Look out, Pokémon Go: Microsoft unveils new Minecraft Earth augmented reality game

(Minecraft Photo)

Microsoft today unveiled a new augmented reality Minecraft game for smartphones that aims to advance the genre long associated with Pokémon Go with increased interactivity and multiplayer action.

The company teased the free-to-play game, “Minecraft Earth,” at the end of CEO Satya Nadella’s keynote at the Build Developers conference in Seattle last week. Today’s announcement comes on the 10-year anniversary of the original Minecraft, made by the studio Mojang that Microsoft acquired in 2014 for $2.5 billion.

Minecraft Earth is slated to be released this summer, but an exact date was not given. A closed beta testing period is on the way prior to the release.

The game will be released on Android and iOS, and it layers its virtual world on top of the real one. It also uses public gathering areas and landmarks for placing items and tasks.

“The main theme of it is that everywhere you go you see Minecraft, and everywhere you go you can actually play Minecraft,” said Torfi Olafsson, game director for Minecraft.

RELATED: Hands-on with Minecraft Earth, Microsoft’s augmented reality answer to Pokémon Go

The ubiquity of smartphones and their evolving technology has brought augmented reality to the masses in recent years. Niantic, which has a large engineering presence in Bellevue, Wash., has led the way in bringing this genre into the mainstream with Pokémon Go, which reached 500 million downloads two months after it launched in the summer of 2016. Niantic is now working with Warner Bros.’ game division on an AR Harry Potter game.

(Minecraft Photo)

The basic premise of the Minecraft Earth is that players collect items placed strategically throughout the real world, embark on adventures with their friends, and use the prizes they’ve claimed along the way to build intricate Minecraft environments and share them. Here are a few of the primary elements of the game:

Tappables: Players collect items, such as animals, building materials and land, by finding them out in the real world. Players don’t have to be right next to items to collect them; they can grab them from up to 70 meters away.

Adventures: Described by Olafsson as an “authentic slice of Minecraft world,” Adventures let players jump into mini-missions to collect prizes. What looks like an innocuous patch of grass could be hiding a massive dungeon underneath replete with enemies to defeat. There’s no cap on the number of people who can participate in one of these experiences.

Buildplates: Users can take everything they’ve picked up through adventures and exploring and work together to build elaborate structures that they can share with others. A single player owns a Buildplate, though multiple people can work on it at once, but they have to be in the same room and use their own resources to do so. For that one mischievous player in the group, users can swipe blocks and animals off buildplates and keep them for themselves.

Minecraft executives declined to give details about what kind of in-game purchases would be available. However, they emphasized that they didn’t want it to be a “pay to win” game, and that Minecraft Earth doesn’t need to be a “revenue-first” title.

(Minecraft Photo)

Under the codename Genoa, the Minecraft team has been working on the game for about 16 months. Minecraft Earth grew out of the development of versions of Minecraft for virtual reality and Microsoft’s HoloLens.

Minecraft is a household name, and its players have a “visceral connection” to the game, said Minecraft Executive Producer Jesse Merriam. And the company was looking for a way to expand into new realms in order to bring in more players.

“They have built homes in Minecraft, and so to build on the Minecraft franchise, we can’t really take Minecraft away from them,” Merriam said. “We have to figure out how to expand the Minecraft universe, and that’s how we landed on Minecraft Earth. It’s a journey where we extend your Minecraft experience and make it approachable in a new way that allows everybody to come together.”

The map is always evolving, so players can go back to the same place and find different experiences each time. Minecraft also wants to avoid the problem a lot of augmented reality games face: an unequal playing field for areas with lower population.

When a phone logs into the game, in a rural area for example, that will ping the servers to put that location in the queue for additional support. Even if there are no items or experiences placed near where that phone logged in, the game will spin them up quickly so the player can participate.

(Minecraft Photo)

Since Microsoft acquired Mojang, Minecraft’s user base has nearly tripled, from 31 million in 2014 to 91 million today. Upwards of 135 million copies of the game have sold in its lifetime.

A confluence of factors made this new game possible now. Advances in augmented reality technology, cloud computing and smartphones paved the way. And the popularity of Pokémon Go showed the demand is there.

The Minecraft team made the decision to build the game from the ground up, rather than working with a partner like Niantic. It runs on the same Bedrock engine that has powered Minecraft as it spread across platforms.

The game takes advantage of a number of technologies, from Microsoft and others, to make it go:

  • Azure Spatial Anchors places everyone in the same space and ties items and adventures in the game to the real world. Minecraft is the first consumer customer for Spatial Anchors, a program that was just announced a few weeks ago.
  • Open Street Map, the open-source world mapping application, provides the basis for the map that Minecraft is programmed on top of.
  • The primary augmented reality functions run on ARCore and ARKit, the AR development tools for Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems.
  • PlayFab, the Seattle gaming startup that Microsoft acquired last year, provides some of the backend servers for different objects and experiences and handles customer management and connecting players.

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