Six things to learn from Mojang’s open conversation with customers

by Karen Newcombe

Mojang, for anyone who has been on a deserted island for the past six years, is the company founded by Markus “Notch” Persson, the creator of the computer game Minecraft. Between 900,000 and 1.5 million people are playing Minecraft at any given moment of the day*. In June 2014, Mojang announced that Minecraft had sold 54 million copies (in all formats), and three months later the company was acquired by Microsoft for $2.5 billion. The people playing Minecraft range in age from under 10 to over 80, both men and women. Teachers around the world use Minecraft in the classroom as a teaching tool, from building creativity and computer skills to designing functioning logic circuits that power virtual machines. How did the little game company from Stockholm manage to capture such a huge audience across such an astonishing spectrum of people? What did Persson and Mojang do right? 

It isn’t all a matter of game design, although the thing is incredibly fun, addicting, infinitely modifiable and is open to endless creativity. Part of Mojang’s success started with Persson’s first decision: to always engage in open dialogue about the game. In their Wired magazine article of November 5, 2013, Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson said, “Even before Minecraft was shown to the public, Markus [Persson] had made a couple of important decisions that would have a huge influence on the game’s continued development. First, he wanted to document the development openly and in continuous dialogue with players, both his semiprofessional colleagues at TIGSource and any others who might be interested. Markus updated his blog often with information about changes in Minecraft and his thoughts about the game’s future. He invited everyone who played the game to give him comments and suggestions for improvements. In addition to that, he released updates often, in accordance with the Swedish saying hellre än bra (meaning someone who prefers spontaneity over perfection). As soon as a new function or bug-fix was in place, he made it available via his site, asking players for help in testing and improving it.” That first decision is the one that caught my attention over time: Mojang constantly engages with the game’s players in a relaxed, friendly, fun and respectful way

Every few days, Mojang’s home page features a post about what they are developing in the game, what bugs they are fixing, and what features will be coming in the next update. Game updates are frequent. The Minecraft developers participate in discussions with players on Reddit and other online forums. Players who discover bugs in the game or who want to request new features are encouraged to submit an easy to complete report form–and those reports are taken seriously and acted upon. Persson’s original vision of open and continuous dialogue is still Mojang’s blood and bone, even though the firm is now owned by Microsoft. Yet what Persson and Mojang have done so naturally and seamlessly appears to be difficult for most businesses to initiate and sustain over time. Or is it simply a reluctance to engage? 

In looking at Mojang’s interactions with players, here are some key features that any business can use. None of this is groundbreaking or high tech or complex, it simply takes a commitment from the top that from this day forward, we share what we’re doing, we talk to our clients every day, and we listen to what they tell us. 

1) Be friendly. Mojang is about the friendliest company out there, which is surely important when a big part of your customer base is ten years old. Every day I walk into or talk to businesses where I’m clearly interrupting someone with more important things in mind than doing business. I’ve had it happen at the corner store and with people at some of the largest firms in the U.S., who, presumably, know better. The little firm from Stockholm beats them all in the friendliness department. The active practice of friendliness has to come from the top: if you want to build engagement with your customers, make it the objective of your strategic plan, put top people on the front line as ambassadors, build it into your incentive compensation plan, make it as easy and enjoyable and rewarding for your staff as it will be for your clients. 

2) Talk to your clients every day – tell them what you’re doing and why. Updates on the Mojang homepage appear weekly and sometimes daily. Developers and staff members write post the updates themselves, and many at Mojang participate in online discussion forums devoted to Minecraft. They use other social media, like Twitter, as well, to maintain a constant flow of conversation about the game. These conversations are not forced, picked over by a committee, or overhauled by the legal department, and often  discuss how problems/bugs identified by players are being fixed. Many companies feel that such openness would reveal their “secret sauce” to competitors. You don’t need to publish the chemical formula to your new pharmaceutical breakthrough before it’s patented, but you can benefit from talking to people about what you’re working on, and why. 

3) Listen to people outside your company, especially clients. Persson’s vision for Minecraft meant not only sharing, but listening and learning. He had a strong vision for the game, but much of what makes Minecraft's gameplay so endlessly absorbing came from outside sources. Other game developers broke the ground that Persson turned into a fully fledged game; they and the game’s players have made ongoing contributions since the beginning. In the early months of 2015 a player communicated directly with Mojang about a security hole in the code that developers thought they had fixed two years earlier. Mojang makes private communications  available through portals like IRC (Internet Relay Chat) specifically so people can communicate problems that should not be broadcast publicly, like this security flaw. The problem was fixed quickly and game updates were pushed out to users. What can your firm learn from your customers? Is there an easy way for them to reach you, or is it buried under layers of administration?

4) Invite and welcome new ideas. Likewise, don’t assume you know everything. Mojang actively listens, something that many firms say is their policy, but is not practiced. Mojang uses what it hears to fix problems, improve their products, and add new features. This attitude of welcoming new ideas and responding to feedback is characteristic of firms that successfully adapt to change. Outside ideas are needed to survive in a world that is almost fully interconnected and churns out ideas and products faster than we can process the changes. We’re all familiar with the blinders that develop when a firm becomes too insular. Companies, even entire industries, holding the attitude that “we know what is best and it’s just too complex for you to understand” have faced difficult times, for example, both music and book publishing industries refused to hear their customers asking for change, and have been roundly punished in the marketplace for it. New ideas are life’s blood to business, so welcome them. 

5) Be flexible. The success of Minecraft is found in its flexibility, and its creator’s refusal to adhere to that basic law of gaming: every game must have a clear objective. In Minecraft, Persson created an open world with no story line and many objectives that can be completely ignored if the player wishes. The game is infinitely customizable, from simply changing the textures of the objects to accessing complete adventure packs created by game modders. A five-year-old can play on Peaceful Mode and never see a monster. A ninety-year-old can have just as much fun creating beautiful, elaborate worlds as a twenty-year-old, and unlike most games, the graphics are easy for anyone over 40 to see clearly. This flexibility is equally evident in Mojang’s relationships with customers–it is simply a basic value of the firm’s culture. 

6) Do nice things for your clients once in a while. Every few years Mojang throws a huge party called Minecon and invites everyone: players of all ages, developers, YouTubers, modders, the media, whomever. They don’t have to do this, it is a huge undertaking and must cost a fortune. But people love it. The next one is in London in 2015. No, I won’t be there (unless I win the lottery), but it sure sounds like a ton of fun. When was the last time someone thought your business offered a ton of fun? Or even something nice? 

Well? What are you waiting for? 


232QAWS© Karen L. Newcombe 2016     Email:   Phone: 954-428-5457