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Minecraft Earth is Microsoft’s wild shot at the next Pokemon Go-style AR blockbuster

Hands on with this hugely ambitious mobile title, coming this summer

Minecraft Earth
Minecraft Earth

Microsoft today unveiled its previously teased follow-up to Minecraft, a sequel of sorts. It’s a free-to-play Augmented Reality game called Minecraft Earth, and it’s designed for modern Android and iOS phones. A closed beta is planned for this summer, likely to be limited geographically, with a gradual roll-out through the whole world. The game allows players to collect Minecraft blocks as they walk around their neighborhoods, to engage in augmented reality mini-games in public spaces, and to create their own virtual buildings, which can be shared and explored.

So, those are the main details. But there’s a lot to dig into, to find out, what is Minecraft Earth?

I’ve spent a little time playing the game, and here’s the best way I can describe it: It’s a lot like Pokémon Go, except deeper, richer, more ambitious and more technically advanced. It turns my phone into a portal through which, as one Microsoft exec put it, “Minecraft is everywhere.” It takes the fundamental building blocks of Minecraft and transports them to the real world. Below is a trailer released today.

Minecraft Earth works on Android and iOS phones that have six degrees of tracking and make use of Apple and Google’s ARKit and ARCore software.

Let’s take the game in its five constituent parts, with the strong caveat that Minecraft Earth is still in development. At a recent media event, I got to try all five of these activities, and yes, they worked and I had fun. But they are still in an unfinished state, and I experienced them in the ideal setting of a PR presentation. What I’m describing here is, essentially, the pitch.

TAPPABLES: I grab my phone and I go outdoors. I walk down the street, using my phone as I might use a map app. The Minecraft Earth overmap shows me multiple nearby locations, indicated by icons.

These icons are “Tappables”. They are basically resources that I click on, from a distance of 20 feet or so. The resources are building materials that will be familiar to any Minecraft player. Once I’ve clicked on them, they’re mine. And because I’ve played Minecraft before, I know roughly what I need to craft certain tools and weapons. A simple crafting mechanism allows me to build up my tool kit.

ADVENTURES: I continue on my journey, and wander into a local park or open area. It’s the sort of place I might expect to find a children’s play area. Minecraft Earth shows me that there’s a virtual play area nearby, called an “Adventure.” These are small, interactive slices of the Minecraft world. I head over to where the icon is displayed. It’s clearly a much bigger deal than the previously mentioned tappables.

Other people are already here. They are swinging their arms about in a way that’s, frankly, a bit odd. I hold up my phone and I see a Minecraft-style castle, transposed onto the park grounds, nestled between two real life trees.

Now I see there are enemies guarding the castle gates. I select a weapon from my on-screen prompts and I start swinging at the enemies. I am in the game, alongside other people next to me. We slay the enemies and we’re rewarded with more building materials.

I exchange pleasantries with my new friends. They tell me that this is a regular spot for Minecraft Earth play locations. Yesterday it was a mine, the day before it was a waterfall, tomorrow it might be a zoo.

In essence, my local park is now a virtual playground that is constantly changing. I assume that all the kids in the neighborhood know where this is, just as they would any other piece of communal play equipment. I head home, to play the third part of the game.

Minecraft Earth
A still from a Minecraft Earth trailer

BUILD PLATES: In my kitchen, I use my phone to set a hologram-like flat play area on my table. I’m presented with building tools that allow me to create anything I like, assuming I have collected enough materials.

I decide that I’m going to build a recreation of the Palace of Versailles. (Let’s just pretend, for the sake of this exercise, that I’ve collected a lot of materials, and that I’m fantastically creative.) My Versailles takes me a long time, but it’s a ton of fun. Other family members join in, using their own phones to help me build and craft my masterpiece. We share resources among ourselves, trading particular building blocks. Making things is fun. Finally, my Versailles is complete.

EXPLORATION: My family and I head out into the garden. I select my Versailles and I lay it down on the lawn. Now, my family and I are inside my creation. We can walk its vaulted halls and admire its artworks. I have laid out the hall of mirrors so that its windows face the rose bed at the bottom of my garden. We admire our blooms through the virtual windows.

