A 21-year-old man from Londonderry has gone from stacking shelves in a supermarket to building a bustling gaming business brick-by-brick, in the space of just three years.
Jonathan Black was rotating stock in Long’s supermarket when he turned his Minecraft hobby into an award-winning business.
While studying for his A-levels in 2015, he created Blockception, making virtual Lego sets that you can download and play with however you like.
In 2017, Microsoft selected Blockception as a partner and gamers can now use their marketplace to download the pre-made fabrications which they can then explore, edit and play within.
“Going back to my roots, I’ve grown up in a family of self-employed people, so I’ve always had it driven into me at a young age to work for myself,” he explained.
“It’s just the environment that I grew up in, surrounded by business owners and entrepreneurs, so I guess it’s in my blood.”
Minecraft is what is known as a sandbox video game and allows players to build with a variety of different cubes in a 3D world.
Other activities include exploring, resource gathering and combat.
Jonathan quickly worked out he did not want to be anybody else’s employee, and with the pressure of balancing A-Levels and work at Long’s, it became clear he needed to quit and focus on Blockception.
“I was making more money through Minecraft than I was in several weeks at work, I wanted to move on and do something a little different,” he said.
“It was a far more exciting way to make money and I was doing it through what was essentially a hobby.”
However, while Jonathan said making a full-time job out of his favourite hobby was “like winning the lottery”, his relationship with the game is now a little more difficult.
He said: “Being able to make a full income from something you love is fantastic, but it doesn’t become a hobby any more, so you’re sacrificing one of your favourite pastimes.
“I would have played Minecraft in my spare time years ago, but it’s a lot more difficult to enjoy when it becomes your work.”
Partnering with Microsoft
Before Microsoft showed interest the business was sustained by local projects such as CultureTECH, but the job offers were not flooding in.
Jonathan said: “If Microsoft hadn’t got involved, we would seriously have had to consider other options in terms of a long-term business plan.
“A week before Microsoft approached us, we agreed to hand over to another company.
“Just a day before the handover, we got the email and everything kicked off.
“We were so close to moving away from Minecraft – it seems unthinkable now.”
Lost Civilisation was released as a free download by Microsoft as part of a 12-day Christmas campaign. It is the map that kick-started the company’s success.
It has been downloaded more a million times.
“It’s an impossible number to comprehend and I try to comprehend it in stadiums, for instance, if you think of a full capacity Wembley Arena, it’s still over ten of those,” Jonathan said.
“It’s just mind-boggling numbers and it’s overwhelming, but it’s great and if people enjoy playing our stuff too, then happy days.”
Is Minecraft a viable career trajectory?
Blockception staff have various skill sets which have allowed them to make a living through the video game, from graphic designers, to scriptwriters, programmers and voice actors, so there are many ways in which jobs in the creative industry can lead to long-term work in Minecraft.
Jonathan added: “As we expand, there’ll be more jobs here, but there is a lot of competition in the gaming industry.
“The past few years have definitely seen an uptake of a lot more entry level jobs, but we’d been playing Minecraft for a long time, I started playing it at 14.
“We’ve had a long time to learn things from a consumer point of view and we’ve now gone full circle, from players to providers.”
In spite of the difficulties Blockception ran into in its early days, Jonathan still believes that Minecraft is not a passing trend.
“I have great confidence in the product and obviously with old games people do become tired of them and move on, but the unique thing about Minecraft is, while my generation has moved on from it, a completely new one has discovered it,” he said.