A large crowd has gathered at the Bett show, a massive education technology conference that occupies most of London's ExCel venue. They are there to witness one demonstration.
It's Microsoft's new Minecraft: Education Edition, a special version the highly successful building sim that has been specifically tailored for classroom environments.
The company representative highlights the main features and the spectators take photographs of every powerpoint slide. Behind the stage is a demonstration area that features dozens of laptops running an earlier version of the new edition. They are all lined up on tables that resemble the game's simple wooden block layout.
There is always a crowd of excited children who want to play. Microsoft knows that Minecraft is a huge attraction.
A week prior to Bett, the company announced it had bought MinecraftEDU, an educational version that was being used in hundreds upon hundreds of schools around the world. TeacherGaming, a small Finnish-American company, designed and distributed the product. Microsoft claims it will not shut down EDU, but the game won't receive any updates or support.
Minecraft: Education Edition is a replacement. It was developed by Mojang in collaboration with a team from Microsoft's Redmond campus. The new product includes a complete Minecraft Windows 10 Edition version, the updated version of Minecraft that was released last year as a beta, and additional functionality for teachers.
For teachers who want to keep an eye on their students, there is a better in-game map, the Locator Map. This allows everyone to see exactly where everyone is in a shared Minecraft world.
Two new controls that are only available to teachers: Build Deny or Build Allow, are also useful in guiding activities around the world. The first is an invisible block type that can easily be placed around a model to prevent pupils from altering it. It's designed to stop trolling and vandalism that can ruin multiplayer classroom building sessions.
It could also be used as a restraint in building projects, requiring students work in tighter spaces and to think more carefully about the impact of construction space.
The new game adds a camera and a microphone to the inventory. This allows children to quickly take photos and videos of projects or to use the tripod to take selfies. The zip file contains the images and can be downloaded to their desktops or to their teacher's computer.
According to Microsoft, it is more intuitive and adaptable that using the Print Screen function. It also gives teachers a better way to assess student work.
What will this work actually look like? Since its inception, Minecraft has been used by schools for a variety of purposes. Minecraft includes elements of farming, mining, building, and engineering. Teachers have used it to explore everything, from architecture and physics to ecology and sustainable agriculture.
Microsoft demonstrated how children in Scotland were able to design Dundee's waterfront in Minecraft. Sixth graders in Seattle used Minecraft to model a river and learn more about its ecosystem by damming it in different locations.
“Some of our simulations have been amazing,” Deirdre quarnstrom, who is now heading up the Education Edition project at Microsoft after three years as chief staff on Xbox. “We saw one school build a simulation for the great fire in London. Children were able use TNT to blow up a house in the middle to light the fire. It gave them an opportunity to see the enormity of it.
“One thing that we often see is students building a Minecraft representation of their school. They must get out of the classroom and measure and estimate. Then they need to work out who will build the cafeteria, gym, science lab, etc. This requires collaboration and a lot of different skills including math and design.
She says that the Education Edition is designed to carry on the work of MinecraftEDU but simplify the process and add functionality. The new version has a stronger peer-to-peer infrastructure. This means that any student can create an online Minecraft world from their classroom computer. Schools don't have to purchase and maintain a dedicated server computer which can be expensive and complicated.
MinecraftEDU could also use peer-to–peer networking, but it was not easy and some teachers found it daunting without technical staff.
Microsoft also has a dedicated Minecraft Education website. This allows users to share class plans and projects, as well as educational maps that can be downloaded to their classrooms. Students can access the game with an Office 365 login. This allows them to work from home and also allows them to import and export map files to and from the Education and Windows 10 editions.
Microsoft wants to stress that you don't need Office to log in, but many schools already use it and don't have the need to create new passwords.
The mere mention of Office 365 implementation will worry Minecraft fans and industry observers. Industry observers have been speculating about Microsoft's plans for Minecraft since 2014's purchase of Mojang for $2.5bn.
It was revealed last year that the Windows 10 Edition Minecraft was not written in Java, an accessible programming language, but in C++. This caused a lot of controversy.
It was compatible with the Pocket version, which runs on smartphones, tablets, and other devices, but it was not compatible with the vast array of mods, skins, maps, and mini-games created by the community that have surrounded Minecraft since its inception.
The community is concerned that the C++ version will replace the Java version and fans won't be able to share their Minecraft modifications.
“It's not unreasonable to speculate that Microsoft would like the Windows 10 C++ Minecraft edition to replace the Java edition in the future. There are both reasons to be excited and nervous about this,” says Daniel Ratcliffe, an experienced modder.
“The biggest concern for the PC Minecraft community is compatibility between versions: there is currently none. Microsoft is smart enough to make old versions of worlds, resource packs and skins loadable in the new version. These don't require actual code. Compatibility of mods that use Java Code to change the behavior of Minecraft is impossible. Java code that is based on an old codebase won't work against a new language.
Conspiracy theorists believe that Microsoft is deliberately blocking community content to allow it to sell its own mods and maps. This is similar to what it was able to do with the console version of the game. It doesn't support unofficial add-ons.
Reddit's Minecraft forum saw so many reactions to the Windows 10 announcement that Tommaso Checchi, Mojang's CEO, had to step in to assure fans that although he thought it would make the game run more smoothly in C++ (due to improved performance), there were no immediate plans to make that happen.
Here's the thing: Minecraft: Education Edition is also written using C++. This is the version that will be in classrooms all over the world and could well be the first time that thousands of children experience Minecraft: Education Edition.
They don't even need to buy it. They can log in to their school version from anywhere they are. Although Microsoft is not planning to phase out the legacy Java version, its current thinking is towards C++.
Quarnstrom insists that Education Edition will be a success because the community will play a key role in it. Microsoft won't be building all the maps and projects for its website. Instead, it will rely on educators to upload their experiments. This includes those who have spent years creating assets for Java-based MinecraftEDU.
“We want the community to come in. Although we have many great ideas, the collective creativity of the community will surpass them all. Our goal is to create an international library. Quarnstrom says that 5,000 people had already registered on the site before we started talking about it.
“We have great relationships with early adopters of MinecraftEDU in schools – we've been speaking to them. We are just trying to find the right level of support for everyone. We don't want people to learn how to play Minecraft. But we do want to help them overcome the barriers.
Minecraft: Education Edition will be available this summer for $5 per user. It is a well-designed package that offers a lot of classroom-specific functionality without restricting creativity and has greater accessibility than MinecraftEDU. Bett's children were quick to get together with their friends and set up mini-servers for quick projects.
This project is also a good test case for the future of Minecraft. It is a C++ version of the game and, through its interaction with Windows 10, will likely become the main platform for a new generation. Education Edition will also rely on a large community of users who are willing and able share their resources. A lot of the key talent was raised on the Java game.
Microsoft will need to create an API (application program interface), which will allow the game's creator community access to the C++ versions to move forward without alienating its large and engaged fanbase. Ratcliffe says that an officially supported API would offer many benefits over the current system if it was written correctly. Mods would be simpler to install, compatible with updates and platforms, and could safely be sandboxed to allow mods to automatically download when you connect. To achieve this, I envision mods written in some type of scripting language rather than C++.
It will also need to consider a way to transfer the huge back catalog of fan-made mini-games, maps, and skins onto the new platform. Even if Java-based mods are never compatible.
Microsoft is losing its market share in Minecraft, despite the fact that it is a prize but also a vulnerable one. Ratcliffe says that he would love to see a marketplace for mods that is browsable in-game and via the Microsoft Store. Ratcliffe also speaks out about the move towards a unified C++ edition. This would allow mod authors to make money and also allow them to work full-time on their mods, which would improve the quality of the content.