“I barely slept last night,” Jessica Zahn told me a few weeks ago. In Redmond, Washington, where she was, it was 9 in the morning. In New Zealand, though, it was 5 the following morning, and the moment Zahn and her team at Microsoft had been working toward for nearly two years was finally nigh. When the clock struck 6, they would press a button, after which point anyone waking up in the Land of Taika Waititi who opened the Apple App Store or Google Play on their smartphone would find Minecraft Earth ready for download.
Since that morning, Microsoft’s augmented-reality game has landed in Iceland, Mexico, Sweden, the Philippines, Australia, South Korea, Canada, and the United Kingdom—each time in “early access” mode, what effectively amounts to an open beta for what is already a living, breathing global game project. Now you can add the US to that list. People have been using Minecraft to create fantastic imaginary realms for a decade, but today Minecraft Earth marches out of the imagination and into the real world.
What sounds like a single title really encompasses three distinct play experiences. There’s your personal build plate, the foundation for a Minecraft world that you design yourself, constructed from resources you collect walking around in the real world and then craft or smelt into new materials. (You can also open your build to friends, inviting them to contribute—or even mine their own materials from what you’ve painstakingly erected.) When you’ve got something you want to show off, you can scale your build up from tabletop size to real-world size and deploy it in the wild for a virtual walkthrough. Then there’s Adventures, multiplayer experiences that spawn dynamically in public spaces; some are combat-driven, others more exploratory. All of it fueled by an ambitious augmented-reality backbone that goes beyond what predecessors like Pokémon Go and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite have realized.
Granted, those play experiences don’t necessarily constitute the entirety of what lead producer Zahn and her colleagues envisioned, but such is the nature of Minecraft Earth. While there may never be what you’d consider an Official Launch, the game is constantly undergoing a long and varied evolution, adding features when they can stand up to the rigors of shared, persistent augmented reality. “With a mobile game you have a little more flexibility because people are more used to updating games,” she says, “but we’ll try to make sure that people only have to update when there’s something worth updating to.”
”The game we ship on day one is not the game you’ll have in year two,” says Saxs Persson, creative director of Minecraft Studios, “but that doesn’t mean what we’re shipping today is not exactly the right game we want to ship.” He points to the elements that the team has viewed as crucial from the very beginning: Adventures deliver the feeling of playing Minecraft at full scale in the real world; mobs (Minecraft’s version of non-player characters) that possess personalities beyond those in the core game; and a fully immersive AR experience that is, as Persson says, “something you haven’t had before.”
What I first saw in a visit to Microsoft six months ago, Persson notes, has evolved in some startling ways. In those pre-beta days, Minecraft Earth couldn’t handle occlusion, the term for a virtual object obscuring real-world objects that appear to be closer; now it can. Back then, Azure Spatial Anchors, a system that Microsoft developed to tie the game’s virtual objects to incredibly granular locations, was almost entirely an abstract concept. Now, it works at scale. Persson tells me about a recent morning, just a week before the game rolled out to New Zealand and Iceland, when the team had just allowed those anchors to be permanent; he and a coworker grabbed their phones and headed outside to see how things were looking. When they saw an Adventure on their maps, they both tapped on the icon—and found themselves immediately thrust into an AR environment, each perfectly positioned. There’s no way it works that fast, they said to each other. “In our mind this fall was to learn what strength Azure Spatial Anchors actually had, and where we needed to do better,” he says. “It just came together a little better than we’d expected.”
That unlocks a class of experiences that have never been seen in a mobile AR game: coordinated actions that can happen only if multiple real people do things in the right order, standing in the exact right place. Like, say, an Adventure in which four people have to stand on pressure plates in the various corners of the space, thus triggering the reveal of a secret underground dungeon. You thought the Pokémon Go phenomenon of groups of people all pointing their phone in the same direction was weird? Wait until you see the Minecraft Earth version: half of them are spinning in a circle, three are squatting and making digging motions toward the ground, and a few others are all jumping around. Even better—they’re all talking about it. ”You can perfectly coordinate how to mine out an area or find hidden treasure if you’re with strangers, without talking,” Persson says, “but social interaction around the common goal is a core part of what makes Minecraft Earth a different sort of multiplayer.”
It’s not the only one that Microsoft has these days on the mobile front. Other titles, like Forza Street and Gears Pop!, have extended popular Microsoft game series to the smartphone set. But for Matt Booty, head of Microsoft Studios, Minecraft Earth represents something new: the wish-fulfillment exercise of allowing people to walk around inside the things they spent so much time creating. “What we did with Gears Pop! and Forza Street,” he says, “was, ’hey, we’d love to expand this franchise—let’s figure out the right game mechanic to do that.’ Minecraft Earth inverted that.”
Which is to say: 112 million people already play Minecraft every month. They think, even dream, in blocks. Of course they want those blocks out in the real world. And there are 3 billion other smartphone owners out there who might just want them too. Today, America’s about to see what they can build.
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