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Minecraft Earth "couldn't have been made two years ago"

Torfi Olafsson and Jessica Zahn discuss the technical, social, and geographical challenges of bringing Minecraft into the real world

If you happened to pass by a certain park in Seattle last month, you might have seen myself, a few Minecraft representatives, and a few other journalists awkwardly pacing, crouching, and waving our phones close to the ground or in circles around us. It's a dance that probably looked to outside observers not unlike (but perhaps more ridiculous than) the odd movements of crowds chasing virtual monsters during the overwhelmingly popular launch of Pokémon Go.

But Minecraft Earth, despite at first glance looking a bit like Pokémon Go in that it's a location-based, AR-using adventure, is something entirely different. It contains some similar elements, such as exploring the real world and collecting in-game items that correspond to real spaces ("Tappables," which contain recognizable Minecraft blocks and items). But it's also part-AR adventure game and part-creative space, where players can take the found Tappables and build them into Minecraft creations anywhere: on the table in front of them, in their living room, or even in the middle of a public park.

At a hands-on preview last month, I spoke with game director Torfi Olafsson and briefly with principal program manager Jessica Zahn on the game's inspirations, technological challenges, monetization concerns, and the global spirit the team at Mojang wants to infuse into Minecraft's foray onto mobile devices.

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Olafsson (left) and Zahn (right) stand by a pre-made Build Plate

Minecraft Earth effectively has two origins: a conceptual, and a technical. On the technical side, Minecraft Earth is the natural offshoot of another prototype we've already seen. At E3 2015, Microsoft showed off a demo of HoloLens during its stage presentation in which one person played Minecraft normally using the lens, and the other was able to see an augmented reality version of the world the first player was in on the table in front of them. They were then able to manipulate the world and view it from numerous different angles.

That prototype, and the HoloLens in general, never made it to the mainstream. It wasn't until the latest generation of mobile devices widely supported AR capabilities, 60fps, good tracking, and the ability to play without overheating the phone in a few minutes, that something like that prototype became viable in the form of Minecraft Earth.

"After our experiences with HoloLens, we were incredibly keen to bring Minecraft to the real world -- not just to your table, but to your street corner, your park, the water fountain, and allow people to be completely immersed with it," said Olafsson. "But it had a lot of technical and design challenges. And this particular game couldn't have been made two years ago, let alone four years ago. There have been so many advances in the capabilities of mobile phones and cloud computing and visual computing in the past couple of years that the thing we are doing just became possible, which puts us at the bleeding edge of technology. Which is annoying ("And exciting," Zahn interjected) because there's no path. No one's been there before."

"There have been so many advances in the capabilities of mobile phones and cloud computing and visual computing that [Minecraft Earth] just became possible"

Torfi Olafsson

While many of the early technical challenges simply involved getting the thing to run on most phones, new challenges presented themselves throughout the development of Minecraft Earth. Many of those, said Olafsson, were related to the fact that your average AR user had, up to this point, only experienced AR through activities such as photography or design.

"Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are investing a lot in augmented reality, so there is a lot of software that only a year or two ago was just research papers somewhere in Zurich, and now runs on all of our phones," he said. "And truth be told, although it's available on our phones, not a lot of people are using it. So as we started to use augmented reality to be inside creations and stand around for 20 minutes, go to parks, and go to different environments, and we discovered there were a lot of issues that hadn't been unearthed, simply because people hadn't been using AR in that way before."

Zahn added, "And I think there are a lot of challenges in teaching people how to use augmented reality. People don't necessarily know that a blank, white table is not necessarily going to be a great background for a build because there are no feature points. It's just us trying to figure out how we can educate people and make this mainstream when it's clearly not yet."

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You can create your own builds on Build Plates, or freely edit, disassemble, or (as we did) set fire to them using blocks you find as you play

Conceptually, Zahn said the idea was inspired in part by Mojang's work with its charity, Block by Block. The charity partners with communities in developing countries, using Minecraft to design squares, parks, and footpaths that are then shown to city governments and build in the real world. As Olafsson puts it, it's an idea that was "born in the desire to give people more agency over their environment."

