Markus Persson Minecraft Founder talks billionaire lifestyle and Microsoft SaleLife seems so much easier now for Markus Persson. At 35, one of the most famous computer game developers of all time is semi-retired after selling his company Mojang and its hit title Minecraft to Microsoft MSFT -0.66% last year for $2.5 billion. These days, Persson doesn’t have much to do, pondering his next move at a temporary office in central Stockholm that he shares with friend and Mojang cofounder Jakob Porsér. While they’ve pondered new ideas, most of their time is spent checking Twitter TWTR -1.76% or Reddit and playing games–lots of games.
Over two days, Persson and Porsér sat down with FORBES to discuss their new lives and their decision to sell the company. Between multiple cans of snus, or dried Swedish tobacco, the pair dished on how they wandered into the success of Minecraft and how the game got bigger than they could handle. Persson also told of how he outbid Jay Z and Beyoncé for the most expensive home ever sold in Beverly Hills and what he’s going to do now that he’s worth $1.3 billion.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and structure.
Forbes: So first things first, why did you sell Mojang? I was watching this Craig Ferguson interview and he asked if you would ever sell to the big, evil corporations. You said you wouldn’t?
Markus Persson: Oh, I did? Well I guess I have to eat those words. I don’t really have a big problem about that because people change their mind about things all the time. You have to be responsible for what you said of course, but I don’t really feel like a lot of shame for saying something that I’ve changed my mind about.
F: But why did you sell?
MP: We had the End User License Agreement say you can’t charge for the game. You can host the service but you can’t charge for the game. So if you host it on your server it has to be free.
So we went through this really long process of clarifying the rules and saying what’s legal and what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. We changed the rules so we made them way more open, so you could charge for some things. So we made more liberal rules, but we made it clearer as well. For some reason the narrative online became that I had decided that we should have an End User License Agreement and that I was like ruining the game for everyone. And I wasn’t even involved in Minecraft development at this point. So I got really frustrated. I couldn’t deal with all these fans that just get the wrong idea and just get pissed off at me and I hadn’t even done anything. So I just tweeted, I can’t put up with this, does anyone want to buy the company?
F: And then what happens?
MP: A couple of days later or the next day, [Mojang CEO Carl Manneh] came in and was like are you serious about that because we got some offers. And I thought about it for a while and said, yeah I would actually really like to be not responsible for this for a while. We talked to a bunch of different companies about it and Microsoft MSFT -0.66% were the ones that were the closest because we worked with them on an Xbox version stuff. And they also had the most realistic idea of how to do it because I didn’t want to do a big complicated thing where I’d get partial ownership for a while and I’d still feel like I’m still responsible for someone else’s input. I just wanted a clean break.
F: Was it necessary for the deals to have certain things associated with it?
MP: We tried really hard to make sure the employees didn’t get screwed over because they had just bought some company somewhere where half the employees got fired immediately. That was a big thing. We were trying to make sure they get a guaranteed employment for a certain time. But that was a big part of what we were trying to make happen and of course like me and Jakob getting a clean break.
F: What about any game play stuff?
No, I hadn’t worked on Minecraft for a long time. If they bought the game and they’re smart, they’re going to understand that the studio here knows the game and is doing well. But whatever they want to do, they can do whatever. If they buy the game it’s theirs.
We also chose not to talk to certain companies because we knew that they did game play in a way we didn’t like.
F: So, Electronic Arts?
MP: I don’t know if they actually contacted us. But let’s just say EA or someone else that does something in a shady way, we didn’t reply.
F: Activision Blizzard ?
MP: Did we talk to Activision? Yes! We never got to the point where we talked about the contract or stuff but I remember talking to Activision and they wanted me to be—if anything was to happen—they wanted me to be involved in some way. And I said, but I don’t want to work on Minecraft. And they said, no, maybe you can have some role to be an advisor on games for a while or something like that, and that was actually something I could consider. If we got a break and became an advisor on games, because I’ll happily have opinions on games. I do that for free.
F: So they were trying to buy the company as well?
MP: I don’t remember the exact details they were talking about but that never got through. We talked to [Activision CEO Bobby Kotick.]
