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How to play Minecraft Earth, now with smelting and crafting

The prerelease version is now available in New Zealand and Iceland. Here's everything you need to know about Microsoft's new AR mobile game.

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Minecraft Earth lets you build a world on your phone using the world around you.

Angela Lang/CNET

Explore, gather items and find monsters in an AR world on your phone. Sounds like Pokemon Go from Niantic, right? It's not. It's Minecraft Earth, Microsoft's new augmented-reality app for iOS and Android phone. 

Over 10 years, we've played the blocky game on desktop and mobile devices, on consoles and VR headsets, and even got excited about a promised Minecraft movie. But Minecraft Earth could represent the next big phase for the Minecraft, taking the crazy-popular lo-fi sandbox game off your computer screen and putting it in the real world, where you gather resources, encounter mobs, build structures and have adventures with friends and strangers, all on your phone.

Minecraft Earth is the latest attempt to transform gaming on mobile phones through AR. Mobile gaming will generate $68.5 billion by the end of 2019, making up 45% of the global games market, according to Newzoo. Augmented reality and virtual reality are pegged as the future of immersive gaming, and while they haven't taken off yet, a growing audience of gamers is taking to the streets to play not just Pokemon Go and Ingress, but also Harry Potter Wizard's Unite. (Consequently, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg thinks Facebook can save AR.)

Minecraft Earth is available right now in select regions to Android and iOS players who signed up for a prerelease version of the game. Microsoft said it intends to roll out the game publicly country by country through the fall. I've been playing betas and early access versions of the game since getting access in early September, and here's my experience so far with Microsoft's new AR game.

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Trees, a cow, chests and other tappables on the Minecraft Earth map.

Screenshot Clifford Colby/CNET

What is Minecraft Earth?

Minecraft Earth takes the popular open-ended sandbox game and turns it an AR environment on your phone, much like Pokemon Go and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite did for those franchises. 

As you walk around using the game's map, you find "tappables" -- trees, treasure, chests, chickens and other familiar Minecraft objects -- that you tap to gather items to keep in your inventory. You can also build models of structures and then place them in the real world at full scale to explore by yourself or with friends. Each full-scale block is 1 meter high, and structures you deploy can be 256 blocks high, Micorosoft said, so for big projects, you'll need some open space. 

And of course, because it's Minecraft, you'll come across adventures on your map that involve surviving a skeleton attack, for example, or avoiding a pool of lava to uncover treasure.

When is Minecraft Earth coming out?

Microsoft is slowly rolling out early access to the game in individual regions and states, with the plan to make it available worldwide by the end of the fall. In addition to a handful of cities, the game is now available in New Zealand and Iceland.

Once it hits your area, you can start playing.

To get ready, sign up to be part of the Minecraft Earth early access program. Android users can also preregister for the game and get a notification when it's available. 

Can I play on any Android phone or iPhone?

To play Minecraft Earth, you'll need an iPhone running iOS 10 or later or an Android phone running Android 7 or later. You'll also need to have your Microsoft or Xbox Live account info handy because you use it to set up your Minecraft Earth account after you download the game from the iOS or Android app store.

How do you play it?

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Some rare Minecraft Earth items stored in inventory.

Screenshot Clifford Colby/CNET

As with Pokemon Go, you mainly play Minecraft Earth outside, using the game's map to locate items to collect and places to explore. 

As you walk around, trees, pigs, chests and other Minecraft items spawn on the map. When you're in range of a tappable object, your phone gives you a little vibration and you can tap the object to find items to add it to your inventory. 

Gathering items gives you experience points, or XP, toward leveling up. Unlike some other AR games, inventory space is unlimited, so you can collect as many stacks of oak logs or cobblestones as you want. You will also be able to gain experience points by participating in adventures and challenges, but those two activities aren't yet available in the current early access version.

At least in the prerelease versions, the game blocks you from gathering items while driving around at speeds faster than 15 mph -- so go ahead and try to play as a passenger, but don't even think about building structures while behind the wheel.

Can you play Minecraft Earth inside, too? 

Sure, to some extent. If you want to build, start with what the game calls buildplates, which are prefabricated in-world structures that you can use to create your own design. Basically, they save you time. 

Buildplates are easier to work on indoors, where you can place the small scale-model on a table and go from there. 

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One of the buildplates you can buy.

Screenshot Clifford Colby/CNET

The game comes with five of these ready-made templates for free, and the game's store offers a dozen more you can buy with rubies, the currency of the game. 

The buildplates themselves run 75 to 375 rubies each. You can earn rubies as you gather items found on the map, and you can buy them in bulk through the store using real money, ranging from 40 for $1.99 to 950 for $39.99. See the "How do you build?" section for more on building.

Once you've started working on a buildlplate you can't reset or revert it. You can of course rebuild whatever originally was on the buildplate using your resources.

How do you build?

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The life-size version of one of the smaller builds, taking up most of an alley.

Screenshot Clifford Colby/CNET

Using "Build mode," you work on small scale-model versions of structures. Then when you are happy with your creation, you place a full-size version on the game's map. 

This full-size "Play mode" version will disappear after you are done with it, and anything you do to this full-scale version won't be saved back to the Build mode version of your structure. 

And you can invite friends to help you build and explore structures. Even the smallest full-size structures are big, so make sure you have enough space to set up and explore your structure.

How do you craft and smelt?

Along the bottom, beneath the map, tap the Make Stuff icon (it's in the middle, displaying a crafting table, stonecutter, furnace, and enchanting table). 

To craft an item, tap the Crafting area, select a recipe from bottom half of the window, select how many of the item you want to make and then tap Craft. Each item takes a while -- a stone sword takes a little over 3 minutes, for example, and a diamond pickaxe is 8 hours. You can craft just one item at a time now, but you'll be able to craft items simultaneously in an upcoming update.

Smelting works the same way. Tap the Smelting area, choose a recipe and a fuel source and tap Smelt. Again, different items have different smelting times. Glass takes 51 seconds, for example.

You can speed up crafting and smelting times by spending rubies.

What about skins?

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A handsome Royal Tunic for 120 Minecoins.

Screenshot Clifford Colby / CNET

Minecraft Earth comes with the default Steve and and Alex skins, but you can change your skin by tapping your profile icon up in the top-left corner. From there, tap the Character tab and then tap Edit. Now, you can either tap the Classic Skins tab at the bottom right to pick a ready-made skin or tap the Character Creator tab in the middle to to make our own custom skin.

You can also use Minecoins to purchase personalized items in the Character Creator. Minecoins range from 320 for $1.99 to 3,500 for $19.99.

What are Adventures?

Because it's Minecraft, you go on adventures that include exploring caves and battling skeletons. These adventures are marked on the map, and when you are within range of one, you tap to enter. 

Going on an adventure may require you to dig or chop or battle hostile mobs, and you will be rewarded if you successfully complete it. And if you complete an adventure with a friend, everything you collect will be shared. While the current beta doesn't include adventures, Microsoft said they will be available in later builds.

I'll continue to play the game as Microsoft prepares it for worldwide release, and I'll keep this guide updated with what's new. In the meantime, you can also follow along with GameSpot's experiences with Minecraft Earth.

Originally published this summer and updated with new information.