When Microsoft acquired Mojang, the maker of Minecraft, in 2014, we all feared the worst: a zillion cash-in video games. Turns out, Microsoft has been really smart about its Minecraft output in the past five years. Only one Minecraft-related game has launched since then (2015’s solid Minecraft Story Mode), and 2020’s Minecraft Dungeons felt ridiculously good to play at this year’s E3. (Plus, Mojang has been allowed to keep polishing the original game on every console and smartphone in the world, instead of turning into an Xbox-only studio. Whew.)
Thus, it wasn’t necessarily inevitable that Minecraft would get a clone to compete with every major gaming genre (no Super Steve Bros., no Minecraft Kart Racers). That got our hopes up for Minecraft Earth, Microsoft’s first salvo in the “augmented reality on phones” war, which was unveiled in May of this year. It sure seemed like a clever move: take Minecraft’s go-anywhere, punch-any-tree, build-anything philosophy, then dump it into the real world à la Pokemon Go.
After five days with the game’s closed beta (which launched seconds ago as a closed, invite-only beta in the Seattle area), I must report that the game’s early version is missing the series’ magic—and Mojang is going to need to put some more pixellated blocks into place before calling this one a victory.
Map full of tappables—and nothing else
Minecraft Earth‘s resemblance to Pokemon Go begins with an abstracted, top-down view of your real-life environs, as seen above. Load the app while walking around a familiar neighborhood, and you’ll see its map data translated as a featureless series of 3D blocks, all green and brown. Mojang doesn’t appear to leverage map data to make buildings look any different from each other, so it’s all pretty redundant stuff, while parks and beaches barely stand out on the map from normal city terrain.
Your 3D avatar takes center position on this map, and before long, “tappables” begin appearing in its general vicinity. They’re shaped like generic Minecraft items (small stone chunks, trees, farm animals). Walk until their map position is near yours, then tap the objects (highlighted in white), and you’ll be rewarded with a random batch of the game series’ familiar building blocks. You’ll rack up hundreds of “common” items with no trouble, which include cobblestone, grass blocks, and oak wood planks. Some of these tappables hide rarer materials, as well, ranging from fancier blocks (granite, brick) to decorations (iron bars, flowers) to connectable “redstone” items to dangerous stuff (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 where Minecraft Earth differentiates itself most from Pokemon Go: you have a lot more to do when you’re stationary. (As of press time, the only thing you do in the map-wandering half of the game is pick up tappables. The game doesn’t otherwise have any equivalent to Pokemon Go‘s location-based elements, such as “gyms.”)
Open the “buildplates” 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 to “Build.” Doing this turns on your device’s external camera and scans your real-world environment in search of a flat, textured surface (a kitchen table, an empty floor), and then you’ll manually aim your camera until you find the right place to drop that previously mentioned diorama. Presto:
This is the game’s first available buildplate, as placed on my kitchen floor. The first image in the above gallery shows its pre-built state, which includes a tree, some grass, and some water.
It’s pretty cramped, measuring at 8×8 in Minecraft-block units. Higher-level buildplates in this closed beta version aren’t much bigger, at 16×16. For perspective, worlds in Minecraft‘s low-powered Wii U version max out at 864×864.
In Build mode, controls are limited to placing your collected tappable materials in the virtual world or removing existing objects from the buildplate to dump back into your inventory. Here’s where Minecraft Earth begins to wear thin.
My aim is far from true
This is the game’s default loading screen, and it makes the Minecraft Earth building process look fun and magical. But in practice, building something that tall and complicated is more of a logistical pain in the butt than doing so in vanilla Minecraft.
I tested the game with an iPhone X—one of Apple’s newer ARKit-compatible devices—and frequently struggled to pick up or put down objects. Walking around a table or floor inevitably led to the buildplate world glitching out or super-zooming in either direction, and this happened in recommended conditions: bright room, clear “textured” surfaces. Plus, my taps often placed objects nowhere near where I wanted them since the game made faulty guesses about 3D depth. This wasn’t helped by ARKit judders shaking my perspective just enough to make the world move at the moment I tapped. There’s a reason vanilla Minecraft makes players move to an exact X-Y-Z coordinate spot to place and manipulate objects, and Minecraft Earth desperately needs an equivalent.
I’d love to see an update where users can place and move a transparent cube around the game world. Then, an on-screen button would let users “place” or “remove” an object in that specific zone, no matter how their phone moved around. (Ya know, kinda like the loading screen’s magic-laser interface.) Without such a tweak, the time I spent building structures was tripled, if not quadrupled, by having to undo errant taps—especially when I had to move my camera around floors, ceilings, staircases, and other obfuscating geometry, and then deal with camera glitches in the process. In addition, Minecraft Earth doesn’t yet include a “tap to rotate” option for its objects, which makes things like staircase and angled-roof orientation a nightmare. (I’m hopeful that’s a patch or two away.)
Still, after some annoyance, I was able to take an arsenal of tappables and build a one-story building with a roof and a stairway to said roof. That was my annoyance limit. Building a proper two- or three-story building meant dealing with much more obfuscating geometry, while attempting to dig deeper and carve out a basement was an utter chore, in terms of aiming my real-world lens and accurately interacting with specific underground blocks. Both of the buildplates I unlocked during the testing period were effectively shrunken by running water, by the way, so I didn’t have a lot of space to hone my craft. Shouldn’t amateur architects get more ground to practice with, not less?