Interview with Philipp Lenssen on Manyland

In this week’s interview with an indie developer, we caught up with Philipp Lenssen, one of the minds behind Manyland – a game created by its own players. Philipp co-created the game with Scott Lowe and are currently evolving Manyland with a growing community who they put before anything else.


Could you tell us a little about the people behind Manyland? What got you guys together and how did you end up deciding to make Manyland?

Manyland is co-created by Scott Lowe and me, and now evolved and built with a growing, terrific community… we’re really trying to invent a universe together.

The idea for Manyland goes back many years, and was inspired by a lot of the games and virtual worlds from the 1980’s and 90’s —  Lemmings, Zak McKracken, Worlds Away, Hunter, Great Giana Sisters, IRC… from adventures to platformers to chat communities. I’ve always had an interest in world and story-building platforms, and it’s what got me started with games programming in the late 90s, when I focused on creating choose-your-own-adventure systems and a graphical adventure creation framework.

In 2008, I emailed some of my friends with a rough sketch for a massive-multiplayer platformer, where the fun was seeing everyone else jump around and perform challenges. At around the same time, there was this separate idea for a shared sketch that would display right in the browser, a new theme everyday, where everyone would be able to edit one square in the grid — to then decide through up and downvotes which parts of the grid would be replaced, creating a new sketch everyday that wasn’t drawn by a single person… but together by a whole group.

None of these drafts directly resulted in a project back then, but I was lucky around 2 years back when I turned things into a more concrete concept to have stumbled on the tech mastermind of Manyland, Scott. I had put up a project description on StackOverflow and was extremely lucky that Scott replied, jumped right into it, started co-conceptualizing with me, even quit his day job, and then set up the whole technology stack from A to Z and developed Manyland. We are a team who work together happily with the growing group of Manylanders, who are amazing us everyday with their work within the world.


Since many readers will not be aware, could you describe what exactly Manyland is and how it works?

Manyland is a massively-multicitizen, infinite, connected and open universe where everything you see is created by all of us together. Every pixel is drawn by all of us, every block placed by us, villages spring up, whole lands, friendships form, and there’s no artificial barrier that would keep you occupied or limited. The spirit of Manyland is that there is no predefined goal, era, story, theme or outcome — but that everyone who joins the world has the power to shape it with us, set their own goals as they wish, and truly invent this world together.

When you are first born into the world, you’ll find yourself out in the open, and you can immediately do as you wish. Respect for the community and their creations will make you uprank to full citizenship quickly, but there’s no grinding for points involved. You can set up a house, draw living beings, draw every object you need, collect items, combine building attributes to mix your own things, invent games in the world, chat with others, join our parties and events, ride rollercoasters, jump into portals, fly around, create your own body pixel by pixel, work on big ideas in teams, have fun, relax, and come up with completely new things.


Manyland is quite literally created by its own players. Don’t you occasionally run into issues where players end up creating penises or other inappropriate content? Who polices Manyland?

Manyland is maintained by all of us together in the great community. We have a whole bunch of tools available: importantly, up and downvoting on people, as you can see the originator of every creation and placement; undoing of removals by checking the revealing dust this may leave for established placements; flagging of creations; an outer ring that is joined by everyone followed by an inner ring that can only be entered at a higher rank, and more.

World health is one of the most importing conceptual considerations at all times, so we work hard to provide the right balanced framework and tune it based on feedback. And then it’s up to us all together to shape this world in a way we want it, as it’s also very open. Every single one of us can make a huge difference in this world, and truly define it.


Do players in Manyland have anything to work towards or is it quite literally a sandbox with no real goals?

The universe itself doesn’t define any goals, achievements, points, or paths you ought to follow. It doesn’t know its backstory, whether it’s in the past or future, what events will take place, which technology is available, or where it will all lead! There is not a single generated terrain, no block placed by algorithms, not even any mood-defining background music.

However, every participant in the community can then invent goals for them; invent stories; compose music using instruments; draw the world; invent whole countries, culture, etiquette, then ask others for help on those. Goals, in other words, are now being invented by all of us together.


Could you provide some examples of unique content created by players which really impressed you?

Oh! There’s so much absolute terrificness in the world. Including the crazy wild parts, but of course also the giant structures and towers, whole mountains, huge caves, monsters and spaceships. The last time we did a count there were over 2 million blocks placed already, and the world is growing fast.

Here is a selection of screenshots:

  • Manyland Player Creations
  • Manyland Player Creations
  • Manyland Player Creations
  • Manyland Player Creations
  • Manyland Player Creations
  • Manyland Player Creations
  • Manyland Player Creations
  • Manyland Player Creations
  • Manyland Player Creations

This trailer takes you on a tour through some of the great areas:


Have players ever created something which even you guys didn’t imagine when you created the game?

Absolutely. We consider it a vacuum, which people can fill with what they wish. They can turn it into a game, or a chat world, or a place to decorate your home, anything you want. When Manylanders do hit a creative limit, they’ll let us know and we’ll try to think of how to provide the right basic tools for enabling what they had in mind. The more plain, Lego-like building block provided, the bigger the creative power to combine it into anything at all.

So, by design, anything people create is new to us. We couldn’t have anticipated the structure the universe takes, the social dynamics we’re seeing, let alone the festivities people come up with…  like Manyday, the 19th of every month, to celebrate the 19×19 pixels a basic building block has!

During Manymas, when I visited a Manyland elven factory with a presents conveyor belt, I was wondering, How on earth was this done? There’s no “conveyor belt” that the universe knows of — rather, the community combines the basic building options and mixes them into perfectly new things. Exploring the vast areas of Manyland, you’ll find a living world full of touching surprises.


How are you guys coping with the cost of running Manyland? What is your revenue model and will you be able to support the game for a long time to come?

We are fully focused on our top priority: happiness of all Manylanders. Everything else, including a revenue model, will have to follow this priority and be evolved together over time. A sustainable environment is hugely important to us, so to that end we do have some possible roads we see for revenue models, but nothing is cast in stone yet. I can say that for the other projects I worked on, which are currently financing Manyland, revenues via unobtrusive, minimal advertisements were the way to go, but this may be very different in Manyland, depending on the particular needs.


Have you got any other projects in the pipeline you can tell us about – either in production or at the ideas stage?

Scott and I are working full time on Manyland, and we have tons of new features planned, and often roll out updates several times throughout the day. That keeps us happily busy!


If time and money was no object, what kind of game would you see yourselves producing? Would perhaps Manyland itself look different?

Manyland would not look different with a bigger budget. We shaped every bit of the framework until we were absolutely happy to launch it as an early version, and then were hoping a great community would evolve the world to something truly unseen before. It started as little more than an infinite, empty universe, waiting for everyone to come and shape it.

In the case of unlimited money, we would invest much more in advertising, as it’s challenging to get the word out :)


Thank you very much for your time, we’d like to wish you the best of luck with Manyland!

Thanks so much for these great questions!!

the author

Managing Editor of ManaPool, Peter lives in York, UK and is a great fan and master of turn-based strategy games. If he isn't playing one of those, you'll probably find him in a role-playing game instead. He's definitely not afraid to provide a straight up opinion on any game and has a strong like for indie developers. We all start small, after all.