Interviews

Minecraft Dungeons’ David Nisshagen on dev during COVID-19 & more

Stevivor sat down with David Nissgagen, Executive Producer on Minecraft Dungeons, to discuss anything and everything about the game.

Of note, Nisshagen detailed how Mojang is adapting to development in the face of COVID-19 — including changes that may stick once the all-clear to work from offices has been counded — alongside closed beta feedback, Mojang’s approach to accessibility and approachability and what Xbox Game Pass and its userbase of over 10 million players means to the game.

Read the full transcript below.

Steve Wright, Stevivor: It’s really hard to avoid the state of the world — how are you doing in the face of COVID-19? Both personally and as a team. What is Mojang doing to make sure you’re all staying healthy, sane and keeping to timelines?

David Nisshagen, Mojang: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean we did move the release date out — as we saw the COVID-19 situation start to appear, we realised that we’re not really configured to work from home. And also at that point in time, there was a lot of discussions and questions on: do you need to keep your kids home from school? How does it work?

So to not stress people out or have a negative impact on the people that actually building the game, we decided to move the release date out, from the April timeframe now until the May timeframe. So not a massive delay, just like a month. But I think it was the right choice.

In Sweden, we’re fortunate. We still have a lot of mobility, most of the Swedish society is quite open and functional. But even just working from home, it becomes difficult to manage time. You sort of tend to go into your own natural day and night and sleep rhythm. So we do see that some people in the team are perhaps morning persons, up very early, some are evening persons and are up a bit later, and trying to match all this together because they need to speak to each other to do the best possible job, work together.

Just trying to do that is challenging because you don’t want to like, “Everybody, morning meeting at nine o’clock.” That doesn’t work. That’s not how Minecraft or Mojang operates, and that also just leads to frustration. So what we’ve done is everybody have their own work from home setup. It’s slightly complicated when you’re doing a multiplayer game because then you need to have multiple devices at your disposal. Usually when you sit in an office you can share, we have a set of Xboxes or a set of Nintendo Switches and you can share them.

But now it’s cumbersome to some extent to work with multiplayer stuff, especially on the consoles. But I think we’re doing quite well. We have regular daily check-ins. Part of them are very production oriented — how are we doing on the tasks? And part of it is, “how are you doing as a person? How are we feeling? Or how’s your dog doing?” Just having that social chit-chat, it helps so much just to give energy and make things feel relatively normal.

Stevivor: Now it may be too early to tell, but are there lessons and takeaways that once this all settles down and we’re back to normal human interaction, will continue with future development? As an example, with the multiplayer and access to consoles even. Is there anything that has improved in the ways you work that you’ll keep doing once you can go back into the office and just work as normal?

Nisshagen: I think so. It’s really important. The game development for Dungeons is somewhat distributed and have always been. So we’re one team in Stockholm working with primarily the PC version and the core gameplay. Then we have a code development studio partner in the UK, in Newcastle or in Middlesbrough. They’re called Double Eleven and they’re console experts.

When we started, when we announced that we’re going to come to the PlayStation, we were not really allowed to have PlayStations. I mean, it’s Microsoft, right? We’re a Xbox studio. We’re going to do a game for the PlayStation, but how do we do that? That was an ongoing negotiation between Microsoft and Sony and you ended up with like, “Hey it’s a game. It’s a good game, fun game. Let’s just let people play it. And ignore the branding of the silicone for a little while.”

But that’s a process that takes a little while. So we found this great partner, Double Eleven, and they’re sitting in a different country and also have some remote workers associated with them. So we already needed to have some of the task tracking, and what do we do? How’s it going? Are we done? That sort of thing was already sort of happening. We also have our studio’s quality team that sits in the UK and we have some help from a greattest team in Poland.

So we were already quite spread out and needed to keep track of how are we doing with all the things, in some sort of digital formats. And the working from home scenario now really just emphasised how important it is to have some sort of digital tracking and overview of what’s going on and how it’s going. The importance of not trying to strangle hold control of everything. Trusting the team, trusting the people to know what to do. That’s probably the key learning — we’ll continue to do that.

I’m the Executive Producer, so my instinct is to go in and nitpick everything. That’s never going to work, right? So lean back, trust the people that are doing stuff and then check in afterwards. And 99% of the time it’s just, yeah, good job. Establishing that culture of distributing the decision making and trusting the team, I think that’s probably the key takeaway.

