Minecraft Earth hands-on preview: The subsequent massive AR craze Is coming

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Minecraft is about to take over the Earth.

First released ten years ago today (although it remained in beta until late 2011), the game rose to success through word of mouth. Minecraft proved that early access is a completely viable way to develop a game while simultaneously popularizing a new genre of creative, systems-based sandbox titles that let players make their own fun. The game remains a mainstay among young gamers to this day. Microsoft says about half of all children in the U.S. between ages 9 and 11 play Minecraft.

And that’s just the beginning. The Minecraft team has a plan to blur the lines between everyday reality and the game’s blocky world. It’s called Minecraft Earth, and it’s the first true augmented reality game you’ll care about.

Your heart may sink the first time you see Minecraft Earth’s world map. Its expanse of emerald green grass broken up by the grid of real-world streets immediately brings Pokémon Go to mind. The blocky style of Minecraft is applied, of course, but doesn’t do enough to make the game stand out at a glance. That familiarity is sure to make some players worry Microsoft is looking to cash in on interest for the mobile AR genre.

The map’s numerous icons, most of which are ‘tappables’ – chests or resource nodes that you can tap for a reward once you’re within 70 meters – only deepen comparisons. They work much like the PokeStops and Gyms scattered throughout Go. You approach, you tap, and you get a reward. I imagine at least half your time playing Minecraft Earth will involve wandering around your neighborhood and tapping nearby resources or chests for loot. Eventually, though, you’ll run across an Adventure. That’s when your expectations will be shattered.

Adventures are a holographic mini-game projected onto the real world, using your phone as a window. Approach an Adventure and you’ll see an impressive, but innocuous, hologram appear on your phone as you view the world through your phone’s camera. It might be a patch of pixel-art grass in a field, a blocky tree alongside a sidewalk, or a suspicious arrangement of stone in a park.

Unlike the Pokémon in Go, these holograms are anchored to the real world and are designed to map directly to it. If you turn around, the Adventure doesn’t come with you. Turn off AR and – well, you can’t. Jesse Merriam, Minecraft Earth’s Executive Producer told me, “If you want to play Minecraft Earth without augmented reality, you’d have to turn [the game]off.”

AR does have limitations. You can’t pick up a real shovel and start tunneling through your local park to find discover a new dungeon.

It’s a bit mind-blowing to come across a classic Minecraft tree and, through your phone, see it blend perfectly into the environment. This is what AR games like Pokémon Go promised but, due to shaky AR quality with the option to turn it off entirely, never really delivered. Minecraft Earth maps the game directly to the real world, in real time, and without forcing you to play within a limited area (like your living room). This is Microsoft flexing its technical know-how on the competition.

Your immersion will deepen once you have the chance to play what you see. One demo plopped me and several other journalists into a dungeon full of skeletons (with little warning, I should add). Instinctively, I ducked to dodge arrows, then returned fire by tapping on my own bow. Victorious, my mind moved to looting, which meant I had to walk across the room and pick up what the skeletons had dropped.

Every adventure has some obstacle, though I was told not all will be based on combat. Another demo focused on spawning fireworks by stepping on a plate, and yet another teased me with a plethora of speeding mine carts that hinted at a puzzle. Difficulty will vary, with the most difficult adventures holding the best rewards.

AR does have limitations. Minecraft players love to explore caves, but that experience will be severely curtailed in Minecraft Earth. You can’t pick up a real shovel and start tunneling through your local park to find discover a new dungeon.

“That is a limitation,” Torfi Olafsson, Design Director on Minecraft Earth, explained. “If you would go down here, you wouldn’t be in the same coordinate space as [another]person. That was basically a design choice we made. Everybody’s in the same world. Everybody’s in the same coordinate space.”

So, there’s a limit to mining in Minecraft Earth. What’s not limited is the number of people you can play with. Olafsson said there’s “no technical limit” on the number of players who can join one adventure. Other players nearby will appear as their Minecraft character when you view them through your phone, complete with their Gamer Tag (though that can be turned off if you want).

Once you finish exploring, and sit down to relax, it’s time to build your castle.

