Minecraft is a hugely popular game with children and players of all ages, but parents need to understand the new Better Together version before letting kids play it.
The new version is significant for many reasons, not least because it puts the Minecraft business on a firm footing for future expansions by unifying the game technology across console, desktop and tablet versions.
This is a brave move on Mojang's part. Any substantial change to a video game with an avid following such as this will cause ripples online. That's certainly what were seeing in early reactions to the beta version of the new game. Although to the uniformed eye the new version of Minecraft looks the same as previous versions, there are visual and functional changes that not everyone is keen on. There are also issues around parental settings and access to online servers that families need to be aware of.
The First Cross-Platform Minecraft
There has been long running debates about which version of Minecraft is the best. This is an impossible question to answer as different players, and different families, focus on different aspects of the game.
The new Better Together Minecraft should help resolve some of this as the same game will be available on different systems. It is currently available in Beta on Windows, Xbox and Android phones and is scheduled for a full release in the Autumn.
This will also include the Nintendo Switch, Kindle, VR and iPad versions of the game, but currently the PlayStation remains outside these plans as an agreement on Sony's platform hasn't yet been reached.
Further good news is that if you have an existing digital version of the game you will get the new version of Minecraft for free. This means that if you buy Minecraft in the next month or two you will effectively get two games for the price of one: the original game and the new updated game.
It's A Brand New Game
An important aspect of the change is that this “Better Together Update” is in fact an entirely new game build on a new game engine. This opens a whole host of new possibilities but it also, inevitably, feels different to play to the other versions.
Popular Minecraft content creator, Joseph Garrett (Stampy Cat on YouTube) has been outspoken about this and other aspects of the new version of the game. He recently shared an hour long overview of his reaction to the changes.
Caveating his comments with the fact they are based on the Beta version he stated that, “It's essentially a completely different game… there's a part of me that's used to the older version and now this one is different, but I think some things are objectively better in the older version.”
“I'm a customer that brought Minecraft like anyone else”, he continued, “the way I play the game is recording it. I think that this new version is going to negatively effect the way I play and record Minecraft.” He rounded off his video by saying, “I play Minecraft almost everyday, it's my living… and this is the biggest change I've had to deal with. Some of it's good, a lot of it (in my eyes) isn't great.”
It's clear that this update is in fact a whole new game. It will take time to assess how that compares to previous versions, as well as to get used to the updated visuals. Also, Minecraft is a game always on the move so it's likely that early concerns are soon tweaked or fixed. The challenge for Mojang is to balance between features that help new players and those that may hinder those used to how the game functioned previously.
Better Together Is The Future of Minecraft
While the old versions of Minecraft will continue to exist on their existing platforms, it's this new Minecraft game that will be receiving investment and development going forwards. “Existing owners will still be able to access and play the old console version and minigames”, states the Better Together FAQ, “but those versions will not receive updates after the official release of Minecraft.”
While there's no rush to update to the new version — the existing Minecraft games won't stop working — parents need to know that it is this new version of Minecraft that children will want to play. It's here that new exciting updates will happen as the game is developed in the coming years.
Worlds that children have created in the Xbox One version of the game will port over to the new version of the game. It's unclear how this will work for the Nintendo Switch, and currently there's not a public plan for how the PlayStation version of the game will integrate with these new plans going forward.
Take Care With Minecraft Online Servers And Children
I talked to Adam Clarke who is a Minecraft Content Producer who uses the game in his work with schools, arts and theatre projects. He is positive about the opportunities of the new version.
“Minecraft is always an amazingly creative experience. It has intrinsic educational value from problem-solving, storytelling and team building skills. The better together version allows our kids to play together on console on tablet for the first time it also opens up service which of been unavailable on the console version. It gives children the opportunity for the first time to play on servers with mini-game worlds where they will connect and play with other people from all over the globe.”
