How Xbox blockbuster Minecraft began in Lothians

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Welcome to a quiet road in a sleepy town in a peaceful corner of East Lothian. A place where the population barely reaches 2000 and where the most notable feature is probably the brassy fountain in the town square with its four cherubs pouring their endless streams of water from bottomless bottles.

Yet here, across the road from the butcher and the small delicatessen, somewhere behind red framed windows and tightly-closed venetian blinds, lurks a world of vivid green Creepers and sinister black Endermen, where Steve – a fairly average bloke with blue T-shirt, jeans, huge cube head and fixed expression – uses his diamond sword to mine, build and battle across endless block shaped landscapes.

Paddy Burns, chief technology officer at 4J Studios with characters from the game Creeper and Steve, complete with diamond sword . Picture: PHIL WILKINSON

Paddy Burns, chief technology officer at 4J Studios with characters from the game Creeper and Steve, complete with diamond sword . Picture: PHIL WILKINSON

For behind an ordinary unmarked door leading to an office occupied by seven blokes and a lot of gaming consoles, is where Minecraft is gradually taking over the world, block by square shaped block.

If you’ve never heard of Minecraft, chances are you don’t have a young person with an Xbox in your life. If you have heard of Minecraft, it’s entirely possible you stared at it for a bit, scratched your head as you tried to figure out what it is actually going on, then shuffled off confused and feeling a bit old.

But for Minecraft addicts – about nine million have bought the Xbox 360 version of the game so far, helping generate £124 million of revenue for its creators – it’s a must-have game, one that, much to the relief of many parents, comes without a bloodbath thrown in.

The numbers surrounding the on-screen Lego-style construction game are staggering. And it can be slightly intimidating – basically players create their own imaginary world while battling monsters like Creepers. It was originally launched on PC by creators Mojang. East Linton’s tiny 4J Studios was later given the task by Microsoft of making an Xbox 360 version as an addition to its arcade game menu. Within hours of its release in May last year it had snared an amazing 420,000 sales.

Word spread rapidly and within five days one million people were playing the game on their Xboxes. On Christmas Day alone, more than 100,000 people downloaded ­Minecraft onto their Xbox hard-drive.

If Microsoft was surprised, Paddy Burns, chief technology officer at 4J Studios in East Linton – based in a room little more than 20ft square attached to the side of his home – was left reeling.

“No-one anticipated that level of interest in the game,” he admits. “The sales Minecraft took in the first couple of days were pretty much what Microsoft thought would be its entire lifetime sales. It blew them and us away.”

Since then, the Minecraft phenomenon has continued to grow.

More than seven million people play the game through Xbox Live – during one recent weekend 2.2 million logged on to play at the same time, a record for the game.

Merchandise has sprung up around it and is almost certain to find its way into many kids’ Christmas stockings this year, and even YouTube videos of people playing the game can notch up six-figure ­viewings.

4J Studios’ video launching the game and featuring a Minecraft version of the Forth Bridge, has been viewed by 1.15 million people.

More recently when a hard disc copy of the game was launched to cater for gamers who don’t have an online link – with the Forth Bridge again featuring on its cover as a nod to its Scottish roots – a phenomenal two million copies flew off the shelves in weeks.

It is a remarkable success rate, even more so when Paddy explains that simply getting the technology arm of 4J Studios up and running in a small town with a ropey broadband connection involved many frustrations, some harmless white lies and a lot of sweet-talking among the local farming community.

“There was rubbish broadband connection down here at first,” ­explains Paddy, 44, who as well as helping develop the technical side of the game for Xbox regularly plays it with seven-year-old daughter Bethany.

“There were times I was uploading stuff for America and I’d have to pretend that I hadn’t actually started. I’d say I’d do it in ten minutes when, actually, it had been uploading for six hours at that point.

“We were considering having to move, then some farmers set up Lothian Broadband Cooperative to try to get a better signal over the hills.”

Today the studio’s internet link with the world is via a microwave connection from Edinburgh University, past Haddington and over fields with generators to help fire it up on its way, all the way to the tiny village hall in East Linton.

It may be a roundabout route to the global gaming industry, but 4J Studios does many things differently. For a start, the business is split in two, with the technology element done in East Linton and the artistic side tackled at the office in Dundee.

