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
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.
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
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?
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.