Minefold are a Y Combinator funded startup with long-game aims to distrupt traditional game server providers. It’s a tall order – so we spoke to founder Chris Lloyd and asked him exactly what problem problems he’s identified with the existing game server offerings – and how he’s going about fixing them.
What is the current state of multiplayer gaming on the PC (and what are the issues facing it, specifically when it comes to game servers) – and how are you trying to fix it?
We think it’s just too difficult to play games with your friends. Games are getting bigger and bigger and P2P can’t scale, so people need to run a central server to play on. Unless you’re a part-time sysadmin the process of setting up that server takes ages and is way too complicated. Minefold fixes that by making the servers invisible. WithMinefold you just create “worlds” and we just handle everything else. We never ask you how much RAM you need or wether you want SSH access!
What makes Minefold so different to traditional game server providers like Multiplay? Some criticisms of Minefold are that it doesn’t offer anything more than any of the other many gameserver providers out there yet it’s comparatively more expensive.
We think we provide better features and are cheaper. Feature wise, other server providers essentially just give you a computer, put Minecraft on it and “say here you go, you can do the rest”. We also keep regular backups and don’t lock people in, if your friends are all playing together and you leave the service they can continue without you. We take care of all the hosting and then say “here’s a gorgeous map and a place for you and your friends to chat”. We’re also cheaper individually as often one person ends up paying for the entire server. That person can fork out up to $100 a month paying for their friends, so $5 a month on Minefold looks pretty attractive. You can host a Minecraft server on your own machine for free so it doesn’t make much sense for us to compete on price: we’d rather provide a fantastic experience that they can’t get elsewhere.
How important is the ‘community’ aspect to multiplayer gaming – and how do you forsee Minefold improving and building on the community aspect of multiplayer games?
Community is crucial because it’s so natural with multiplayer games. When you’re playing games with other people, it’s impossible for communities and groups of friends not to form. My two best memories playing Minecraft are a friend guiding me around a city he was working on for months and trying to stay alive for the first night on a new server with Dave, my cofounder. By giving each player an individual account on Minefold we can really help people connect both in and out of the game.
The Minecraft community is also really inspiring to us, personally. We went to Minecon in Los Vegas and were stunned at how many excited kids had managed to convince their parents to bring them. As we were queueing up for the Deadmau5 after-party in XS (the most exclusive club in Vegas) everybody around us was getting into a heated discussion about mining in the Nether. You can’t beat that!
More games developers are seeking to create their own in-house networks of game servers to ensure consistency and to reduce or control cheating and do to distribute updates – sometimes partnering with providers like Multiplay to provide these services. What will this mean for your business, and are you planning to work with games developers on such solutions?
I just want to play the best games possible. Seeing game developers having to focus on building multiplayer infrastructure seems like a such a waste to me. Imagine if all that energy was put into games themselves! We’d love to help game developers launch and distribute fantastic multiplayer games without giving them any headaches. I get really excited thinking about what sort of game Minecraft would have been if Notch had an easy, scalable multiplayer infrastructure at his fingertips.
Why focus on Minecraft specifically to start out with?
Dave and I were playing Minecraft together on a slice that we were renting from Linode. It was lots of fun but then one day I tried moving it to another host and accidentally lost months of work. We were pretty bummed and decided we wanted to fix it for everybody. Other than scratching our own itch, Minecraft has actually turned out to be a fantastic game to start with because it’s got a great community and it’s also technically challenging to run.
What do you say to those who claim that gamers are already starting to lose interest in Minecraft – and would you say that basing your business around one game is potentially dangerous?
It’s natural that games will go in and out of fashion so we’re working hard on bringing the same experience that we’ve made for Minecraft to other games. We’re under no illusions that Minecraft will be around forever. Thankfully, what we’re building is a platform (abeit only for Minecraft at the moment).
The name ‘Minefold‘ and the features you’ve introduced are very specific to improving the Minecraft experience. Will you use the ‘Minefold‘ brand for other games?
I’m not sure! We want to defer making that decision until we actually launch support for other games. Perhaps? It might just be one of interesting tidbits: “Why is it calledMinefold?” “They started with Minecraft, remember that game?”
The concept of everyone paying an amount towards the upkeep of the server is a unique idea but doesn’t work for all games, is this something you’ll change?
If the account just got you access to one world, I agree it wouldn’t work for other games. However, if you have an account on Minefold you can play across any of our worlds. We think other games will fit in that model really nicely. The more games we add to Minefold, the more valuable your Pro account becomes.
Is the professional gaming community one that’s hard to penetrate and what has the reception been so far?
It’s been fantastic! We’ve been actually quite surprised at the response. The pro gaming community could be hard to penetrate, I guess, be we luckily haven’t experienced that yet. I think being a Y Combinator company helps with that, but I also think it’s because we’re solving a massive problem that people have.
Is Minefold targeted at the casual gamer – or do you plan to attract professional gamers from the eSports community?
Minefold is absolutely targeted at the casual gamer as we think that’s a massively under-served market. Unlike most other gaming communities, we’ve tried to be as friendly and non-threatening to casual gamers as possible. Staying away from a black and green color scheme is just one example of this! I love eSports (I’m addicted to Twitch.tv) and features that cater more to side of gaming are on the roadmap.
Are there really many ‘casual’ gamers that play Minecraft – and especially have a desire to set up their own server? (Do you have research to show this?) – Some people we’ve asked claim that they enjoy having more control over the server and the hardware it runs, the plugins the install (I.e. Bukkit) – is this not part of the fun – as many that play Minescraft are in fact very technical people?
