Markus "Notch" Persson's next big game is stuck.
Freed from the necessity of hit-driven game releases, powered by the popularity of Minecraft's tens of millions of fans, Persson has the ability to not just make the games he wants to, but to spend time tinkering with cool ideas that may never flourish into fully realized titles.
That's how 0x10c (pronounced ten to the c) started, a sort of pet project and possible successor to Minecraft. But there's no promise that the game will ever be released. It doesn't have to be for developer Mojang to survive, and won't be if it isn't fun.
When I asked Persson if he had any time frame in mind for the space game, he said that it's a "ways off" and that he's expanding the team, bringing on one other developer to "make sure the game gets made."
Does that mean, I asked, that there's a chance it won't come out? "Are you definitely releasing it?"
"It depends if it's just going to be me and I'm going to still feel this kind of weird pressure," he said. "It's not really pressure, it's just some kind of weird creative block that's been going on for too long, and [0x10c] is going to be put on ice until we can fix that. I'm very excited about the actual game. We have two prototypes going on now. It's not really fun yet, but it feels like it could be fun because there's nothing to do in there yet."
"It's just some kind of weird creative block that's been going on for too long and [0x10c] is going to be put on ice until we can fix that."
Persson sat down with me during last week's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. We talked on a second-floor overlook of the W Hotel's bar, a popular hang-out during the show for developers, agents, analysts, business development types and, inevitably, journalists.
Always affable, Persson popped in on the tail end of my interview with Scrolls developer and Mojang co-founder Jakob Porser and then agreed to hang around a bit to talk about his company, projects he's working on and the game that financed it all: Minecraft.
While Minecraft was pushed live as an early playable alpha game in 2009, it wasn't officially released until 2011. Since its release, the game has managed to rack up nearly 25 million copies sold across the PC, mobile and Xbox 360 versions.
Persson no longer has any direct connection with Minecraft's continuing evolution. He handed that game's future off to Jens Bergensten in December, 2011, shortly after the game's final release to PC. But sometimes he swings by to see what they're doing, he said.
"Often it's like this weird stuff I have no idea that they're going to add, like these light sensors or stuff that's pretty cool, but I try not to give my opinions about it," he said.
He doesn't even play the game anymore.
"I think I played it for far too many, like hundreds of hours," he said. "I think the last time I played it was basically the Xbox version, just running around and exploring, because that's the part I never got bored of, just exploring."
And when he did hop into the game he created, people rarely if ever believed it was him.
"These days people never believe me," he said. "I think in some servers they kind of let people come in with any name, and people kind of fake their names. So I always get accused of being fake."
"We are definitely just trying to pile up as much money as possible with Minecraft so we can keep making games even if there are no true successors."
Mojang is the product of Minecraft's success. Not simply because Persson could afford to strike out on his own and form a company, but because he needed to.
"I kinda realized that I couldn't keep up with all of the demands of Minecraft, especially like the web server part of it, trying to keep the server up and running," he said. "So I talked to Jakob [Porser] about how we should start a company and that he should quit his day job, he'd do Scrolls and I'd do Minecraft and we'll have fun."
Shortly after that, Carl Manneh was brought on as CEO and the newly forged studio starting bringing on new people. Currently the studio has about seven people working on Scrolls, about the same amount on Minecraft and a crew of other developers working on the rest.
The philosophy of the studio is driven by Persson's love of gaming and a clear understanding of the freedom that having so popular a title as Minecraft affords. The ultimate goal for Mojang is for the studio to be able to release a couple of larger titles that can then pay for the development of a slew of smaller titles and experimental games, Persson said. The money earned from those big hits, like Minecraft, removes some of the pressure surrounding the development of those other games.
"We are definitely just trying to pile up as much money as possible with Minecraft so we can keep making games even if there are no true successors," he said. "I kind of see this a little bit like my hobby: just being able to just work on games and not have too much external pressure that (those games) have to make money or whatever."
While Minecraft continues to sell very well, the studio is already eying other ways to help fuel those smaller, experimental titles.
Minecraft Realms will introduce officially hosted servers, and a monthly subscription, to Minecraft. The service, which will be layered on top of the game, but not required, could become a massive monetary boon to Mojang.
"People tell me that it's probably gonna be a big thing ... it sounds like it could be, but I don't exactly know how big the demand is," he said. "I'm kind of a little bit shielded from that feedback from the players."
One of the complications that come along with delivering a paid server service for Minecraft is how to handle the game's many, creative mods. Initially, Minecraft Realms won't support them, because mods can conflict with one another and complicate the process, which sort of undermines the point of delivering a simplified server service.
But Mojang developers have long been working on a free set of standardized tools, or API, for the game. Mods created with the API should never conflict with one another, in theory. The problem with delivering an API to Minecraft is that it would restrict the ability modders have to dig into the game's source code and come up with massive modifications to Minecraft.
"The problem with the API is that people are just decompiling the title's source code and using that to build the mods," Persson said. "There is no way an API can be as potent as the entire source code."
Because some mods do that, there's no way that an API could support all existing mods, Persson said.
"I think there should be an API, it will be a bit unfortunate because people will want to make legit mods that can have an API that can sustain other versions," he said. "They won't be able to make as potent ones as the kinds that goes straight into the source code. But the ones that go straight into the source code might stop working when the next version of Minecraft comes out.