And while Minecraft Earth won't actually translate your AR creations into reality, Olafsson said the game's design still hearkens back to its global, collaborative origins.

"We have a very diverse audience, which skews young. It's not just some tiny, private part of the world that plays Minecraft. In an early design, you would have to go to an actual desert to get desert materials in the game. You'd have to go to a jungle to get jungle pieces. And that's great if you're an executive and work in business development for a multinational company and you're always on planes, but we used as a mental model: kids in a village in Alaska. This game has to be just as fun for kids living in a village in Alaska that never travel as it is for this VP of business development person.

"Also, we didn't want it to be overly aggressive or competitive. This is a collaborative co-op game. There's no PvP combat. You cannot kill another player. And when players go into an adventure together, they share the rewards. It isn't that great for the [game] economy, but after a lot of playtesting we saw that people were more inclined to play more together, take their six-year-old with them, play with a friend even though he's not as high level as you are. It's a more fun, collaborative, social experience."

"This game has to be just as fun for kids living in a village in Alaska as it is for a VP of business development"

Torfi Olafsson

It's admittedly difficult to pull away from the Pokémon Go comparisons when talking about Minecraft Earth, since it's easily the most popular video game experience that's dealt both with location-based play and AR, letting it function as an easy reference point. And looking at Minecraft Earth's imminent full launch, it's likely that due to those similarities it will face at least some of the same challenges that Niantic's 2016 title did.

But with three years of hindsight and the technical and financial backing of Microsoft, Olafsson said Mojang is well-prepared for possibilities such as, say, a sudden flood of players at launch that might overwhelm servers if they aren't prepared for it.

"Being overwhelmed, so popular, is what you call a luxury problem," he said. "We built the game up in an incredibly scalable architecture. The team that built the server of our game has built applications that scale to 100,000, one million, ten million users fast and easy.

"We're actually having a piracy issue right now where the game is supposed to be closed, but people have found a way to distribute it, so we're having 20 times more people playing the game than we're supposed to at this point in time, and so far we haven't had any scalability issues."

In Adventures, you might find yourself fighting monsters, solving puzzles, or digging deep into the (AR) ground to find hidden Diamonds

In Adventures, you might find yourself fighting monsters, solving puzzles, or digging deep into the (AR) ground to find hidden Diamonds

Another issue that's seen a lot of industry discussion lately is microtransactions. Minecraft Earth is free-to-play, and its singular in-game currency, Rubies, is both earnable through gameplay as well as purchasable with real-world money, and Zahn reassured me that there won't be any content or items in the game that can only be obtained with real-world money.

I asked Olafsson later if there would ever be anything resembling loot boxes, especially given the current legal controversies surrounding them and other forms of microtransactions in various countries.

"At Microsoft we look at laws in all the countries we work in, and our standards fit to the most stringent of laws, and we apply that globally," he said. "Also, we just don't think [loot boxes are] fair. There are no secrets behind purchases in the game. The Tappables have secrets -- you don't know what's inside them, but they're not behind a purchase. When you make a purchase, you know what you're getting."

"We look at laws in all the countries we work in, and our standards fit to the most stringent of laws, and we apply that globally"

Torfi Olafsson

And still another set of issues Mojang has had the luxury of being able to prepare for are the concerns around privacy, safety, and legality when it comes to placing virtual objects in real spaces. Pokémon Go has seen a number of complaints from individuals and communities over the years for issues such as trespassing and vandalism, some of which ended up in courts. And given that Minecraft's demographics already skew younger, there's the additional concern of children ending up in places they shouldn't.