But wait! Unknown to my family, I populated Versailles with Minecraft enemies. They attack us, just as we enter the Royal Chapel. It’s a fight to the death, but we are victorious. We agree that we should take this out and let other people play.

SHARING: And so I take my creation out into the world and I lay it down in an appropriate location. People come by. Some of them are happy to enjoy my work. Others love fighting the zombies. Some try to knock my building down, and that’s fine, because whatever they do, my Versailles is saved and I can take it out whenever I like. The players are unable to attack one another. This is just about us against the mobs.

I can also share my build via a share link. It’s just a copy of my build, so people can play with it however they like, though they cannot strip it for resources.

Minecraft Earth
Minecraft Earth

Technology Confluence

Minecraft Earth’s announcement coincides with the core game’s 10th anniversary. Internally, the project is known as “Genoa,” after the birthplace of explorer Marco Polo. Microsoft bought Minecraft’s maker Mojang back in 2014, and has spent the intervening years growing the game’s player base, now up to 91 million. Half of U.S kids play Minecraft, according to Microsoft.

Minecraft’s central appeal is that it’s an open playpen, in which players can explore, build, share, fight and create their own stories. This is the starting point for Minecraft Earth. (Note that the live event, also known as “Minecraft Earth,” will be rebranded.)

Four years ago, Microsoft demonstrated a holographic version of the game using its fledgling HoloLens hardware. It’s turned out to be a dead end, but Minecraft Earth is its more robust and commercially viable cousin.

The game uses various newly available technologies to create virtual playgrounds all over the world. Part of this is the ubiquity of cell phones, and their rapid technological advancements.

New iOS and Android phones are ready for augmented reality, meaning they can place virtual images in the real world. (If you’re of a certain age, think of Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh.)

Another part is Wi-Fi GPS and detailed virtual maps of the entire world, that allow for more precise location tracking. Minecraft Earth uses Microsoft’s Azure technology to recognize three-dimensional spaces in the real world.

Minecraft Earth
A still from a Minecraft Earth trailer

Each time a person plays an Adventure, their phone camera is mapping the location in ever more detail, creating a comparative ping-map of fixed items like trees and buildings. This ensures that the Adventure is in exactly the same place, for everyone. It also allows the game to work just as well in autumn, spring, summer and winter, when other conditions such as grass, leaves or snow might confuse its algorithms.

I find it a little creepy, this idea that Azure is “seeing” and recording and processing the things that I’m seeing through my phone. But I’m told that the images Azure understands are abstract collections of dots, rather than photographs. It’s fair to suggest that part of Minecraft Earth’s value to Microsoft is that it makes its Azure platform, which the company licenses out, more powerful. Only yesterday, Microsoft announced a partnership with its rival Sony in which the latter will use Azure for its PlayStation Now streaming service.

So, making use of Azure, Microsoft maps the world and uses various algorithms to figure out likely locations to place Adventures, dismissing stuff like the ocean, crosswalks and busy city centers, while looking for public parks and safe, open areas. The general aim, according to one developer, is to make sure that “there are at least a couple of locations in every neighborhood.”

Each location is then checked by a real person, to ensure that it isn’t placed in, say, the middle of a construction area.

A spokesperson told me that the game will come with parental and privacy controls, like time locks, and that locations will be based on common sense and safety concerns. Generally, Adventures will be placed where people already congregate for pleasure. “We start with the assumption that the whole world is dangerous, and then we start looking for the places that are safe,” said the spokesperson.

Tools will be available that allow people to recommend a location, or complain about an Adventure siting. So, if a local business owner hates the idea of small crowds appearing outside their shop window, they can make a complaint and, I’m told, it will be moved.

Cloud computing, visual data processing, detailed GPS mapping and mass usage of AR-enabled phones are Minecraft Earth’s technological meeting points. But it’s still an enormous challenge at many levels, including safety, monetization, messaging and the in-game economy. The big question is, does it work?

Minecraft Earth
Minecraft Earth

Does it work?

At the media event, PR people and Minecraft developers take me for a walk along a path, near Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington. It’s a sunny day. I walk through a pleasant shopping area, tapping on tappables and eagerly collecting stuff. It’s fun to pick things up. I’m rewarded each time by a little animation and the knowledge that I’m earning stuff that I can use to craft weapons and tools.

