Microsoft on Friday announced a new take on Minecraft as the game marks 10 years since its initial release. The free title, called Minecraft Earth, uses ideas similar to those in 2016's hit mobile game Pokemon Go. And just like that game, it'll be available on Apple and Android-powered devices when it launches later this year.
Here's how the game works: Using your own two feet, you explore your neighborhood with your phone pointed in front of you. As you walk around, you may see an animal, monster or landmark on your screen, and just like in Pokemon Go, that game world will be overlaid on the real one.
Microsoft isn't just chasing Pokemon Go with an AR me-too title. The technology is becoming popular among tech companies as a way to spice up their apps and potentially remake the way we use devices in the future. It may seem like a fad, particularly because it's most popularly used with filters in Instagram and Snapchat. But AR is also powering headsets like Microsoft's HoloLens 2, Magic Leap and an unannounced headset from Apple, which sources told CNET is expected to be released next year.
Minecraft Earth could represent Minecraft's next era. For a decade, the game has beckoned you to build and explore in its world. Now Minecraft Earth takes that world and overlays it on our own.
That doesn't mean Minecraft Earth is a guaranteed hit. Quite the opposite: The game will be up against a lot of competition, including Pokemon Go-creator Niantic's next big title, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, due later this year.
Microsoft thinks it has a winning formula though, and a different take that'll feel familiar enough to entice people to play.
"The way we think about this game is that everywhere I look, I can see Minecraft," Stephen McHugh, business director for Minecraft, said while discussing the game with journalists. "It brings Minecraft into your real life."
Creator Markus "Notch" Persson, who sold Minecraft to Microsoft in 2014 for $2.5 billion, designed the original game to encourage people to create their own worlds using "blocks," representing building materials like dirt, trees, stones, ores and water. While it has a simple-looking design, with blocky and jagged visuals reminiscent of games from decades ago, Minecraft offers players a lot of different things to do, from farming pigs and fighting zombies to building massive castles and digging for more things to build with.
McHugh said his team spent the past 18 months developing Minecraft Earth to feel familiar to existing players, but offer new experiences as well. He said the inspiration bled all the way down to the game's code name, Genoa, which is the Italian port city where Christopher Columbus was born and where the explorer Marco Polo began writing manuscripts of his travels while in prison.
In Minecraft Earth, people build massive creations on something called a "build plate," or a digital plot of land. Once you're done, you can put those building plates anywhere in the real world, and you can invite friends to help you keep building or exploring what you've made. Microsoft said this is made possible by its new "spatial anchors" technology that maps the real world for its HoloLens 2 headsets.
One of the key things players do in Minecraft Earth is seeking out "tapables," an equivalent of its predecessor's "blocks," that they collect as they're walking around in the real world. And every so often, the game will encourage them to go on an "adventure," where they can dig for rare building materials, fight zombies or breed pigs.
"Minecraft is a game that can be played in a lot of different ways," McHugh said.
Repeating the success of one of the world's most popular games is an immense challenge. Part of Minecraft's appeal has been the mountains of things you can do, which has encouraged its often-young players to explore engineering, architecture and math. The game's even been brought to the classroom, to help kids learn coding, for example.
Microsoft said Minecraft Earth is meant to be different from its sibling, and the company does have plans to add to the new game over time.
The company stayed mum about how it plans to make money off its free game, though it promised that any purchasing schemes will be "player friendly."
For now Microsoft is focused on its trial "beta" period this summer. The company said it'll accept signups from anyone to play, regardless of whether they've owned Minecraft before, though it'll only be inviting a small number of them at first.
First published May 17 at 6:01 a.m. PT.
Update, 7:57 a.m. PT: Adds updated Minecraft sales data.