The creation of a hero

Think back to a year ago. Chances are if you’re like me, you had no idea who Markus Persson (aka Notch) was. You didn’t follow him on twitter. You didn’t see five articles every time he said something funny or tried to give away his iconic hat. You may not have even realized that Sweden had an indie games community. You may have heard of Minecraft – a game that had been in alpha for a year (released originally in May 2009). You may have even played it. If you had played it, you probably didn’t realized that was a game that would turn into one of the best selling PC games ever and that it all started with one man, Notch.

Fast forward to today: Minecraft is a superhit, big AAA games. More important than the sales, Minecraft has created a community of rabid fans that have spawned thousands of youtube videos, wikis, and walkthroughs all dedicated to Minecraft. And from this hit Notch has emerged as the indie hero. Anything that he says or does immediately causes a flurry of activity in the form of blogs and tweets from devoted fans that rivals video game greats like John Carmack, Will Wright, or even Miyamoto.

And it’s not hard to see why: Initially, he was the sole developer on Minecraft only to bring on his first employee in September of 2010. He quit his nine-to-five job at a casual game studio for the indie dream. He slaved away for years on the same game. He’s very open about all the data surrounding Minecraft – revenue, sales figures, etc. He’s always been active with his community of fans, first on the Minecraft forums and now on twitter. And finally, it’s a true Cinderella story of someone who did not want to be in the limelight but undoubtably ended there anyway. There’s no question that Notch is a huge role model and success story to other indies out there.

Why indies need a hero

Notch is important for indies because he represents phenomenal success in an industry where there aren’t a lot of success stories. There are a lot of indies being picked up by publishers, bu inevitably they end in postmortems demonstrating how difficult those partnerships can be. Not Notch – he did it all on his own. Deploying his game as a standalone exe for Windows, he essentially scoffed at the new hotness that is mobile, facebook, and HTML5 and proved you can still be successful. He forged a new path for indie devs and continues to be open and honest, passing along his knowledge in hopes that others can be successful.

And we indies need that. When it’s late at night and we’re still staring at our computer screen wondering how in the world we’re going to generate fifty more levels with the same innovation and creativity as the first, we need to watch that youtube video of the Enterprise built in Minecraft. We need to reassure ourselves that success is within our grasp and that if Notch, a hardworking indie dev just like us can make it work, then so can we.

Dangers of emulating a hero

As indies – even though heroes like Notch are extremely important – we need to realize that we’re not in the same place that they are. They no longer serve as good examples for the day-to-day survival that indies should emulate. For example, take the Minecraft on Steam topic. Mojang has the luxury at this point to dictate the terms of the contract with Valve. And while you might want to high-five Notch for sticking to his guns against a big corporation, as indie devs we need to realize that 99% would be lucky to be on Steam and when every little thing can make or break you, you will need to make sacrifices to get on a particular platform.

It’s also important to realize that Minecraft was not an overnight success. It took years to get where it is today. If as indies we fall into the trap of wondering why our game hasn’t hit Minecraft success after the first month of release and no community discussion and care, we’re setting ourselves up for unrealistic expectations and ultimately failure.

Personally, I’ll always keep an eye on Notch. I’ll follow him on twitter and I’ll read the articles that come across my RSS reader. But I know that I can’t emulate him now. I know as an indie dev that his actions cannot be my actions. However, you can bet that I’m examining everything he’s done to get to this point and that I’ll be trying to follow his path to the top. I’ll always keep in mind even in the darkest days that success is possible even in this tough world of independent game development.