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Building an Action-RPG: Delving Into Minecraft Dungeons with Mojang
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 05:13pm 16/10/19 | Comments
We sit down with Mojang to discuss the upcoming action-RPG Minecraft Dungeons, its humble origins, and focus on combat. The Minecraft way.

“Creating an action-RPG dungeon crawler and bringing that style into the Minecraft world felt really natural,” Nathan Rose, Senior Project Manager for Minecraft Dungeons at Mojang tells me. “With all the bits and pieces in the core Minecraft experience, we wanted to get in and really focus on that additional combat element. Create something where you could still have couch co-op and families playing together.”

In the world of videogames, the name Minecraft towers above all – with large pixelated blocks that can be mined for precious materials and stacked together to construct anything you could possibly imagine. Available to play on all platforms and just about any device with a screen, the Minecraft universe has been enjoyed by an audience measured in the tens of millions. In recent years the franchise has even veered into the realm of the adventure game, a Netflix series. There's even a long-in-the-works upcoming live-action Minecraft movie.


With the release of Minecraft Dungeons though, we now find the iconic pickaxe entering the world of dark and dingy caverns, shiny loot, and unspeakable monstrosities. The action-RPG.

Where Minecraft goes for a stroll, and bumps into Diablo.

“Of course, the team was looking at games like Diablo, but also classics like Gauntlet,” Nathan responds when the conversation brings up Blizzard’s iconic and genre-defining release. “Gauntlet was probably more of a reference for the team than Diablo [when it comes to combat]. What we looked at in some of those other games was the loot table, which in an action-RPG tends to get quite deep. What we have in Dungeons is what you would expect to find in Diablo but filled with recognisable aspects from Minecraft. You have your pick-axe, but you can enchant it with fire. And these enchantments come into play with all the gear you’ll find.”


“Available to play on all platforms and just about any device with a screen, the Minecraft universe has been enjoyed by an audience measured in the many tens of millions.”



But a Diablo-clone or by-the-numbers action-RPG this isn’t, with Minecraft Dungeons offering its own spin on the beloved genre. One that feels like a part of a larger, pixelated universe. Where initial simplicity or a perceived lack of depth gradually crumbles to reveal impressive scope and ambition.


“You as a player, you do not have access to a skill tree,” Nathan explains. “Also, we don't have classes. You are what you wear. If you have a set of Evoker robes, your magician robes that you found, they could provide the sort of benefit for you to act as a Protector or a Healer or maybe even a Spell Caster. Maybe the gear significantly drops the cool-down of Artefacts or Trinkets so you can cast that Protective Dome every 25 seconds instead of every 50 seconds. And then that helps you define your role in a team.”

“It’s the same with weapons, where you can have a sword imbued with fire, poison, lightning, or something like wild frenzy which causes an enemy to go crazy and attack whoever's closest to them,” Nathan continues. “But then you could pick up a sword that has nothing like that at all, maybe a speed enchantment that allows you to Echo with a faster attack-rate that also grants a percentage to do an extra hit. Also, we don't have a level cap. You keep levelling and your weapons will scale to that level. You’ll never find a sword where you'll go, ‘Oh, I can't use that for at least two more levels’.”


Explained in this manner when looking back at the history of Minecraft Dungeons you can begin to see how it evolved and grew into this well-defined stat-driven image. Where the words ‘percentage’ and ‘attack-rate’ are cause for celebration rather than a look of confusion or disinterest. With a small team of roughly 14 people working on what would eventually become Minecraft Dungeons over the course of a two-year period, it took iteration and play-testing and a passionate team time to get the game to where it’s at today. “It started out as a kind of small hacked-on or quiet project,” Nathan tells me. “Gradually it turned into something real, and before long there was a real momentum to it.”


“What we have in Dungeons is what you would expect to find in Diablo but filled with recognisable aspects from Minecraft. You have your pick-axe, but you can enchant it with fire. And these enchantments come into play with all the gear you’ll find.”



This momentum then led to a console version, with work now underway on bringing the planned 2020 Minecraft Dungeons release to Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch – in addition to PC. Going back to the design, and the approach taken when it comes to loot and defined RPG-like roles within a team of adventurers – this decision felt natural. The approach to weapons, classes, and skills, makes sense in this ‘Play Anywhere’ context – with the team at Mojang also looking at various design choices to help foster the sense teamwork and promote cooperation. You know, put the co-op in, well, co-op.


Area-of-effect and armour buffs that provide benefits to those situated closest to you, abilities and effects that stack or play into each other during the heat of battle. As players run around recognisable environments like Creeper Woods, Desert Temple, and other Minecraft biomes with pets fighting by their side – the communal spirit and social side of the universe can still be felt. Even if everyone gets their own loot to sort through.

Which brings us to replayability. Something that keeps players coming back to an experience like Minecraft is the feeling that no two games are ever the same. A hard thing to pull off in a dungeon-driven action-RPG, but Mojang has been working on a procedural system throughout the course of development that it has been tweaking and fine tuning along the way. And continues to do so.

“We've changed the size of the levels and dungeons to provide anywhere from say 10 to 20-minute experiences. Sometimes the dungeons felt too long, or sometimes too short – all based on the procedural maps,” Nathan explains. Whilst acknowledging that in order to add story and provide memorable moments there still has to be – like with all things Minecraft – an element of the human touch.


“It is procedurally generated, but the way you enter or exit the level or dungeon is always going to be the same,” he adds. “And there's key points in the level, gating mechanisms, where say the Arch-Illager [the main villain] shows up and summons waves of enemies you have to beat to be able to unlock a door. These are all hand-crafted moments and with elements like that it’s more of a case where the rooms are procedurally laid out. So, a dungeon may never be laid out the same but there are going to be the elements in there that you will recognise. Plus, all the stuff that will be there for the narrative to move forward.”


“We don't have classes. You are what you wear. If you have a set of Evoker robes, your magician robes that you found, they could provide the sort of benefit for you to act as a Protector or a Healer or maybe even a Spell Caster.”



With the success of Telltale’s Minecraft series, the concept of story within the greater Minecraft universe is not as strange and unusual as it may have once been. That said, the story in Minecraft Dungeons is described as light, with the goal being to take out the power-hungry Arch-Illager. A necessary framework to put players on the age-old path marked ‘This Way to Save the World’.


And really, when it comes to the action-RPG the real story becomes your own. Your character, your heroic deeds, and listing all of the various types of pants you wore on the long road to taking out a giant monster in the bowels of a volcano. Even so, one can’t help but wonder – outside of planned updates that include new gear (and pants no doubt) and environments to explore – if Minecraft: Dungeons will incorporate some of the more well-known elements that people associate with the game.

“We wanted to focus on the combat because we know we have crafting down,” Nathan responds when asked about some of the core aspects of Minecraft. “What we wanted to do with Dungeons was introduce combat in a big way. Now, we want to give players what they love and what they would expect from Minecraft. So even though right now we don't have mining or crafting in the game, that's not to say it couldn't come up at some point in the future.”

This article is sponsored by ASUS.
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