The end of Minecraft Earth

Minecraft Earth, the location-based, augmented reality game will shut down summer 2021.

COVID-19 continues to rage in the United States and I hurt my knee; it’s been a quiet time for me in regard to location-based gaming for a variety of fun reasons. In the opening portion of my post back in early April of 2020 (which might as well have been 1,000 years ago), I noted that geolocation gaming was stunned and/or scrambling to deal with the health crisis. Many of the major companies in the genre have since come up with interesting solutions to keep players involved in a game genre that requires exploring the outside world. (Though, less nobly, many games have just pretended the pandemic doesn’t exist at all.) Months later, we seem to have had our first location-based game casualty as a result of the pandemic. 

I had long held off from writing a post on Minecraft Earth because the game was still in “early access” and it felt unfair to review an incomplete game. It was frustrating though, because I really like Minecraft Earth and wanted to dive into the detailed, nerdy reasons explaining why, and also because it was unclear if/when the game would actually leave early access. 

The concept of early access in the video game industry has grown vague over time. In theory, it means that a game is released semi-privately so dedicated players can test it and find problems before the game gets an official, fancy launch to a wider public. However, these days we’re seeing games stay in early access for years and that line between a “work in progress” and “final product” has gotten far more blurred.

My worry about covering a game too early was for naught, for in early January 2021 it was announced that Minecraft Earth was being sunsetted; the game would only be playable for a few more months before it was entirely removed from app stores. 

The world map in the location-based, augmented reality game, Minecraft Earth.

Minecraft Earth is/was (oh jeez, let’s just say “is”), an interesting blend of location-based game mechanics, augmented reality, and the LEGO-like building mechanics of the mega hit video game Minecraft. You walk around a map which matches your real world surroundings, collecting “tappables” which give you building blocks, items, and creatures of various rarities. 

In a separate “builder” mode you can use the things you’ve collected to build a little landscape on your real tabletop using augmented reality (AR). That AR “build plate” as they call it has two modes, one where you can freely build from an overhead view, and one where you enter a first-person mode and interact with the game much like the regular Minecraft; you can explore your creation, fight monsters you’ve placed, etc. You can also have other people join, but with only one AR-capable device in my house and no online friend mode in the game, that wasn’t something I ever explored (for some reason my wife wasn’t interested in letting me add Minecraft Earth to her phone).

The third major feature of Minecraft Earth is its “adventures” which are curated build plates from the game’s developers that have a combat and puzzle focus. An adventure may, for instance, have you place a series of blocks in a certain way in order to reveal the final treasure chest and complete the level. Completing adventures awards rarer objects as incentive to attempt them. Adventures-as-game-mechanic in Minecraft Earth had an interesting journey and seem to be the “failure” on which the game’s cancellation is primarily being hung. Pre-pandemic they were only accessible by traveling to real-world locations; there was one in our neighborhood park. Mid-pandemic, the game was changed so that adventures could be done within your home, and access to those adventures became managed by an in-game currency system of sorts. I applauded the decision as it was the responsible move to make, but now with clear hindsight, it could be argued that was the beginning of the end of the game. 

The team behind Minecraft Earth, at least based on the behind-the-scenes videos they released, seemed to want adventures to be the focal point of the game. Augmented reality was the first and foremost thing touted in their marketing materials. To me, however, adventures never worked very well. The puzzles they wanted you to solve were often straight-up broken or unclear as to what you were supposed to be doing, making them frustrating to play. Even worse, I found them largely boring. I kept ignoring those doubts, however, with the reminder that the game was still in early access. Surely those were issues that would be polished out. Or better yet, maybe they’d bolster the other parts of the game so the whole experience didn’t depend so heavily on adventures…

Before I get further into the game’s fall, let me talk for a bit about what makes Minecraft Earth so great. I love the video game Minecraft and am unashamedly hipster, “I’ve been playing the game since the ‘Classic’ release” about it. It’s my zen game; where I go when I need to chill out, which has been invaluable during the pandemic, let me tell you. Minecraft Earth captures much of that feeling, but mixes in my love for location-based gaming. I can go take a long walk and simultaneously collect objects I can use later in my building. It feels far more productive than the leading location-based games where the focus is on collecting for collecting’s sake. Also, this is a small thing, but Minecraft Earth is one of the few location-based games that doesn’t have a dexterity mini game to collect its objects. You just tap a few times on the object and don’t have to break your stride. I like taking walks with my kid while we play this kind of game, but for the love of all that’s holy, just walking around the block with Pokémon Go takes friggin’ forever since he can’t toss balls at monsters and walk at the same time.

