When walking around out in the world you can use the app to fish in lakes, cut down trees and mine blocks. Every resource has an origin. You collected that new Muddy Pig from that park you visited in Adelaide, or got that red brick from a mine in the Macedon Ranges. Your items have provenance, and that makes them special.
When you head home you’ll have access to your personal build plate to construct whatever you like. You can share the link to your creations, or just invite friends to your house to build or play with you.
Your plate is small and fits easily on the table. You can trade blocks or other items with friends, or you can pool your resources to build something amazing. But what is left on that build plate belongs to the owner of that plate.
When it was my turn to build, I destroyed everything on the phone owner’s build plate, and then tapped randomly to place well over 2000 blocks. I crashed the demo, and was the perfect example of why you might not want to let others play in your game. “There’s no undo. It’s just like life,” according to Torfi Olafsson, game director of Minecraft.
But that’s Build mode. In Play mode your creations come to life, and you can let others into your creation without worrying that they’ll kill it. Not only can you play in your builds at a much bigger scale and walk around your castle, but you can invite friends and they can blow stuff up, and cause general mayhem without disturbing your build. That’s how you can create spectacular escape rooms, or share your red block machines with friends and strangers without fearing for your resources.
What was interesting about the game was how little direction there was; there were no achievements to chase or arbitrary distance to walk to unlock things. Saxs Persson, creative director of Minecraft, doesn’t think that approach is right for the game.
“In general, we don’t believe a lot in that style of motivation,” he said. “I think our players have always been motivated by their own goals, and when you start layering on what we think people should be focused on … it competes with what people naturally want to do, so we try to be careful about that.”
Most of the games that employ those kinds of objectives use them in order to retain or lure back players, but Persson isn’t worried about that.
“When we do user research, the feedback is usually ‘This is the worst game ever’. Not Minecraft Earth, but Minecraft in general. [They say] it is the most difficult game to get into, there’s no reason for people to come back, and they’ll churn out really fast,” he says with a smile.
“Except, it is the highest retaining game I’ve ever heard of. We’ve been here for 10 years, and a huge proportion of the people who play, played for years, and they do that because they like playing it. I don’t have to give them any other goals, other than give them more tools to play with and more toys to play with so that they’ll have a reason to come back again. We leave it up to people to [decide] how they want to play.”
Even without seeing the final app, and proper proof that the game can do all the developers claim, it’s easy to see that Minecraft Earth is going to be huge with existing Minecraft players. But it also has the potential to open up the game to players who previously didn’t click with the open-endedness and lack of direction of Minecraft. The urge to collect, and the ability to battle or explore with real strangers in parks are tough lures to resist.
The author travelled to Washington as a guest of Microsoft.
Alice is a freelance journalist, producer and presenter.