As the sun sets here in Melbourne, it’s early morning in Stockholm. Out my window, it’s raining. The notorious Melbourne weather defies whatever stereotypes you might have of sunny Australia. Of course, this won’t surprise Måns Olson. Prior to joining Mojang, he spent a year at the University of Melbourne. I play down the fact I attended the cross-town rival, Monash University.
I can only imagine as part of Xbox Games Studios they get a free license. Måns, the Game Director on Minecraft Dungeons, is joined by Art Director Daniel Bjorkefors. We’re touching base on the final stages of the game’s development, which has been only slightly delayed thanks to COVID-19. They’ve transitioned to working from home rather smoothly, and I was glad to hear the team is happy and healthy given all that’s unfolding the world over.
They don’t sound phased at all actually. Instead, they sound super eager to get the game out there for everyone to play. It’s a passion project years in the making, and a departure from the Minecraft we’ve known and loved. It’s a foray into a beloved genre spearheaded by a small, enthusiastic team and it was fantastic to hear first hand how it all came together, and what inspired it’s development.
I see Minecraft Dungeons compared to Diablo a lot – a comparison that you seem to welcome – but what does Minecraft Dungeons do differently from other dungeon crawlers?
Måns Olson: So when we — I mean we’ve talked a lot about our inspirations to the game. Diablo is obviously one of them, as is Torchlight, Gauntlet, we take a lot of inspiration from modern first-person shooters like Left 4 Dead or Vermintide for the cooperative aspects. But that’s just the background right; the main source of inspiration is always going to be Minecraft. And so when we develop, new features when we put content in we always look at Minecraft first and see what’s already there. How can we adapt it? What are some of the rules of Minecraft, the do’s and don’ts. And a big part of Minecraft is that your character does not have any inherent abilities. And for us, that meant that we could not have classes, which is sort of one of the foundations or games in the genre. Typically, you have your class, you play with that there’s a skill tree, you choose your skills accordingly. So we had to approach a lot of the progression and a lot of the kind of systems design from a different angle not having that. And instead, we focused on this concept of you are what you were. So you build your character by combining weapons and armour and artefacts and then enchanting your gear with randomised enchantments meaning one sword will be different from from the next word that you find. And we think there’s a lot of interesting synergy in that and it makes it play a little bit differently than in some of the other games in the genre.
Yeah, I love the combination of lightning with the hammer as well. You suddenly become Thor all of a sudden I think it’s fantastic. Is that strictly how progression is gonna work in the game; you kind of collect items and you try different combinations in your character they get progressively more powerful as you go is that how progression is gonna work in the game?
M: Yeah, essentially. So we also have – I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to play the beta – but the beta version that we just ended recently has the first difficulty that we call default. Within that there is what we call a threat slider, you can choose between six different sub difficulties. And in the full game, we have two more difficulties after that called to adventure and apocalypse. And those kinds of not only progressively scale up the difficulty, but we also add some new stuff, new gear, new artefacts that you can find that weren’t available in the default difficulty, right as new secrets to be uncovered. So I think the combination of that sort of difficulty system that gives you a lot of freedom to choose how you want to play it from easy to hard coupled with the item progression. It’s so nice.
Sounds like there’s plenty of scope for all types of gamers in that as well. If I’m not mistaken it’s a reasonably small team working on the project. I’m interested to know how it began I kind of get the impression that it was a passion project that really stemmed from the team. Is that right?
M: Yes, I would say that’s an accurate description. So we had a team that was looking into building new Minecraft experiences something that you cannot get in the base Minecraft game. And because of the scope of Minecraft, where you can do Creative, you can do Surival, there’s Adventure Mode. There’s all these mods there’s so many ways to play Minecraft. So you have to stray kind of far from that base core of Minecraft in order to get something entirely new. And we have a lot of people on the team that love the genre of dungeon crawlers and also the love the old like 2D Zelda top-down games. And so it started as a small project we were around seven people at the time looking into how that could be matched with Minecraft and we think it’s quite a good fit. Because you do a lot of the same things in Minecraft, you ventured down into caves, you fight mobs you find treasure. So that was really the initial pitch from the Stockholm office, but then it’s grown and been supported in the organisation and we realised that we thought you make a good multiplayer game, that it would be a good fit for more platforms than we had originally envisioned. It was a 3DS game at the start of development and we we moved it to Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, Xbox, Windows and Xbox Game Pass.
Okay. All right, so it’s kind of been on the back burner for a while, kind of slowly, slowly evolving by the sounds of things.
M: Yeah, I’d say that’s pretty accurate. But we’re still a small team in the scope of things. It’s about 20 to 25 people.
And having been with my Mojang for eight years now I’m eager to hear your thoughts on what you sort of alluded to there: the evolution of Minecraft. Because I must admit, I was surprised to hear that there would be no mining or crafting features in this game, but of course, that wasn’t a feature of Telltale’s Minecraft: Story Mode either. Is this the continuation – do you think – of Minecraft heading in the new direction and expanding into other genres? Can we expect it to go forwards or further in the future?
M: I don’t think that you should assume that all games will follow that same trajectory. [But] in terms of kind of bringing new experiences to Minecraft, to the Minecraft audience, yes; that’s something we want to keep doing. And we’re currently exploring that in two big ways: Minecraft Dungeons, that is this action-adventure combat focus game. And we have Minecraft Earth, which is you know, an augmented reality game where you build Minecraft in the real world. And I mean going forward there may be other projects if we find the right ones.
