Mojang: Minecraft's Popularity and Profits
Indie game developer Mojang – the company behind the hit sandbox game Minecraft – has just been purchased by Microsoft for $2.5 billion. Contagious spoke to Carl Manneh and Vu Bui, the studio’s CEO and COO, in an interview at their offices in Stockholm last October. The pair shared how they cope with massive popularity and profits, engage their community and attempt to achieve their ambition of becoming the most influential independent games studio in the world...
What were your goals when you were setting up Mojang?
Manneh: We set up a mission for the company to become the most influential independent games studio on earth, that’s the humble goal for the company. We don’t want to be the biggest studio with the most employees or the highest turnover, we want to make games and have an effect on the marketplace and that’s why we’ve chosen the most influential. Through our games and the way we act, we can hopefully be a good force in our sector. That also reflects on how we behave, who we hire, our work environment, how we communicate – stuff like no NDAs – working with the UN habitat or working with schools, and making sure that our games are child-friendly.
Can you explain how the game development process works at Mojang?
Manneh: We have the development team drive the business, not the business team. So whatever is best for the gamers is what the business group adapts to. That’s quite challenging for us when we work with big retailers – if we want to tie in and do a big campaign we can’t say ‘Ok the big next update is this date’ because then the business is suddenly driven by when Walmart says is a good date for release and not what’s best for the gamers.
Bui: If the deadline is the most important thing then you will always compromise on other things, but if the product is the most important thing then the deadline can move until the product is ready, and that’s how the developers work.
How do you work with the community that you have built up around Minecraft?
Bui: We serve a very large community and part of the reason we’ve chosen to keep the culture and let it grow as naturally as possible is to serve that community. We have a symbiotic relationship with them. We develop a game that they love and they buy it from us and allow us to continue to develop the game.
Manneh: The Minecraft team has a weekly snapshot of basically what’s been developed that week and they release it no matter how buggy it is. And you can access it, you can download it and install it on your game for free, but you may not be able to start the game. It could not work at all, or it could break it, but people are aware of that.
Bui: Developers make cool features that they like, but they also test them on the community to make sure that people like them too, they have that direct feedback. So they don’t have to wait to see sales declining to know if something is unpopular, they actually hear the day they release a snapshot. With that direct communication line and with the comments on YouTube and all those sorts of things, we actually have a very deep visibility into where the game is going, into how popular it is, into how much it’s spreading. And we don’t need to wait to see quarter-end results to find out if we were successful or not.
If you don’t use marketing or PR, how do you communicate externally?
Manneh: Our internal communication is external at the same time. The way we spread information internally is by reading each other’s tweets. When you are transparent, people are more forgiving if you say something wrong. You seem more human than corporate, messaging a final draft of a press release. If someone just tweets something and then says ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I was misinformed,’ that helps too.
Bui: We don’t do press releases. We reach more of our audience from our Twitter than we would through a press release via one of the big companies. It’s a different kind of messaging.