- Thomas Sulikowski started playing Minecraft in middle school. He sold his first building for $5.
- Demand rose quickly for commissions. At 15 he employed four other designers and founded Varuna.
- The Minecraft design company now has 44 employees. Sulikowski says he charges clients up to $90,000.
This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Thomas Sulikowski, a 20-year-old Minecraft designer from Boston, Massachusetts, who founded Varuna, a Minecraft design studio and consultancy. The essay has been edited for length and clarity.
My generation grew up playing Minecraft, a sandbox game where you explore a virtual world and build things. I started playing in middle school and among other things, built a virtual version of my house and a replica of City Hall in Boston, my hometown. I posted images of my builds to the Planet Minecraft community forum. To my surprise, people contacted me to say, “hey, that’s a beautiful house, I’ll buy it from you for $5.”
That felt fantastic. I’d just made money playing a video game, something my parents always told me was impossible.
Over time, I built up a backlog of commissions I didn’t have time to complete, so I recruited a few like-minded, creative people to help me. I founded Varuna five years ago, when I was 15 and we were a team of four. Now we’re a team of 44 people spread over 14 countries.
Varuna is an architecture firm, but instead of designing buildings in AutoCAD or other high-end software, we design them in Minecraft, one block at a time.
We’ve hired Minecraft architects, developers, city planners, and pixel artists in France, Germany, Spain, Columbia, Peru, Mexico, the US, South Korea, Belarus, and Australia. We create custom maps for clients, we sell playable maps, skins and mini-games through the Minecraft Marketplace, and we have a YouTube and social media side to the company.
We work with the gaming, entertainment, and eSports industries, as you might expect, but we’ve also worked with governments, food and agriculture companies, and the aerospace industry. Minecraft has sold more than 200 million copies so far and the market just keeps expanding.
The price range for our products is huge. We sell non-exclusive playable maps on our website, like Nomport, that anyone can buy for $29.99. For a custom map built exclusively for a client, we try to stay between $5,000 to $10,000 for a small project. For a big, detailed project that can take eight to ten months, the fee can rise to $80,000 or $90,000. The price isn’t based on the size of the map, though – it’s all about the detail.
We can create pretty much whatever a client can imagine but building natural shapes is one of the hardest parts of Minecraft. If you ignore realistic details – cracks in the road, overgrown gardens, the natural wear and tear you see in the real world – your creation looks totally fake. It takes a lot of hours to create realism, which is why one of the biggest things for success in this industry is patience.
For a big project, we’ll have three to six architects each working 10 to 12 hours a day for two or three months. In Minecraft, builders can place five or six blocks at a time, and these projects have millions of blocks, hence why patience is essential.
City planning and structural architecture are important skills to have in our industry. Two or three years ago, when we would create city projects, we would get comments from people telling us our road shapes weren’t realistic, or that they were too narrow for the time period we were reflecting. We take these sorts of comments on board to help us make future projects better.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the growth of our industry. When the virus struck, a lot of music festivals were cancelled – but their organisers quickly figured out that Minecraft could provide virtual spaces for festivalgoers to get together. We also worked with the charity No Kid Hungry, auctioning off projects that Varuna had created, and ended up raising around $105,000.
The future of our industry is sure to be fascinating. Before my generation, people who played video games were seen as nerdy. Video gamers in my generation, the TikTok generation, are more like soccer stars.
The advice I’d give someone wanting to do what I do is: find your niche and become an expert in it.
Very few people have mastered texturing, or combining different Minecraft blocks to achieve sufficient depth in their creations. Very few people have mastered city planning or can define every feather on a dragon’s wing. If you’re really good at these things, you’ll become very valuable to companies like Varuna.