F: He’s a very polarizing figure in the gaming industry.
MP: Oh yeah, for sure. We were at the Beverley Hills Hotel, and I was staying there or something. And he said, yeah I used to live here for half a year. And then he gave me dating advice. I think what he said was if I were in your shoes is like get a place out in Malibu and a helicopter.
F: Did Valve come in at all?
MP: No, they didn’t contact us and we didn’t contact them. I think that might have been an interesting choice to go with. If I had been an entrepreneur and gone the longer route then I should have definitely talked to Valve.
F: So you think you could have gotten more money if things had gone on longer?
MP: Yeah, basically. I’m sure if we had gone the longer route we would have got more money, especially if we had done this earlier and got the funding early on to bloat the value and grow the company and stuff. We could have absolutely got way more. But that was never the motivation. And honestly, for something you kind of did by accident, getting $2.5 billion is good enough.
F: What did you guys do after the sale?
We did our “Sell-out Trip” but that’s not the official name of it, where we celebrated selling the company. We went to St. Barts and Miami.
With the whole team?
No just the people that sold. [Note: Only Persson, Porsér, Manneh and Manneh’s twin brother Jonas Martensson went on the trip.]
That’s because everyone in the company was pissed off at us.
F: What? Why?
MP: We spoiled them, and their reaction hurts me.
F: You say that you could have got more money for a game that got popular “on accident.” Do you guys consider yourselves accidental entrepreneurs?
Jakob Porsér: It was quite funny in the beginning I think when there were pieces written in newspapers trying to analyze the Mojang method of doing and how brilliant it was. And we were sitting there going like, Pshhhh. We never predicted anything like this. We didn’t have an intelligent goal. I wouldn’t say at all that I’m an entrepreneur. It’s been really fun pretending to be, though.
F: What was the luckiest thing about Minecraft?
MP: I think I released it at a time when indie games were starting to get popular. That’s kind of hard to predict, like “I wonder when indie games are going to get popular?” “Indie games” wasn’t even a term when I started making games.
It got easier for people to charge on their own as opposed to going to a publisher. And I think people were starting to get a little tired of the Triple A shovelware, basically the same games over and over. Those games have a place and I play a lot of them. But if those are the only option you have, people are going to get frustrated. And people were actually to sell the games as well. The internet coming good and fast everywhere, which it has been for a long time, but you got all the infrastructure there. It was easy to set up a server, you could set up PayPal—which I got in trouble for.
F: Let’s go back to the original motivation for the sale. Why let a few tweets bother you?
MP: I’ve been struggling with why are people so mean online. Not everyone, but some people. You see the mean comments, like they seem like they’re written in a bigger font size almost. Then I saw the documentary called “This Is Phil Fish” and people were starting to talk about the concept of Notch or whatever—like the ideal. And then I thought back to when I met my idols and I thought, “Oh shit, these are real people.” I knew it, but to actually have that realization is weird every time, even though I’ve met people multiple times that I’ve been a fan of.
That disconnect became so clear to me. I don’t have the relationship that I thought I did with my fans. Maybe I did early on when I had a couple thousand fans but it’s not like us anymore. It’s the idea of Notch and the Minecraft community. It felt like a burden at the time. And it felt like I probably don’t need to bear this burden and put this on myself. Maybe I could just sell this and move on with my life. That was really eye opening.
JP: A lot of the times, people that write awful things online for that aren’t really writing to Markus or the idea of Notch. They’re writing for other people to read. It’s kind of like ranting. It’s not even directed at a person. And that’s when I think people get the nastiest.
MP: I try not to think about it as much and I try to forget them because the best way to deal with it is just to ignore it, but it could be anything. It’s like: You’re a bad programmer, why did you choose Java? Why are you going to so many vacations?
F: They knew your vacation schedule?
MP: Yeah, because I went on a vacation once and I tweeted a lot about it. And they would ask me why do you go on so many vacations. Well first of all, we have five weeks of vacation by law in Sweden. So yeah, I’m going on vacations than you.
Now it’s been much easier. They can ask, “Why are you going on vacations?” Well yeah, I’m a billionaire. And I don’t even go on that many vacations, I just don’t do much in my day job.
