With the mighty success of Pokemon Go, Wizards Unite and other augmented reality games, it stands to reason that software giant Microsoft wants a slice of that action. After all, it owns one of the biggest brands in gaming: Minecraft.
It has bided its time, but is now ready to capitalise on the popularity of AR for its latest block-building mobile release, Minecraft Earth.
But what is Minecraft Earth? How does it work? And do you really have to stand in a park all day creating something on your phone? Read on to find out.
What is Minecraft Earth?
Microsoft's Minecraft Earth is a block building and adventure game, much like the existing Minecraft for PC, consoles and mobile devices. Where it differs is that it is solely designed for Android and iOS and uses augmented reality to overlay Minecraft creations onto the real world.
You can use your smartphone to build creations anywhere you like, placing them in parks, streets, even around and on top of your home. Then, other Minecraft Earth users can hold up their phones and view them.
It's not just a solo experience. You can collaborate on builds with friends or fellow 'crafters, with each of you using a tablet or phone to build and view the ongoing project.
And, if you're worried about having to stand in a park for hours to build a masterpiece, you will be able to build something at home and then place it anywhere outside you like: "Work on a smaller scale with friends before taking your builds out into the wild at full size," revealed Microsoft during the game's unveiling.
There will be adventure and collection elements too, with the ability to battle Mobs (creatures that inhabit the world of Minecraft) either placed by the game or other players. Once found and collected, you can then place your own Mobs in Minecraft Earth builds.
Minecraft Earth gameplay and exclusive content
The game was first demoed publicly during Apple's WWDC keynote at the beginning of June. We learned a few extra things about it during the on-stage presentation, not least that one of the features will be exclusive to iPhone and iPad.
The demo showed gameplay that is relevant to both Android and iOS versions of the game, with two members of the Microsoft-owned studio Mojang interacting with a previously-built castle.
As first, it was small and Lego-sized, sat on a tablet, but was then moved onto the stage floor and resized into a life-size building. This is the sort of gameplay you can expect in the early access build that's currently rolling out.
However, an iOS-exclusive feature was then revealed as one of the developers was automatically cut-out and placed inside the Minecraft Earth world. This is thanks to a new feature in Apple's ARKit 3.0: people occlusion.
The software automatically detects humans and can place them in a 3D space, placing virtual objects behind, to the sides and in front. This would usually have to be implemented by the developer manually. In addition, the ARKit tools can automatically recognise gestures for full, automated motion capture.
The Minecraft avatar in the demo, therefore, moved in sync with the player.
We're not yet sure when this feature will be added to the game.
Other gameplay videos made by people playing the closed beta appeared online and that's closer to what you'll find in the early access build. We also played the beta version ourselves, which you can read about here: How to play Minecraft Earth and what to expect.
When and where is it available?
Minecraft Earth started as a closed beta on iOS and Android, for select users that signed up on the dedicated pre-registration page. Now it is rolling out to select regions in its early access form.
You should follow the official Minecraft Earth Twitter account for updates on which regions have already received the latest version of the game. So far, that includes the US, UK, Canada, Australia, Mexico, South Korea, Philippines, Sweden, Iceland and New Zealand.
What platforms is Minecraft Earth available for?
Both Android and iOS are supported. You will need a device that is capable of running a decent AR experience, though.
Some of the features, such as the iOS-exclusive people occlusion discussed above, will need more recently released handsets.
How much will it cost?
The Minecraft Earth is completely free, with all paid elements locked-off in the closed beta (but might soon become available in the early access build). The full version will be a free-to-play game, meaning you can download it at no cost and use it as often as you like without hidden fees.
However, while Microsoft is yet to fully detail in-app purchasing there will be a store to purchase extra Mobs and skins.
There will be no loot boxes though, so you will get exactly what you paid for - no gambling aspect at all.
Minecraft Earth more information
You can find out more information about the game from the official website here.