; Porser met Persson when they worked together at a game studio called King. "He's a lot of fun and slightly weird, which I enjoyed," Porser says. "He can be superhappy or superdown as well. There's normally not a lot of in-between."

Elin Zetterstrand, whom Persson would later marry, said he "seemed nice, very bright and somewhat sad." It was during Persson's off-hours at an online-photo-album company called jAlbum that he began working on Minecraft. He wrote the original version of the game alone in his Stockholm apartment in 2009; it took him about a week. The simple, blocky graphics were a result of Persson's impatience getting the game finished. "I just wanted to make a game that could make enough money to make another game," he says.

"Some people can't see beyond the rather crude graphics," says Molyneux. "But those are its strongest point. The fact that you quickly get the idea that you can put a block on top of another block means anybody can build anything." Porser was one of those who didn't get it at first. "I was like, 'It's good you're keeping busy,'" he says now with a laugh. Persson's other friends also preached caution ("typically Swedish," he says).

In its first year, Minecraft sold roughly 20,000 downloads. By the end of 2010, it was often selling that many in a day. The community around the game kept growing: Players offered video tutorials suggesting features, pointing out bugs; YouTube channels were devoted to chronicling Minecraft exploits; forums sprang up discussing the game; players started podcasts, narrating their adventures. Minecraft was more than a game – it was a platform. Persson became gaming's biggest celebrity. He currently has 1.6 million followers on Twitter, where his persona is jokey and brash (recently he called 2014 "the year I go full Sheen"; he's also called the gaming giant EA a "bunch of cynical bastards" who are "destroying" gaming).

Unlike most of his friends, Persson's father was a staunch supporter, encouraging him to strike out on his own during Minecraft's early days. At the same time, his father's demons were resurfacing. "He had medication for depression or bipolar stuff and started abusing it," Persson says. "Then he started drinking again."

On December 14th, 2011, his father committed suicide. "He got really drunk and apparently had a handgun," Persson says quietly. "It was shocking. It took me a while to even realize it was real.

"I didn't break down until I had to view his body at the funeral," says Persson. "Everyone asked me, 'Do you want some alone time?' Probably because they realized I hadn't been reacting much. They left and I just crumbled.

"It doesn't hurt as much anymore," he continues, but occasionally he worries that the dark clouds that engulfed his father also follow him around. "The depression, I'm worried about. With the creative stuff, I have highs of being very productive and lows of being not productive. I have that in my moods as well."

In the aftermath of his father's death, Persson started on a new project with an unpronounceable name, 0x10c. It was an ambitious game, set in space, that many saw as the natural follow-up to Minecraft. But as he worked, Persson felt hounded by expectations. His every Tumblr or Twitter update became fodder for gaming news sites. The stress wore on him.

In 2011, he married Zetterstrand, but the marriage soon foundered. Persson admits that his success had something to do with the relationship's failure. "I never really had the fun teens of exploring the world, because I was sitting at home, learning programming," he says. "Then everything started changing. I got the opportunity to do all the things I wanted to do. I could go to New York, hang out there and explore things." He pauses. "It got more complicated." He and Zetterstrand eventually divorced.

In 2013, he announced he was abandoning work on 0x10c. He'd hit a "creative block." In August, he posted on his blog that he no longer felt like attempting "anything big."

Now Persson says he wants to only work on things for fun. He lives alone in a multi­level penthouse in Östermalm, an area of Stockholm "where the rich people live," Persson tells me with a grin. The apartment is stark, with white, craggy stone walls that slope at odd angles, giving the impression that the place is a medieval fortress carved into a mountain. Nearly everything in it – walls, fixtures, furniture – is either white or black. The open kitchen, which looks mostly unused, abuts a walk-in wine cellar. A staircase leads to a second-story gaming loft, then continues to a small third-level perch that features only a chair, an ottoman and a magnificent view of Stockholm out its windows. I ask him if he's got a girlfriend now, and he laughs: "I wouldn't call it a girlfriend, but to paraphrase a comedian, 'There's a woman who would be upset if I said I didn't have a girlfriend.'"

Persson says the apartment isn't practical. The flatscreen TV in the gaming loft is built right over the elevator shaft, so those riding the elevator can hear the blast of guns and explosions. Nobody has complained, but once Persson discovered this, he stopped using it – "because I'm very Swedish, and I didn't want to upset my neighbors." ("There's a classic Swedish social fixture called Jantelagen," says developer Martin Jonasson, "which means you're not supposed to flaunt your success. It's a little bit rude to be making that much money.") Persson is moving to another penthouse, one still being built. When it's finished, he says, it will be the most expensive, per square meter, in Stockholm.

In March, Persson put on a huge San Francisco DJ blowout to raise awareness and cash for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It's a very stupid way to spend money," says Persson of all his party-throwing. "But why not? People say, 'You should invest it.' So I can get more money to put in a pile? At least if you spend it, it goes back and does something, maybe."

In the meantime, if Persson doesn't come up with a successor to Minecraft, he has a 10-year plan for his staff. "Hopefully, we are going to keep making money at Mojang, but if we don't, that's fine," he says. "We just have 10 fun years, and then, the last year, we'd say to our employees, 'If we don't make any money this year, Mojang is going to be dead.  So you might want to look for new jobs.'"

It all sounds too easy. But when I ask Persson if all this casual talk is a front, to take the pressure off himself, he confesses. "You're absolutely correct," he says. "I think the only way I could make something fun and big is if I don't expect it to be."

A few weeks later, he e-mails with some news: "I'm finally programming again," he writes, almost sheepishly. "Probably won't lead anywhere, but I feel productive."

This story is from the May 22nd, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1209: May 22, 2014
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