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Love Pokemon Go? How to get started with Minecraft Earth on your phone

Microsoft wants to change the way you play games on your phone. Here's everything you need to know about the new AR 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 the beta since getting access this week, and here's my experience so far with Microsoft's new AR game.

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Trees, sheep, 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 64 blocks high, 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?

Starting this month, Microsoft plans to roll out to individual regions early access to game, until it's available worldwide by the end of the fall. Once it hits your area, you can start playing.

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 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. 

At least in the beta, 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, you 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.

While the beta won't do it now, a grayed-out tab promises to let you smelt ores and craft items. Microsoft said those features -- plus new mobs -- are on the way. As are Adventures (see below).

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.

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 earlier this week.