Minecraft Earth ends: Why do Microsoft's mobile games keep failing?

MInecraft Earth Build Plate
MInecraft Earth Build Plate (Image credit: Windows Central)

Nobody saw this coming. Minecraft Earth is dead, and will be shut down at the end of June. A game that should've been a massive easy-win for Microsoft is now being shuttered, joining Mixer, Windows Phone, and the other wasted-potential products Microsoft has put out over the years.

Minecraft Earth isn't alone either. Gears POP! and Age of Empires: Castle Siege recently shut down as well, and the future of Forza Street is up in the air. It really does beg the question; why can't Microsoft capitalize on this insanely lucrative market, and will it hinder their chances with Xbox Game Pass for Android and iOS?

COVID-19 is not to blame for Minecraft Earth's failure

Minecraft Earth

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

It might be an easy scapegoat, and I'm not suggesting it didn't contribute, but COVID-19 can't be solely blamed for the death of Minecraft Earth for a couple of important reasons.

Throughout the pandemic, Pokemon Go continued to report record revenues.

Minecraft Earth's closest competitor, naturally, is Pokémon Go. Both games espouse outdoor play as their core mechanic, all centered in augmented reality. In Minecraft Earth, the premise was to travel around, mine "tappable" blocks, and make creations on a 3D augmented reality layer. It was awesome, cool, and fun, inspired by the HoloLens demo of yore.

You'd have thought Pokémon Go might've suffered in the midst of a global pandemic, but it's hardly been the case. Throughout the pandemic, Pokemon Go continued to report record revenues as it reacted rapidly to work-from-home changes and eased restrictions on some of the game's travel mechanics. Plus, Minecraft Earth had several months in a soft-launch state before any hint of a pandemic hit the news.

What scuppered Minecraft Earth boiled down to the game's design. The first impressions of Minecraft Earth in its beta period was marred with needless hurdles and time-gating that defy the very essence of Minecraft. The game is about unrestricted creativity, and in Minecraft Earth, Microsoft asked players to either wait several hours to craft stacks of items or pay up some cash.

Minecraft Earth

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

The system was idiotic, and is the kind of hostile game design that plagues mobile gaming in general — other companies just either tend to be better at hiding it or ensure the core gameplay loop is fun enough by itself to pull in microtransactions on the side. Every time I open Pokémon Go, there's something free to do. I have barely spent any money on Pokémon Go, and it remains a rewarding and engaging experience. This just wasn't the case with Minecraft Earth, which was only playable in brief 1-5 minute bursts while you set up crafting, then had to close the app (or perhaps even uninstall it).

I have no idea whether or not Microsoft eased these restrictions over time. Like most who tried the game, I moved on once I realized how dire these restrictions were. Microsoft did nothing to try and pull people back. I received no press releases about the game, I saw no marketing about it, and it received no meaningful updates to make it worth any form of investment.

There are issues translating established franchises

Gears POP!

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

Microsoft's failings with mobile games are just plain strange, and it's not for lack of trying. Of course, there are some success stories — Microsoft owns Minecraft Pocket Edition, which is one of the top mobile games out there, even if you could argue that came before Microsoft was involved with the franchise. Microsoft's other successful mobile game is Solitaire, banking on the established format from the classic Windows game. In 2021, Microsoft will also own Fallout Shelter and Elder Scrolls Blades as part of the ZeniMax Media acquisition. Most of the games Microsoft has tried to make itself though have failed, but why?

All of these games share a common problem: They just aren't really fun.

In recent years we've had Gears POP!, Age of Empires: Castle Siege, Forza Street, and a handful of other games like Halo: Spartan Strike. I'd argue that all of these games share a common problem: They just aren't really fun, or they're riffs on existing games that are just better. Fallout Shelter wasn't exactly an original concept, but it was fun, with piles of content you could access for free.

I'm not sure what Microsoft thinks mobile gaming is supposed to be, but typically they should feel fun in some way, either with rewarding mechanics that make you feel like you're building and growing, engaging combat, or a combination of these. It feels like Microsoft thinks that slapping a brand name on some basic adaptation of an existing game is enough to win at mobile.

If you're going to copy something, it should be at least as good as what you're copying — otherwise why not just play the real thing? Minecraft Earth's overworld felt less rewarding than Pokémon Go's, and its crafting felt less rewarding than regular Minecraft. The game, like many of Microsoft's other mobile games, simply had no business existing in this state.

Will Microsoft keep trying its hand at native mobile gaming?

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Minecraft Earth seemed like the perfect idea. Blending the creativity of Minecraft with the overworld augmented reality of Pokémon Go should've been a hit. It was Microsoft's own game design decisions that stopped the game from grabbing a viable userbase at the outset, with aggressive time-gating and a lack of advertised featured like publically-viewable installations.