Another joy I found in Minecraft Earth was the semi-regular, themed build challenges Mojang would post on the game’s official Discord channel. You’d have a couple weeks to build something and then the dev. team or the community would vote on a winner. I never won, much to my shame, but goodness I had fun thinking of weird and creative entries. Plus, the scramble to collect the materials I needed to fulfill my vision gave me additional focus. I definitely took many extra walks just to get what I needed for a challenge. 

A few of my favorites:

One of my more low-key builds got featured in an official Minecraft blog post and that was quite satisfying. Actually, it was the first build where I didn’t make something outsized… maybe I should have done more of that.

As time went on though, something felt wrong. Updates to Minecraft Earth while regular, were thin on substance. The game wasn’t getting more stable and was as buggy as ever. The game desperately needed new features for the map since adventures had moved out of the built environment. The game’s economy was incredibly broken. They kept releasing the same livestock but in different colors; how many different kinds of cows does one actually need, especially when they don’t do anything different from each other? I kept thinking that the lack of significant change was a deep intake of breath before a big update, but as months slipped by, that hopeful, major update never exhaled.

I flipped between stunned and unsurprised at the announcement that Minecraft Earth was being shut down. The declaration lays it at the feet of the pandemic, and while that certainly is partially true, I think that’s not the whole of it. I mention above that the game’s economy was broken and I mean that both in a gameplay sense and a real earnings sense. 

My inventory in Minecraft Earth is enormous.

At the time of this writing I have my 768 sheep in my inventory. What the heck was I supposed to do with all those sheep? I also have 178 diamonds, which are supposed to be one of Minecraft’s hardest-to-obtain resources. I reached a point where rarity no longer had meaning and the game never figured out how to slow players down, or make them work harder for what they wanted. Sure, I played the game a lot, but Minecraft Earth had absolutely no plan for that.

As this article declares, Minecraft Earth “only” earned $498,000 in lifetime revenue (a little over a year of life) which in the high-stakes world of location-based gaming is apparently a failure. When everything is compared to the juggernaut of Pokémon Go, the grading curve is probably a little broken, but thinking purely cold-bloodedly, I have to agree that Minecraft Earth failed to figure out its financial model. 

Sadly the current model for mobile games is that they “have” to repeatedly squeeze money from players to be considered viable, and there was no reason in Minecraft Earth to spend real money. Everything was easy enough to obtain and as mentioned, I actually had more than I ever needed without trying very hard. It seems to boil down to the team wanting players to be able to play the game while being safe during the pandemic, and never figuring out how (or being given the resources) to pivot past their original designs. That hurts my heart.

Minecraft Earth shuts down for good in June of 2021. In the meantime the game has opened itself up, wiping away object rarities so newer players can go wild collecting all the stuff. The team has created a new, final season of challenges, which has some unique clothing as rewards; clothing rewards in Minecraft Earth can transfer to the main Minecraft game, a feature I’ve never cared about, but being on the official Discord has taught me that a lot of folks really, really care about that. I will admit that I do like my evil wizard costume.

My character skin in Minecraft Earth. He's very sneaky, isn't he?

This sucks. Minecraft Earth captured my imagination like no location-based game other than perhaps my stint with Jurassic World Alive, because it felt like it had a huge possibility space to play within. I hope the team behind Minecraft Earth land in good, fulfilling positions. The idea for the game was solid, but there’s clearly more to this story. Why did they bet so heavily on adventures, but then didn’t implement any other features? Ran out of money? Microsoft corporate overlords pulled the plug? We’ll likely never know. Now I have to figure out what I’m going to do with all the little NFC chip-enabled miniatures I bought for the game.

My Minecraft Earth boost mini collection. I wonder if they're worth eBaying...

(I’m seeing if anyone on eBay wants them, is what I’m doing.)