It won’t be long before the trees on your street are pixelated and little pigs and other animals are rampaging through neighborhoods — as long as you’re looking through the lens of a smartphone.
That’s the vision of the new Minecraft Earth augmented reality game that Microsoft unveiled this morning. Microsoft briefly teased it at its Build developer conference in Seattle last week, whetting the appetite of Minecraft fans until the game is released this summer.
The day after the game was teased at Microsoft Build, the company gave a handful of reporters a sneak peek at the game along with some time with executives leading the teams that developed it. They painted Minecraft Earth as a step forward for augmented reality games that are based on the real world.
Of course, the immediate name that comes to mind when talking about that genre is Pokémon Go. The team said “we don’t see ourselves as a clone” of anything that’s out there today, which they referred to mostly as “geocaching games.”
“It’s not just a geocaching game with like 2 percent of it in augmented reality,” said Torfi Olafsson, game director for Minecraft. “We decided to go head-first and build the game from the ground up as an experience that you play both in your immediate environment — when you’re home — and out in the world, like in parks, in cities.”
A brief demo showed the game’s potential to advance the state of AR. In addition to being able to collect items out in the real world, I was able to go on quests with others and then use our shared resources to build out structures. The game felt more in-depth and more social — as social as a game that requires you to look at your phone gets — than previous entries.
We got a chance to check out several different environments. First was a castle, where we walked around, opened doors and battled skeletons. We lit fields on fire and set off fireworks.
We also worked together on a common Buildplate, a part of the game that lets users take their individual resources and collaborate to build tabletop structures and environments. We dug under the surface down into caves and built huge platforms for our animals to hang out on.
Each player has a permanent presence — you don’t get to create new characters — with an inventory of items that follows them around throughout the game. Gamer tags float above the heads of other players.
The Buildplate aspect of the game, which also lets players enlarge their creations into a life-size version, stands out. It fosters cooperation, and gets people playing together. To work on a Buildplate, players have to be in the same room.
“This is a social experience from the ground up,” Olafsson said. “So there’s not the concept of playing online with somebody who is in a different city and a different time zone. There are several reasons for it, but one of the core reasons is we want to encourage the kind of table-top dynamics that happen between people while they are playing. It’s a very different type of game when you’re together in the same space.”
I am new to Minecraft, so I was a good test of how approachable this game is for new players. I found it easy to pick up after a brief tutorial of how to gather and deploy resources. Most actions require only a tap of the screen. As with the entirety of Minecraft, the main limitation is the player’s creativity as the game keeps up the open-world spirit of the franchise.
Seasoned players will feel right at home, as the game isn’t meant to be a sequel changing up the core graphics or physics of the way things work in Minecraft. Instead, it is an extension of Minecraft and a new way to engage with the game.
“This isn’t Minecraft 2, and this isn’t like some sort of spinoff or offshoot,” Olafsson said. “This is actually core Minecraft; all the rules and all the things that you know from Minecraft actually still apply, and we thought it was important to make it mirror the way (Minecraft) looks and how it feels.”
Some of the little experiences make the game pop. For example, animals will look at and interact with you as you either walk up or move your phone in closer. They sense things within the environment. For example, a new creature specifically for this game called Muddy Pig seeks out muddy spots and runs to them to jump in. Doors open as you approach.
My biggest struggle in the brief demo of the game was an issue veteran Minecrafters wouldn’t have trouble with: quickly toggling back and forth through my inventory and subbing in and out items I wanted to place on the map.
There’s still some important details we don’t know. Executives deferred when asked about in-game goodies players could purchase and what kinds of skins — the different looks for players that have become wildly popular on games like Fortnite — will be available.
One thing that is clear is that the Minecraft team is all-in on augmented reality and its potential to expand the game’s reach. It’ll be interesting to see if all those people roaming around parks this summer with their heads down will be playing Minecraft Earth instead of Pokémon Go.