"We use mostly Open Street Maps as our data source, and there's a lot of tagging in there that helps us weed out undesirable places," Olafsson said. "Our algorithm has a set of rules, places it knows you can reach a Tappable within 70 meters. It doesn't put it on water, it doesn't put it on cemeteries or places of worship or places that are shady. It's very funny -- I was looking at the list of places our algorithm avoids, and the list would make a really good X-rated movie, or what some people might call just a good night out. Gun shop! Vape shop! Areas you probably don't want to guide traffic toward, and our algorithm doesn't place game material there.

"And there is reporting inside the game if there's a tappable or an adventure in a place that isn't right, and if people feel we've placed anything close to their property or they don't want their store or home close to one of our adventures, they can fill out a form and we'll remove the content from that location."

Mojang is taking precautions to ensure that players aren't wandering into unsafe areas in pursuit of Tappables or Adventures

Mojang is taking precautions to ensure that players aren't wandering into unsafe areas in pursuit of Tappables or Adventures

Safety isn't the only location-related concern that players have had with similar games in the past. One widespread and ongoing complaint with other location-based titles has been that rural areas tend to be underserved, meaning that players tend to fall off quickly and the loss in activity further perpetuates those areas getting few updates. Olafsson acknowledged that rural coverage was an area Minecraft Earth would need to improve upon as time went on, but felt the need to have necessary data to place content safely outweighed the need to have an abundance of content available.

"We see where people log in. We know where they're getting Tappables, we know where they're playing Adventures, we know where they're putting their builds. We accidentally launched in the entire UK when we were just going to launch in London, but we saw it immediately because we compared logins versus gameplay. I saw logins across the entire UK, and just gameplay in London. If we see a login somewhere, we put gameplay there. If we observe people logging in from a rural area that's not supported, it will raise alarms and we will try to address that quickly."

"I hope we are capable of making [the audience] see what we see -- that AR can be one of the best ways to interact with virtual spaces"

Torfi Olafsson

Location concerns have also inspired use of new, cloud-based technologies in Minecraft Earth. One example is the use of Microsoft's Azure Spatial Anchors for the game's "Adventures," areas in the world where players can enter an AR approximation of Minecraft's Survival mode and fight enemies, gather blocks, and dig for treasures.

As I saw in the demo, once we arrived at an Adventure placed in a public park, I was given the opportunity to "place" the Adventure in the real world somewhere within a large radius using AR. That way, I wasn't trying to fight skeletons in the middle of a duck pond or on top of a garbage can. Olafsson told me that in the final version of the game, the logic one player uses to place an Adventure will be suggested to others doing the same Adventure later on.

"Azure Spatial Anchors is the visual computing technology that recognizes 3D environments and helps you place things in the real world," he said. "That creates a shared coordinate space and a shared reality for people who join in. The more people play an Adventure in any location, the more they train the cloud on knowing what the best location is.

"Now let's say someone parks a garbage truck there or builds a statue and you can't play there anymore, and people start playing a little bit north of it. Azure Spatial Anchors will start recognizing that and suggest that new placement. It helps suggest, remember, and share locations between devices over time."

Olafsson and Zahn are proud of the numerous new technologies that have made the previously-impossible ideas of Minecraft Earth into a reality, and are just about ready to start testing their viability with a larger audience. The game has been in a closed beta for the last several months in a limited number of cities, but is at last making its way into early access in select countries this October.

From there, Olafsson said he hopes that improving technology only continues to uplift and evolve what Minecraft Earth can do -- and that Minecraft Earth itself is able to evolve its audience's perception of what AR can be.

"I hope we are capable of making [the audience] see what we see -- that AR can be one of the best ways to interact with virtual spaces," he said. "Your phone has become both your camera and your cursor, and I've seen kids as young as six play this game with more ease than a game controller or a mouse and keyboard, because it's such a natural way to interact with things. There are a lot of hurdles, especially with user interface and paradigms we need to introduce. But if we are able to get any closer to that, I hope we'll be a part of bringing AR to the mainstream."

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