Microsoft’s $2.5 billion purchase of Mojang and Minecraft last September, one of the biggest acquisitions in gaming history, stunned the game’s millions of fans. It also was a big, though not entirely pleasant, surprise for Mojang’s employees. Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson, authors of the definitive history of the game, have updated the book to include the final days of Mojang’s independence. Minecraft: The Unlikely Tale of Markus Notch Persson and the Game that Changed Everything: Second Edition will be available from Seven Stories Press on June 16. This exclusive excerpt reveals how Mojang’s employees learned of the sale, and what happened when Microsoft descended upon their office in Stockholm.
For Jens Bergensten, life ahead looked set to remain pleasantly familiar. While Markus had clearly changed in the years since the two had first met, Jens seemed largely unfazed by all the attention. Sure, he was now in charge of one of the most popular games in the world, played by millions of people on a daily basis. And yes, parts of the celebrity associated with Mojang spilled over to him. He was regularly invited to speak at conferences all over the world. Sometimes, people recognized him on the street and stopped him for a chat or an autograph. But his manners and his demeanor had remained the same. Jens was soft-spoken, thoughtful, and with a shrewd, subtle sense of humor that could take people a while to pick up on.
As the summer of 2014 came to a close, Jens took comfort in the fact that everything in his life was pretty much under control.
That feeling would soon evaporate. This was the day when Mojang CEO Carl Manneh asked to have a word with him, walked Jens into a conference room, sat him down, and told him what the three founders had been planning for the past few weeks. Mojang was to be sold to Microsoft. It was the biggest bombshell anyone could have dropped on Jens Bergensten. At first, it felt unreal. He could hear what Carl was telling him but his brain was unable to process what it meant. In his mind, Mojang was the shining star of the independent games scene. The company he worked for was the company whose founder had said over and over that making money wasn’t the point. Mojang made games because making games was fun, and they did it in their own way. Sure, the money was flooding in, but mainly as an excuse not to do the boring stuff, right? The kind of stuff that Jens very much associated with working for a company like Microsoft.
In the room with Carl, he couldn’t do much but listen. He remembered how his brain, perhaps as a way of pushing the feelings aside, kept avoiding the big picture in favor of practical details. What would Microsoft think about his and Mojang’s dependency on open source code? How would he go about introducing his counterpart there to the quirks in his programming style? He did, however, insist on speaking to Markus personally. He needed to hear for himself that his friend was serious about this, that it wasn’t just some elaborate joke his bosses had decided to play on him.
Jens remembers the ensuing conversation with Markus, behind the closed door in his private glass cage of an office, as calm and composed. They talked about how the Minecraft community would react once the sale went public. Some would be angry, others would feel abandoned. Markus was well aware that he would be labeled a sellout, someone who’d abandoned his ideals in exchange for a big pile of cash. He told Jens he was thinking of taking a break from the Internet. Perhaps he could just disconnect completely for a while, his reasoning went, to escape the abuse that was sure to come his way once the news broke.
The impending sale meant there were suddenly plenty of tasks to keep Jens occupied at work. Carl had immediately assigned him duties that had to be dealt with before the deal could be finalized. He was put in touch with Microsoft to answer technical questions, and was asked to hand his code over for review. The latter is standard procedure whenever a software company is sold. It could be compared to having a mechanic examine a used car before handing it over to a new owner. Microsoft needed to make sure there weren’t any unpleasant surprises hiding in the thousands upon thousands of lines of code that made Minecraft work. Things that had been stolen from elsewhere, for example. Or strange workarounds that would make future development difficult or impossible. This meant running everything through a trusted third party, guaranteeing that none of Mojang’s secrets would reach Microsoft before the contracts had been signed and the payments made.
Jens was not alone in being dissatisfied with his paycheck from Mojang.
Jens was also asked, sternly, to keep his mouth shut. For now, Carl, Markus, and Mojang’s third co-founder Jakob Porser had to make sure there were no leaks that could jeopardize the deal. For Jens, this would mean an excruciating time of sitting in the office among his colleagues and friends, all blissfully unaware of what he had just learned, but unable to tell them. He’d been trusted with an unpleasant secret, and he’d much rather have shared it with his friends than do as his bosses told him and keep quiet. Even so, he kept the news to himself. Jens assumed that Carl had told him first because he needed Jens to get started on code review right away. Otherwise, they’d probably not have told him either, he thought. Not until the very last moment.
In all likelihood, Microsoft was well aware of how difficult it would be to retain the trust and loyalty of Mojang’s staff. Making sure people kept quiet was one thing. More importantly, both companies had to ensure that everyone didn’t simply hand in their notice and leave the moment the deal went through. The solution was to deploy the one thing this deal had plenty of—money. Everyone at Mojang was made the same offer: whoever stayed on board for at least six months after the sale would be rewarded with two million Swedish crowns, approximately three hundred thousand dollars, after taxes. A small fortune was being tendered as a peace offering, in other words. But for some, saying yes was far from a given.
Money, like everything else, is relative. At the time, Jens was not alone in being dissatisfied with his paycheck from Mojang. In fact, a shared feeling had for some time been spreading amongst the staff that they were not really seeing their fair share of Minecraft’s astounding success. Sure, Mojang employees received more perks than most. The regular trips that were arranged for employees would have made most people jealous. In May 2013, for example, Minecraft passed two important milestones as sales of both the PC and mobile versions passed ten million. To celebrate, Markus took his whole staff, with partners, to Monaco. Arriving by private jet, they had spent a few days driving sports cars, riding helicopters, drinking champagne, and partying on luxury yachts, all at the company’s expense.
