I’ve got some quick questions for loyal Marcana readers.
Which popular independent video game focused on mining and building sold over 500,000 copies?
What was the size of its budget for marketing and advertising?
The answer to the first question is Minecraft. The answer to the second is $0.
By any measure, Minecraft – a simple, independent game mostly crafted by a single programmer – Markus Persson (AKA Notch, his programmer name – kind of like a rapper) of Sweden – is an incredible success. The developer released the earliest version on TIGSource, a popular forum for collaboration by professional independent games developers. That isn’t the first hit to come out of that forum. The caving platformer, Spelunky – which later became a success on Xbox Live – came out of that forum.
Persson released the earliest version of the product for free to people who would be likely to understand its early flaws and be able to give him solid feedback: developers and the hangers-on of developers. Minecraft was actually a partial imitation of an earlier independent game, Infiniminer – so originality wasn’t built into the game originally.
Persson was already an experienced developer, accustomed to working with few resources. He’d worked for a photo-sharing site called Jalbum, and then later on the Massively Multiplayer Wurm Online.
Once it became clear that Minecraft was a special success – thanks to feedback from his initial cadre of enlightened users – he continued to develop it. But it took well over a year of solid development in niche obscurity for Minecraft search volumes to go parabolic.
I cropped the graph, but that spike in late 2010 reveals over 30 million daily Google searches for Minecraft.
Over the same period, Britney Spears hovered below 500,000. Linsdsay Lohan, even going in and out of jail, never breached 4 million.
Super-starlets, go get drunk and fall off a bridge. If our culture has a real superstar, it’s the Minecraft guy.
So, how did one mild-mannered Swede become bigger than Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and Justin Bieber – combined?
For starters, he keeps a Tumblr and a Twitter account. He’s both authentic and informative. He’s just as likely to provide an inventory of esoteric bug fixes as he is to tell people that he’s drinking beer and playing Civilization V.
Social media workers like me and the rest of Marcana are fond of pointing out when someone does something wrong on social media. I’ve even pointed out some of the mistakes that Notch has made in promoting his game. His Twitter account is an example of how to do things right. He has conversations with people who ask him questions. It’s not used as a broadcast medium that just tells people what he’s posting on his blog.
His blog posts also provoke hundreds of comments nearly every time. That’s largely because the product is so enjoyable and interesting to people. Rather than creating a game that can be consumed and “finished,” fans often compare Minecraft to a set of Lego blocks. It’s a tool for creativity. The existence of in-game circuitry has even enabled people to build computers from the ground up within Minecraft just as they would with a soldering gun in the real world.
Notch also runs a forum where users and fans can discuss the game. Enabling user promotion has generated Minecraft’s incredible success. Because the game allows users to create unique products of their own, it encourages those people to use social media to promote their own work – and thereby promote the game itself.
Fans have even made trailers for the game – each with millions of views.
Markus Persson has used social media in a method that makes it so that he has to do as little work as possible. His customers are his most powerful sales force and they work for nothing. The low initial price point of $13 means that many more people have bought the game, which creates a greater network effect of social media promotion. Products that cost $250 can’t use this kind of strategy because there just aren’t nearly as many people willing to shell out that kind of money. The barrier to purchase between watching a cool video about Minecraft and buying it are extremely low.
The product is also personalized. After purchasing it, there are unique things that are worth sharing about it. Like this amazing subway system, all built in Minecraft.
This kind of hit would not be possible without social media. And these kinds of strategies are changing what kinds of products are possible and how customers relate to companies.
If you want an example of social media return on investment, it’s difficult to beat an investment of $0 and a recurring revenue of hundreds of thousands of dollars a day.