F: Now that you’re free of Mojang, does that mean you are going to disassociate from being Notch?
MP: Well it’s hard to do because it’s kind of like an identity I use for myself. That’s the difference between me hanging out with friends, and me like, as a more public version. When we were going to announce [the sale] I was completely certain I was going to have to shut down my Twitter because I thought people were going to be so upset. So I was kind of a little ready to give up on that personality. But it turns out people weren’t that mad about it. Maybe it was just the relief of me having actually sold it, which made it easier to deal with.
Since the amount of negative tweets has gone down, and I also don’t feel nearly as affected by them, I don’t see any reason to switch names at this point. It’s also a bit pointless to do, since people already know who I am and I’d just become “the artist formerly known as Notch” regardless of what new identity I use as soon as the news get out.
F: Why did you stop wearing the hat? It’s something that people identified with Notch.
MP: I first wore a hat after seeing a friend wear a hat. It seemed like a neat way to keep snow off my head without having to wear a beanie, so I tried it on for a while. Turns out I started wearing the hat at around the time people took pictures of me and put them online and in newspapers, so it kind of became part of my public image. Over time, this hilarious narrative developed online of how hats are for social rejects, and I more and more regretted accidentally picking the hat as part of my image, and started to phase it out without making a big deal out of it.
F: We’re here at the Rubberbrain offices, but what is Rubberbrain? It just looks like the two of you and your two assistants.
MP: We don’t know yet. It’s like a daycare for us—grown-up daycare. It’s good to have some place to go. I’m still trying to prototype small games. Jakob was for a day or two too before as well, but then we try for a couple days and we go back to playing games. So, I have an office to go to, kind of like real stuff to do. But day-to-day stuff to do.
JP: It helps to create a routine like just in general.
F: Is there a vision for anything you have in mind?
MP: I have some ideas that I at least hope to play with. I don’t actually want to release something. If something gets to the point where it’s actually fun, the yeah I can imagine releasing it. I wouldn’t want to do anything like Minecraft again, where it’s like an on-going thing and there are customers I have to keep happy. I would just release it on Steam or mobile phones and it’s just done.
F: How many ideas have you gone through?
Mostly so far I’ve been trying out new programming languages. I’ve been doing this same type of dungeon crawler for four times. I really wanted to make a dungeon crawler but this game came out, Legend of Grimrock 2, which was like the perfect dungeon crawler. It basically destroyed the genre for me and no way could I make a game that good in that genre.
F: Would you be okay with never having another game for the rest of your lives?
MP: Yeah. I used to be really stressed about that. Like how do I follow up on Minecraft, because I have this weird expectation to. But after a while, what I realized I enjoy doing is prototyping and playing with ideas. Then I realized for me it doesn’t matter. But like for a year I was really stressed about it.
F: What video games are you playing now?
The 3DS remake of Majora’s Mask, Swarm Simulator and a little bit of Crossy Road.
F: Jakob, I noticed you’ve been playing that clicky game a lot. [Note: Over the previous hour Porsér had been playing Clicker Heroes, a game that requires users to constantly click characters to obtain coins for no apparent goal.]
MP: The both of us. We’re addicted to that type of game.
JP: It’s so stupid.
MP: It works.
JP: It works so good. It’s progression. It’s incredibly stupid. It’s the same kind of progression that you can feel in Diablo or World of Warcraft, and you have a character and you can level up. It strips all the kind of cool things of exploring the world or having fights or fighting sequences and all the good things. It just boils down to the progression. “The numbers get bigger! Oh cool! And in a couple more hours they’ll be even bigger, awesome!”
MP: When Cookie Clicker [a similar click-progression game] came out in 2013 or something I actually tweeted like this might actually be one of the most interesting games of this year. Not because the game was super impressive, like it’s not a Triple A title in any way, but it’s very interesting as a game developer to think about why this is addictive. It’s been like a lot of mobile games have been addictive for the wrong reasons, like you have to wait 20 minutes or pay to be able to keep progressing. It’s almost to the level of gambling where people aren’t having much fun with it. The only thing I think that is wrong with modern gaming now is the free-to-play stuff on mobile phones. I think it’s very cynical and cold and weird.