Children playing in open online servers can be a cause for concern for parents. I asked Adam what security steps have been taken to protect young players. “Children will need an Xbox live account. So, if you don't want your children to engage an online chat you have ability to change those settings. Learning how to do that maybe daunting at first but it's well worth the effort. Another way to help your kids navigate this world — to start playing with them”
The online servers that Adam talks about have previously only been available in the desktop version of the game. It's therefore important that parents understand this new aspect on Minecraft that will be available in the console version for the first time.
Some of the activity in these online servers has caused concern (dating and pixelated nudity in the Lifeboat server for instance) in the past, but Microsoft has hand picked the servers that are available in the console version of the game and worked with the companies that run them to ensure a safe experience. While players can still access other servers in the tablet and desktop versions of the game, on consoles only the hand picked servers are accessible.
The Minecraft ESRB Rating Is Still E10+
The ESRB of Minecraft on Xbox and Nintendo Switch is E10+ and will remain unchanged for the new Minecraft Better Together version of the game. Answering the question about whether servers have to be sanitised to comply with this rating, it answered: “To be listed in the in-game server browser, we require that servers provide moderation and ensure that their content is safe and appropriate for players of all ages.”
Games are rated for the content they ship with rather than for the content that might be created by them. Minecraft has it's E10+ rating for Fantasy Violence. The ESRB describes the experience as players traversing “an open-world environment, avoiding hazards, building new structures, and crafting weapons to occasionally defend against monsters.”
They address the violence in the game by stating that, “though not encouraged, players can engage in violent acts such as lighting animals on fire and harming animals with weapons. Mild explosions are occasionally heard as players use dynamite to fend off creatures and mine the environment.”
It's worth noting that playing Minecraft via services like Xbox Live often assumes the players are at least 13 years old. The Lifeboat server, which is accessible in the update, states that its content is suitable for those 13 and over.
Setting Up Minecraft Parental Controls
The new Better Together version of Minecraft in many ways offers better protection for young players and more control to parents that was previously available. The new game adheres to the parental controls on each system.
This offers parents a chance to better understand the interactions their family can make online gaming and set sensible restrictions. This means that there are simple settings to turn off chat so that children can join servers but not see or participate in any in-server communication with other players. Parents can also limit the multiplayer interactions to friends only or no multiplayer if they'd prefer to keep their children from joining servers at all.
Furthermore all the official server partners included in the game have taken “steps to ensure online play is safe and comfortable for all ages”. This includes chat filtering, in-game reporting, and live moderation.
The Lifeboat server, for example, states that it “goes the extra mile to keep young players protected”. This means that its chat filter is updated to block profanity as well as sensitive personal data. It also has a large staff of volunteer moderators to better filter what is happening online. They also state that their games are “made for and offered for players age 13 and older”.
It is also pragmatic about the limits of this kind of protection “The chat filter will only do so much, as it is possible to say nasty things with harmless words. So don’t assume that nothing harmful or bullying has gotten through. Watch for changes in mood of your child. If this happens sit down and have a talk with him or her.”
Marketplace Microtransactions Are Now In Minecraft
Another big change that parents should be aware of is the arrival of cross platform micro-transactions in the new version of the game. This new Marketplace replaces the ability to buy add-ons in separate online stores.
These purchases can now be made in the game itself and will attach, for Xbox users, to the Xbox Live account. It will use a Minecraft Coins currency to buy things, which in turn are purchased for real money.
This is a smart move as it creates a new consolidated market (55 million players) for potential content creators. At the same time it's something parents should check their purchasing and credit card settings for to avoid unexpected purchases being made on the account.
These transactions need to also take into account the cost of the main game. Currently it seems that this will continue to vary by platform although now the experience will be the same. This means it is cheaper to purchase on tablets than it is on consoles.
It's still early days for the Better Together beta and there is a lot to try out and take in. To move Minecraft forward it was inevitable that a change of this nature was required. The question is whether the approach to the implementation is getting the balance right between serving new players and those used to the previous Minecraft games. Time will tell.
For parents, it's important to understand all this so they can setup the appropriate controls and play habits in their family. This will not only ensure that children are safe when they play but the whole family can enjoy Minecraft together without any unpleasant surprises.
For more information, the Better Together Minecraft.net FAQ is a good place to start.