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Working in video games is a dream for many players, a way to turn their passions into a viable career and feed back into a community and industry that has delivered them years of entertainment.
At a glance, Jamie Freeburn might appear to be another such aspiring young developer. However, rather than setting out to make a game from scratch and battling through an already crowded indie scene, the 18-year-old creator has found success in another area: the Minecraft Marketplace.
Freeburn is the central figure behind PixelSquared, a studio making content packs for Mojang‘s endlessly popular sandbox title. The team, with members based in countries including Northern Ireland, Chile, America, England, and Denmark, creates and sells add-ons for the main game on the curated storefront, with content ranging from cosmetic skins for characters, to custom maps delivering intricate and beautiful new worlds for players to explore, and even unique gameplay modes.
So how did Freeburn start making money through Minecraft? “I got into the game about 7 years ago, so I think I was 11, in high school. Back then I was really into creative-style games, games where I could create my own things, and me and few of my friends were chatting about that and one of them thought of Minecraft,” Freeburn says. “I bought the game a week after that and sunk in so many hours, just building and building things.”
Freeburn realised early on there was a market for original Minecraft content, creating aesthetic overhauls for the game on an ad hoc basis. Then came the announcement, in October 2017, that Mojang was launching the Marketplace as a dedicated hub for user creators.
“I was instantly into the idea,” says Freeburn. “Before that, I had created skins on commission on Fiverr, and I was pretty active in that community, so I thought ‘Hey, I may as well send my portfolio in, see how it goes’.”
Microsoft responded positively to the work Freeburn submitted and was keen to sign him up for the new content platform. There were only two problems – the first being that Jamie was only 17 at the time, too young to legally be responsible for what needed to be a registered business. The second was that his parents had no idea what he was up to.
“They were extremely surprised, as they had no prior knowledge that I did any of this before I told them. They didn’t even know what the whole Fiverr thing was,” he recalls. “I called up my dad and said ‘Hey, Microsoft wants to sign me on this contract to create content with them.’ and he was like ‘Oh! That’s nice.’ Then he took a look at the contract and realised it was serious.”
After a father-son meeting with Microsoft, explaining what the Minecraft Marketplace was and what Jamie would be doing on it, his dad signed on, allowing Jamie himself to get started on the fun stuff – making the actual content, and leaving his mark on the game. For his first pack, Freeburn revamped an early space-themed skin set, upgrading helmet and torso designs to a much higher standard. Since then, PixelSquared has released over 30 original packs, and picked up over a dozen staff members.
BUILDING A BUSINESS
“It sounds like a big deal but we treated it very organically – we didn’t just get 14 people all of a sudden,” Freeburn says. “Around December 2017, we had six other people who were mostly artists, and after that we took on a build team. We hired a structure artist a few months ago and an organic artist just recently. We only really hire people when we need people, we don’t bring people on for the sake of it.”
When it comes to developing new content for Minecraft, the studio operates more like a group of friends discussing what they think would be cool to have in the game. “We’re a really relaxed studio when it comes to our ideas, so when one of us gets an idea we’ll come together and discuss it, and then draw up an idea for the skin pack,” Freeburn says.
As the team has grown, its begun to undertake some light market research for content plans, although it’s more in the form of seeing what the player community might be interested in, rather than some kind of hyper-precise targeting of current trends.
“Occasionally we will do surveys to see what skins people want to see,” Freeburn explains. “Around Christmas last year, I put out a survey with a couple of different themes I had in mind just to see which one got the most interest. Our three main things are surveys, seeing what’s [already] on the store, and checking what players are actually using.”
“For example the Teens! skin pack was made mostly on market research, and we did a lot of research into fashion and such,” he continues, “but if you look at Frontiers, by me, that’s more of a passion project. We have a pretty fun mix of things we like to create and stuff based on what the market will like.”
Having turned 18 and assumed ownership of the company from his father, Freeburn has built the business to the point where it’s doing well enough to put him through university and even pay off another member’s student debt, too.
“I’m doing a game design course at college level right now, but next year I’ll be doing university,” he says. “PixelSquared has afforded me [the opportunity] to do that, [and] that’s actually why I decided to go to uni in the first place. A few other people in the studio used PixelSquared to fund their own university education. One, Olivia, recently finished her degree and she’s now able to help pay off her student loan.”
While creating for Minecraft Marketplace, running the company, and preparing for university can be a tough balancing act, Freeburn says “both my college and my parents are very supportive. If I’m struggling with the workload from my college I’ll let my teacher know and they’ll give me some extra time or help me stay on track, and my parents are also pretty okay with me staying up late making sure everything is running fine in the studio.”
CRAFTING A FUTURE
While the company is still growing at a solid pace, Freeburn is also preparing for potential upheaval due to Brexit. With the UK currently scheduled to leave the European Union on 29th March 2019, the company’s international, digital business model could be affected.
“My town is actually directly on the border of Northern Ireland and Ireland [so] we’ll have to see what happens there,” he says, “but I think we’re all concerned. It’s hard to tell how it’s going to affect us all directly – I’m fairly new to the industry so I don’t know what it was like years ago. I joined during the Brexit scandal so I can’t really tell what it was like before [but] we’re a pretty global studio. It’ll be a bit of a nightmare I think. I can’t say too much for sure but I feel like it could impact us.”
While waiting to see how the political issue unfolds, PixelSquared is focusing on what it does best – building on its core offerings, but aiming for an even larger scale.
“Maps are our current big target,” Freeburn says. “We have three pretty major maps underway right now, that we’re very excited about, and texture packs too. Our main goal is to expand. Dedicated servers are pretty far away, but we have looked into it – it won’t be for a long time because they’re a big undertaking, but we’d love to do it.”
While creating for Minecraft has proven a highly successful way into the games industry for Freeburn and company, in the longer term plans are afoot to leave a deeper mark on the industry. The ambition is to grow PixelSquared into a studio capable of producing its own original games, but bring with it the recognition of players from the Marketplace community. As for what type of games players might see from a wholly independent PixelSquared?
“In the future, we’d like to branch off and make our own little indie game,” Freeburn says. “We’re all pretty big into games like Binding of Isaac and Rogue Legacy, so essentially we’d like to break away from Minecraft and create our own fully-fledged version of those games.”