For a game that is fundamentally about the act of creation, Minecraft hasn’t changed all that much.
It’s grown, certainly. Updates over the years have added new animals, monsters, and biomes, additional ways to play and — the most important thing, let’s be honest — pet cats (among many other things). But the core of it all remains the same: build the blocky world of your dreams.
Now, that’s all poised to change.
Minecraft isn’t going anywhere. But at E3 2019, Microsoft showcased two fresh takes on what a game bearing that title can be. They’re both very different experiences, but each taps into different facets of what’s made Minecraft such a powerful force for an all-ages audience.
On one side we have Minecraft Dungeons, which looks and feels like a blocky answer to Diablo. It’s a game of exploration and monster combat that sets aside the main game’s survival elements entirely. Levels are randomly generated and grouped together by biome, but everything you do is driven by a quest for more loot.
I can’t drum on that Diablo comparison hard enough. Your character screen is standard RPG fare, with equipments nodes that correlate to the different types of gear and armor you might equip. You don’t choose a character “class” in the traditional sense, though. Instead, the gear you equip determines what kind of adventurer you are.
Loot rarity is a thing, so progress and tougher foes will eventually bring you gear with different-colored thumbnails, featuring more and better spell-like effects. The enchantments that appear on any given loot drop are random, but there’s some choice involved as you pick which enchantments to actually activate.
Minecraft Dungeons borrows some of its ideas around progression from games like Destiny, which hinge a character’s power level to the numerical ratings on the gear they have equipped. The game isn’t out until 2020, so some details are vague at this point; but there’s a hub town for managing you progress between dungeon crawls, as well as plans for some kind of endgame (i.e. harder content for the most powerful characters).
The thing that struck me immediately about Dungeons was its sense of personality. Yes, it looks and plays like a Diablo-style game. But there are all these little touches that feel distinctly Minecraft.
Animate door keys need to be beaten into submission and ferried to a locked door, but take care not to let a monster hit you or it might run away. You can acquire wolf companions that follow you around and help out with combat. Bow-wielding skeletons send hails of arrows your way, and the ones that actually land stay where they are for a time, turning your character (and your wolf, when it applies) into walking pincushions.
For all of its trappings as a serious-minded action RPG, Minecraft Dungeons is unassailably cute. Even at a glance, it’s the bright, colorful, and perfectly family-friendly Minecraft world kids and adults alike have indulged in for more than 10 years. Not that I’d expect anything different from a game produced by the team at Mojang, but it’s a refreshing-yet-familiar twist all the same.
It’s a Minecraft world
If Minecraft Dungeons taps deeper into the base game’s exploration and survival thrills, Minecraft Earth — which will launch in beta form during the summer months of 2019 — is more directly about the act of creation and reshaping the world around you. You can read that literally here: this is an augmented reality game.
It’s easy to call Earth a Minecraft game by way of Pokémon Go, but that undersells what the game is actually doing. Yes, there are walk-around elements that see you wandering around your neighborhood in search of “Tappables,” or caches of basic resources of the kind you’d find readily available even just a few minutes into a fresh Minecraft game.
There are also more developed “adventures” that overlay entire scenes on top of the real world as seen from your phone or tablet screen. It might be a situation where a hole opens in the ground beneath your feet, leaving you to contend with an army of skeletons firing arrows up at you (and your friends, if you’re playing in a group).
All of that tapping and adventuring comes together when you visit your build plate. This stretch of virtual terrain is yours to shape however you like, with or without help from friends. It’s where all the resources you gather and animals you befriend can be placed. You can build from a bird’s-eye perspective, but the magic of AR also lets you expand your creation to life-size proportions and actually walk around inside it.
As you build your own little space inside standard Minecraft, you start to feel a sense of ownership over that randomly generated world. Minecraft Earth takes that idea even further by pulling the same vibe out into the real world that you live in every day. The game uses your local road and terrain maps as the basis for all of your exploration and resource-gathering, so playing is meant to be as easy as going out for a stroll.
Minecraft has come a long way since that first alpha version surfaced back in May 2009. Under Mojang and Microsoft’s care, it has grown immeasurably into a fuller version of itself. It may never be “finished” — that’s the whole point — but games like Minecraft Dungeons and Minecraft Earth prove there’s plenty of room to accommodate different kinds of experiences for different types of players.