"I'm not involved in that part at all, but it seems like one of the bigger challenges is to kind of make sure that they don't conflict and how do you do that? It's going to need to be very clever."
Despite not being directly involved in the API debate, Persson is passionate about continued support for modding in Minecraft.
"It feels like basically half the game is what the community does with it," he said. "I think one of the reasons it works in Minecraft is that the creation is kind of game-defined. It's not just that you go into an editor mode and build the game and try to play it, but actually playing the game is building the tools."
Part of the issue Mojang faces with Minecraft is that the API wasn't built in from the beginning. The same will likely be true with 0x10c.
"I probably should (create an API for 0x10c), but I'm not, really," Persson said. "I kind of want to turn the modding into actually doing the programming within the game."
Persson said that even despite that approach they could perhaps come up with an API solution, but he's not sure how needed it will be.
"I don't know how much people are going to want to mod the game because you don't want to mod all games," he said. "Minecraft is very easy to mod, or easy to get ideas to mod because it is such a big sandbox thing."
Where Minecraft is a very easy game to understand at one glance, 0x10c isn't. I asked Persson to describe what the game is:
"It's some kind of space adventure, first-persony-running-around-trying-to-keep-your-ship-whole game," he said. And on some level it does have some similarities with Minecraft. "To a small degree, in the sense that the stuff that happens to you is randomly generated," he said. "You can modify your own ship, you very much have control of how it actually works."
The basic premise of 0x10c is that everything in a gamer's ship will be "real in some sense."
"So the computers are like these real virtual computers that you can program," he said, "and there are wires running electricity to them."
Persson has already released the virtual CPU specifications and the community is already playing around with that.
This overt complexity is both what drives Persson's personal interest in the development and what sets it apart from Minecraft.
"It's fairly complex," Persson tells me after I ask him if confusion about the game is something unique to me. "The idea is to make it easier so you don't really see the complexities."
That's how Minecraft started. It too was an immensely complex game, and it still is if you consider everything you can do in it, but unlike 0x10c, Minecraft does a fantastic job of hiding all of that complexity.
"It's like, you can move a block and place it, that's basically all you see at the beginning," Persson said. "Then you sort of figure out all of the systems that are going on in there. So 0x10c is going to be way more complex."
And try as they might to hide it, that complexity will sort of be in your face from the get go.
"It's not going to be like Dwarf Fortress, where it's basically hostile toward the player, but it's amazing once you get into it. It's going to be some kind of valid in-between."
Persson's hope is that the game will attract two types of people: those who want to create experiences within 0x10c and those who want to play in those experiences.
"I mean the most complex bit is that CPU, the programming of the computer," Persson said. "But if you get to the point where people can share what they make in the game, the complexity would basically be: You choose which kind of computer game you would want because someone else has written it."
In many ways 0x10c sounds like a love letter to the sort of game development that gave birth to Minecraft: One person toiling away on one game and then releasing it to a massive, interested audience.
Is it a game for game developers, I asked.
"Yeah," he said, "a little bit. At least part of the game is for them and then the idea is those developers, they kind of form the superstars within the game because they make the software for the ships in the game. And then you get people who are really good pilots but they don't have code. So, they get their friend to code for them.
But while 0x10c is designed to support game building within the game itself, it won't be as innately moddable as Minecraft it. Not even close, Persson said.
"Because with modding you can do literally anything," he said. "You can change everything to make it look like photorealistic and the idea within 0x10c was to have enough components going on so you can kind of just setup the components in the spaceship and just write the code inside the game."
Think of it as a sort of holodeck within a game. But you couldn't use the spaceship CPU to subvert the basic tenets of the game. Put another way, players would be working within the confines of the existing system when coding in 0x10c, not dipping into the game's raw code.
And if released, 0x10c won't have any link, literally or narratively, to Minecraft. Though Persson said players will recognize its aesthetic and gameplay style as something born of the makers of Minecraft.
Narrative in games is something that Persson seems mostly disinterested in. While Minecraft is host to endless stories, none of them were really created by Mojang. Both Scrolls and 0x10c will have a backstory to get you to the cusp of gameplay, to explain what happened and why you're there. But so far there's no story driving any of Mojang's games.
In many ways 0x10c sounds like a love letter to the way Minecraft was made.
"I haven't decided yet if we want to have some kind of story" for 0x10c, he said. "Are we actually getting someone to write it or if we just want to leave it more open. I'm still deciding.
"I basically don't care about narrative in all the games. It's very rare that I do. I usually just skip, skip, skip, skip. I have no idea why I'm killing this guy. It's like the game mechanics are interesting and then all of a sudden you don't really know, ‘What, he was my friend?' OK. I think I'm just one of those gamers who is kind of more interested in mechanics."
While Mojang has its near future sketched out in terms of game development, Persson continues to play around with new ideas and ways to make games. Currently he's been tinkering with HTML5 game development to try and determine what the platform is capable of.
"I think it's kind of an interestingly unifying, very easily accessible to people," he said. "You can have a click to play link and then instantly be playing a game. So I think it's kind of an appealing platform."
"I've been doing this forever," he said of his hobby game development habits. "Whenever I'm not working, I'm making games in my spare time."