How a small team at Mojang Studios made Minecraft Dungeons in Unreal Engine

Daniel Kayser
It’s hard to consider Minecraft anything but a cultural phenomenon. The core game, with over 126 million monthly active users engaged across all platforms and over 200 million copies sold worldwide, has laid claim to the title of best-selling video game in history. Despite this astounding success, Sweden-based developer Mojang Studios continues to push the boundaries of what’s possible within the franchise while testing out new territories for fans to flourish within.

One such area is Minecraft Dungeons—an all-new action-adventure game developed in Unreal Engine, inspired by classic dungeon crawlers, and set in the Minecraft universe. As the name implies, players can brave dungeons alone, or connect with friends as up to four players can battle together through action-packed, treasure-stuffed, wildly varied levels.

We had the chance to visit with Mojang Studios at their Stockholm offices during the development of Minecraft Dungeons to learn more about the project and how it actually came about.
“When we started Minecraft Dungeons, we had a mission to make something that’s really visually pleasing—lots of particle effects, lots of animations,” said Game Director, Måns Olson. “But we also had a different set of requirements in terms of gameplay, how everything works, compared to the vanilla Minecraft game.” 

“We wanted to explore how Minecraft can expand beyond the base game,” said Executive Producer David Nisshagen. “We really wanted to double down on the action and the adventure and the excitement of Minecraft. Combining those, out of that came naturally the dungeon crawler genre. It’s inspired by classic dungeon crawlers and it takes place in the existing Minecraft universe. It’s a very different experience from the existing Minecraft core game. This all doubles down on adventure, exploration, and finding and collecting cool loot.” 
Conceptually, the team had a clear direction for the project, but deciding which tools to use took some iteration. “Initially, we started using our existing technology to experiment with this game,” said Nisshagen. “We needed high quality animations, particle effects, you know, all these things that make it an action-adventure dungeon quality game. And we quickly found that using Unreal was the right choice for us.”

After development began though, the team realized that its creative vision for the project might ultimately be different than initially intended. “Minecraft Dungeons started out as a single-player experience, but quickly we kind of realized that this is a lot of fun, it would be great if you do this with your friends,” said Technical Lead Kristoffer Jelbring. “And then, of course, multiplayer comes into the picture.”

“It’s important that we have a strong single-player campaign, but it should be more fun to play with your friends,” said Nisshagen. “We love the concept of playing with your friends if they’re in different places in the world, but there’s something very wonderful as well about just sitting down next to your friend on the couch and playing together on the same screen.” 
“Multiplayer can be a very complicated thing to solve, Unreal does that for us, which enables our very small team to focus on a lot of other things as well,” added Jelbring.

Despite the franchise itself being huge, one interesting fact about Minecraft Dungeons is that the development team is rather small, which is why Unreal Engine’s tools have helped throughout development. 

“We’re about twenty people working on Minecraft Dungeons and I think using Unreal has really helped us make sure that we can fit the scope of this project within the time frame despite having such a small team,” said Olson. “I think another benefit of Unreal is that you have access to the source-code—especially as we go to multiple platforms.” 

Of course, shipping a high-profile game across multiple platforms can have its pitfalls throughout development, which is why Unreal Engine source code access has been such an important aspect of the small team’s ability to deliver.
“We try to keep as few changes as possible to the source, but you need to either own your own technology or have the ability to change everything in it, otherwise you might end up being locked inside a corner and find no way out,” said Nisshagen. 

“So far it’s been a wonderful ride taking the game from something quite small to now something quite bigger,” concluded Nisshagen. “Having technology that enables the smaller team to do big things is really, really helpful. And the most important thing is to be able to have quick iteration time; it makes it much easier to find the fun. That’s how you capture great passion, that’s how you also get great quality.”

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