Regardless, the mobile gaming market continues to be wildly lucrative. Games like Genshin Impact, Fortnite, PUBG Mobile, and Microsoft's own Minecraft mobile version continue to pull in enormous engagement and revenue. Microsoft has long recognized Android and iOS as a platform for expanding Xbox, which is why Xbox Game Pass now supports touch controls for various streamable games on mobile devices, like those in our best tablets for Xbox Game Pass streaming roundup.

With Xbox Game Pass, it begs the question of whether or not Microsoft needs to continue investing in native mobile experiences since streaming games should eventually be good enough in their own right. But who knows? The latest Snapdragon processors will bring a large graphics leap this year, putting more power than ever into the palm of your hand.

I suspect that Microsoft will continue trying to build native mobile games for Android and iOS, but it should take a look at the long string of failures in this space and ask itself if it's been giving it enough investment. The standards of what constitutes a "good" mobile game are constantly moving higher. The failure of Minecraft Earth shows that.

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Jez Corden
Managing Editor

Jez Corden is the Managing Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

15 Comments
  • I played it for 7 months straight. When access was first opened on the 19th of November 2019 for Denmark, I thought it was the greatest thing! I had so much fun with it, but missed adventures nearby.
    When they arrived nearby, I wasn't always able to get to them in time.
    All that changed with the pandemic, now everything was within reach with crystals. It was an impressive re-design, which they kept improving upon, but adventures themselves were still suffering from bugs.
    The biggest game design issue was the too short seasons. Wauw, was it *stressful* to try and get all the unlocks before all the days had expired O_o! Other than that, I had no game design issue that wanted me to put the game down :)
    I didn't feel time-gated, I always took it as motivation to do something useful in the apartment until the timer was done and the lengthy 8 hour-craftings, I would plan in advance, setting them to start just before going to sleep. For me it was a planning issue more than it was a reason to leave the game behind :) However, there were some _really_ annoying bugs (same adventures crashing several times, broken rewards and the worst of them all for me: The never-fixed blank screen bug on large devices) the final bug mentioned was the one that made me quit. In the end, Mojang simply felt too ignorant for me to keep caring enough.
    That was the same feeling for me for Minecraft Dungeons.
    I'm simply a casual gamer, so that might be why, but I've enjoyed all Diablo and Sacred games, so it's not ARPG genre in general, that's the issue. Either way, I am apathetic for the end of Minecraft Earth, but I still want to change my screen settings on my phone, so I can circumvent the bug and see what they changed this summer.
    They at least deserve that, with the monthly feature updates they delivered for so long.
  • Fair enough. For me, when I saw "8 hour crafting" on an item, I just uninstalled the game lol, I'm sure many others did too, because it's so very "unMinecraft." Minecraft Dungeons is weird... I really enjoyed it over the summer, but then they changed some things and it totally nuked my build... and I can't be bothered to grind new gear.
  • I can relate to that. It took me some time before I figured out how to 'cheat' the long wait times and I can understand why most don't want to plan like that. It's a game, it should always be fun. Minecraft Earth felt more like a chore at the end. Especially with seasons. Dungeons IS weird, right? I enjoyed it until I was completely blocked from progressing further from dying at the final boss level on 2nd difficulty. The "3 life then start over" felt especially punishing on that level, so I gave up. There was no way around it, unless I looked at build guides, which felt like defeat. After that I have up on most of Mojang games.
    With XGP there is always something new and exciting 🤩!
  • Microsoft has never really invested any energy into mobile gaming. I believe it's one of the big reasons Windows Phone failed, at least a big reason why I moved on personally. In addition, I have attended the Mobile Games Forum conference in Seattle the past few years, and was surprised to see that Microsoft doesn't send a single person to the conference to talk to mobile game developers. Then take a look at the Microsoft Store, you can't even filter games by primary input method. So, on a Windows 10 tablet, if you want to find a mobile type game, you can't. They have a lot to overcome to be taken seriously in the mobile game world. I hope they make those changes though, would be great too them enter this space with force.
  • Yeah, it feels like Microsoft is putting out a minimum viable product and hoping for free virality banking on brand names, it just doesn't work like that.
  • "What scuppered Minecraft Earth boiled down to the game's design. The first impressions of Minecraft Earth in its beta period was marred with needless hurdles and time-gating that defy the very essence of Minecraft. The game is about unrestricted creativity, and in Minecraft Earth, Microsoft asked players to either wait several hours to craft stacks of items or pay up some cash." "Microsoft did nothing to try and pull people back. I received no press releases about the game, I saw no marketing about it, and it received no meaningful updates to make it worth any form of investment." "In recent years we've had Gears POP!, Age of Empires: Castle Siege, Forza Street, and a handful of other games like Halo: Spartan Strike. I'd argue that all of these games share a common problem: They just aren't really fun, or they're riffs on existing games that are just better. Fallout Shelter wasn't exactly an original concept, but it was fun, with piles of content you could access for free." These points sum what I've been saying ad nauseam - Microsoft axed their mobile divison, the very people who understand mobile computing inside and out. As they understood to make the windows phone as well as the app store successful, you have to use the damn thing ergo why Nokia literally took over the Wp8 market. Sure, there are many that understand the mobile hardware at Microsoft but the software is often marred by the over reliance on telemetry and analytics. You can not derive joy out stats. I doubt many that worked on Minecraft Earth actually played the game and field tested it. This is where the raise to derive short term profits by axing staff, moving staff around through re-orgs and bean counting (trying to monetize games with as many in app purchasing options as possible for progression) is both a hindrance and costly in terms of long term revenue generation.
