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The Zynga way — releasing games mid-production and updating them as time goes on — is the way to go for independent game developers, according to Minecraft creator Markus Persson.
That’s counter to traditional game development, which involves completing a game from start to finish before submitting it to an online marketplace like the Xbox Live Arcade or the Apple App Store. But that’s one of the reasons Zynga has been so successful — it releases beta versions of its games, limiting its financial liability and testing audience reaction at the same time. It’s the route that Persson took with Minecraft, which has generated around $33 million since it was released in May 2009.
“I think it’s a great way for a small studio to do game development. It might not make sense for all types of games, though,” Persson wrote in a post on news aggregator Reddit.com. “I’d definitely want to release future games in the same way. Developing in the dark is scary and probably wrong.”
By releasing mid-production, developers are able to use a community to do quality assurance on a game rather than relying on testers and in-house staff. Persson said he released Minecraft and then added additional features as the community asked for them. That meant he was able to tailor the game to the growing community, which only fed Minecraft’s — and Persson’s — popularity. It’s basically crowd-sourcing the process of finding and fixing bugs and adding features.
Persson was able to pull most of this off on his own before he hired two additional developers in 2010. He said the team is currently working on another game, although he wouldn’t give any details on what it’s about in an “ask-me-anything” question-and-answer thread on Reddit.com. He said the game has sold around 1.8 million copies so far — 800,000 for €9.95 and 1 million for €14.95.
In Minecraft, players wake up on a deserted island and start punching trees. That creates wood, which they can turn into mining picks and other types of tools. From there, the sky is the limit. Players can chip away at anything in the world and use it as a resource to build whatever they can think up. They can craft specific items, like swords and tools, or simply use blocks to build up giant and complicated structures.
Projects range from a scale representation of the U.S.S. Enterprise featured in the Star Trek series, to a giant cannon powered by 73 blocks of TNT with the sole purpose of launching a cow to the moon in a mining cart, to a recreation of the Earth itself. There are even a few shots at using Minecraft to create artistic videos that have become pretty popular on video-sharing sites like YouTube.
Persson still uses PayPal as his primary transaction service, even though he has run into a few scuffles with the money transferring service. PayPal once froze Persson’s account when it held more than $750,000 because it observed what it called “suspicious deposits and withdrawals.” Persson uses Amazon’s S3 cloud storage service to host downloads in order to reduce costs as well — so the overhead costs for the game are probably quite low.
Instead of using publishers, Persson relied on viral communities to spread word about the game. It spawned a number of online communities, such as one on Reddit. The game even has its own Wiki, because of just how many things players can do in the world. But Persson said he doesn’t have any plans to go the entrepreneurial route, like Mark Pincus once took when founding Zynga.
“Making games is my biggest hobby, and I feel some level of creative expression by doing so. I can see myself making games for a VERY long time,” Persson wrote. “I have no plans of becoming an entrepreneur or a CEO or anything like that.”