Derry firm Blockception enjoy global success following Microsoft deal / by Jonathan Black

A 21 year-old from Derry is experiencing global success after forming a company that designs the equivalent of Lego sets that can be downloaded across the world.

Jonathan Black, along with his friend Alex Bellavita, formed Blockception in 2015, a business that now develops virtual content for Minecraft.

The talented duo went from gamers to successful business owners after they used their skills to create a global company.

Last year they were one of only nine pioneer Minecraft partners selected from around the world by Microsoft to launch its Minecraft marketplace programme.

Blockception's Machu Picchu-inspired world Lost Civilisation was downloaded over 1.1 million times during the Christmas period with 850,000 downloads made in a single day.

“Lost Civilisation was part of a 12-day marketing campaign by Microsoft around Christmas. Microsoft wanted to release a free product from one of their partners and ours was chosen,” explains Jonathan.

“Before the marketplace we were doing commissions through local Derry company Culture Tech, an initiative set up by city of culture.

“Part of that was bringing Minecraft into a classroom and through that, being northern Irish, I got roped into making some of the stuff for the class,” he added.

“We also do tuitions, a museum could commission us to recreate villages during a certain time.

It's just evolved into doing stuff more professionally than as a hobby really.”

Jonathan and Alex were asked to recreate 17th century Carrickfergus for Carrickfergus museum. Other local projects include the recreation of Guildhall, Mussenden Temple, Harland & Wolff and Belfast City Hall.

But the project offers were not frequent and after a while the business partners came to an agreement that Blockception would be handed over to another company.

“We weren't going to hand everything over, we were going to hand over the day to day running of it. We were ultimately still going to own it, but were going to have literally nothing to do with it.

“Pretty much we were going to jump ship, our work dried up and it just wasn't financially sustainable any more,” said Jonathan.

Just a day before the handover, Alex got the email about Lost Civilisation and then after that Microsoft approached them again.

“We were so close to moving away from Minecraft. It seems unthinkable now. We got an email and everything kicked off again,” Alex commented.

“We were asked to help launch a new programme – a completely new revenue model for Minecraft. The Minecraft marketplace programme would not launch until June 2017 and we were very privileged to get in at the start,” he added.

From then Blockception has continued to grow and was registered as a limited company on March 2 last year.

Jonathan and Alex have employed their first full-time staff member and now sub-contract more than 50 people worldwide.

“Yes, we have expanded significantly considering that two years ago, before the Microsoft stuff we may as well have been doing it for free,” Jonathan said.

Claiming that the key to any successful business is a good partnership, Jonathan comments on his relationship with Blockception co-founder, Alex:

“We are a partnership ultimately, Alex and I. We've got good chemistry.

“We definitely compensate for each others losses and I think that's an important factor, that the chemistry of the whole company works,” he said.

Having enjoyed playing Minecraft for many years, their knowledge of the game has proved invaluable in helping them create maps with a real appeal to gamers.

“We've had a long time to learn things from a consumer point of view. We've now gone full circle – players to providers,” Jonathan tells me.

Commenting on the transition he said: “Obviously it gives you a very different insight when creating something. Myself and the team have all been working on the game for over half a decade at least.

“When I'm making stuff a big question I ask is what if I found this online when I was 14. Would I play it properly?

“I like to think yes,” Jonathan laughs.

Blockception has just released a new product Kingdom Survival, which is free on IOS until July 5. Another product, a map for the official Minecraft novel, will be released on the Microsoft marketplace in a few weeks time.

As they continue to expand their business, Jonathan and Alex are now planning to invest in a subsidiary company.

“We think it will crack another market within Minecraft and bring in additional revenue from other sources,” Jonathan reveals.

When asked about the bigger picture he said: “In terms of five years time its impossible to say, it's such a quickly moving and fiercely volatile market.”

This year, Blockception shared the North West Business Awards honour for creative industries business of the year.

Jonathan said: “It is a great achievement for such a young company and wouldn't have been possible without such a talented and dedicated workforce.