When it decided to turn Minecraft into a strategy game, Mojang had a couple specific goals, as creative director Magnus Nedfors explained during an interview in the Xbox booth at Gamescom this week. Minecraft Legends had to retain a somewhat indescribable "Minecraft feel," and also work well with a controller for console players. Mojang and development partner Blackbird Interactive managed both, Nedfors explained, by turning it into an action strategy game—a genre combo that really doesn't have a ton of successful examples to pull from.
"Another aspect of Minecraft is that we always have a hero character," Nedfors said. Mojang and Blackbird wound up with a game that was one part hero-centric and also about controlling armies. It became an action strategy game where you traverse the battlefield on horseback, commanding armies from on the ground, not a typical RTS that's played from far above the battlefields. "That's not common in strategy games," he points out.
"We started to realize that 'hey, this is quite new' and as a game maker when you find something [and] you feel there aren't ten games like that out there, you feel like you're onto something special."
It's true that there aren't many examples of character action games that also involve unit command strategy. Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord is one of the most similar successful comparisons. I'm also reminded of Kingdom Under Fire 2, which was a bit of a mess when I played it at its eventual western launch in 2019, but the combination of Dynasty Warriors style action and an RTS was actually great.
I doubt that's the specific example that Nedfors had in mind, but he did later mention that "I think you should draw inspiration from things that you don't think are that good either," explaining that knowing when a game isn't working for you helps to identify how to do it better. "It's kind of strange to be inspired by bad things but that's actually true for myself."
Being informed by unsuccessful competitors is, I think, more common in game development than most big studio leads like to say out loud. Nedfors carried on with his refreshingly frank take on the iterative development process of turning Minecraft into a strategy romp.
"The pace of play in a strategy game is often higher than an action game because you're so quick scrolling around, maneuvering around with your cursor and so on. You do very many actions in a very, very short amount of time in a strategy game normally. Having a hero at the center that can't be there and there and there, surprisingly enough, brings down the tempo of a strategy game, which is very well suited to making it play well on consoles with a controller.
"It was kind of a surprise. I wish I could be smart and say 'yeah we thought about that from the beginning' but sometimes you need to be honest and say 'that's something we discovered as we prototyped and developed the game.'"
During the same interview, Nedfors and executive producer Dennis Ries also talked about some of the different unit types and new mobs being added in Legends. It wound up being a more illuminating interview than I'd expected from their Gamescom showfloor livestream. I was hoping to hear a bit about how building fortifications works—having only seen bits of players building structures in the gameplay videos so far—but Nedfors' dive into experimenting in the strategy space suggests that Minecraft Legends may end up as more than just another Minecraft spinoff.