The local origins of Minecraft: A conversation with indie gamer Zachary Barth

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A still from Infiniminer, Zachary Barth's first major creation. The landmark game Minecraft was greatly inspired by Infiniminer.

The figures don’t lie: Minecraft is not just the biggest game of recent memory, but stacks up against the biggest of all time. Since its full release in November of 2011, it has sold over 70 million copies worldwide, with over 100 million players. Even in the off-chance that you have never played the game, you probably know several people who have (and are playing it right now). You might even know what a Creeper looks like without knowing it.

Markus Persson may be the designer and creator of Minecraft, but the game’s unsung hero is a Redmond-based indie game developer named Zachary Barth. His 2009 game Infiniminer not only provided the inspiration for Minecraft, but spawned the entire “block-world” genre of gaming a full two-and-a-half years before Minecraft came into existence. Barth runs his own studio, Zachtronics, and though it has produced a number of games that have sold well, it's fair to say that Barth’s influence exceeds his recognition. In an interview, as well as a subsequent Reddit session, he details his origins as a game developer, his work under the banner of Zachtronics, his skepticism regarding the term “indie,” and his real feelings on Minecraft.

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Barth has been developing games since he was young,  but “wasn’t very good at it” until he went to college. In between his computer systems engineering and computer science studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, Barth was an active member of the college's game development club. After graduating college, Barth took up a job at Microsoft as a game programmer, but continued to design his own games on the side.

Which led Barth to his first major release—Infiniminer. After long days at Microsoft, Barth would return home to work on his own personal projects. “This was back in the period when I was a hobbyist,” Barth says. “I’d make a game because I wanted to make it, and then release it so people could play it, because it feels good to have people play your game and tell you that you’re awesome.”

Infiniminer was released as a free download in the spring of 2009 and designed to “allow players to build while they were playing the game, and have it be really natural and free-form." Similar to Minecraft, Infiniminer’s gameplay consists entirely of digging through and blowing up blocks in a random map. Barth programmed the game as a team-based competition for points, but players quickly realized the game’s potential for exploring and building objects in the game’s open world. Unfortunately, Barth did not encrypt the game’s source code. This left it easy prey for extraction by hackers, who then proceeded to exploit the game for their own modifications. Within a month, Barth walked away from Infiniminer—it wasn’t making him any money, and it was too complicated to fix.

Among Infiniminer’s players was a Swedish programmer who went by the name “Notch”—better known as Markus Persson. “My god, I realized that that was the game I wanted to do,” Persson wrote of Infinimer in an October 2009 Tumblr post. Soon after Infiniminer’s release, Persson began working on Minecraft, which was released in full in late 2011 after a long road of development. Three years later, Microsoft bought the intellectual property rights to Minecraft for $2.5 billion.

Looking at the game, it’s easy to see how much it owes its existence to Infiniminer. Procedurally-generated maps, open worlds, those unmistakable blocky visuals, and, of course, mining are key functions in both games.

Watching Minecraft become a multibillion-dollar enterprise has left Barth with, at the very least, complex thoughts. “It was never my plan to have what happened, happen. You don’t plan things in life,” Barth says. If he’s embittered by what happened, though, he doesn’t outwardly show it. “If you have the wrong mindset, it could be something that would be upsetting…it’s easy to look at the story and expect there to be bad feelings, but I don’t feel that way about it.”

Barth doesn’t quite sound at ease with it, but doesn’t seem as if he’s beating himself up over it either. Over the years, he’s gotten over his initial shock at Minecraft’s runaway success, and finds it “surreal” to see Minecraft t-shirts in Target. He has yet to meet Persson face-to-face.

Barth’s next game was SpaceChem, the first commercially-released project through his own company. A more traditional puzzle game, it was well-received both critically and commercially, netting over $1 million on a $4,000 budget. Its success allowed Barth to quit Microsoft and start running the Zachtronics studio full-time. Today, the company consists of Barth and “roughly four” employees who serve multiple purposes—artists, programmers, and designers. “We share a lot of tasks, because you have to when you run a small studio.”

By 2012, however, the company had fallen on hard times, and turned to contract work to make ends meet. Barth pokes fun at himself for “selling out,” reflecting on what it means to be an indie game developer. “The weird thing about the word ‘indie’ is that it really doesn’t have a definition. I actually don’t often refer to myself as an indie game developer, because under that definition of the word, we’re not independent. We have done contract work that was paid for and for somebody else; that’s not very indie.” The contract work in question was a trio of educational games, commissioned by a company named Amplify, released in 2012. Barth openly admits that the project “was good for us financially, and good for us creatively.”

Though Barth is hesitant to call his company "indie", he proudly associates with Puget Sound’s independent gaming scene, which he wagers is "one of the best in the world."

Somewhat ironically, the strength of this independent ecosystem stems largely from the presence of large game companies in the region. Many indie studios are founded by people who cut their teeth at Microsoft, or Nintendo of America. Beyond this, there is a strong sense of community around local gamer developers,  Barth says. This includes such groups as the Seattle Indies collective, a group of developers who meet several times a week, all over the city, to discuss their work, collaborate on game concepts, and showcase their creations.

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Screenshot from InfiniFactory.

Just last month, Zachtronics released two new games. The first is Infinifactory, which he calls "a sort of like a synthesis of all of our greatest games together, into one game." He is adamant that Infinifactory is not a retread of Minecraft's predecessor, despite the return of the block engine. (In a cheeky twist of fate, Barth notes that Persson is also "a big Infinifactory fan.") The other game, TIS-100, is something else entirely. The player uses a corrupted, 1980s-era computer to learn assembly language coding, writing programs to convert inputs to outputs. Barth himself describes the game as "absolutely inexplicable."

Six years ago, Infiniminer started one of the biggest gaming trends of our time. Although Barth will never make Infiniminer 2.0, there’s nothing to say that he’ll never come up with something that rivals or even betters it. “As always, I hope that we’re pioneering new things,” he says.

  

About the Authors & Contributors

Jacob Nierenberg

Jacob Nierenberg

Jacob Nierenberg is an editorial intern at Crosscut. He has lived in Washington for nearly all of his life, and still proudly identifies with the Pacific Northwest despite his relocation to Stanford University; a junior, he studies American Studies and Communication in addition to writing for various on-campus publications. His hobbies include spending time with friends, listening to music, and doing absolutely nothing.