Minecraft Earth, Microsoft's new mobile AR game, could be absolutely HUGE

Augmented reality (AR) in mobile gaming has nowhere near reached its peak, but that doesn't mean there aren't some major players out there. Most notably perhaps is Niantic, creators of Pokemon Go and now, Wizards Unite, based on the Harry Potter franchise. While Microsoft already has a massive presence in mobile gaming, indeed, with Minecraft itself, Redmond is exploring what comes next for the franchise, and we were lucky enough to be among the first to get a glimpse at the mysterious "Project Genoa."

It is officially called Minecraft Earth, and it has the potential to be massive.

Unearthing Minecraft Earth: How does it work?

The Niantic Labs inspiration in Minecraft Earth is readily apparent, although Mojang, the studio behind the game, is pushing the concepts put forth by games like Pokemon Go and Ingress far beyond what those titles offer. Minecraft Earth is much more, leveraging the creativity inherent in Minecraft's blocky world to create something unique and special.

Related: How does Minecraft Earth's gameplay work?

The game is effectively split into three distinct experiences. The "overworld," powered by Open Street Maps, functions similarly to Pokemon Go's overworld, where you'll be able to see random "tappable" blocks and goods you can instantaneously add to your inventory. A quick tap on the map will collect them for you, but if you want some of Minecraft's rarer blocks, such as diamonds, for example, you'll need to jump into one of the procedurally-generated "adventures" that appear on the map.

Once you enter an Adventure, you'll be in a small Minecraft-like world projected onto the real world, using Android's ARCore and iOS's ARKit. The augmented reality experience follows all the same rules as regular Minecraft, based on the Bedrock versions of the game. You'll be able to mine down into the floor to uncover diamonds, iron, and other materials you'd expect to find underground. You can punch trees and dig up dirt, mine the roads for cobblestone, and using Open Maps, some of the concept art showed how you'd be able to fish in real rivers and lakes in augmented reality. You'll even be able to breed mobs, build Redstone contraptions, and basically do anything you can do in Minecraft today.

"Build Plates" and the Block economy

The rarity of blocks plays a big role in Minecraft Earth, similarly to survival mode in the regular version of the game. Just like regular Minecraft, you'll be able to take your mined materials and build with them. "Build Plates," as they're called in Minecraft Earth, are your personal build spaces where you can utilize everything you've gathered to make huge crafts of your own.

You'll also be able to invite your friends from anywhere in the world to come and have a look at your creations.

You can condense the plate down to fit onto a coffee table, or blow it up to lifesize. You'll also be able to invite your friends from anywhere in the world to come and have a look at your creations and help you work on building them. Within a Build Plate, you'll be able to share your items, too, if you fancy a bit of trading.

This is one area where Minecraft has a significant edge over Pokemon Go and other similar games. You won't need to walk around constantly to get the most out of Minecraft Earth, although the game will provide you with plenty of rewards for doing so.

The Adventures you find while out and about will not only contain rare blocks and other crafting materials but will also contain various animals based on ones from the Minecraft universe. In vanilla Minecraft, we have things like different colored sheep, but Earth takes the idea of variants a bit further. I saw a "Muddy Pig" variant which has unique behavior, diving into dirt blocks. Players will be able to collect and showcase these variants on their Build Plates, which they can also set out into the world for players to explore (but not destroy). Those Adventures will not only spawn out and about but also will cycle closer to you, allowing you to play without walking around.

Protecting kids, monetization, and cross-play features

Minecraft Earth will be a free-to-play game for Android and iOS, and although Microsoft isn't ready to discuss the specifics on monetization, Executive Producer Jesse Miriam said that the goal right now is focusing on gameplay, while staying true to the Minecraft spirit. He explicitly stated that there will be no loot boxes, no pay to win, and no time-gating type of monetization mechanics, so hopefully, they'll be relatively light (or even cosmetic-only).

On the topic of user-generated content and keeping kids safe from those who might seek to exploit Minecraft's location-based gameplay, Miriam said that Redmond is taking these aspects very seriously as part of the game's development. Minecraft will use the Xbox Live API, which already comes with robust controls to protect kids from unwanted elements. If you're the parent of an Xbox Live child account, you will be able to use elevated privacy controls to protect youngsters. Younger players and their creations won't appear on the world map and will require specific permissions to engage in some of the game's more social aspects. Microsoft's established moderation team will be poised to take an active role in removing reported, unsavory content as well.

Related: When will you be able to play Minecraft Earth?

You will be able to take your skins from the Bedrock version of the game into Minecraft Earth, but beyond that, not a whole lot of cross-game integration is planned as of yet. I asked whether some of the new mob variants, like Muddy Pigs, might eventually find their way into the base versions of Minecraft. Miriam said he and Mojang are still working out the specifics, with a wink and a nod, so perhaps we'll see those hit vanilla Minecraft in the future, too. Don't expect to see Minecraft Earth on Windows-based devices though, sadly, as it depends on Apple and Google's augmented reality tech to work.

Has Microsoft struck gold?

Minecraft Earth has the potential to be absolutely huge if Pokemon Go was any indication. Minecraft has already proven itself to be an unstoppable juggernaut, which is still growing after all these years. Minecraft Earth might cannibalize players of the Pocket Edition, but the intuitive augmented reality format should help introduce the game and its core mechanics to millions of new players, who might find regular Minecraft to be a little daunting.

Minecraft Earth will hit closed beta in a few cities over the summer, mostly in the US, before rolling out across the entire world. There are no fixed timeframes as of writing as to when you can expect to get your hands on Minecraft Earth's virtual pickaxes, but we shouldn't be waiting too long.

If it all works the way it's supposed to, Microsoft might have found itself a gold mine. Or, well, a diamond mine.

Head to our Minecraft Earth hub to learn everything you need to know about the game.

Minecraft Earth at Windows Central

Jez Corden