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Minecraft Earth is so good it might make me stop hating mobile gaming

E3 2019 is an event known primarily for core titles on PC and consoles, with mobile phone games almost seen as taboo when it comes to stage presentations. The business reality of mobile is stark, however. More gamers than ever spend time playing on their phones, and Microsoft has been staggeringly inept over the years when it comes to capitalizing on mobile ... well, anything, let alone games. That losing streak could be about to change, though.

Say hello to Minecraft Earth, which looks set to be the biggest mobile game Microsoft has ever (maybe, will ever) make. We spent some time with Minecraft Earth at E3, and we're very impressed.

Minecraft Earth gameplay is authentically Minecraft

The closest comparison one can make between Minecraft Earth and other games, clearly, is Pokemon Go. That game's creator Niantic's overworld format evolved from its previous augmented-reality game, Ingress, where player's movements are tracked on a digital reconstruction of real-world maps via GPS and can participate in augmented-reality adventures using the camera on their phone.

Minecraft Earth is far deeper and far more creative than Pokemon Go.

Augmented reality has evolved leaps and bounds since the early days of Ingress, now popularized to mega-stardom by Pokemon Go, with Minecraft Earth set to follow. If you thought Minecraft Earth was simply going to be a Pokemon Go clone, guess again. Minecraft Earth is far deeper and far more creative than Pokemon Go, leveraging an experience that is quite authentically Minecraft.

Earth is split into a few gameplay experiences, tied together with a robust inventory-management system. Like the base Minecraft game, the goal is to essentially make your own adventures, playing with friends. As you walk around the global overworld, you'll be able to retrieve crafting blocks by tapping on the screen, or by diving into the deeper augmented experiences, where your phone becomes your window into a first-person Minecraft universe, very similar to the game we already know and love.

Randomly generated "Adventures" will place you in mini Minecraft worlds, with the ability to dig up blocks, battle mobs, and loot to your heart's content. It's in these Adventures where you'll earn your crafting materials to then build epic structures upon Build Plates, which are like personal building zones which you can place upon the real world. Stick a farm in your garden, make your own tree house, or create a petting zoo. The possibilities are truly limited only by your imagination, or your willingness to hunt down those materials.

Based on the Bedrock Engine available on PC, VR, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and mobile devices, Minecraft Earth is intuitively familiar for any experienced Minecraft player and should be just as easy to pick up for newcomers to the series. Instead of using a joystick or a mouse cursor, simply pointing the phone camera at what you want to shoot, loot, or build works far more intuitively than I would have ever expected. Precision placing blocks is incredibly easy, as is blasting waves of zombies with a crossbow. All the same rules from regular Minecraft apply. You can set fire to blocks using Flint and Steel, and craft using the same recipes you've learned from the base game. I couldn't resist the urge to burn down the demo building the game's creator Mojang had set up for us, which they then blew up to life-size so we could walk around the burning carnage.

Minecraft Earth Kid safety and microtransactions

The previous sentence might have created concerns for parents out there. What if my kid's carefully crafted castle gets burned down by an asshole like Jez? Thankfully, Microsoft and Mojang are taking griefing and kid safety extremely seriously for Minecraft Earth. Youngsters with child accounts on Xbox Live won't even be visible to people not on their friend lists, just like on Xbox Live today, and Build Plates are accessible via invite-only, just like regular Minecraft. I won't be able to just walk around burning down everyone's houses unless they invite me to do so. Additionally, Microsoft is not allowing the public placement of Build Plates, at least not at launch, for those worried their neighborhoods will become littered with giant naughty sculptures. Earth should be a totally safe experience for parents who take the time to set up Microsoft Accounts for their kids properly.

Related: Parents Guide to Xbox Live safety

Mobile games, especially for kids, are often a hellscape for predatory purchases too. Time-gating for money, loot crates with gambling mechanics, and in-app currency have come under intense scrutiny in recent years for how they manipulate money out of our pockets and create bad faith gameplay loops that can guilt people out of money.

Mojang is taking an ethical approach to Earth's monetization.

Minecraft Earth would be utterly perfect for a shady company to create aggressive purchasing mechanics. Why not let a rich kid armed with his parent's credit card simply buy up a ton of diamond blocks and build a glistening skyscraper? Thankfully, Mojang is taking an ethical approach to Earth's monetization.

While they weren't ready to talk about specifics, they emphasized that any future monetization would follow along with the base Minecraft experience, perhaps selling skins or mod experiences. They won't allow you to purchase blocks or circumvent progression with real money, nor will they create artificial time gating or sell gambling loot boxes. If someone has built an epic skyscraper out of diamonds, it will be because they spent the time to hunt down those materials.

