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Long-time players are making money building for ‘Minecraft’

The Washington Post illustration; Microsoft Game Studios (The Washington Post)

Since the early days of the “Minecraft” scene, game modification has been a core element of the popular sandbox title. Distributed by modders via free “modpacks,” “Minecraft” mods give players access to in-game enhancements such as more efficient items and extra block types, as well as performance-boosting tools like FastCraft and OptiFine. With the tacit approval of the game’s developers at Mojang, these mods are firmly embedded in the culture and gameplay of Minecraft. What’s more, some of them are demonstrating a viable path to monetizing their work, suggesting modding could become a new sector of the creator economy.

“We’ve had an unofficial relationship with the developers at Mojang almost since day one,” said Kevin Moloney, creator of the popular modpack collection Feed the Beast. “A lot of the Mojang developers that are there now have a modding background.”

Though the use of “Minecraft” modifications is widespread — Feed the Beast alone has garnered more than 200 million downloads across platforms — independent mod developers have reaped few rewards from this popularity. A nontrivial amount have spun their experiences into full-time jobs at Mojang, and some have generated income through Patreon and other subscription services. But the majority treat modding as a passion project, allowing everyone else in the “Minecraft” ecosystem — from streamers and YouTubers to Mojang itself — to benefit from their free labor. “For 99 percent of them, it’s a hobby,” Moloney said. “But it’s just a hobby that envelops their free time.”

At Feed the Beast, Moloney and his colleagues hope to transform game modification from a pastime into a bona fide career path. Thanks to support from modding platform Overwolf, Feed the Beast has added advertisements to its “Minecraft” launcher, monetizing its modpacks for the first time. With millions of regular users, that revenue has gone a long way — and in only a few months, this small adjustment has helped Feed the Beast move into a physical office in London and hire nine employees, including several mod developers.

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“Minecraft” mods were not always as accessible as they are today. To create the earliest mods, developers had to manually edit the game’s heavily obfuscated base code. In 2010, Michael “Searge” Stoyke de-obfuscated this code with his Mod Coder Pack, but it remained exceedingly difficult to run more than one modification at once.

In 2011, players began to put together collections of pre-existing modifications tweaked to run alongside each other. These modpacks were built for convenience, not as consumer-facing products. The first iteration of Feed the Beast was one such ad hoc modpack, created by Moloney and his friends to speed up in-game tasks during a particularly spirited building challenge in 2012.

“This was still at a stage where everybody had to install everything manually,” Moloney said. “So when you went to download it, we just told you what mods to download, and then we provided a config file, which was basically telling the mods how to work together.”

Prominent Minecraft YouTuber Direwolf20 soon caught wind of the project and asked Moloney to send over a cleaned-up version of the pack and its corresponding challenge map. When his first video featuring this early version of Feed the Beast skyrocketed to over 300,000 views, Moloney realized they had something special.

“We again rebuilt it from the ground up to be something that was actually capable of being played by a lot more people,” Moloney said.

The success of Feed the Beast persuaded Moloney to quit his job as a TGI Fridays kitchen manager and focus on the development of his modpacks full-time. Although he was able to gain some income by streaming on Twitch, his efforts as a modder didn’t pay the bills on their own.

“My wife was working, so she was earning enough money to actually keep things going in the flat,” Moloney said. “Every penny I earned from streaming in the early days was spent on equipment. We just pumped it in and bought computers and screens and fancy microphones and mixers and all that type of stuff.”

Indeed, few members of the Minecraft modding scene have succeeded in turning their hobby into a career. Some modders, such as Stoyke and Brandon “kingbdogz” Pearce, have scored developer positions at Mojang, but there are only so many of these plum jobs to go around. The majority of modders don’t sell the fruits of their labor, instead sharing them free-of-charge on platforms such as CurseForge, the largest online database of Minecraft modifications.

In June 2020, Overwolf, an Israel-based company that describes itself as a platform for in-game creators, purchased CurseForge from Twitch. Soon after, Overwolf and Feed the Beast agreed to a partnership: Overwolf would provide monthly grants to Feed the Beast to help fund the company’s initial monetization, with Feed the Beast paying the grants back as its advertising revenue ramped up.

“Twitch was able to help keep the lights on through giving fish to Feed the Beast,” Overwolf CEO Uri Marchand explained metaphorically. “Well, together with Feed the Beast, we engineered a fishing rod, and maybe even a fishing net.”

So far, the experiment has succeeded beyond all expectations.

“We made enough money in December to not only get the grant amount, but also over and above it,” Moloney said.

Moving forward, Feed the Beast plans to reduce the grants it receives from Overwolf until the firm is able to operate entirely on its own.

This newfound income has allowed Feed the Beast to start paying developers and map builders who had previously volunteered their labor. In October 2020, Lee Coats, a former Feed the Beast volunteer, came on as the company’s director and second full-time employee.

“The goal, obviously, is to make sure that we can be paying people what we should be paying,” Coats said. “As a hobby project, you can rely on volunteers, but as a going concern, we need to start compensating people properly.”

With its benevolent developers and ethos of creativity, “Minecraft” was and is an auspicious breeding ground for this nascent modding industry. Developers other than Mojang, who are unfamiliar with the modding scene, might be less enthused by their games acting as proving grounds for a new and unorthodox type of creator. But Overwolf helps independent developers build and distribute mods for a score of other titles, including thousands of “World of Warcraft” and “StarCraft II” modifications. As game modification becomes increasingly centralized on these distribution platforms, developers throughout the modding community see an opportunity to follow in Feed the Beast’s footsteps.

“There’s definitely a few people that I think have a very good chance, especially with Overwolf starting to increase our revenue,” World of Warcraft modder Arco “Tex” Dielhof said.

Both Moloney and Marchand envision a future in which modders are seen as content creators in the same mold as YouTubers and streamers, generating income via ad revenue, subscriptions and donations from fans of their work. Much like YouTube, Overwolf provides its creators with services like ad integration, marketing and distribution, and the company has a revenue sharing program that disbursed over $10 million to users in 2020.

“At the beginning, YouTube was the destination where you uploaded cat videos, and now it’s a place where people make a living,” Marchand said. “Overwolf is kind of the same for developers.”

Long before Feed the Beast incorporated in August 2019, it presented itself to the “Minecraft” community as a company rather than a group of hobbyists, easing its switch to an advertisement-based model. Moloney fears that other modders’ more casual approach might make their products less attuned to this kind of monetization. Still, he and Marchand believe it is only a matter of time until the modding scene acclimates to the idea of modders occupying a position somewhere between content creator and game developer. For now, game modification remains a viable profession for only a sliver of the modding scene — but this sliver is continually expanding.

“The long-term goal is to build a new profession in the world,” Marchand said.

Alexander Lee is an editor and freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Nation, the New York Daily News, and many other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @alexleewastaken.

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