Everyone who participates earns the same reward, and there’s no PvP, so the focus is very much on cooperation. The developers toyed with the idea of a more competitive focus, but that ruined the game’s spirit of cooperation. “We jokingly call it communism,” Olafsson said with a grin on his face, “but we just playtested it, and what we found is when we didn’t have that system, nobody wanted to share. We would have people scattered all over Redmond playing alone.”

That’s not to say Minecraft Earth’s Adventures are built to work with hundreds or even tens of players. Most are built with a small number of people in mind. The designers are counting on physical, instead of technical, barriers to keep crowds in check. Everyone in an Adventure with you will be standing next to you, so if you end up feeling overwhelmed, that’s fine. Just don’t follow the crowd.

Tappables and Adventures will keep you glued to Minecraft Earth as you walk through your neighborhood, but the game doesn’t end the moment you get home. Once you finish exploring, and sit down to relax, it’s time for every Minecraft’s player’s favorite moment. It’s time to build your castle.

You start by throwing down a Build Plate. It begins life as an inventory item but, once activated, becomes a personal plot of land anchored to a flat surface in your home (like a coffee table). Unlike Adventures, which happen at about three-quarters scale – one block equals about three quarters of a meter – the build plate lets you fit an entire house on a table.

Minecraft Earth (dramatization) Microsoft

Suddenly, Minecraft becomes a virtual Lego set. The blocks and items that you’ve acquired in the world are your pieces. You can build however you’d like within the space, which is up to 64 x 64 blocks, and you can switch between a miniaturized size, for easy editing, and a full-scale size, which lets you experience your creation in all its AR glory.

“With all those blocks you collected you can noodle on your table, throw it down full size, try it out, open the door, see if your friends are ready to do their escape room,” said Merriam. “Now throw it back on the table and noodle on it some more. So that full cycle requires no outside interactions. Once you’ve got your inventory, you can play for hours at home.”

One thing you can’t do is use blocks you haven’t collected. That, in turn, gives rare blocks real significance. Building a castle out of cobblestone should be easy enough. Building the same castle out of obsidian will be much, much more difficult. As Minecraft fans already know, elaborate virtual villas made of the rarest materials are a badge of honor among serious players. Rare materials can also have functional benefits, like more durable walls and more complex traps. Minecraft Earth will carry that tradition forward.

Minecraft Earth uses the same Bedrock engine that’s behind every other version of Minecraft.

Build plates, unlike Adventures, are controlled by their owner and only accessible to them by default, but you can invite anyone sitting next to you to help. There’s no online multi-player in the classic sense. Your friend must be in the same room as you to work on your build plate. And if they are, there’s no restrictions to what they can add or even what they can delete.

Yes, that means your friend can steal your blocks. Remember what I said about the block economy? The Minecraft Earth is serious about the idea that “every block comes from somewhere,” even if that somewhere might be the walls of your carefully constructed abode. Of course, your friend would have to steal the blocks while you’re watching – you’re in the same room, together – so just chuck their phone out a window if they try it.

This talk about the block economy might send your spider-senses tingling. Earth is a free-to-play title, after all, and blocks are likely to be part of the monetization. When asked what will be sold to players, and how much it will cost, Mirriam danced around the question. “So, the franchise values the connection we have with our players. This doesn’t have to be a revenue first title for us,” he said, adding later that “We want to make sure that there’s no pay to win.” The developers say the game won’t have loot boxes, so in-game items will presumably provide set bonuses or perks that you know beforehand.

It’s a good sentiment, but also exactly what you’d expect to hear no matter what monetization will look like when Earth is released. If anything can provide comfort, it’s the developer’s comments about accessibility. Mirriam and Olafsson both stressed that they see Earth as a new entry point for people who, for whatever reason, never tried Minecraft. Unsatisfying free-to-play monetization would certainly spoil the appeal.

Minecraft Earth uses the same Bedrock engine that’s behind every other version of Minecraft. Sticking with Bedrock was non-negotiable for the game’s development team. “We want this feeling of authenticity to shine through,” said Olafsson. “This isn’t Minecraft 2. And this isn’t like some sort of spin-off, this is actually core Minecraft. All the rules and all the things that you know from Minecraft actually still apply.”

The Minecraft Earth team is aware that people might not like players crawling over their fence because an Adventure spawned.

