When it comes to all-conquering multiplatform games these days, there are a few titles which tend to dwarf the rest through mainstream cultural saturation. If you're not in their target demographic, it might be possible to miss these games, but you can't escape their influence. Minecraft is one of those titles that defined a generation; an evergreen crafting and explorative sandbox that can't be contained by console exclusivity.
Given its success, it's surprising how few spin-offs we've seen since Microsoft acquired the game and developer Mojang in 2014. Minecraft Dungeons is a dungeon-crawling multiplayer take on the IP which launched back in June. Developed by UK-based Double Eleven in partnership with Mojang Studios, we recently caught up producer Steven Taarland via email to ask about the challenges of bringing the game to Switch and how it feels to be working on one of the biggest IPs in the world and building new parts of the Minecraft universe.
Firstly, can you tell us a little about Double Eleven and the history of the studio? How big is the team?
Steven Taarland: We are a specialist publisher and developer based in the North of England and have been around for about 10 years now, with just over 100 of us making games we enjoy! Our approach has always been to look for and take on games we believe we could do a great job of making. Our founders are ex-Rockstar developers and the studio ethos has always been about making games and having a great quality of life.
Over the years we’ve worked with some great creative teams and putting both together we’ve become to be known as a trusted pair of hands with other studio’s IP, treating it like it was our own. That’s the not-very-visible-but-common link between games like Prison Architect on Switch and now Minecraft Dungeons; we get to pour our heart and souls into crafting these experiences for players while also getting to work with incredibly creative teams like Mojang Studios.
Considering the challenges of developing for Nintendo’s console versus more powerful platforms, what was the goal for the team when bringing Minecraft Dungeons to Switch specifically?
The goal for us was to ensure that players had as amazing of an experience as they would on PC or any other console. Part of this was adapting the mouse and keyboard controls to work on Switch in all of it’s different modes (and on a single joy con for local multiplayer!). The other part was trying to balance performance and visuals so that neither would take away from the players' experience.
Working on all the console versions at once must be a challenge, although presumably, that level of control across platforms comes with advantages. Could you tell us a little about that?
Working across all platforms meant that any gains in optimisation we made on one (especially on Switch) ultimately helped improve visuals and performance across all platforms. There is a lot going on in Dungeons when playing, especially with lots of VFX, Mobs, and all four players, it can be a lot! So the challenge was to ensure that all players, no matter which platform they choose or how many players they had in their game, that they would have parity with their friends.
Double Eleven has worked with some big-name franchises in the past, but Minecraft is up there with the biggest properties in gaming (not to mention it being a Microsoft first-party game releasing on non-Microsoft platforms). Did that have any effect on the team’s approach to the project? In what ways did this differ to others you’ve worked on?
We have been lucky enough to work with Microsoft previously on Crackdown 3, so we already had a solid relationship with them. They knew how we work, that we are up front and honest in how we are doing with regards to the project, and ultimately were able to deliver on that project. We have always been a team that works closely with our partners in creating great games, so being able to collaborate closely with both the teams at Microsoft and Mojang Studios really set us up for success on this project.
We honestly are talking with Mojang every day. As teams we both have a lot invested in this game, and care deeply about what we want to bring to players
Tell us about how the collaboration with Mojang Studios worked. How regularly did you have contact and what aspects were each of you responsible for?
We honestly are talking with Mojang every day. As teams we both have a lot invested in this game, and care deeply about what we want to bring to players, so there are constant discussions about what comes next. The leads on my team, Phil Sedgeman, Nick Patrick, Matt Dunthorne, and Daniel Schwendener actively collaborate with their counterparts at Mojang Studios and Microsoft to ensure everyone is aligned with the vision of the game.
There is a lot of collaboration between both teams, both in regards to the “Core” game and the content. During development we brought our expertise and experience to bring the game from PC to consoles, but we also worked on local multiplayer, online multiplayer, accessibility features, keyboard and controller rebinding to name just a few things. Considering how important accessibility is in video games I am very proud of the work we have done and continue to do to make this game as accessible to as many players as possible.
The [Jungle Awakens] DLC pack was built entirely in house by Double Eleven from the ground up
On the content side, we actually recently released the first DLC for Minecraft Dungeons, Jungle Awakens. The DLC pack was built entirely in house by Double Eleven from the ground up, including levels, mobs, weapons, everything! It has been such an incredible experience to work alongside Mojang Studios in developing this stuff, especially when we are able to do things such as creating variants of already iconic mobs like our Mossy Skeleton and Jungle Zombie, as well as creating our very own mobs to fit into the Minecraft Universe and the Minecraft Dungeon lore, such as the Whisperer, Leapleaf, and of course the Jungle Abomination. I still can’t believe we had the opportunity to do that!
With relation to the Switch hardware specifically, what was the biggest challenge you faced getting Minecraft Dungeons on the console?
Performance is often the main issue running games on Switch. Unfortunately, compared to PC, PS4, and Xbox, the Switch just doesn’t have the same hardware capabilities. We spent a lot of time optimising content, improving loading times, and ensuring hosting a 4 player on game was as stable as possible.
There are of course some compromises to graphical fidelity that need to be made, but ultimately myself, the team at Double Eleven and the team at Mojang Studios are proud of what we brought to Nintendo Switch players.
Having worked on Switch multiple times now, do you think there’s further potential for the hardware to handle ports of brand-new games over the coming years or are we reaching a technical limit with the current console?
I think this very much comes down to planning at the start of a project. If teams take Switch into account at the start then we will definitely continue to see high quality versions on the console. At the same time, when given the opportunity, I’ve seen teams do some incredible ports on Switch, so I think we will continue to see games that really push the limits of the console, especially as we go into next gen.
We understand that Double Eleven shifted to full work-at-home mode during development – we imagine that involves more than simply throwing an office laptop in your bag and working in your pyjamas, especially when coordinating with other companies and dealing with confidential assets. Tell us a little about the challenges of developing from home and its effect on the project and the team.
The biggest challenge was the change in communication. As a producer, I couldn’t just wander over to where my leads are sitting and check in on the progress of work, or gather folks around quickly for a quick discussion on an issue.
we have regular syncs throughout the week to check on the team and their wellbeing, as well as all of our usual meetings, just online now
With this in mind we wanted to ensure everyone was able to communicate, and also given the opportunity to discuss their work. We always have Microsoft Teams open for adhoc conversations, we have regular syncs throughout the week to check on the team and their wellbeing, as well as all of our usual meetings, just online now. We have a fortnightly call with Mojang Studios where we all discuss work that is currently ongoing, which makes sure everyone still feels involved and heard.
Now more than ever, games are never truly finished, with updates, patches, continual revisions and DLC all a routine part of development. When taking on an external project like this, does Double Eleven sign up for multiple years of support?
There’s always a level of support we provide to titles once it hits its live phase, and that’s something that gets reviewed as we progress through the game’s development. How long we provide support, like with any studio, is in terms of how long it makes reasonable sense based on how the community is responding to the game.
For Dungeons, we are continuing to work alongside Mojang Studios to bring new features and content to the game, as well as addressing issues flagged by the community.
Looking to the future, then, what are Double Eleven’s plans regarding Minecraft Dungeons and other projects? Anything else in the works for Switch?
We have a lot of exciting things coming up for Minecraft Dungeons, unfortunately I can’t go into much detail. Jungle Awakens was our first DLC for Minecraft Dungeons, and both ourselves and Mojang Studios have some very exciting things in the pipeline that we are working on together.
Our thanks to Steven - you can find him on Twitter. Minecraft Dungeons is out now on Switch; check out our review if you haven't played it yet, and let us know how you've been getting on with the game below.