State of independence: An inside view of Minecraft developer Mojang

The three-man group that leads Mojang: CEO Carl Manneh (left), Markus "Notch" Persson (center), and Jakob Porsér.

Above: The three-man group that leads Mojang: CEO Carl Manneh (left), Markus "Notch" Persson (center), and Jakob Porsér.

Image Credit: Per Kristiansen
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King Games, maker of the popular Candy Crush Saga, just filed for an IPO expected to value what the founders call “The Kingdom” at $5 billion. Meanwhile, fellow Swedish game studio Mojang has trodden a determinedly indie path, making nearly $240 million in revenue last year with 35 employees and zero investors.

Mojang’s three founders, Minecraft creator Markus “Notch” Persson, Scrolls designer Jakob Porser, and CEO Carl Manneh, have a board meeting once a month. “We like to eat meat,” says Manneh. “So we go out and have a meal at a favorite meat restaurant in Stockholm, and we make very, very quick decisions. I’ve been involved in other companies where you have an external board and maybe venture capital who are part of the decision-making, but this is just us three. We can change the strategy of the company in one evening. That’s the strength of Mojang. We are independent.”

Minecraft is one of world’s best-selling games. Over 15 million people bought a copy for one of its multiple platforms — Mac, Windows, Linux, Xbox, Android, and iOS — in 2012. It finds use in education, architecture, city planning, and art. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum just hosted an event celebrating all things Minecraft. The United Nations uses it to involve young people in urban planning.

Mojang is three years old, and according to Swedish tech news site IT24, it made pretax profits of $89 million (580 million Swedish kroner) in 2012, with Persson personally receiving $98 million (640 million kroner) in Minecraft licensing fees. Yet Mojang’s founders didn’t set out to create a large company or become millionaires; they just like making games. Now they want to make Mojang the best workplace in the world.

Family Portraits

Above: Family portraits: Each staff member is depicted in an oil painting.

Image Credit: Per Kristiansen

The early days

The understated, soft-spoken Manneh told me Mojang’s story. In 2010, Manneh was the CEO of photo album startup jAlbum. He hired Persson, who had already released the first version of Minecraft, as a web developer. When Minecraft started to take off, Persson decided to set up a games studio called Mojang (which means “gadget” in Swedish) with fellow game designer Porser. Persson asked Manneh if he knew anyone who could run the business side of Mojang. Manneh volunteered himself, hired a team, and found an office while still running jAlbum. By the time this new game company officially launched in January 2011, it consisted of seven people. Minecraft had already sold one million copies.

Since then, Minecraft sales have climbed to spectacular heights, turning it into a global phenomenon and Persson into a gaming rockstar. According to Manneh, hundreds of people make their living on Minecraft’s coattails, including an entire ecosystem of YouTube video makers and Minecraft server hosts.

Main meeting room

Above: 1970s Bond movies inspired the decor for the meeting room

Image Credit: Per Kristiansen

Office space, Mojang-style

Mojang’s extraordinary office is modeled after an English gentlemen’s club. “We wanted to make an environment which feels more like a home rather than an office. We saw in our previous office that people were there from 8 a.m. in the morning until 12 at night. It’s a very social environment,” Manneh explains.

The central area has a pool table and pinball machine. Pairs of Chesterfield sofas sit on a tartan carpet beneath hand-painted oil portraits of each and every staff member. “Our big meeting room is designed after James Bond movies in the 1970s, so it has golden carpets and golden wallpaper, and everything is oak and dark wood,” says Manneh. The CEO’s favorite room is the movie theater/games room, where Tuesday is Movie Night, for which Mojangsta JunkBoy even designs fliers. On Friday afternoons the whole company plays games.

Recently, a variety of indie Xbox Live games have been popular with the developers: Mount your Friends, One Finger Death Punch, and Hidden in Plain Sight. The staff also plays NHL 2014 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive regularly. The games room houses a huge range of board and card games, including Cosmic EncounterMagic: The Gathering, and Android: Netrunner.

Games and movie room

Above: The all-important games room.

Image Credit: Per Kristiansen

Mojang and the money

The company has been generous with its success. “The first year, Markus gave away his entire dividend to the employees, about 25 million kroner [$3.84 million]. At the time I think we were 10 or 15 people,” says Manneh. When Minecraft sold 10 million copies, the founders flew the growing team and their families to Monaco on private jets and hired the biggest yacht in the Riviera to celebrate. “If we were on the stock market or owned by someone else, we wouldn’t be able to do things like that because they would see it as wasting money,” says Manneh. “We see it as investing in our culture and our team.”

But for a CEO, Manneh seems reluctant to talk about the money. “For the outside world, that’s a stamp of success. But for us I think it’s most important to grow the community and have as many players as possible,” he says. “Most of the people at Mojang are not very interested in the money aspect. Game developers, like any artist, they want to show off their creative work. When you work at Mojang, and you make something and put it out, millions of people are going to use it. That’s what people are excited about. The money is just something that follows.”

At Mojang, the games always come first. “What we try to do is have the games drive the company and not the other way around,” says Manneh. “Whatever makes sense for the players, for the community, for the games, takes the lead over business decisions. We try to make the environment for the developers as creative and free as possible. The business team needs to think about that in everything we do. All the deals that we make, we have to make sure that the business relationships don’t affect how the games are developed.”

Working space

Above: Where the work gets done at Mojang.

Image Credit: Per Kristiansen

Minecraft rebuilds the world

Having conquered the online world, Minecraft is now helping to rebuild the real one in the form of some of Sweden’s most troubled neighborhoods. “The million programs are sort of Swedish ghettos, “ says Manneh. “These are today our most troublesome areas in terms of crime and stuff like that.” The million programs were a million apartments built in the 1960s and 1970s in Sweden’s largest cities — Stockholm, Malmö, and Gothenburg —  to counteract an acute lack of housing. Svensk Byggtjänst (Swedish Building Services) is now renewing these programs. “The project manager for this whole thing — he was at home and discussing this over the kitchen table with his wife, and his two children were listening in and said, ‘You should use Minecraft for this’ “ The following day, he called Manneh.

Now Minecraft helps to bridge the gap between residents of the million programs and Swedish politicians. The Minecraft community builds a precise model of each area using city plans, Google maps, and photographs. Residents are then invited to edit their own neighborhood. “Maybe rearrange the park to make it more light and safe at night or add a shopping center to make the neighborhood more lively,” Manneh explains. These ideas are then brought to the politicians. “It’s the base for what is actually being built in these areas for real.” Impressed by Mojang’s work on the million programs, the U.N. formed a partnership with the company called Block by Block, which involves young people in the planning of urban public spaces worldwide. The first pilot project is in Kibera, one of Nairobi, Kenya’s informal settlements. Mojang is the main sponsor.

Many games

Above: The motto on Mojang’s crest means “Many Games.”

Image Credit: Per Kristiansen

State of independence

If there’s one dominant theme in the story of Mojang, it’s independence and the freedom that independence gives the team. Mojang’s founders have received multiple offers to buy or invest in the company. “We haven’t been close to even wanting to sell,” says Manneh. It’s the kind of independence which may be easier to preserve in Stockholm than in Silicon Valley. “We are sort of in a remote corner of the world,” says Manneh. “I think it probably helps in keeping focus. There’s still a lot of people running through our office, but I would imagine that it would be even more hysterical in the U.S.”

Photo Credit: Photographs by Per Kristiansen