Stevivor: And as a first-party studio, you really get to lean upon Microsoft’s infrastructure.

Nisshagen: Yes. I mean, Mojang Studios is what we call a minimally integrated studio. That means that we run pretty much our own stuff as much as possible.

We have some requirements that we lean into, but we actually in the fortunate position of… let’s see, what’s the idiom here? Picking the raisins from the cake?

Yeah. We can actually select. So [Microsoft] Teams is great in many ways. We also use, or fortunate enough to be able to use other tools such as Slack, which is more convenient for us when you work with multiple different companies. We have the benefit of using Azure and Azure DevOps Structure, and that has been a real, real benefit to us. Microsoft or Xbox Game Studios have some central services that are totally amazing. Really, really best in class.

I worked in a couple of different companies and studios and from a publishing point of view as well. If you look at parts like user research or the release management structure, those are top notch. There are well experienced parts of the Microsoft organisation that you can lean a bit on, and they are just rock solid and deliver. That’s a great help as well.

Steve:  Cool. So obviously the delay was a little bit of breathing room in the face of what was happening with the pandemic, but are there things that you can point to and say “this is an improvement that only has come about because we had this extra time”?

Nisshagen: Yeah, I think that we didn’t use the time to add additional things. We used this time to make sure we were set up for more of a longterm sustain. So instead of pushing in like, yeah, we got a little more time to sprint, we set us up for more like a marathon. Right now, you can purchase a Heroes Queue, a hero edition and that contains two DLCs. So what we’ve done is that we’ve added and tweaked and improved those two a little bit, and they’ve come along further in the development. They’re not done yet obviously, but they’re done soon. And those will be on higher quality than without the delay.

And then also forward-looking, what we want to do further out. We did have the fortune of having a beta, so we can let people try the game and give feedback and they gave a lot of feedback. A lot of it’s great. And a lot of it is like, “You guys stop it.” But much of that feedback, say from the feature things, those take a lot of time to develop. So new features will not come from a beta to launch, but we will take learnings from that and what people want and add that further down the line. So some of that work has sort of started from a design perspective or early explorations perhaps.

Stevivor:  Now, Minecraft has been supported for years and it feels like this could be a title that has an equal amount of support behind it; quality of life improvements and continued updates. Is the same true for Dungeons?

Nisshagen: You nailed it there. I mean Minecraft as a brand has that history. And we’d certainly love for this title to have the same sort of history. We can’t make any form of promises yet of course. First we need to ship the base game before we go into details about post-launch. But we do have high plans and ambitious. We are Mojang; that’s what we do.

Stevivor:  We know that Dungeons has gone out to Minecraft’s hardcore fans for lack of a better description. Do you have actual examples of things on both ends of the feedback scale — something that you didn’t think was going to be important that people really latched onto? Or something that you thought that was going to be the best part of the game that people just loathed?

Nisshagen: We have a couple of things there which I think we can pick up on. We had the fortune of being able to take the game and put it on to some of the trade shows, like Gamescom and getting the game in the hands of players fairly early on. And one of the things that we wanted to do was we wanted to make the game more fun to play in multiplayer than single player. It’s going to be great fun in single player, but it should be extra fun with a friend or a couple.

And we had some design ideas and suggestions on also this is how we’re going to do it. And we implemented that and we put that on the show floor at Gamescom or whatever. And then we saw that — oh my God — they’re not playing it right. Of course they were playing it right; we had it wrong.

Okay. That’s fun in a multiplayer scenario, except that the friend didn’t really revive you. The friend just ran away and you’re stuck there and some sort of limbo downstate forever. It’s like no, this is horrible, we can’t have that. So then we tried to iterate and improve on how do we encourage friendly players to help each other out. And we did a lot of bonus systems. And also people just like to run away. So at the end, we actually did a pretty cool solution. We made it so that when someone is knocked down in a multiplayer game, night falls. And in Minecraft monsters are born in the dark.

When someone falls down, the entire screen grows dark and a bit ominous. The music changes and you really know that. [You’ve gone] into unbeatable horde mode. There will be endless stream of harder and harder and harder mobs. So you got to hurry, you’re on a tight timer to be able to save your friend before you’re overwhelmed. And that sort of visual change, the audio change suddenly people got it and instead of having fun and running off and exploring, directly started to run to help their friends. That is one of the things where we got this feedback from players was critical.