For now, the icons are generic, but when the game launches, each icon will represent a specific resource, such as wood or iron.

The amount of resources in the world at any given time is a mathematical problem that takes into account what people are actually using. There is no infinity of resources. Everything that I need or want, I have to earn. Fortunately, I find lots of resources in my local area; at least two or three on every block. I’m also able to collect them from reasonable distances, so I don’t have to cross any roads to specifically make a collection.

Microsoft won’t give out any details of how the game will be monetized, so I’m not clear if I can just buy resource packs. The official line is that this stuff is still being worked out. “Revenue is a lagging indicator of success,” says a spokesperson. “We’re doing fine financially so we don’t have to focus too much on revenue.”

Minecraft Earth
A still from a Minecraft Earth trailer

We walk into a natural area of trees and bushes, with a bike path. At times, the group has to make way for a cyclist, because we’re focused on our phones more than our surroundings. This is a generic hazard of cell phone usage.

We come to an Adventure. It’s a big hole in the ground, a mine, inhabited by mobs (enemies). I select a sword from my inventory on a simple hot bar at the bottom of my screen. I can equip one of eight tools and weapons at any time, swapping them in and out as required.

I bash the bad guys and collect rewards. It’s all a bit chaotic, what with a bunch of us all hitting the same zombies. I move around the back of the Adventure so I can find a bit more room. The game takes my movement in, and everything works fine.

I get a bit bored of bashing monsters so I start trying other stuff. I throw some hay bales into the hole and set them ablaze, just for the hell of it. The one thing I cannot do is climb down into the hole, because there is no hole. It’s just an illusion.

I finish the Adventure and move on. I’m told that the Adventure is now dormant, but that it will respawn as something else in the next hour. I could come back and play some more, if I wanted to. There’s no way of knowing what the next Adventure will be. I might be picking flowers or solving a physics puzzle or breeding animals. There’s a set number of Adventures that spool and populate around the world, popping up and disappearing like desert oases.

After my Adventure I see that I have earned some of the in-game currency of Rubies, with which I can buy in-game items. I have also progressed and leveled up. This is useful, because it unlocks higher level resources, building blocks and craftables. All of these are the sort of items that are familiar to Minecraft players.

Minecraft Earth
A build plate, shown in a Minecraft Earth trailer

Progression also allows me to increase the number of Build Plates at my disposal. The more Build Plates I own, the more constructions I can make, save and share. It seems likely that Minecraft Earth will charge players for more and bigger Build Plates, if they don’t want to go through the grind of earning them.

Back in Microsoft’s offices I play a basic version of the Build Plates, using my phone to navigate the build of a water park. I move building blocks around, alongside other players who are doing the same thing. It looks pretty much the same as Minecraft at an isometric view. Some of the blocks looks slicker, with dynamic shading and lighting that seems appropriate for AR.

We’re all just goofing around, testing the limitations of the thing, but it works just fine. I use stone blocks to divert a waterfall and someone else creates a basin where the water collects, and spills over.

Microsoft says it’s conducted tests using up to 20 people on a build “but it gets a bit crowded,” according to a developer. The biggest build plate so far attempted is 64 meters square.

So, yes, it works. It’s a bit chaotic at time, and I feel like the Adventure is too simplistic. But it’s mass-market AR Minecraft, for sure. Having tried the game, I’m excited to see what people will make. I think it’s going to be cool for artists to create builds and for them to be placed in high-profile locations, to become almost like tourist destinations. Microsoft also has a history of allowing users to create content that they can sell, a Marketplace for mini-games and structures that are beyond the norm. A spokesperson said this was something that might be launched later.

Based on the vision outlined by Microsoft, and the company’s clear confidence in its technology, I’m excited by this game and I’m looking forward to playing it with family. It feels like a step above anything I’ve yet seen in AR. Although I’ve played it at a very basic level, the proof will come this summer when the game is released as a limited closed beta. Maybe tens of thousands of people will be included, and I expect demand for entry will be high.

Microsoft has opened a sign-up page for Minecraft Earth’s summer closed beta here, which is also offering a free skin. Fair warning: the sign-up asks for a lot of information. We’ll be covering Minecraft Earth in more detail, as new information emerges.