Notch mega-interview: 0x10c, micropayments, Kickstarter and quantum computing
29th Nov 2012 | 15:00
Minecon was a busy old time for Mojang’s bearded, be-hatted co-founder. When Markus “Notch” Persson wasn’t on-stage or in interview he was being mobbed by hundreds of fans, barely kept at bay by the towering mass of his bodyguard. Yet, when I catch up with him in a backroom of the New Yorker hotel, he doesn’t seem especially exhausted by the relentless bustle of celebrity. Quite the opposite: he talks with eager enthusiasm about space-faring game 0x10c, Mojang’s attitude to microtransactions, money, and how future technology will change both gaming and shake the very foundations of the internet.
As for what Mojang can do to top this year’s Minecon in Disneyland, Notch giggles and says: “I dunno, maybe go to space or something.” You heard it here first, folks!
PCG: Last time we spoke, you were still deciding whether to put textures in the game. I assume you've decided now...
Notch: Yeah, we hired a graphics artist Jonatan Pöljö to do a textured look. Because a) it feeds into the fact that it's made by the guy who made Minecraft and b) I really like pixels. Jonatan wants to tweak a lot of it. We still haven't gotten to the planets yet. We're focusing on the ship. So the first release is basically going to be this: you can build a ship and you can play with the computer components in it. I'm kind of ignoring the planets as hard as I can because that's going to be a lot of work.
What about multiplayer?
It's basically done already. So when you're playing single player you're playing against a local server. Everything that we add has to work in multiplayer by definition now. I added to gun to test it and we played it in the office. It worked good.
Is there going to be an alpha sometime soon?
Er... as soon as it's fun. The shooty roundy bit is fairly fun. It has a strange Quake-like quality to it: slightly too fast. I think it could be entertaining on LAN play but I don't think you want to play it over the internet because with latency it's going to become very unfair because it's so fast. The goal still is to get it so that you can have a ship with the computer components in. Because then not only can you try the game but the people who want to build stuff for the computer can actually start doing that - it actually has some utility as well.
That's a very exciting part - especially for Minecraft fans who are used to customising their own experience. You've got the programmable computer in 0x10c but are there other obvious analogues for things like redstone and custom maps?
Yeah, kind of. Maybe custom maps. Instead of having blocks we have different things you can place - like a refrigerator or a laser gun. Pre-fabs. You can customise the component inside but not what it looks like. But then you get your own ship. There will be a ship editor where you can put chunks together to make the shape of a ship.
Is that the way it looks externally or are you actually modifying the way rooms fit together?
First you build the external part, and then you go into the room mode. Then you get a cutaway view of the ship. You can drag out rooms on different levels and make them taller if you want a shaft or something and put it all together.
And what effect would that have in terms of gameplay? I guess if you're running from one side of the ship to another to put out a fire you would benefit from having an efficiently designed ship.
Yeah, and we're trying to make it so you can have specialised rooms somehow, but we don't know how to do it. We want to avoid placing a room and saying, “This is the medical bay.” But we still want to encourage you to have rooms for specific purposes. So if there's a hull breach you could lose the air in one of the rooms - kind of like FTL.
How will multiplayer work? Do you all have your own spaceships? Or are you encouraged to form crews together?
The idea is kind of to allow for both. It's still not clear how we're going to monetise the game – but the rough idea I have right now is to have an MMOish part called the multiverse. It'll probably be monthly subscription because of the cost of running all the [spaceships’ emulated] CPUs on the server. The idea is that one subscription gives you one generator. If a CPU in the game costs us this much money to emulate then it has to consume an equal proportion of the wattage from the generator. So several people could play on one ship with one generator if they wanted. I think that’d be the most fun, but I know a lot of people just want to pilot their own ship. That part of the game kind of grew stronger after we played the Artemis Ship Simulator.
Have you been playing that at Mojang?
Yeah, [ex-PCG web ed, now Mojang’s pet Welshman] Owen suggested it.
Who was the captain?