Steve: And what you’ve implemented is better than a timer saying heal your friend or insta death, like countdown from 10 which is also really good. So has the feedback from the trade shows and the fans kind of mirrored what you’re seeing from beta feedback?

Nisshagen: To a large extent. We’re quite proud to be honest that a lot of our instinctive gut feeling… We’re passionate about genre. This is a passion project, right? We love this. We love the genre. And when we feel something doesn’t feel quite right or you have this sort of spider-sense tingling, saying this is something slightly off here. And then you can put it in the hands of players and you get that thing confirmed.

There was something off. Other people felt the same way. And then you find a solution and then you try to update it. I mean surely we have tonnes of things where we want to continue to change and improve and tweak the game so it becomes ever better. But that’s also something we would like to do after launch because we want to get it out. We want to release the game because we been working on it for a couple of years now. And it’s better to work on it together with players in reality rather than theory crafting and having limited amount of people playing.

Stevivor:  Now after the preview event… I read everything, and I honestly couldn’t tell you who wrote it, but something that really stuck with me is, the author was saying that he played the game with his daughter in beta and he really enjoyed the Dungeons experience but his daughter was more of the traditional Minecraft fan, looking for ways to explore and craft and just kind of be Minecraft-y.

Is that okay? Does Dungeons have to be everything for everyone or is Dungeons for the father and vanilla Minecraft for the daughter?

Nisshagen: That’s a great point. I mean when we started to do the game, we wanted to do something you couldn’t do in Minecraft. Otherwise why would you not just do it in Minecraft? It needed to be something different. And then by being different, of course you will have, as this daughter then experienced that, “Hey, it’s not normal Minecraft, it’s something else.” I mean we’re standing on the shoulders of giants, obviously.

So there will always be this baggage in a positive way that people or players know what a Creeper does and looks like. They know that skeleton with a bow looks and behaves like this. And that’s a great benefit that we can lean into when we do new games like Dungeons. But yeah, I’m sure that when it does work slightly different, like you can’t build in Dungeons. I’m sure there will be an initial frustration, or not frustration but confusion that hey, it’s Minecraft but it’s different.

But as people learn that it is a different game in the same brand, we hope that will go away and people will find a good place for both games. I think I know the article or one of the articles you referred to there. I know that one of the things that we’re quite proud about is that we actually see a lot of positive feedback from say parents being able to play with their children, or older and younger siblings, et cetera. And they’re both having a fun time in Dungeons.

Personally, if I play Minecraft with my kids, I’m the funnest sidekick. I dig you a hole and I fill it with water and I add squids because that’s what I do. I’m not useful, I’m just funny guy. But in Dungeons I can actually play and enjoy the core gameplay. And the kids, when I play with them, they also enjoy the core gameplay. So I think that’s something quite positive. That’s sort of my personal little dream target, to have that something you can play with your kids and enjoy. And I think we’re there. We’ve seen some of that feedback.

Stevivor:  That’s an amazing segue. I was playing Moving Out recently, it’s on Xbox Game Pass and just came out. It’s made by an Australian studio and like Overcooked, but you move house, basically. The crux of it is that it’s a multiplayer game where you grab furniture and try to get into a truck. It has this amazing little Assisted Mode where you can turn on things that you think will help you, really designed for parents to play with kids.

So if your kids just want to have a controller and run around and pretend they’re helping, they can. The Assisted Mode will make it so the parent can lift a two-person couch on their own and get it into the truck and that sort of thing. So with that in mind, I was speaking Nathan [Rose at PAX AUS 2019] and he said it was difficulties set by the host and that’s about it.

Are there opportunities for Dungeons to kind of go in that Assisted Mode kind of mentality to help parents and kids play together without making the child frustrated or the parent too overburdened?

Nisshagen: I would argue that the way we have designed it — we don’t use the term accessible here — but we use the term approachable. You can just pick up a controller and just button mash, and you’ll do pretty okay.

What I was mentioning before, when you see a Creeper, you know that when it hisses and when it starts to flash, it’ll explode. And that’s so ingrained in everybody [familiar with Minecraft] so they immediately run away when that happens. So by using the sort of Minecraft Bestiary or the things that are so familiar to so many people, we find that people have an instinctive, or young kids have an instinctive understanding of what’s going on. Compared to say other games in the genre where you have like, “Oh here’s a big guy running towards me. I don’t know if it’s a area of effect attack or if he will explode or what he or she will do.”

