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.
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