Why Minecraft is successful (anyone thought Markus might have something to do with it?)

Yesterday I went through some web pages ranging from discussion about farmville versus minecraft to grinding & slot machine mechanics and some other posts that explained why Minecraft is so successful.

I think develop interview with Markus has some seeds closer to the truth.

Here’s some reasons that – in my opinion – didn’t make Minecraft so successful:

  • Game features
  • Technology
  • Mechanics
  • Being alpha version (see also above – it was the “telling that it’s alpha…”)

Sure. Games need features, accessible technology and good use of game mechanics, but I think those aren’t the things that really caused success (alone).

I didn’t buy Minecraft for the reason that I heard that it was good. I bought it because I was interested to know what is this indie game that had sold worth half a million euros (or whatever the number was back then). Sure, I liked to dig few days but then it became bit boring and everybody else was building space crafts and Sauron’s eyes while I had a floating wooden bridge (pretty nice though).

Here’s some reasons that – in my humble opinion – do matter:

  • Stories, stories, stories: everything around Minecraft is about “telling stories”. I never heard anyone giving hype to the “features” but talking about “the stuff somebody did/recorded” or “how Markus is genius when he does this and that”
  • “Paypal froze my funds” story
  • The “people are buying the game so fast our servers are jammed” stories
  • Proven track record of sales (even before the “Paypal froze my funds story”)
  • Showing (successful) sales numbers: “Here’s how many have bought the game, and more people are buying it”
  • Perception in one’s mind: “What is this game everybody is talking about? Since all those people love it, I must buy it too.”
  • Telling story about “just alpha, and sells gazillions”
  • Success that creates more success.

And even more important:

  • Markus left his day job. He sort of “gambled with his life”. Took a risk.
  • Markus worked hard and was dedicated to make things happen. He had enough experience about games (Minecraft isn’t his first game) and spirit to visualize what might happen. In his words “I always knew I could make a living from games” (Well, he couldn’t visualize the 12-15 million EUR sales)

I think it’s bit false to say why “Minecraft” is so successful. I think eventually it boils down to the person behind the game. I have no trouble believing that if Markus had chose to do different game, he’d eventually would have been successful – not sure if it’s Minecraft Great Big Success, but at least Somegame Big Success.

Minecraft is the product of hard work and dedication. Sure, you can try argue and talk about mechanics about slot machines and whatnot (that’s of course important too!), but when looking reasons for success, I believe it’s important to look also the person behind the product.

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. Let me add that another reason people buy, at least for me, is the promise to update. It is a reason I buy apps on my iphone, the promise to continue and get more bang for my buck. Minecraft was brought to me by word of mouth, and after the price tag that has grown quite large compared to the original $5 I considered my options. I wasn’t happy that its getting larger as more people buy, but I didn’t want to miss out to a point where it might become to expensive for me. So I paid the 20-25 bucks and started playing. Instantly addicited. WIthin days I had private servers running on Hamachi, though I have Port Forwarding issues with 25565 etc still.

    Keywords for encouragement to purchase the game are:

    *Promise to update
    *Word of Mouth
    *Relatively inexpensive
    *Infinite worlds
    *independent online servers
    *Lots of tech put into a simplistic looking game
    *allows all kinds of people to play, even parents who are not “tech savy”
    *Unlimited imagination

  2. It’s interesting that Notch mentions originality and hard work being so important as compared to luck. In the recent Game Developer magazine post mortem, he mentions being lucky as one of the things that went right.

  3. This is gonna sound like sour grapes, but I think luck has a lot to do with hits like this.
    Some guy on a highly popular gaming site happens to wake up in a mood to play a game just like yours and then he happens to come across your game and feature it in the site, and that’s it, you’re a hit. And it snowballs from there: sheep mentality of people who will play your game because people on popular site X said it’s so cool.
    Don’t know if that’s what happened with Minecraft.

  4. The answer for when the downloadable version became available is somewhere on the Minecraft blog (did have a look but way too many posts on there now to find the relevant post) but from memory it was sometime around the end of 2009 and had probably sold about 30k.

    But I do know that by the time the downloadable version was released Minecraft had already built up a pretty loyal fan base and had already popped up on all sorts of news sites.

    The downloadable version did make huge difference though and its probably correct that it wouldn’t have come this far without it. Still though the initial browser version was a good spring board and got the snow ball rolling.

    The browser tech used (namely LWJGL) does have its issues and it’ll take time for them to all get ironed out but it does work pretty well on Windows.

    As for issues on linux (I just happen to know) the main problem is that distributions like Ubuntu have an unofficial version of java installed by default (called IcedTea) which is pretty buggy. The IcedTea project did however fix a number of issues last month (31st Jan 11) which directly target minecraft/lwjgl, so it should be fine in future releases. I can on the other hand confirm that it works pretty well on linux using the official sun/oracle java plugin.

  5. kappa – the browser version was bit sucky, never worked for me in Linux, and I very much preferred downloadable one. :D

    I can agree that accessibility can be a big factor. I don’t know when standalone came, so not sure about that browser version’s impact for minecraft sales. I know downloadable version was before 1M eur sales… and now it has sold like 12-15M eur :)

    @kappa: can you give some links to resources where one could check this out? (how much browser version only sold and when downloadable version was out)?

  6. Nice analysis but I’d disagree with you about technology not playing a big part in its success.

    Minecraft actually used some pretty cutting edge stuff, namely directly access to OpenGL through Java Applets, this particular tech had only become stable and usable when Minecraft picked it up, and hadn’t been exploited by many before it.

    So what you ended up with was a solid 3d hardware accelerated game directly in your browser, something not possible with Flash, on a widespread plugin 80%+ marketshare (unlike say Unity3d) and instantly available to players without the need to separately download an executable which then needs to be installed (thus removing a major barrier many similar indie games have). Lastly it could rely on enterprise quality networking libraries while all being in the browser.

    I think many ppl overlook the above facts and underestimate the unique experience and ease of accessibility Minecraft provided simply by using a relatively new tech for gaming in the browser.

    The standalone download version didn’t come along until much later when Minecraft had already become super popular.

  7. Spot on! I commented on this at the Frozen Synapse moddb post (http://www.moddb.com/games/frozen-synapse/news/what-indie-developers-can-learn-from-minecraft).

    Only thing I would add to your commentary as I mentioned there is:

    “The freemium (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freemium) model plays a BIG part in the success of this game too.

    A free version lowers friction and allows players to invest time into it making conversion easier by the commitment already put in and the higher player volume alone (normally you only have to convert 1-10%).

    It works for Google, it works for Runescape, it works for iphone apps and it worked for this (and many other products / services) game too ;) “

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