The Pokemon Go phenomenon game spawned the creation of two clearly inspired titles: the failed Harry Potter Wizard Unite and the promising Minecraft Earth. After several months in private beta, it is now available in early access on Android. We were able to test this version at a press event in London where I was invited by Microsoft. On this occasion I was also able to talk to Torfi Olafsson, Game Director of Minecraft Earth, and Jesse Merriam, Executive Producer.
Far from being a simple copy of Pokemon Go
I mentioned Pokémon Go in the introduction of this paper, because the inspiration is obvious: it is a game based in part on your geolocation where you can interact with elements close to you through your avatar displayed in the center of a map resembling the surroundings.
The comparison stops there, however, and the rest of the gameplay of Minecraft Earth is sufficiently original and interesting to forget its competitor past the first minutes of play. This comparison made, let's talk about the game and its gameplay.
Exploration, Construction, Adventure
Minecraft Earth actually concentrates three different games and obviously takes up many concepts of the cult game which still occupies more than 100 million players each month today. The first is to collect materials or animals by interacting with them on the world map, this is the most basic layer of gameplay.
Next is the "board" mode where you can place a crafting in the "real" world, and edit it with friends. Sharing the game is very easy with a QR Code to scan, Minecraft Earth playing thoroughly the local multiplayer map. Construction is done by adding or removing parts or animals. This is when hard-earned materials are spent. It is possible at any time to close the game, in which case the construction will be automatically saved to resume the construction later. This second "plateau" mode actually hides a more impressive version: the possibility of scaling your construction on a human scale! You then have plenty of time to actually explore the house you have made for yourself with cobblestone and earth.
Finally, and this is the great novelty of this version in early access, Minecraft Earth now includes adventures. These are elements, such as dungeons, to be visited by several people in general in public places such as parks. Here you can face monsters and collect rare materials. The adventure is done on a human scale, and it will therefore be necessary to turn on yourself to shoot arrows in the heads of skeletons, spiders and other creepers, and thus avoid "dying" which will end the adventure. As we have said, this experience is shared by many, but don't panic! Your best friend isn't going to betray you at the end of a dungeon to steal all of your hard-earned diamond. The developers want to create a cooperative experience with Minecraft Earth, and the loot will therefore be the same for all participants (the materials are "multiplied" so that each participant leaves with all of the loot).
Very solid technical foundations
To work, Minecraft Earth uses technologies that are not so easy to master. The game uses OpenStreetMap for its mapping, an anchoring system synchronized with Azure to share the experience at the right coordinates between each player, and augmented reality technologies from Apple and Google, AR Kit and AR Core respectively. This is what explains the exclusivity of the game to Apple and Google platforms, the developers wanted to call on this solid technical base. Finally, the game uses the Bedrock engine which already powers all recent versions of Minecraft for game consoles, or the PC.
In game, the technical quality is felt by the number of small details that improve the user experience. For example in “plateau” mode, the structure that we build seems solidly attached to the ground and we do not find the usual problems of augmented reality with 3D models that shake or move in space by mistake. Syncing a game with other players is going pretty well as well, even though they pass through the camera view, the model continues to be displayed in the background and you can see their gear displayed at next to them, like their pickaxe for example.
The use of the Minecraft soundtrack and the Bedrock engine also makes the immersion very successful, we really have the impression of seeing Minecraft come to life in our very real universe. The transition between the real and the virtual at the entrance to the dungeon is quite impressive in this regard.
Free play and paid content
Minecraft Earth is free to play, but comes with paid content. Jesse Merriam assured us, the game was first thought of as a celebration of Minecraft (which turned 10), before being thought to make money. It is true that all aspects of the game seem free, and without pushing the user to purchase. Paid content happens to be optional player skins, or prebuilt boards.
Minecraft wouldn't be Minecraft without a crafting system. All the recipes, and Redstone circuits, that work in the classic game are also available in Minecraft Earth. On the other hand, I could see that manufacturing took a little time, a wait that it will be possible to reduce with an internal currency in the game. This currency will be available through the adventures, but also directly in a shop for real euros. It is difficult as it is to know if the game is well balanced so as not to ask too much for these time reductions.
A social potential that remains to be developed
The multiplayer part of Minecraft Earth is very local at the moment. The game does not include a friend list, and it is impossible to share its constructions on the web. However, by the producer's own admission, it will most likely be a strong demand from players.
I was able to question the director on the possibility of publicly sharing constructions, for example by placing them in front of one's home. This is something that is certainly on the roadmap for developers, but which poses a lot of pitfalls, especially on moderation. Indeed, we would not like to see malicious constructions or of questionable taste and the developers want to take all the necessary precautions. For example, it would be really interesting to imagine a classroom being able to build together a project week after week, which would be statically placed at the back of the room. More simply, being able to place small constructions at home, that other players could discover in augmented reality.
Before launching Minecraft Earth, I had prepared myself not to like the game out of cynicism. I'm not particularly a fan of Pokémon Go and I don't particularly like mobile games, especially free to play. However, it is clear that the Minecraft Earth recipe seems to work. Those who have played Minecraft will find a very familiar universe, when others can discover it thanks to a game very welcoming and easy to learn.
The designers want Minecraft Earth to be a new gateway to the Minecraft universe for the hundreds of millions of smartphone gamers. It is impossible to predict if the game will be successful, but the potential is there. With Early Access, the developers promise to remake what once worked with Minecraft on PC: developing the game with the community by listening to their feedback. The game is therefore not about to come out of its early access, but the version we tested is already stable enough for a pleasant experience of the game.
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