Jens Bergensten, the lead creative designer of the hit game Minecraft, doesn’t mind being boxed in sometimes. It’s a challenge that just keeps his creative juices flowing.
It’s been a whirlwind of a spring for Jens Bergensten. Not only has he seen the release of Cobalt, a game that took six years to develop, he also became a father for the first time.
And as lead creative designer of Minecraft, the award-winning, first-person sandbox video game, he is also kept busy overseeing its development.
It’s been less than six years since the lanky redhead started at Mojang, the game development company behind Minecraft, which had been released about a year earlier. Bergensten was hired to work on Scrolls, another Mojang game. But over the Christmas holidays, when his colleagues left the office for vacation, Bergensten added a few things to Minecraft, such as a way to add color to wool blocks in the game.
When Marcus “Notch” Persson, the founder of Mojang, came back from his holidays, he liked what he saw and let Bergensten continue his work with Minecraft.
“I can now see how it could have gone terribly wrong, but I was naive and thought everybody would love what I had done,” Bergensten tells Scandinavian Traveler.
A year later, Mojang organized its first Minecraft convention in Las Vegas, and Minecraft was officially a finished product.
Notch stepped down from day-to-day operations and Bergensten took over the reins.
In 2013, Persson and Bergensten made Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” list and in 2015 Bergensten was ranked fifth on Fast Company’s “Most Creative People” list.
During the time between those lists, Notch sold Mojang to Microsoft for $2.5 billion. Minecraft accounted for practically 100% of the total value.
In 2011, the American economists Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr wrote a paper called “The Rate and Direction of Invention in the British Industrial Revolution: Incentives and Institutions” in which they listed three categories of people who had pushed forward Britain’s industrial revolution and innovation. There were the major inventors, the tweakers, and the implementers.
“A really good idea may sound a little too good when you hear it.”
The paper was pushed into the limelight by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, who called Steve Jobs a modern-day tweaker, one who “improved and debugged an existing invention” as Meisenzahl and Mokyr defined the term.
Bergensten has been a tweaker ever since he was eight years old and laid eyes on his neighbor’s Commodore. One of the games included a spaceship on a mission to destroy its enemies – enemies the players could draw themselves.
“That was cooler than the actual game,” Bergensten says. “I’ve always been someone who wants to fix things. My mother had an Apple II with Lode Runner, a 1983 game in which you could create your own levels. I made hundreds of them for my brother.”
A few years later, the IT person at the newspaper where his father worked let Bergensten in on a secret: Games were made by programmers, from code. He threw himself into that world, trying out the programming language Basic but found it too hard. He moved on to QBasic, which opened the door to making modifications to existing games, such as the 1991 releases Gorillas and Nibbles.
“Nibbles was originally a two-player game, but I made it a three-player game, simply by copying strings of code everywhere the number of players was defined,” Bergensten says, with a big grin.
In the same way that a player in Nibbles got to the next level when he cleared all the obstacles on one level, Bergensten climbed to new levels inside coding. He taught himself the Pascal and C++ programming languages and a lightbulb went on.
Suddenly, he could make something out of nothing.
He wrote his first game after having read Black Art of 3D Game Programming: Writing Your Own High-Speed 3D Polygon Video Games in C by André LaMothe. He still has the book, but not the game it led to.
Notch may have been the inventor of Minecraft, but the game wouldn’t be what it is today without Bergensten, the tweaker.
The Mojang offices inside an old tobacco factory on the south side of downtown Stockholm look like a 19th century English gentlemen’s club. On the front door there’s a coat of arms with two lions holding a shield, a buck, and the motto “E pluribus ludum,” a variation of the phrase “E pluribus unum” found on the Great Seal of the United States. Instead of “Out of many, one,” the Mojang employees are reminded: “Out of many, game.”
As soon as you cross the threshold, you see some of the numerous awards Minecraft has won. The lighting is dim, there are big leather armchairs, and on the walls are Photoshopped images of all the employees in the style of old paintings. Bergensten looks like a 19th century lord, while a colleague is a spitting image of Ernest Hemingway.
Even the office has won awards. In 2012, it was voted “Finest Office” in Sweden.
On the walls, there’s real-time data on everything going on in the land of Minecraft – what the players are doing, how many downloads there are, and so on.
“People use Minecraft in different ways,” Bergensten says. “Children are a big group, and many of them get into the game for the adventure and to build their own worlds. Tweens get a little more competitive and take on challenges on the big servers of the world.