As for staff recruitment, one employee joined the firm after Paddy overheard a Scots couple chatting on an open-topped bus tour of San Francisco. He discovered they came from Haddington and had a son who was into “computer type stuff”. Soon he was on 4J Studios’ books.

Steven Woodward, one of Minecraft’s games testers, who enjoys introducing himself to his girlfriend’s little brother’s wide-eyed mates as “Steve from Minecraft”, was recruited via the newsagent in East Linton.

“I went to the newsagent wearing a Minecraft T-shirt,” explains Paddy. “Steve was working there and recognised it. He said he’d been playing Minecraft for six months on PC and I said, ‘well, we’re making an Xbox version along the road and are looking for testers’.”

Today Steve, who lives in Haddington and studied network engineering at college, sits for hours on end playing Minecraft and searching for glitches. It is, he grins, his ideal job. “I knew there was some kind of computer stuff going on along the road, but didn’t know they were doing ­Minecraft.

“I can’t believe this is my job,” he says and laughs. “As a kid, this is the kind of thing I’d dream about. The great thing about Minecraft is that the only limit in it is your own imagination and how quick you can come up with ideas for what to do next.”

Parents don’t mind the game as much as others because it at least requires youngsters to use imagination and creativity to play. And there is even a growing body of parents and professionals who believe it offers therapeutic benefits for children on the autistic spectrum.

“One of my sisters teaches children with learning difficulties,” says Paddy, who lives with partner Ros Lowrie. “They love Minecraft. It enables them to go off into their own little world, which is often what children with learning difficulties will do.”

The game is so successful that 4J Studios now has 350,000 Twitter followers hanging on every tweet for details of the latest tweak. The last major update sent fans into a frenzy of pleading tweets appealing for hints as to what would be in it, then 
thousands of follow up tweets suggesting what they’d like to see in the next one.

More recently, the game has evolved further with the 4J Studios team creating an add-on “texture pack” that enables players to tweak their Minecraft surroundings to take on the look of another famous game, Mass Effect, prompting more online speculation over which theme or game style can be expected next.

“We put out a tweet asking what people would like,” recalls Paddy, “and got about 6000 replies. We put them together and compared them to what our plans were. Skyrim was the top by far.”

If that is a hint at what Minecraft devotees can expect next from their favourite game, another more definite indication of the next big thing is on a screen behind Paddy as he talks. It proves Minecraft PS3 edition – for PlayStation 3 – is well under way. As is a version for PS Vita and the two hot new consoles, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, both of which are humming away in the East Linton office, so top secret that they are tucked behind a screen away from prying eyes.

While the new Xbox One version will give players a much larger virtual world to play around in – and, smiles Paddy, maybe desperate pleas for Steve to finally have horses to play with may be answered – the PlayStation 3 launch of the game will make it suddenly accessible on a further 83 million consoles.

It is likely to spark even more interest in 4J Studios in East Linton, but Paddy is now prepared. For as word spread around local playgrounds that Minecraft’s home was a small office in the town’s main street, local youngsters were drawn there in the hope of catching a glimpse of Steve and the Creepers.

“We had to change the blinds on the windows,” he says, laughing. “We had horizontal blinds and found school kids got off the bus and were holding camera phones up to the window to try to capture video of what we were doing. They absolutely love it.”

GRAINS AND BRAINS NEEDED TO PLAY

Minecraft is a ‘sandbox’ game, which means players can roam freely through it, devising their story as they go.

Depending on whether they choose creative or survival mode, they may have to fight off monsters like zombies or skeletons.

They need to feed to survive and mine to find diamonds and iron to help unlock extra equipment and expand their gaming experience.

The PC version of the game was created by Swedish developer Marcus ‘Notch’ Persson and his firm Mojang.

Developing it for Xbox consoles – and now PlayStation systems – has been taken over by 4J Studios. Players can add to their game using texture packs and ‘skins’ for their characters.

The proceeds from a Hallowe’en skin last year went to charity, with Sands Lothian, which supports parents through neonatal death or stillbirth, receiving £160,000.

The tiny games developer – like Grand Theft Auto creator Rockstar based in Edinburgh – has woven Scottish references into the game.

Lead character Steve can switch his blue T-shirt for a kilt to become Scottish Steve, Edinburgh Castle features in the latest tutorial, and the team has used a Minecraft scene of the Forth Bridge in its videos.