When Microsoft acquired Mojang, maker of MinecraftIn 2014, we all feared the worst: a myriad of cash-in video games. Turns out Microsoft has been really smart about its Minecraft output in the past five years. But one Minecraft-related game has since launched (2015’s solid Minecraft Story Mode), and 2020 Minecraft Dungeons felt ridiculously good playing at this year’s E3. (Plus, Mojang has been allowed to continue polishing the original game on every console and smartphone in the world, rather than becoming an Xbox-only studio. Phew.)
So it was not necessarily inevitable that Minecraft would get a clone to compete with every major game genre (no Super Steve Bros., no Minecraft Kart Racers). That raised our hopes Minecraft Earth, Microsoft’s first salvo in the “augmented reality on phones” war, unveiled in May this year. It certainly seemed like a smart move: take minecraft’s go-anywhere, punch-any-tree, build-anything philosophy, then dump into the real world à la pokemon go†
After five days of the game’s closed beta (launching seconds ago as an invite-only closed beta in the Seattle area), I have to report that the early version of the game lacks the magic of the series – and that Mojang put some more pixelated blocks in place before calling it a win.
Card full of tappables – and nothing else
Minecraft Earthresemblance to pokemon go starts with an abstracted, overhead view of your real-life environment, as shown above. Load the app as you walk through a familiar neighborhood, and you’ll see the map data translated as a series of nondescript 3D blocks, all green and brown. Mojang doesn’t seem to use map data to make buildings look different, so it’s all pretty redundant, while parks and beaches barely stand out on the map of normal urban terrain.
Your 3D avatar occupies the center position on this map and it didn’t take long for “tappables” to appear in the area. They are in the form of generic Minecraft items (small rock, trees, farm animals). Walk until their map position is near yours, then tap on the objects (marked in white) and you’ll be rewarded with a random batch of the game series’ familiar building blocks. You can easily collect hundreds of “regular” items, including cobblestones, grass blocks and oak planks. Some of these tappables also hide rarer materials, ranging from nicer blocks (granite, brick) to decorations (iron bars, flowers) to connectable “redstone” items to dangerous things (lava buckets, TNT).
The first big surprise here is that all of these materials are worthless in the walk-and-collect portion of the game. This is true Minecraft Earth stands out the most from pokemon go: you have a lot more to do when you are standing still. (From press time, the nothing but what you do in the map wandering half of the game is pick up tap tablets. The game has no further equivalent for pokemon go‘s location-based elements, such as “gyms”).
Open the “building boards” menu and you’ll have access to at least one blocky diorama – or more, depending on how high your in-game “level” is. Your first choice in this menu is “Build”. Doing so will turn on your device’s external camera and scan your real-world environment looking for a flat, textured surface (a kitchen table, an empty floor), then manually aim your camera until you find the right place to to put down that aforementioned diorama. ahead:
This is the game’s first available baseplate, as placed on my kitchen floor. The first image in the gallery above shows the pre-built state, which includes a tree, some grass, and some water.
It’s quite cramped, measuring 8×8 in Minecraft block units. Higher level building boards in this closed beta aren’t much bigger at 16×16. For perspective, worlds in Minecraft‘s low-powered Wii U version up to 864×864.
In Build mode, the controls are limited to placing your collected tapable materials in the virtual world or removing existing objects from the build plate to dump them back into your inventory. here’s where Minecraft Earth starts to wear thin.
My goal is far from true
This is the default loading screen of the game and it makes the Minecraft Earth building process looks fun and magical. But in practice, building something this big and complicated is more of a logistical pain in the ass than doing it in vanilla Minecraft.
I tested the game with an iPhone X — one of Apple’s newer ARKit-compatible devices — and often struggled to pick up or place objects. Walking around a table or floor inevitably caused the buildboard world to snap out or superzoom in either direction, and this happened in the recommended conditions: bright room, clear “textured” surfaces. Also, my taps often didn’t place objects close to where I wanted them, because the game made wrong guesses about 3D depth. This wasn’t helped by ARKit vibrations shaking my perspective just enough to get the world moving the moment I tapped. There is a reason why vanilla Minecraft makes players go to an exact XYZ coordinate place to place and manipulate objects, and Minecraft Earth urgently needs an equivalent.
I would like to see an update where users can place and move a transparent cube in the game world. Then, a button on the screen would allow users to “place” or “remove” an object in that specific zone, no matter how their phone moved. (You know, kind of like the magical laser interface of the loading screen.) Without such a tweak, the time I spent building structures was tripled, if not quadrupled, undoing errant taps, especially when I had to move my camera across floors, ceilings, stairs and other obscuring geometry, and then deal with camera glitches in the process. In addition, Minecraft Earth doesn’t yet include a “tap to turn” option for its objects, making things like stairs and sloping roof orientation a nightmare. (Hope that’s a few more patches away.)
Still, after some annoyance, I was able to grab an arsenal of taptables and build a one-story building with a roof and stairs to that roof. That was my annoyance limit. Building a real two- or three-story building meant dealing with a lot more obscuring geometry, while trying to dig deeper and excavate a basement was a chore, in terms of focusing my real-world lens and accurate interact with specific underground blocks. By the way, both baseplates I unlocked during the test period were effectively shrunk by running water, so I didn’t have much room to hone my craft. Shouldn’t amateur architects get it? Lake ground to practice with, no less?