Cool! Well we’re just excited for everything Minecraft, we’ll take it all. Obviously, Minecraft Dungeons is procedurally generated much in the same way that the core original game was and features a lot of familiar enemies and environments too. Daniel, what sort of room did you have to play around with from an artistic perspective? Are there new things that you’ve been able to add to the Minecraft ‘multiverse’ anything that might make its way back into the core game at some point as well?
Daniel Bjorkefors: Yeah, sure. I mean, we always base everything on the original Minecraft, but the gameplay needs some additions, of course. So they’re the mobs. I think most of the story about the Illager for example, how it got to be. But yeah, I think we are basing everything on the base game and we’re even like building the levels in the same way as we do for Vanilla. But other than that we just we keep adding but we always sync with like Jens and all the people that have the best knowledge to stick within the Minecraft universe. You know, the point is that we really want our mobs to fit in into Vanilla. I want them to go there. Yeah, actually, maybe they will, maybe they won’t. It’s not the main idea, but it should be possible.
Whilst I’ve got you Daniel, I love those printable templates that you and your son made for your DIY Minecraft LEGO sets. As both a Minecraft fan and an artist with experience working in quite a wide range of mediums, what was unique about working on Minecraft Dungeons?
D: I think the unique thing was to work within the Minecraft universe style I think. It’s you know, it’s blocks. It’s pretty basic textures and so on, but I did get the chance to play with the lights and shadows on such a scene.
You’ve managed to make it look really moody. I think you’re right to touch on the lighting there like the way that you’ve managed to shape the lights and really cast those rays. It creates a different mood that I’ve not typically associated with Minecraft in the past. That’s really cool.
D: Yeah, we thought it was you know, it’s an RPG game, so you need to have that kind of fantasy look, especially when it’s only top down. So to create some depth we’re using a lot of fogs and things in the distance just almost not visible. So yeah, it’s been a great project
You and I have that love for LEGO in common Daniel, and I’m so excited for you to see that set to being made based on the game. Please tell me what that’s like and what influence LEGO has had on the art direction of the game for you.
D: Well, I can’t say that LEGO has had any influence on the on how the game looks now, but of course, it’s a childhood dream. So yeah, I got it. I promised my child like five years ago I’d work with LEGO, so yeah. Check. I’m really proud of this. Super cool. Hopefully, they’ll make more pieces.
Yeah, no doubt! I know it took place a bit of time to find secret loot in the beta and I can imagine there are plenty more secrets awaiting players in the game. What do you think will surprise players the most when they get their hands on it come May 26?
M: Well, that’d be a bit of a spoiler wouldn’t it?
D: I was biting my tongue for a minute here!
M: I mean, I think it’s it’s a difficult question to answer because it will be different depending on who you are. But we’re hoping that we’ll surprise players by just you know, having these charming, interesting kind of secrets and of world-building that will just feel right and kind of Minecraft-y while still being delightful. So I love the little like glowing mushrooms that makes sense when you step on them in Creeper Woods. Little details like that are very important.
D: And you’ll find like push buttons, suddenly you can push and things open up. Hopefully, people will scream by enjoyment. I’ve been talking earlier, we developed a rune alphabet for Dungeons, in particular. And we’ve hidden that as much as we can. So it’s for the hardcore gamers to explore, [there may] even maybe [be] a bit of the Minecraft universe. So it’s big.
Well, based on having played the game on the PAX show floor here in Australia last October, it was attracting a big diverse crowds. I suspect it’s one of the biggest kind of sleeper hits of the year. I feel like it’s one that’s unduly flying under people’s radar. But will find a very, very big audience indeed. So I’m super excited for you.
M: We certainly hope so. I mean, we’ve it’s been so exciting to see the the the reactions to the beta when players have been streaming the game because it’s kind of a first chance to see it on a large scale. Just hands off when we don’t have we can’t step in and tell players what to do, right? It’s just him speaking for itself. And it seems to be received well, so far. That’s super exciting and pretty emotional because you know it’s a scary thing taking on trying to make a sort of spin-off title to Minecraft because it’s got such a passionate community around it there are so many players that have very strong opinions and feelings about what the game could and should be. So it’s daunting but it’s fun.
Is there hope you’ll be able to return to it again in the future and bring out additional content for it and introduce new enemy types to expand on the story at all that kind of thing?
M: Absolutely, we’ve, we’ve announced two DLC packs that you’ll get if you buy the Hero Edition game. So there’ll be you’ll get them as they release. And we’re currently looking into what we can do after those first two DLCs and then how we can update the game after release. But those plans will by nature be a little bit vague because we need to release the game and sort of see the reactions of players and, you know, figure out what the demand is, what things do players want to see more of? What is it okay for us to focus a little bit less on? And sort of take that into account as we develop the game.
Yeah, I think it’s fantastic as well, that is coming to so many platforms too. I get – based on what you’ve said today – that that might not necessarily been the plan from the beginning, but when the plans did change to bring it wider than the 3DS version, was it always it’s got to be on PlayStation, PC, Switch, Xbox Game Pass, just get it into as many people’s hands as possible?
M: Yeah, I mean, generally speaking, that’s always our hope. We just want to make sure that as many players as possible can play our games and sort of regardless of what platform they’re on.