And yet, some couldn’t shake the feeling that their hard work mainly benefited Markus, Jakob, and Carl. The three founders were yet to make anyone else a shareholder in the company, not even those who had been with Mojang from the start. This meant that the massive profits generated by Minecraft still went straight into their pockets, even though Markus himself hadn’t done any actual work on Minecraft for over two years now. Everyone else had to do with a normal salary, plus whatever perks or bonuses Markus decided to throw their way when he felt generous.
Markus just wants to be left alone to make little games that no one cares about. Daniel Rosenfeld
At any other company this would have been perfectly normal. But Mojang was different, or at least it gave the impression of being different. The company projected an image of itself as a closely knit, easygoing group of friends. There were constant parties and nonstop fun, a culture of honesty and openness where nobody cared much about who was in charge. In the first few years this had, by all accounts, been true. But as the company had grown the atmosphere had changed, and Mojang’s self-image was by now squarely at odds with the reality. The distance between staff and management had increased. Many no longer regarded Markus, Carl, and Jakob as their equals, as part of the team, but simply as management. Mojang had long since ceased to be anything but a workplace.
“Management has been really good at keeping wages down. Instead, we’ve been told that Mojang is a nice place to work, that we get free trips to the Game Developers Conference and that we all receive a Christmas bonus,” one Mojang employee told us during summer 2014.
Even so, people stayed on. Almost without exception.
News of the sale changed things at Mojang. Some felt betrayed by Markus’s decision. Morale plummeted. “People felt like the world was coming to an end,” one longtime Mojang employee told us shortly after the news broke.
Daniel Rosenfeld, better known by his stage name C418, the composer of the Minecraft soundtrack, was the first person associated with Minecraft to share his feelings about the sale. “The days before the sale went through, I felt betrayed by Markus,” he told the Guardian in a fall 2014 interview, adding that since then he had gained a better understanding of Markus’s motives. “Markus just wants to be left alone to make little games that no one cares about. That viewpoint makes sense to me,” he said.
The official communications mainly confirmed what was already known. But one important new detail emerged: Markus, Jakob, and Carl would all leave Mojang as soon as the sale was done. None of them said anything about future plans and none promised any involvement in Mojang going forward.
In large, corporate acquisitions such as this one, reassurances are commonly given. This could mean that the founders are given seats on the board of the acquiring company, that they agree to stay on as “advisers,” or perhaps simply that they offer to remain in charge during the transition into new ownership. The idea is to avoid too much of a sudden change. Familiar faces in management can go a long way toward avoiding a sudden collapse of a business, as too many things change around employees, customers, and partners at once. The enormous symbolic power of Markus and, to a lesser extent, Carl and Jakob, makes it even more noteworthy that there was no such agreement in place for Microsoft and Mojang. It’s highly unlikely that Microsoft would have accepted Markus’s immediate departure without making a fuss about it. Without knowing exactly what was said, the only reasonable explanation is that Markus had demanded from the start to be able to cut all ties to Mojang as soon as the deal was finalized.
Instead of saying Mojang he referred to the company simply as Minecraft.
For Markus, handing control of his company to someone else seemed not to be an unfortunate side effect of the sale, but the whole point.
Even if the whole point of the sale was to give Markus the catharsis he craved, others were surprised at how quickly he disappeared from the picture. When Microsoft sent a delegation for its first official visit to Mojang in Stockholm, Markus wasn’t around. Few if any of his employees knew for sure, but it was rumored that he’d just returned from a few days in Vegas with Jakob. Either way, he was either too tired or too uninterested to show up in person. The task of representing Mojang to its new owners fell on Carl.
It was just past nine in the morning as Matt Booty, general manager at Microsoft Game Studios, made his entrance at the Mojang headquarters in Stockholm. He had brought a delegation of seven people with him, and made sure everyone was properly introduced before he began laying out his plans. Everyone who was present from Mojang listened intently, even though few new facts were presented.
Why had Microsoft bought Mojang? Simply because it was up for sale. What would happen to Scrolls? We’ll see. Such a vague answer was less controversial than it may seem from the outside. As a matter of fact, the future of Jakob’s collectible card game had been up for discussion many times in the past already. It had found a dedicated fanbase of a few thousand players. Not bad for an independently developed video game, but an abject failure next to Minecraft.
According to people present at the meeting, Matt Booty misspoke several times when discussing Mojang’s future. Instead of saying Mojang he referred to the company simply as Minecraft, quickly correcting himself. For the others in the room, it was awkward to say the least. Less than half of them worked directly with Minecraft. Every time the man from Microsoft confused the name of the company he’d acquired with the game it was known for, he inadvertently pointed to the elephant in the room. Yes, Microsoft had acquired all of Mojang. But it was only really interested in Minecraft.
Even so, the same generous retainer was offered to everyone at Mojang. In addition, all employees were guaranteed their monthly wages for two full years, even if Microsoft shut down the Stockholm office and relocated Minecraft development to its headquarters in Redmond. At least one Mojang employee would go on to decline the offer.
It took several more weeks of formalities before ownership of Mojang could officially be handed over. When the papers were signed and the code properly reviewed and approved, a date was set. On November 6, 2014, Mojang would cease to exist as an independent company.
The day before, Markus had put in his last day at work. Several others were in the office as he stood up to leave. He hesitated, not sure how to say goodbye. So he decided not to. He made his way past the desks outside where his employees sat working, past the shelves stacked with awards and prizes. He took a left out the door, went down a small stairwell, and stepped out of the building. The cold November air stung his cheeks as the door closed behind him.