Some fans have played Minecraft since its original release 10 years ago. They’ve learned, through experience, what’s possible and what’s not. Minecraft Earth will let hardcore fans keep that experience intact. Gravity, blocks, crafting, animals, monsters – they all work just as they do when you play Minecraft on a PC or console.

That does not, unfortunately, mean that Minecraft Earth and Minecraft are cross-play compatible. Your profile, linked to your Xbox Gamer Tag, will carry over, along with achievements and skins you’ve earned, but that’s it. You can’t join an existing Minecraft server or import your existing creations. There’s also no modding support planned at launch, though Merriam and Ofulson stopped short of saying mods will never be a thing in Earth.

Though it uses the Bedrock engine, there are a few unique blocks, items, and creatures to be found. I noticed one new block right away, and it’s one that players have suggested for years. Mud. Seriously. It’s a thing in Earth, flowing like water but opaque and plenty dirty.

The mud has a friend, too. His name is Muddy Pig, and he’s a new pig variant that loves to frolic in mud. Variations of Minecraft’s tried-and-true animal companions will be big in Earth. Merriam explained, saying that “each mob that you know, and you love, now has several variations that are incredibly collectible and super fun to play with […] because they come with new behaviors, new effects, new sounds.” The Muddy Pig loves mud and will seek it out no matter what. And, as in Minecraft, players will able to breed animals once they’ve collected them.

Adding collectible animals won’t stop the Pokémon comparisons, but Earth’s goal is different. There’s no battling here. This is collection in its purest form. Each new mob you gain is another that you can spawn on your Build Plate and show off to friends when they come over.

Every instance of Minecraft Earth, including the Adventures, is spun up on Minecraft’s Azure infrastructure just like any other version of Minecraft. Azure also handles the point cloud database that’s used for anchoring objects in augmented reality. Earth is the first consumer-facing customer of the Azure Spatial Anchors service that was announced a few weeks ago.

The maps data is contributed by Open Street Maps, a collaborative mapping project which also powers the maps in Pokémon Go (that game used Google Maps at launch but switched later). The map data works together with point cloud data to create a 3D computer vision version of real spaces that’s accurate within centimeters. This is the technical secret sauce that makes Earth different from competitors and capable of precisely mapping a Minecraft hologram to a real-world local.

The Minecraft Earth team is aware, however, that people might not be pleased to have players crawling over their fence because an Adventure spawned in their backyards, so Open Street Maps data is being used to define residential, commercial, and public spaces. Tappables and Adventures will only be placed in public areas where’s there’s enough room to play safely.

That doesn’t mean it’ll be restricted to your neighborhood park, but it does mean that if a game event shows up on, say, a public sidewalk, the point cloud and Maps data will have to agree the sidewalk is wide enough, and far enough away from private property, for safe play.

Safety is important. More than a few Pokémon Go players have sustained injures or died while trying to catch them all. Taking an overly conservative approach, however, can leave the map devoid of anything to do, a problem many AR games run into at launch (especially in rural areas). Minecraft Earth will address that by putting new players into a mapping queue to populate an area if there’s nothing nearby. That should help the game handle players who live in less populated area, though the developers did warn that populating an area could take awhile depending on server load and how frequently an area was access previously.

The game also taps into the existing ARKit and ARCore APIs for iOS and Android, respectively. That makes absolute sense, but anyone hoping that Earth will be playable on Microsoft’s HoloLens or HoloLens 2 shouldn’t hold their breath. While it does use the same Bedrock game engine, the way Earth handles augmented reality isn’t technically similar to how the unreleased HoloLens version works and a crossover isn’t likely.

Augmented reality is the next big thing. It’s been the next big thing for the past five years, possibly more. Many AR games, experiences, and features exist today, yet none of them have delivered the breathtaking blend of real and virtual that tech demos always promise.

Minecraft Earth will change that. It has the mass appeal of Pokémon Go but takes AR technical wizardry to an entirely new level. There’s nothing else like it. Buy an extended battery for your phone now, because the second big mobile AR craze is coming.

You can sign up to play Minecraft Earth in closed beta this summer, with the full release coming later in the year. The game will be free to play on iOS and Android phones that support AR features.

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