SAXS PERSSON had just endured the downside of augmented reality. The creative director of Minecraft spent the morning outside in freezing London weather demonstrating what he hopes will be the next big thing to succeed Pokémon Go.
Back inside the Copper Box Arena where Microsoft was showcasing its upcoming roster at the X019 event earlier this month, Persson rubbed his hands together and chewed on a once-hot baguette while trying to explain the upcoming phenomenon that is Minecraft Earth. “We want to rebuild the world one block at a time,” said the affable Swede as he warmed up a bit.
Earth combines the DNA of runaway hit Minecraft with the AR power of modern mobile phones, superimposing the blocky worlds on real-life locations. The global rollout of the free-to-play app on iOS and Android reached Ireland last week but the game is still in Early Access while Persson and the Mojang crew try to figure out what works best on mobile.
“We haven't put marketing behind it,” explains Persson. “We're not doing any paid anything. We just wanted it get out in Early Access to people. Then we'll see where it goes. We're really happy with where it is. The primary goal right now is to see what people like, see where people spend their time and what people want more of.”
Saxs Persson, head of Minecraft Earth and creative director of the Minecraft franchise, at XO19 where the cold, damp weather made demoing the game outside fun
Earth functions quite like the mainline game in that the player collects resources such as stone and wood. But you do that by walking around and finding them in them in the real world Pokémon Go style. Then you use them to build elaborate structures on a “build plate” (readymade templates such as a field, a village, etc). This is essentially a small square of virtual real estate on which you construct your ideas, with the AR twist that it’s overlaid on what your phone camera sees.
Later, you can bring it outside where it scales up to life-size, plus you can invite other to see it and walk around it. Down the road, there will be public building competitions and even crazier multiplayer modes.
But Persson, who previously helmed the Project Spark build-your-own-game software on Xbox and PC, isn’t getting ahead of himself and knows there’s lots of work to do yet.
“Your build plate is your build plate and you get to decide where you put it and who sees it,” he says. “In order for other people to see a build plate, they have to be invited in. Long term, we have a goal of public build plates and that would be where you commit your build plate to somewhere, let's say like an event outside here, and people get a chance to see it, rate it, play it, etc.
“Ultimately, we want there to be lots of building plates, so they’re butting up against each other.
“We're not quite ready to discuss all the details of it because we don't know them yet. We also discovering what value people put on this.
“What we want to start with is, like, have building competitions where people can sit and come with the things they built at home, they can finish it on site, they can pool resources together, display it and everybody gets to see it.
“So, as you put it down, anybody that looks in that direction will see that build plate. Over time, we would imagine that there will be a series of [server] instances essentially. Some of them will be things that reset, some of them will be free for building, some of them will be mini-games, but they will be voted upon and the things you see are the highest voted. It's almost like Wikipedia: I place down something, you place something on top of it. In order for that to become the default view, more people have to upvote this then what was there before."
Like the protracted development of the original development, don’t expect the finished product any time soon.
“It could be a year maybe before we get to 1.0,” Persson admits. “We're hoping by next summer we will have a full set of features for builders, creators and adventurers. But we'll see, we're in learning mode right now to see what really excites people, what adventures people like, how long do they spend. Conventional wisdom on a phone says don't make anything over three, four minutes – except Minecraft sessions are usually much longer.
“Throughout the beta, we've been seeing more and more interesting and big builds. We haven't seen something that specifically breaks what we're doing and we haven't seen anything that we didn't expect. That said, within the confines of building on a build plate, we're starting to see amazing things there.
Perssons becomes animated as he describes how structures in Earth’s virtual world reflect the considerable effort that went into their creation.
“Every block in Minecraft Earth was found somewhere,” he says. “Everything came from somewhere physical. We think that's really important to us that when you see a build it is something that people have picked up in the world, that they have traded with friends, that they have mined on a build plate or somewhere they've gone on adventures. They have crafted and smelted and wound their way through the tech tree to get, for example, these particular gold blocks. If I build a house out of gold blocks, I can instantly see a value to that.”
Speaking of value, Mojang decided against charging upfront for Earth, figuring in-app purchases would broaden appeal – and probably be more lucrative (the most expensive currency bundle in the store is €90!). Currency can be used to buy skins, mobs and build plate templates – but it can also be earned in-game.
With the exception of cosmetic items, however, nothing can be transferred between Earth and Minecraft itself, which seems a missed opportunity. Persson doesn’t rule it out in the long term but warns there are technical hurdles.
“We've rewritten a lot of the mobs and the behaviours to be more friendly for smaller spaces,” he notes. “In general, it's the same code in Earth as Minecraft. But we don't have plans to go between the games for what you built. We do use the same characters and outfits in Minecraft and Minecraft Earth. The things you buy for your character – all that stuff is the same. Your balance of coins are the same between the games. It's just the games are separate.
"People say I live in the future because I refuse to acknowledge the limitations we have today as we're building the game. But I can't imagine a future where you would be completely interoperable. But I do think there's ways to think about how to explore your Minecraft Earth worlds through Minecraft. For now, though, they're separate.”
As the creative director of all Minecraft’s tentacles, Persson is enthusiastic at how the franchise is expanding in several directions at once.
“I think the most exciting thing about the franchise overall is that there's a very distinct feeling inside the team that there's a lot left to do on Minecraft – like Minecraft and [forthcoming multiplayer adventure] Dungeons and Earth. All of us have this idea that if we worked really hard for five years, we could probably take the next big step. But we're by no means at a saturation point or at the end of our creative endeavour.”