It varied. I was the captain once and I kept telling them to launch nukes at space stations. I'm not a very good captain as it turns out.
Head to the next page for Notch's thoughts on microtransactions, resource mining and emulated CPU craziness.
Going back to that subscription fee - isn’t everyone else backing away from that payment model as fast as they can? Will it work for an indie game?
Maybe - we'll see! We might change the model if the players want some kind of free-to-play system, as they call it. Not that it is really free - because the expected revenue for a free-to-play game is higher than from the paying customers.
PCG: Just add hats! How do you feel about microtransactions in general?
For games which have been designed around it, I think it's fine. I mean just look at games like Magic the Gathering or even Scrolls - they’re based around collection, so it's fine. I think Valve managed to somehow change Team Fortress 2 into a different game where it fit. It's not the same game as it was when it was released but it's still an entertaining game. Except the last Halloween update confused and scared me. There was a transparent ghost running around and if I reached him I got superpowers? I don't know what was happening.
You’ve already experimented with microtransactions with skinpacks. How did that go?
Those are good. They don't affect the gameplay. And the charity pack - I don't remember the amount of money it made but it was quite a lot. So that was fun. But I'm so afraid of having different reasons for making games. Like, if you get rewarded for withholding parts of the game as a game developer you might be tempted down a slippery slope. One of the models in the 360 version has a different walking animation and I wonder: is that really okay? It's just aesthetic but still I'm really afraid of pushing that boundary. So I think for 0x10c we'll see when we're closer to having a finished game if we'll try and do something that's not the monthly fee. But we're going to have to monetise it somehow.
Do you really have to? Mojang's survival is probably not dependant on the success of 0x10c.
Well, it's true we could monetise it from Minecraft sales, I guess. But then all of 0x10c development is going to be a monetary burden. It puts it in the situation where it's more like a charity game - but you're still charging for it. I'd rather have it be self-sustaining or it feels wrong.
Do you care what people think about it now? I mean surely all the pressure's off.
About the game? I've gotten to the point where I don't really worry about it. When I put up the first Youtube videos I was kind of nervous, but now that it's out there and people have seen it, it's fine. The people who like it seem to be very eager about it. There's a lot of people actually playing with the CPU already.
It's slowed down a bit now but there's a huge, huge community around it so I think once we get the tools out they'll actually be able to do some cool stuff with it.
What do you think people are going to build with it?
Everything! Some people are working on a custom OS to be able to load different programs while it's running and of course docking computers and stuff like that are going to be necessary for the game, unless you're a really skilled pilot. I guess like if you put a turret with a sensor it could be like an automated sentry turret as well. And of course people are going to make pointless things like emulators for Ultima 1 or something.
You've not started building the planets yet, but do you have any idea what kind of gameplay will take place on them?
The idea is that, with things like turrets, you have a 3D printer to build the shell, like a computer case shell, but you still have to put components in there. Players in the game aren't really engineers - they're more like pilots, so they can't build those parts. You have to scavenge for those parts, and find abandoned ships and try to find a working CPU or something. And those could have slightly different attributes: you might find a CPU running at 105% and try to trade that. But you can also mine for basic resources, like if you want a gold computer case – we'll see if we actually have different materials, but that's what I want – you have to mine for gold and put it in the 3D printer.
Mine as in Minecraft mining?
Probably not, no. Because then we have to change the terrain and changing the terrain on a lot of planets and storing that is not going to be viable.
What's the kind of the interaction between players going to be like?
Oh I don't know at all. I could speculate, but it's very hard to predict. I want people to have specialised roles. Maybe by having some sort of levelling up and points system where you can kind of specialise. Then I was thinking of having permadeath where it's easy to level up but when you die it resets all your skill points. But you get to keep the ship at least.
Hit the next page for Notch's thoughts on Kickstarter, Oculus Rift, quantum computer and the fate of Microsoft.
Elite: Dangerous is on Kickstarter now and other games which key into that nostalgic age of space gaming seem to be thriving thanks to crowdfunding. Are you ever tempted by Kickstarter or similar?
