Yes, it uses a mobile device. Yes, it superimposes digital objects on the physical landscape -- but that's just the definition of AR. Many stories and conversations about Minecraft Earth immediately compare it to Pokémon Go, describing it in terms of what's different or what's similar to Niantic's creature-collecting game. It'd be like contrasting The Life Aquatic with Billy Madison just because they're both shot with a camera and play out on a screen, but one happened to come out first. Pokémon Go and Minecraft Earth are vastly different experiences from the ground-up.
Pokémon Go gameplay relies on location data, forcing players to travel in physical space to collect creatures and battle for their teams. It's possible to play the game entirely from home, if there are gyms and spawn points nearby, but its core idea is real-life monster-hunting and real-world encounters. When it launched, it was revolutionary. Developers and players alike were enraptured by the idea of a game that took place everywhere, and it even had potential mental-health benefits.
Pokémon Go proved the mobile-AR formula, and now other studios are diving in.
Minecraft Earth also has modes designed to get people out of the house, but its core building mechanic can be played anywhere, at any time. Tappable blocks of resources appear wherever the player decides to boot up the game, whether at home or in public. These are used in conjunction with Build Plates to craft structures packed with animals and custom fittings, just like in the main entry. If you just want to play Minecraft in AR, Earth has you covered.
And then, of course, there's more if you step outside. Minecraft Earth transforms the landscape into blocky terrain, with mobs and challenges positioned among the cubes. The game wants players to work together and share their creations (tap your phone against a friend's to invite them into your digital land). If you encounter an Adventure together, allowing both of you to mine extra and rare resources, all items are shared.
The foundation of Minecraft Earth is creative freedom and collaboration, not capture and battle with a lineup of 500 adorable, creepy and strange monsters.
"I think that we both have a map," Minecraft Earth executive producer Jesse Merriam said. "But Minecraft Earth is an AR-first experience. There's no non-AR version and I've never seen that before. It is first and foremost augmented reality, it is geolocation and it does have a map. For the people that are first hearing about this technology, often that is something that is similar, but there's a lot less similarity from there."
No one would argue that Pokémon and Minecraft were the same game, and this holds true for Pokémon Go and Minecraft Earth. They share a basic genre -- location-based AR -- but that's about it. After trying out a 15-minute demo with a handful of other folks, all of us grinning into our iPhones and tablets as a Minecraft castle sprouted up under our feet, I can say it was a joy to play. However, not once did it remind me of Pokémon Go.
As mobile hardware and processing power improves, more companies will launch their own versions of GPS-driven AR experiences. This is the larger issue at play: Minecraft Earth isn't the last mobile AR game to hit the market after Pokémon Go, and it doesn't make sense to compare every subsequent title to Niantic's game. There's already a new, hotly anticipated entry heading into the genre, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, and it relies heavily on traversing the physical world. It'll surely be met with plenty of critiquest that boil down to, "It's like Pokémon Go, but different." This perspective is limiting, placing an arbitrary box around each new experience, from conception to release and criticism.
Mobile AR is a new technology and it'll take a few years for everyone to figure out how to talk about it. Nowadays, it's fair to use Pokémon Go as a reference point when describing Minecraft Earth, but it's a disservice to say they're similar beyond their delivery method.