F: So the stuff King.com is doing now?
MP: You know, I think they kind of lucked out on doing that. I don’t think they intended on doing that, but Zynga was doing it for a while and now all the top-grossing games are free-to-play games and they’re not free-to-play if they’re top grossing. Someone is paying.
F: What is the issue that you have? The misnomer?
MP: Well, partially that. It’s a little bit like bait-and-switching. Like, “Oh this game is free!” Yeah, but you’re making more money than other games so it’s not free. And they’re designed where if you’re not playing they get more and more frustrating so you kind of have to pay to keep playing. It’s more like if you go to a restaurant and you find out everything is extra. “Can I get some more water?” “Yeah, that’s 50 cents more.”
JP: One of the problems that I have with it is that it’s often more cynical the way they developed it. It’s more like, “Where can we put the choking point so we get more people to spend money?” Whereas in an arcade, if this is a good game, people will pay to play it.
F: Didn’t you used to work at King? They started as an online dating company right?
JP: The thing is, looking at the Swedish owners in the beginning, at least one, Sebastian Knutsson was from Spray. Lars Markgren as well. And Spray was a site in Sweden and they also had Spray Dating.
(Photo: Jamel Toppin for Forbes)
(Photo: Jamel Toppin for Forbes)
F: So you could have been working on the Swedish Tinder.
MP: I tried to use Tinder, it didn’t work.
MP: Well no, in Sweden it’s horrible, there’s only like four people. I tried using it in L.A. and was like, “Oh there’s a lot of people here.” And I got matched and it was cool. Then it was like for “120 roses you get this, this and this.” And I was like, no, these aren’t actual roses. No.
F: Has the sale changed you or your life at all? Is there anything fundamentally different about you as a person now that you are a billionaire?
MP: Well, I bought an insane house in L.A., and I threw a crazy party with amazing guests. Then I kind of sat around in that house and played Infinifactory. So I guess there are elements of excess in my life now, but in general day-to-day stuff, I still do the same old wonderfully nerdy introvert stuff I did before.
Oh, and I have a personal shopper! I used to hate buying clothes, and now that part is solved.
F: Any new friends that you’ve made?
MP: [I know Skrillex] through the Production Club people and playing some of my parties. He’s a pretty cool guy. I went to his birthday, that was an experience. That was weird.
It’s so weird. Getting a reply from him is completely impossible. Like I’ll send him a message. No reply. So I’m like “Does he even like me?” And people are like “Sure he loves you.” “Are you sure, he never replies.” “He doesn’t reply to everyone.”
F: Have you thought about charity? What about the Giving Pledge?
MP: Yeah, I haven’t looked into that yet. It seems like it’s more targeted to Americans because someone told me it’s connected with some sort of tax issue or something like that. We’ll see what I’ll do with charity. For now I’m more, like, buying houses in L.A. and partying.
F: How’s the house going?
MP: It’s good. Going great. I’ve been there once for a couple of weeks. But it’s really nice. I was a bit it wouldn’t feel like a home at first. But it did.
F: Did you really outbid Jay Z?
MP: Yeah, apparently. That was the rumor.
F: So the asking price was $85 million, right? [Note: Persson bought the house for $70 million in cash.]
MP: That was the asking price and apparently in the U.S. you always go below the asking price but in Sweden it’s the other way around. Then someone anonymously offered me $10 million more than I paid for it a couple weeks after I got it. I don’t know who it is. You could probably guess. At least I know now it was a good investment because it’s worth $10 million more than I paid.
F: Anything you don’t like about the house?
MP: One of the floors has a bunch of things I don’t like–like candy machines, [bottles of] Patrón and a gym. Come on. Look at me. Does it look like I use the gym?
Inside ‘Minecraft’ Creator Markus Persson’s New $70 Million Home
1108 North Hillcrest Drive
Check out the house HERE
‘Minecraft’ creator Markus “Notch” Persson has just closed on a $70 million home on tony Hillcrest Drive in Beverly Hills.