I think we don't really need it.
That doesn't usually stop people, though.
No. This is going to get into game politics. But, say, [Peter Molyneux-fronted start-up] 22 Cans - people got a bit upset with them for Kickstarting Godus, but they don't have a lot of money. I don't know if Peter Molyneux has a lot of money, I have no idea. They're established developers, sure, but they don't have a lot of money in the company and they need to fund it somehow. If Peter was to fund it privately, I don't know if it's the best way to do it. But Mojang have so much money just in the company we don't need to raise money before making a game. And we don't really develop games in ways where it's a big risk, anyway. Right now 0x10c has two people working on it, so it's not a huge investment compared to Minecraft sales. So no, I wasn't tempted for that reason.
Which projects have you backed, which ones are you most excited about?
What are you going to do with your dev kit?
Definitely going to make it work in 0x10c no matter what. If I have to write custom Java drivers I will do that because I was so blown away by it. Then I might try to mention it to the Minecraft devs see if they want to do it, but it might be more difficult in an existing engine. So that's not a promise at all - but definitely 0x10c.
What was so good about it?
I've been kind of fascinated by the VR thing for a long time but it's always been crap. It doesn't feel like you're there. But this one was actually the first one. There is some latency but it's just short enough, and the resolution is just good enough. They soften the optics which makes it so it really doesn't strain your eyes. It feels like you're focusing on a natural distance rather than focusing up close. Within seconds I felt immersed and I looked down and I was playing the BFG Edition of DOOM 3 and I was like, "Wow! I'm really short!" You could really tell that the player was like 1.4 meters - it turned out they did actually lower the height of the player for some reason. It was very very cool. It didn't do any any sideways tracking - though that's a software issue - so whenever I moved my head sideways I got really nauseous.
Do you think the Oculus Rift will be a success or is it kind of an interim technology for something much better coming shortly thereafter?
I think either someone else is going to be able to market it better or if no-one does that I think the Oculus Rift has the potential to be a huge success. I hope they're the ones to do it.
What's next then? Are there any other big technological leaps coming that you think will change the way we play games or even just change the way we exist?
Yes. I think once quantum computing takes off a lot of interesting things are probably going to happen.
It's a Pandora's Box. We don't know yet. But first of all, all internet security is going to fail.
Because passwords will be brute-forced instantly?
Because you can factorise numbers in polynomial time, basically. All of encryption is built on that so everything on the internet will fail instantly. So as soon as we get a quantum computer with enough cubits to do that it's going to happen. There's probably one already somewhere. That's going to be very interesting. There are other potential ways to do encryption but the one we're using is broken by quantum computers.
Bringing it back to the near future, what do you think of this coming generation of hardware? How will the PC do alongside the new consoles?
It's very interesting to try and think about that. The console manufacturers need to focus on things that are just entertainment. Because if you want to watch Netflix and play games then you can do that more efficiently on a PC, especially if you hook it up to a TV. Now we have the Steam Big Picture stuff, we can actually get the TV experience in an easy way. Before it was all special cable and weird nonsense but now it's definitely doable. And so I think [console manufacturers] need to focus... I mean the 3DS for example has custom hardware and it's built to be in your pocket. Instead of just being this is a way to play games on your TV, it has to be more than that somehow.
What do you think of the idea of the Linux box that's been mooted?
Well the goal there is presumably to make it one standard configuration so you can make games for it and know how it's going to work. Which is one of the benefits of consoles. So I think it's a clever way to do it and obviously the software updates will be free and open source which is very cool. [Linux] is wonderful. I think we need to have it, and it's a shame that more people, including myself, don't use it. It's gotten easier and friendlier.
How about the fate of Microsoft?
I use their OS - Windows 7 is an amazing operating system in my opinion and of course there’s the Xbox, which I love. I'm sure Bing is going to take off and save them. [Editor’s note: Notch is smiling mischievously as he says this.]