David Nisshagen squeals in delight as he leads his blocky character down a narrow, raised platform that is surrounded by flames of violet. He's just discovered a secret room in Minecraft Dungeons, and even being the title's executive producer, he doesn't know what's going to happen. Through our Discord chat you can see his smile.
"This is extremely rare," he says. "This is extremely rare. Okay?" I laugh and inform my friend that he is exuberant.
He says, "Yes," but he doesn't know why. This is amazing. Actually you'll notice that we do have some very spooky and mysterious things in this game. I've just gathered something that will be very, very useful for me later on in the game, or should I ever play the game again."
Minecraft Dungeons is an adventure game that is influenced by classic dungeon-crawlers like Diablo or The Binding of Isaac, but with the franchise's trademark kid-friendly design. It supports local and online multiplayer, randomly generated levels, as well as a plethora of familiar enemies like creepers, spiders, and skeletons. The whole thing looks similar to Minecraft however, it is an entirely innovative approach to game development by Mojang.
Microsoft bought Mojang the Swedish studio that developed Minecraft for $2.5 billion in 2014. Today, it is under the Xbox Game Studios umbrella. This doesn't mean Minecraft Dungeons will be exclusive to Microsoft platforms. The full game is scheduled to launch on PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One and Windows on May 26th.
For more than a decade, Mojang has focused on Minecraft, the global phenomenon that has introduced generations children and adults to sandbox-style video games. Minecraft Dungeons is the studio's first real attempt at a new category, and has been in development for at around four years.
The storyline of the game is simple and fittingly epic: An outcast villager -- known in the game as an illager- found an orb of power and is using it to conquer the overworld with armies of villagers at his command. Players travel through distinct regions battling the Arch-Illager's minions, until finally facing off with the holder of the orb.
Mojang introduced illagers into the base Minecraft game in 2016, though Nisshagen said these creatures actually started out in the Dungeons development room.
He explained that we required an enemy that was humanoid, with a ranged attack and a fast-following hunter mechanism. In the end, Nisshagen explained, it was possible to just escape from zombies in Minecraft, rather than fighting them in combat, and Dungeons developers needed something that would encourage combat. "They do pursue you with axes and chase you down, and that was so loved by the Minecraft team that they decided to incorporate it into the game before we even launched Dungeons."
Dungeons was actually an internal idea of the Nintendo 3DS.
"You can't fit Minecraft as a complex game, on this," Nisshagen said. The developers decided to look at the world from a top-down viewpoint rather than the original game's first person perspective. They wanted to create a world full of surprises and opportunities for discovery.
"You don't have the ability to play the entire Minecraft game," he said. "You should not simplify it and narrow on its primary elements. ...We focused on exploration and the feeling of adventure. Players should feel as if they are in the middle of an adventure. We then take the creativity that Minecraft players have to create the amazing stuff they can in the game. We attempt to let them use it in our progression system, I think.
Minecraft Dungeons doesn't use a traditional progression system based on RPGs, and it doesn't force players to play in specific roles. Instead of having rigid classes like "healer" or "tank" in the game, players can change their equipment at any time and combine items to provide their weapons with any capabilities the situation requires.
Nisshagen stated, "You can think about us transforming the thought process of progression into a Sandbox." There are no limitations. You are free to do whatever you would like. There are some extremely bad choices you can make. However there are many excellent choices and powerful decisions you can make.
There's no wrong method to play Minecraft Dungeons. This is essential for developers, especially when you consider the target audience that Minecraft is aimed at: children and their parents. As a brand, Minecraft is geared toward younger players, while dungeon-crawler games are typically designed for adults, and feature extensive inventories and progression trees and a challenging combat arena. Minecraft Dungeons is an attempt to appeal to both these market segments.
"We think we'll see parents playing with their children, or older and younger siblings playing together," Nisshagen said. The system has a lot of depth. Anyone with a bit of gaming experience is likely to discover some interesting combinations to explore from a mechanics standpoint. Then there are the people who just want to play and click and have a great time.
The game features drop-in multiplayer that is both local and online, and each stage adapts according to the number of players. TNT boxes are the sole exception to friendly fire and can cause harm to both familiars and allies.
Cross-platform play won't be available at launch however it's "absolutely" going to happen in the future, Nisshagen said.
He stated that "we're not a huge development team." (Mojang's About Page lists 71 employees). "Just being capable of shipping the same game to the PlayStation 3, Nintendo Switch, Xbox and Windows is quite an accomplishment actually. And then having cross-play, we want to get it as soon as we can, but we want to make sure we have a good game experience for you on your platform first."
In many ways, Minecraft Dungeons is the natural evolution of the Minecraft franchise. For plenty of 2000s kids, Minecraft was the first game they played as it was simple, engaging social, and easy to learn. Ten years later these same players are hungry for something more challenging and Minecraft Dungeons is an obvious, familiar answer.