A lot of people we’ve spoken to are really interested in playing with their group of friends. People they know and trust. Sometimes this is parents concerned about who their kids are playing with, or just a group of friends who don’t want giefers. Most of these people really don’t want the hassle of setting up a server, they just want to play Minecraft.
We’re the kind of guys who don’t care about the tools we use but more the things we produce with them. Even though we’re both very technical, we felt like we were wasting our time setting up servers to play on. While there will always be people who enjoy setting up servers, there definitely a much larger group of people who just enjoy playing the game.
Why did you choose to get backing from Y Combinator?
It’s difficult to distill why Y Combinator is awesome. I studied art history and computer science at University so I’ve been reading Paul Graham’s essays on programming and art for a long time. We also knew that for Minefold to work we needed to be in America (we are originally from sunny Sydney, Australia) and YC would make that much easier. It’s been a great experience so far and we’re really glad we applied.
What downsides are there to the Y Combinator route for startups – especially gaming related ones? What was the reception you got as a gaming related startup?
There are none! We’re actually one of a handful of gaming related companies in our batch. Justin Kahn who founded Twitch.tv is in our batch again with his awesome startup, Exec. The gaming industry is getting so much attention at the moment with big companies like EA and Zynga doing so well. Y Combinator funds such a wide variety of companies gaming ones are pretty normal.
What do you feel was the key to your success in applying to Y Combinator?
Why did you feel you need to be in America for it to work – and do you still feel this way – if so why?
Absolutely. Australia is a fantastic place to live but it’s small and isolated. America has almost 15x the population and that makes a tremendous difference when trying to launch a tech company. We also knew that Minefold was a great idea and wanted to give it the best chance of success. For us that was access to talent and capital. Whilst there are very few available programmers in the Valley, the standard is much higher here. We thought it would be much more difficult to hire 100 world class programmers in Sydney than in California. In terms of capital, while programs like StartMate and PushStart are beginning to change the investment landscape in Australia, it’s still nothing like Silicon Valley. There’s been almost no history of large scale tech innovation in Australia so investors are much more risk adverse and generally tend to invest in traditional coal mining rather than voxel mining!
You see this working for every game – but on the point of publishers wanting to create their own bespoke infrastructure, and with so many different variables – how can you create a ‘one size fits all’ platform? What’s the common denominator across every single multiplayer game – what is the one rule you can apply to all?
That’s part of our secret sauce! It’s also why we’re taking things slowly at the moment, one game at a time. Understanding the correct abstractions is really important.
…and above all how much freedom would you be prepared to offer a game developer/publisher – what’s your proposition that makes your platform so compelling that they’d outsource their entire infrastructure to you over designing something bespoke and optimised to their game?
Time! Game devs should be spending more time writing better games, not building infrastructure and keeping servers up! With any luck we’ll also have an audience ready for new games too so that’ll help indie developers market their games.
What about those who want to play on a server – where they don’t want to chip in or have that burden?
It’s not about “chipping in” it’s about paying your own way. Most public servers recoup their costs through donations or other tricks like purchasing ranks. We give everybody who signs up 10 hours a free every month to play on any server. That should be enough for casual players to check out cool worlds briefly but if they intend on playing longer they can upgrade to a Pro account.
Do you have research to show that the ‘chipping in’ idea can scale?
World of Warcraft is a great example of our model. They have 10 million or so users who are happy to pay $15 a month to play one game.
What is the biggest challenge to date that you’ve had to overcome?
Explaining what we do to people who don’t play Minecraft. If somebody plays Minecraft then the conversation is a really quick “OMG, that’s exactly what I need”. However, if they haven’t played Minecraft (or even games) then it’s much more difficult. I’m pretty sure my parents think I just sit on the computer and play lego all day.
What do you forsee the biggest challenges will be for you to overcome as you expand?
Hiring. We’re based in the Valley where competition for talent is very tough and we only want to hire the best people. When somebody could get a job with companies like Apple or Zynga, why would they come to work for us? I think we’ve got really interesting problems to solve in an extremely creative space. We’re growing really fast but we’ve spent a lot of time crafting a great culture within the company.
Which other games could you see this model working for – and what are your plans for the future?
We see this working for all games. Though we’re currently only supporting Minecraft, we’re building a platform. That is one area we’re not focusing on at the moment but we will soon. Other than that we don’t like to plan too much. We just continue making stuff that delights people.
Explain to us what the word ‘platform’ means to you right now, exactly how do you see your platform being used – and by whom?
A platform for us is something that enables producers to publish content and consumers to access it. Facebook is a great example, every time you “sign in with Facebook” you’re a consumer of the Facebook platform.
We see game developers publishing the multiplayer component of their games to Minefold, which we can then spin up over our infrastructure. Players can interact with it either directly through the games themselves or via our website. If we do our job well then it should be a win-win situation for everybody! We’re quite aways from this at the moment, but it’s certainly the vision we’re working towards.
Who do you look up to in the games industry – who are your main inspirations?
There are too many to mention! Notch is obviously an inspiration. We think he’s a fantastic programmer and what he’s accomplished with it is amazing. We woke up at 2am the other morning with an email from him and that was like being blessed by God. However, he was pissed off that the site was sending him spam because so many people were adding him to their worlds. We had setup dummy accounts so that specifically wouldn’t happen but it got overlooked in our rush to release! I felt pretty terrible after that and couldn’t get back to sleep.
We’ve also been laughing along to Tim Schafer’s Kickstarter updates recently and I started replaying Full Throttle.