Lessons learned from Minecraft
// November 21st, 2011 // By LordBron // iDevBlogADay
A Little Backstory
For the first official company trip for Area 161, we wanted it to be something different, something special yet still related to gaming. Therefore, we decided to go to MineCon. Here’s the interesting thing though, neither of us (nor our artist) has played the game.
Why go to MineCon if we’ve never played Minecraft? I couldn’t tell you. When the announcement came that there would be a MineCon, I told Smiley, “We need to go to this. I’m not sure why. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen. The only thing I know is that my gut says we should go to this.” So I bought us tickets, booked us a room with a view at the Mandalay Bay, we convinced our wives to let us go. And now, here we are.
The Mojang crew didn’t really do a Postmortem Wrapup or anything like that, though there were some technical discussions. Most of the lessons I’ve gleamed have been more confirmation of ideas or realizations of things observed. With no further ado, here you go:
1. You never know who your audience will be – There is somewhere between 30 to 50% of non-typical gamers here. By that, I mean there are kids, parents and grandparents here in attendance. It was one of the few things that Notch (the Minecraft creator) did comment on. Once you put something out there, you can’t really control who does what with it.
2A. Focus on constantly iterating and sharing with users – This one is kinda of hard with iOS to the extent that Minecraft did it, but I do have an idea in lesson 3B below on how to do it. With roughly 4 million purchased units before their 1.0 release, they had a lot of feedback. The 4M buyers also proved to them that they were on the right track. A common theme spoken by the Mojang team through various sessions and panels was the importance of rapid iterations to help find the great game that’s fighting to be freed.
2B. Marketing doesn’t matter – I’ve read this numerous times before in many software/gamer stories. Basically, what it boils down to is that if you make a great game, marketing doesn’t really matter. In today’s world of always on, always present internet, as long as you make a great product, people will find it. I think marketing is definitely needed for poor games. I’d say that marketing might even be needed to help bring a really good game to light. However, I think if you’re doing lesson 2A and are iterating on and creating this great game, then marketing is more distracting than helpful.
3A. Community is huge – Here’s one area that probably doesn’t fit many games. “I’m making a holiday themed tic-tac-toe game. How much community can I find?” There’s two answers I’d give to this. First, if there is no community that loves it while it’s being born, then I’m afraid there will likely be no customers around to buy it once it’s made. Therefore, you might want to rethink your idea and possibly start a new one. Second, if it’s the greatest idea ever and you know why, then it’s your duty to prove that to the world by doing lesson 2A. As it gets better and closer to your vision, then you will attract those to you that have the same passion and ideas. However, just be aware that the max community for your idea may only be hundreds or thousands of people vs millions.
3B. Charge money for your work to find those that care – One thing that dawned on me is that people were paying over $15 to play Minecraft Beta. Notch even said, “People were buying it when all they really got was a thank you from me and nothing else.” The things I’ve heard from indies is that the more they charge, the less time they have to spend supporting the idiots who download it when it’s free. Above I mentioned constant iterations while building your game. In iOS we have to go through the app store. I think this is where Area 161 may have hit on something. If you look at our roadmap for our first game, you’ll notice that a true “1.0″ release won’t really be until version 3.0 of the game that is available to customers in the App Store. Someone mentioned that Fieldrunners was originally launched without sound, but instead with text in the description that said, “Sound coming soon!”. We intend to charge $1.99 for our game and then tack on another dollar per major release til we max at $9.99 for version 9.0 in the store. If a customer buys in early, they save money. However, they need to pay us something for our work, otherwise chances are they won’t really care about the game and they surely won’t care about us, the game makers.
4. Dare to be different and stick to it – Minecraft is a different kind of game, so that lesson applies to it. However, that’s not what I’m thinking about. MineCon is in Vegas and so is the Pinball Hall of Fame. Smiley and I played a few pinball games back in our day, so we decided to head on over there. We found some classics that we loved, but we came across something totally new to us and pretty darn amazing: The Pinball Circus. It was an experiment from Williams. Instead of horizontal play, it was comprised of 4 levels of vertical play. The thing was that 2 were made and production was ready to begin. At the last minute, they pulled the plug. I’m telling you, this pinball game alone would have kept me playing pinball. It would’ve influenced copycats and pushed innovation even further, resulting in what I bet would’ve been a pinball machine that you had to duck to get into because it surrounded you. Instead, they killed production and pinball continued on to slowly fade from existence. Area 161′s entire premise is unique device interactions, so by default, every one of our games will be different and completely unlike any other before it. Some will likely not catch on as much as others, but that’s okay. Our mission is to push the device interaction and inspire others to move beyond the “Make a genre game. Release. Repeat.” cycle that many game devs are stuck in.
5. Start building now: whoever you are, wherever you’re at – One surprising thing at MineCon is the push to convert it’s game players into game makers. There are lots of panels and sessions dedicated to helping you become a game maker. They have an Indie Game Pavilion where 12 indies are displaying their games. Next to the pavilion is the Indie Theatre where the indies get 30 minute slots to show off their games on big screens and get to talk to potential customers. Notch said he wanted to give indies a chance to show their wares, because he realized his luck with Minecraft. It also helps the Mojang team deliver this message that everyone should try to make games.
In a panel, even the Mojang artists get in on the “Start building now” theme. They suggest putting crappy, first draft art into the game just to get something going. An underlying message of Mojang is, “Look we’re just normal people like you who like to play games. The only difference between us and you is that we took the time to actually build a game of our own to sell. You should do the same.”
6. Have an awesome release party – To go along with lessons 2B and 3B, if you know the 1.0 version in the App Store is not going to be the greatest than you don’t have to worry about celebrating it. Instead, you can just release it and get immediately back to work to deliver 1.1 to the App Store. If App Store version 3.0 is the first version that matches what you wanted in the game, then wait until 3.0 makes it live to have your release party. Grab as many users from your community together as you can and have a party in person or virtually. It doesn’t have to be 5000 people at the Mandalay Bay like MineCon. Instead, it can be a pizza party at your local pizza joint or near disneyland or something. If only 4 people show up, who cares! That’s 4 more people than it would’ve been on your own and I bet you those 4 people will help you sell a ton more copies of your game if you treat them right.
That’s it for today. I hope at least one of these lessons helps you out.