Last fall, when Microsoft shelled out $2.5 billion to acquire gaming studio Mojang–maker of Minecraft–many were stunned to learn that Mojang’s founders, including billionaire Markus “Notch” Persson, were leaving as part of the deal. But in 2011, Persson had already handed creative control to developer Jens “Jeb” Bergensten, who has helped keep 100 million players coming back for more Minecraft by enabling them to build increasingly elaborate, Lego-like worlds, explore freely downloadable new areas, and invite others to interact. (Ocean Monument, last year’s biggest addition, featured underwater temples manned by cyclopean fish guardians.) Now Bergensten is finding himself having to balance Minecraft’s boundless customization with complex business decisions–though innovating in-game play is his focus, not lucrative licensing. “We want people to have more things to do,” Bergensten says, “but it’s about the creative variation.”
Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?
I’m mostly inspired by video games, movies, and board games. But I also try to get inspiration from things that people like, like figure skating, that I’m not very interested in, but to see them in that perspective and what makes them interesting. In my opinion, creativity and creative inspiration comes from anything.
When I make something, if I’m going to make a game or something, I start with something super simple and add things I’m trying to get inspiration from. I don’t really know where I’m going, so I start with something super simple and change things as it gets closer and closer to something I set out to do. At the same time, I try to look at similar things in gaming–so for figure skating, I try to figure out if the choreography is the most interesting, or if the maneuvers they’re performing are the most interesting.
What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?
I guess one thing that surprises people is that I have used the math I learned in college, like trigonometry. I often get questions from kids who want to become game developers, and I try to tell them that they will appreciate at least a midlevel knowledge of math. Making games covers a lot of different areas: it’s not just programming and math; it’s how the game looks and feels and its music and artwork. I try to tell people to do the things they think are fun and solve problems as they come along. They don’t need ‘this’ or ‘that’ in their skillset. Making games–I don’t really see it as a science. It’s feeling your way. But if you know more math, you have more tools when you try to solve the problems you encounter.
What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?
I do the classic: take a walk or ride a bike, just to get some bloodflow. That’s more when I’m in a project and just trying to solve problems. If I’m completely in a rut, then it can be difficult to force yourself to get out of it. But inspiration can come from many different things. I go somewhere else, work in a different location.
Before I started working on Minecraft, we would figure out new games by going on small holidays. We used to go to Berlin they have these really great around-the-clock Internet cafes and we’d just work on something. We’d also attend Game Jams, where you’re given just random things and have limited time to produce a game. It’s quite often that you are forced to think of something that works within the theme and, like I said before, I don’t know where I’m going and try to make it fun during this 32- or 48-hour game jam. You either produced crap or finished something interesting, and the interesting thing would end up in a pile. Then when we would actually need to start a launch project, we would look back in the pile.