By using the sort of Minecraft Bestiary, people have an instinctive understanding. And this goes down to very young kids, they just get it. So I think that we will probably not implement specific helping features or an Assisted Mode. Instead, we will probably lean into trying to explain a bit more: this is how things work in Minecraft.

We have difficulty slider settings on the friendly side, so we don’t make it too hard by default. We make it perhaps normal and a slight tweak on easy, on default. And then you feel really overpowered so then you crank up the difficulty, and then you have your challenge as you see fit, rather than the game having a direct challenging mode from the start.

Stevivor:  So we were talking before the interview started about Gears Tactics. Something that kind of overloads my brain with that release is that there’s so much customisation and you get seven loot boxes or sometuhing after finishing a mission, and this one improves your accuracy and this one improves this and debuffs this.

I feel like that has the potential to be the same problem inside Dungeons because you’re getting things like electric field buffs and that kind of thing. Are there options like an auto optimise to try to kind of help people through the process? Or tutorials that try to explain how all these buffs and nerfs work?

Nisshagen: There is some tutorial steps but not very deep. Here’s how we thought about it. Minecraft, the vanilla game, is a giant sandbox where you can do whatever you want. And how do you keep that sort of essence and put it in a top down-ish dungeon crawler style. You can’t hose down a sandbox. We try to approach it with a way that you are what you wear. That is like your character is your sandbox.

And we encourage exploration. Not as much on the geometry of the world, traversing terrain, but more like what happens if I just equip this thing? And what happens if I just do this and that? We try to make it so that it should be pretty clear to the player what the effect is. As you say, when you do a combat role, you do an electric area of effect attack at the end of it.

We tried to make it a visual [effect] and we tried to make it so clear, and if possible fun. Also, we don’t constrain anything, we have no clauses. Everything you loot you can just pick up and equip at any point in time. So we lean into that sort of experimentation and we see that as a bonus. I know I min-max; I’m going to stack them [what I can] to have a super-fast attack speed.

Of course it’s incredibly overpowered. But then comes the difficulty slider and if I made myself too powerful I can just up the difficulty to give myself the challenge I want. We wanted to be a bit more direct.

Stevivor: So we found out today that there are 10 million people subscribed to Xbox Game Pass, which is a lot of people. And that’s, for Dungeons, not even taking into account the people playing on the other platforms of the games available on.

With Game Pass, so many people will have immediate access to your game, and for no additional cost. Are you doing anything to try to tap into those players who might not gravitate towards the style or the genre because they can simply play it if they feel like it?

Nisshagen: I mean, we’re so happy if people are just playing the game that we’ve worked on. It’s a passion project. We’ve been asked the question if we’re aiming to do some sort of introduction to the dungeon crawler genre or [that specifically] for a younger target audience. That would be a bloody honour if that happened. It’s not something we set up to do, but it’s certainly something if that would happen we would be very proud.

The game has a couple of properties, if I go into Executive Producer mode here for a minute. The game has a couple of properties which I think will make it a great game for PC and Xbox Game Pass. It is highly approachable. You literally can pick up and play and if you like it you can go very deeply into the systems underneath and try to do some number crunching or hunt for specific items that does extra crazy things.

But the kicker for me is probably the couch co-op or the local co-op. You can just pick up with a couple of controllers and just go. There’s no severe grind to play together. Everybody gets their own loot. We have systems that are specifically designed to make it a more chaotic and fun experience if you play together.

We have a couple of features like if you have played and you’ve levelled up your character a bit and you want to have someone else hop in, they can just clone your character. We don’t need you to grind all the way up to the same progression level. You have one high level and one low level character. If you start on the high level, loot will drop on the high level.

And as we don’t really have any clauses, anything you find you can just equip. So you can sort of power up to the same sort of equipment level very quickly. We see Game Pass as a way to get more people to play games in general and we think that Dungeons will hopefully do quite well there. It’s a small, fun title, not big download. And we think it’s approachable and an immediate fun.

Minecraft Dungeons heads to Windows PC and Xbox One as part of Xbox Game Pass, alongside PS4 and Switch, from 26 May 2020.

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About the author

Steve Wright

Steve's the owner of this very site and an active games journalist for the past ten years. He's a Canadian-Australian gay gaming geek, ice hockey player and fan. Husband to Matt and cat dad to Wally and Quinn.