Microsoft’s New Minecraft Breeds Augmented Reality Pigs in the Backyard

(Bloomberg) -- Microsoft Corp. unveiled an augmented reality version of its popular Minecraft game that lets mobile users construct, view and collect game elements that appear as 3-D images imposed on real-life surroundings. 

Called Minecraft Earth, invitation-only tests of the game start this summer. Gamers can sign up beginning Friday — the 10th anniversary of the release of the original Minecraft — to be selected for the initial tests, although Microsoft declined to say when the game will be released to the public at large. Gameplay will let users collect resources found on their daily travels and create constructions with friends that can be placed in real-world surroundings. 

Microsoft’s 2015 purchase of Minecraft maker Mojang AB for $2.5 billion was Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella’s first major acquisition. The cult-favorite game lets users build virtual worlds out of pixelated blocks representing things like wood, ore, water and lava, and interact with animals, villagers and other creatures. Minecraft generated more than $1.3 billion in sales from 2015 through 2018, according to SuperData, part of Nielsen. Still, 2018 sales were $279.8 million compared with revenue of more than $400 million in 2015. Mobile augmented-reality games, which overlay digital elements on real-world scenes using a phone’s camera, surged to popularity after the 2016 debut of Niantic Inc.’s Pokemon Go.

“Minecraft continues to be a popular game, and one of the things we’ve struggled with is how do we expand that experience?” said Stephen McHugh, business director, Minecraft. 

McHugh declined to say how the game will make money. He ruled out advertising and selling loot boxes, where gamers pay for surprise items, and which have been criticized for luring purchases by kids. 

The game maps the streets, neighborhoods and parks around users, letting them virtually fish in bodies of water or chop wood from trees or breed Minecraft pigs in their backyards. Users also get “build plates” that let them construct on a tabletop with friends. Once done, the user can place the construction outside, expand it to full size and invite friends to interact with it. 

The game will work on iOS and Android devices and the testing phase will include regions outside the U.S. but McHugh declined to say where.

The company said it has reproduced the full Minecraft experience in the new game. And yes, in Minecraft Earth, players will be set on fire if they stand too close to the augmented reality lava. 

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.