Minecraft Earth just works, and it could be HUGE

While we didn't get to experience the overworld map or dive into some of the other systems, these early signs of gameplay are exciting. Being able to shrink down your crafts and stick them on the table for precision fine-tuning, then blow them up to life size to be experienced, walking around, is rich and immersive. The glimpses at Adventures were also intriguing, with the ground opening up revealing hordes of skeletons, with creepers swarming the room. The fact the game is built on the Bedrock Engine means that many of its gameplay features just work as you would expect them to, which aligns it closely with the experiences you enjoy today on various devices.

There are plenty of unanswered questions, but the potential Microsoft is showing with Minecraft Earth is staggering and could stand tall in a world where mobile games are generally designed for maximum cash-in ops and less about pure fun. Minecraft Earth is the first mobile game I've played in literally years that felt like it extended the experience of the franchise it was built on, as opposed to simply being a vehicle to siphon cash from the franchise's fans.

Earth is slated to begin rolling out in beta this summer, with plans to expand to the entire globe in the coming months.

Related: All Minecraft Earth resources at Windows Central

Awesome Minecraft merch

Love Minecraft? We're fairly certain you'll love these accessories equally.

Minecraft Sprites Premium T-Shirt (opens in new tab) ($19 at Amazon)

Show off your Minecraft pride with this premium tee from Jinx, showcasing many of Minecraft's iconic mobs.

Minecraft Lego: The End Battle (opens in new tab) ($20 at Amazon)

Who doesn't want a Lego Ender Dragon?

Minecraft for Nintendo Switch (opens in new tab) ($30 at Amazon)

Minecraft for Nintendo Switch features full cross-play between Xbox, Windows 10, mobile phones, and even VR!

Minecraft shades (opens in new tab) ($8 at Amazon)

You might think you're cool, but are you cool enough to wear these?

Jez Corden is a Senior 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!

  • Seems far more interesting than Pokémon Go, but I'm still skeptical I'd ever want to hold up my phone with one hand and tap the screen with the other for long periods of time. I was a lot more excited for the HoloLens Minecraft demo they showed at E3 2015--four years ago--but I'll reserve judgment till I try it myself someday (not any time soon, though, as I plan on sticking with Windows 10 Mobile for many years to come).
  • Well, holding and tapping the phone is something everybody does already. But if you mean for gaming, sure, this is clearly just an imperfect way to play this game, which is clearly bigger and will hopefully soon find a better home. Remember, this is another example of Microsoft being a guest in hardware and OS that are not their own. And that will be a platform for growth of their stuff.
  • Most people don't hold it eye level or higher, unless you count all the idiots that are obsessing over their self pictures. It gets exhausting, at least for us extremely out of shape people, and it is also not ergonomic.
  • I'm all in. I only wonder how long will it take this experience to find a home in Microsoft dedicated AR hardware, that is, current or future Hololens. Clearly this will be the killer app Hololens has been dreaming of. So this game could quietly be responsible for a Hololens consumer version coming soon.
  • Does anyone know yet if this will require data? For instance, will it have "stops" where there are specific spots you need to go to in order to play it? Or can you just do it anytime/anywhere? I live in a rural area and I am with T-Mobile so the Pokémon Go type game that requires constant data doesn't work for me.
  • Yes, it will require data.
  • Jez, any chance this could come to Windows? I can imagine, with the direction Microsoft is going with Always Connected PCs and Core OS this could be huge on something like a Surface Pro (or Centaurus/Andromeda). More screen real-estate, portability in form factor, etc.
  • Sure hope so. I really do love the new "open", cross-platform, Microsoft. But I think the pendulum has swung a little... too far... that direction. It's time they swing back the other direction and give some love to Windows.
  • People could easily turn this into a great type of buisness. Imagine someone paying you to design the insode of their cafe or build some form of advertisements outside theor buisness or fill theor doctors office with cool fun things. I just feel this odea could be huge. Sort of like fornite being AR. I honeatly camt waot for current tech Holo lens technology to drop in price. Imagine the wireless fun.
  • Thanks for writing that article Jez. I can imagine how this game would augment an otherwise trivial walk in the forest to something new and exciting every time. Hopefully it will be a great way to get your steps count AND have fun at the same time 😀 A great deeper, first look into the game and I look forward to see live recordings of it 🙂
    I also look forward to see how they plan on integrating it with Mixer or rather, how Mixer will account for mobile games down the road and what the interaction model will be. It was also cool that you burned down the demo to bring up the subject of griefing - Whether it was intentional or not ^_~ Great stuff. I can't wait to try this out myself.
  • I have a few questions: 1) How does it work when it comes to roads and crossings? 2) How does it work when there pot holes, open drain covers and etc? There has to be some sort boundary system of not be able to place any build plate next to an sort of crossing / road / aspects of landscapes such as cliffs etc because unfortunately... some people are just... clueless to put it politely. The reason I say that it is because there have been instances of people walking off cliffs / into ravines etc whilst playing pokemon go....