David Nisshagen lets out a squeal of delight as he steers his blocky character up a narrow, raised platform surrounded by purple flames. He has just discovered a secret room in Minecraft Dungeons, and even if he is the executive producer of the title, he does not know what will happen. The smile on his face can be heard via our Discord call.
“It’s super rare,” he says. “This is Great rare. OK?” I laugh and tell him he looks excited.
“Yes,” he replies, “I haven’t seen it at that level. This is so cool. OK, so actually, as you see, we have some pretty scary and mysterious stuff here. I just collected something that will be very, very useful to me later in the game, or if I play the game again.”
Minecraft Dungeons is an adventure title inspired by classic dungeon crawlers like Diablo Where The Binding of Isaac, but with the franchise’s patented kid-friendly flair. It features local and online multiplayer, randomly generated levels, and hordes of new and familiar enemies, including skeletons, creepers, and spiders. The set looks great Minecraftbut it represents a new approach to game development for Mojang.
Microsoft bought Mojang, the Swedish studio behind Minecraft, for $2.5 billion in 2014, and today operates under the Xbox Game Studios umbrella. This does not mean Minecraft Dungeons will be exclusive to Microsoft platforms – the full game is set to release on PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One, and Windows on May 26.
For more than a decade, Mojang has focused on Minecraftthe global phenomenon that introduced generations of children and adults to sandbox-style video games. Minecraft Dungeons is the studio’s first real attempt at a new genre, and it’s been in production for at least four years.
The game’s story is simple and deservedly epic: a banished villager – known in-game as an illager – has found an orb of power and is using it to invade the outside world with armies of illagers to his orders. Players travel through distinct regions battling the Arch-Illager’s minions, until they finally face the orb holder himself.
Mojang introduced villagers to the base Minecraft game in 2016, although Nisshagen said these creatures actually started in the Dungeons development room.
“We needed a humanoid enemy, with a ranged attack and a fast tracking hunting mechanism,” he explained. After all, Nisshagen said, it was possible to simply run away from zombies in Minecraftrather than fight them, and Dungeons the developers wanted something that would encourage combat. “They run after you with axes and hunt you down, and that was so appreciated by the Minecraft team that they implemented it in this game before we released Dungeons.”
In reality, Dungeons started as an internal concept for the Nintendo 3DS.
“You can’t adapt Minecraftsuch a complex game, thisNisshagen said. That’s why the developers took a top-down perspective, rather than the first-person view of the original game, and they focused on building a world filled with opportunities for surprise and discovery.
“You can’t take it all Minecraft game,” he said. “You have to, not simplify it, but concentrate it on its basic elements. … We have doubled the exploration and also the sense of adventure. Players should really feel like they’re on an adventure. And then we take the creativity that Minecraft players use when they’re creating all the awesome stuff in the game. We’re trying to let them use that in our sort of progression system, I guess that’s the word.
Minecraft Dungeons does not use a traditional RPG-style progression system and does not require players to play specific roles. Instead of having rigid classes like “healer” or “tank” in-game, players can swap gear on the fly and combine items to infuse their weapons with whatever abilities the situation requires.
“You can think of us turning that sandbox thinking into a progression system,” Nisshagen said. “There are absolutely no constraints. You can do just about anything you want. There are very bad choices you can make, and there are certainly extremely good choices or very controlled choices you can make.
There’s no wrong way to play Minecraft Dungeons. This is important for developers, especially because of the audience they are targeting: children and their parents. As a brand, Minecraft is aimed at young gamers, while dungeon-crawler games are generally designed for adults, with dense progression trees and inventories, and challenging battle arenas. Minecraft Dungeons is an attempt to appeal to these two markets.
“We think we’ll see parents playing with kids, or older and younger siblings playing together,” Nisshagen said. “There is quite a bit of depth in the system. Anyone with a bit of gaming experience will probably find some interesting combinations of things to explore, from a game mechanics perspective. And then other people, you can just walk in and mash the buttons and have a good time too.
The game features drop-in multiplayer, both online and local, and each stage scales depending on the number of players. There is no friendly fire except for TNT boxes, which can damage allies and pets when they explode.
Cross-platform play won’t be available at launch, but it will “absolutely” happen down the line, Nisshagen said.
“We’re not a very big development team,” he said (Mojang’s About page lists 71 employees). “Just being able to ship the same game to PlayStation, Nintendo Switch, Xbox and Windows is quite the thing actually. And then with cross-play we want to get it as soon as possible, but we want to make sure we have a good multiplayer experience on your own platform first.
In many ways, Minecraft Dungeons is the natural evolution of the Minecraft franchise. For many children of the 2000s, Minecraft was the first game they played because it was accessible, creative, social, and intuitive. A decade later, those same players are craving something more complex, and Minecraft Dungeons is an obvious and familiar answer.
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