  • If Microsoft really wanted this to succeed there was one thing that should have been done at the start. Niantic. If you're building this kind of game why would you not pay the absolute market leaders to make it for you? The backend behind PoGo, and that Harry Potter game, and Ingress before those is already leagues ahead and better yet, Niantic seems to understand how to make these games fun.
  • I loved Spartan Assault. Everything else felt pay to win and I physically hit a wall at some point and just stopped playing. I'd even throw a few bucks into one (if I played it enough to warrant it) but even then I just stopped because it was either not interesting enough or I needed to spend even more money to feel like I would stand a chance. Forza Street was just plain not fun, you didn't actually have to do anything, Gears Pop was just multiplayer only so I had no interest there even if I did enjoy collecting and upgrading units but if you didn't drop cash the game just always seemed to pair me with someone of much better gear. Castle Siege I played the most, but eventually I just got bored of waiting for buildings to complete so I stopped playing that one too. Never even bothered to try Minecraft Earth.
  • Halo: Spartan Strike was quite fun to play, gameplay was solid imo (played it on Steam in case that matters). The rest of games to be the usual mobile freemium/microtransaction junk.
  • I don't think MS is to blame for trying to make mobile games. It's a big market, and they have their franchises, so there's a potential. Now, the same as non-mobile gaming, it's a very competitive market, there are thousands of mobile games, and not all of them are hits. not every one of them are successful, even if they're good games. So I don't think it's fair to blame MS for failing when no one publisher can ensure success with a mobile game they put out. I played Minecraft Earth pretty casually and I liked it, though I never fully got into it. I don't think it was that bad. But if they're competing with Pokemon and other big guns, it's harder for a newcomer, even with the whole MC franchise.
  • It's not that surprising to people who have taken a chance on Microsoft's consumer ventures in recent years. Microsoft doesn't do a good job of investing and improving with their customer base to foster long-term growth. They're really fickle with wanting fast success to avoid killing projects. We saw Windows RT suffer that fate, same for how Windows Core OS got retooled into Windows 10 X. We saw their in-house mobile efforts get two half-hearted chances before getting canned. Kinect got almost no meaningful support on Xbox One, then they axed it because it didn't show growth. Microsoft Band experienced a similar fate, where they tossed out a couple of attempts quietly, then canceled the product line just as quietly. Mixer got bought up and kind of stagnated for a long while before they had meaningful feature updates, then they wrote some big streamer checks that didn't make a lot of sense and killed the platform for it. Their lack of support for WMR makes me think that's going to fail long-term as well. There were a lot of different things that affected why those all failed, but there is a consistent reluctance on the part of Microsoft to really build a project up with long-term strategies. Windows phones kept getting rebooted, which I think killed the trust of consumers and scared devs away from adopting their platform(s). This isn't surprising with how they kind of goof around with mobile and how their general approach to game development has been for about 5 years. They don't have a strong presence in any game development market, in terms of bringing out consistently good content. Even Xbox has been Halo fall way behind (and suffer lengthy delays), Forza has been pushed back considerably, and the Xbox Studios releases as a whole have been lacking for a while. They've done legitimately nothing to support VR gaming and their WMR platform, in terms of giving HMD makers a reason to back them. That this company would both kill off the game inside of 2 years AND not show commitment to growth of a mobile product is the least surprising thing of the last year.
  • Windows mobile was doomed for two reasons: The main reason was that, in the U.K., store staff would actively divert customers away from Nokia handsets. Then, they missed an ideal opportunity to release Minecraft onto their mobile platform. I was screaming at that point, wondering why someone, ANYONE, at MS couldn't see the opportunity to grab the younger gen. Oh well. It's now all history.
  • Windows phones were doomed before MS owned Minecraft though. They released WP7 in 2010, but then axed its existing device support with the 2012 release of WP8. It was 2014 when they picked up Mojang. With W10M a year later, they had again rebooted things and were on life support. They had abandoned their existing users twice and invested nothing in growth, so Minecraft on mobile wasn't saving them...especially when Android and iOS already had it.
  • I enjoy Gears pop, played it since day 1 and never spent a penny on it. Perhaps thats the reason!
  • Microsoft hires the wrong people to make these games. Simple as that.