Every now and then, a gaming phenomenon emerges whose popularity earns it a place in mainstream culture.
Super Mario Bros, Tetris and FIFA have all evolved into cultural totems, referenced in popular culture and loved by millions.
Yet these games were – and still are – passive 2D affairs played on a monitor or TV screen.
More recently, Pokémon Go showcased the potential of augmented reality, by overlaying mythical creates onto real-world environments.
By using mobile devices’ camera apps, Google offshoot Niantic layered a virtual world on top of the real one.
The results saw people around the world trying to capture imaginary animals in unremarkable real-world environments like parks and pavements.
Yet even Pokémon Go could be eclipsed by Microsoft’s brand-new take on augmented reality gaming.
Minecraft Earth may finally herald the explosion in AR gaming which Pokémon Go threatened to unleash three years ago, yet ultimately failed to deliver.
As such, the ongoing global rollout of this free-to-play title could be the most transformative event in gaming since Sony’s PlayStation console debuted in 1995.
Mine, all mine
The Minecraft platform itself is nothing new.
This block-based building game follows in the well-trodden footsteps of other so-called God games like Populous and Sim City.
Minecraft has become immensely successful, selling 180 million copies and boasting over 110 million active monthly players.
Players can create structures or earthworks, extract raw materials and develop tools, and roam around a 3D environment which changes and expands in response to their actions.
More importantly, they’re doing this in real time alongside everyone else, collaborating and competing in missions.
Minecraft is available on PCs and Macs, games consoles and smartphones – but it’s only the latter which will be able to run the new Earth version.
Like Pokémon Go, Minecraft Earth layers a virtual world on top of the real one – the very essence of augmented reality.
Viewed through the camera app on a mobile device, players explore digital environments designed to mimic real ones.
Buildings, roads, canals and other landmarks are accurately positioned in the game.
Local points of local interest may be mined for minerals, while new virtual structures can be built in mundane real environments like gardens and stairwells.
Suddenly, players aren’t simply constructing and interacting in a virtual environment – they’re playing on their high street, on the bus or in the post office.
They can craft, build, explore and collaborate as in any other Minecraft game.
Why does this matter?
Earth isn’t significant because it took five years to develop, or because it needs vast servers to process and coordinate millions of game environments at any given moment.
It’s significant because it represents the next generation of AR gaming.
Pokémon projected a limited number of fixed animations onto pre-set locations, whereas Earth lets people build anything, anywhere, any time.
A structure remains in situ once it’s assembled, and every other player will see it too if they go to the same physical location.
Gaming is no longer one person, one device, one experience. For the first time, it’s a globally interactive event, played out in the real world.
And while Pokémon Go only had 20 million players, Minecraft Earth could far surpass this.
As such, this (literally and metaphorically) ground-breaking title demonstrates how the humble smartphone can become a multimedia gaming device.
It even calls into question the long-term viability of games consoles like Microsoft’s own Xbox.
It really is a game changer.