“Teens often leave Minecraft because it’s not considered cool, but many come back later on, and when they do, they play in a more structured way. There are all kinds of players, from the engineer types who build massive machines to whole families who build worlds together.”
I guess Jens is the Gene Simmons of our time.
– Per Strömbäck, the Swedish Games Industry
With more than 100 million registered users, and almost 25 million copies of its PC version sold, the community does a lot of the tweaking for Bergensten. Just as he did a couple of decades ago, the players are now creating their modifications – “mods” – and this creates its own challenges for Bergensten now that he’s on the other side of the fence.
For one thing, if Mojang adds new items into Minecraft, they may push a player out of the market. Another thing that makes Bergensten scratch his head is the fact that the modders are a little too good.
“Sometimes they add functions that do too much,” he says. “I like every function to do as little as possible. They’re supposed to help players deal with their inconveniences, not solve their problems for them. Unfortunately, players who use mods aren’t going to settle for the most balanced function.”
That’s why he decides carefully which new functions to add. If there’s a popular mod out there and Mojang adds a function related to that, people may be disappointed and underwhelmed.
The upside is that the lead creative designer can focus on generating bigger ideas now. And they keep coming. If only he had time to work on them.
“If I could work on one of my big ideas, I wouldn’t be able focus on Minecraft anymore. And that’s why I have a hard time getting started… so I just play games,” he says with a laugh.
Ideas may also be overrated, and follow-through underrated. An idea is nothing if it’s not made into something.
A really good idea may sound a little too good when you hear it, Bergensten says.
“Minecraft was like that,” he says. “Marcus [Persson] wanted to create a castle-building game with a bird’s-eye view. Then he saw Infiniminer, a first-person game, and got their permission to use some of their code. It was the combination of the first-person perspective and the adventure that was the key. Nobody else had seen that.”
Bergensten doesn’t want to get into details about his creative process, but in short it’s this: He thinks about games all the time, and even if he gets writer’s block, he just plows on and does something different.
“One trick we have in this industry is game jams, in which we create a game in a limited time using some constraints, often chosen at random. That’s inspiring and can sometimes lead to bigger things or give you solutions you can use in some other games. Nuclear Throne got its start in a game jam,” he says, referring to the hit game from the Dutch studio Vlambeer.
“It’s good to box yourself in a little and then be creative inside the set parameters,” he says. “That gives you a direction to go. If you then hit a point where you realize it’s not going to be any good, just toss it aside. Ideas come and go. Maybe you can reuse at least parts of what you’ve created.”
With the rise of Minecraft, the media attention, and the social media where Bergensten is active, he’s become famous. He’s the star of MineCon, holds “state of Minecraft” presentations for thousands of people, and poses for photos with fans. Especially in America, people recognize him and come talk to him.
Even at home in Sweden, where people aren’t as quick to approach celebrities, he gets recognized.
Across the street from the Mojang office there’s an elementary school. One day last winter, he suddenly heard children screaming his name: “Jens! Jens! Jens!”
“I waved to them and then decided to go outside to give them Minecraft cards that we have. When I realized I didn’t have enough of them, I did a quick head count before going back into the office to get more cards,” he says.
When he came back out, he saw hundreds of kids standing outside. These days, his desk isn’t by the window anymore, and the shades are often drawn.
“A small boy once gave me a huge hug and told me he loved me,” Bergensten says. “That caught me by surprise.”
Per Strömbäck, spokesperson of the Swedish Games Industry, a partnership organization that represents the industry in the public, offers an explanation.
“Minecraft has had a tradition of being transparent and there has always been a clear author behind the game. First it was Notch, now Jens is carrying the torch. It’s unusual, though, that a developer is as well-known as the developers of Minecraft have been,” he says.
“Twitter has been an important tool, but the school kids don’t have Twitter. Maybe it’s just one of those things that spreads across a schoolyard. When I was a kid, we talked about the members of KISS. I guess Jens is the Gene Simmons of our time,” he adds with a laugh.
But with fame comes responsibility. Bergensten, who tweeted a photo of his son, Björn, to his 1.5 million followers, feels that he should keep his political opinions to himself and he often uses pseudonyms in online discussions of games so as not to steer the conversation too much.
“I don’t tweet about politics,” he says. “I’m now linked to a game that many children play, so I’ll keep my tweets to my life, games, and Minecraft.”
He’ll just have to be creative within those constraints.
First published in Scandinavian Traveler.