When an architect designs a video game, you get Block'hood

Architect-turned-game-developer Jose Sanchez wants to understand why players are compelled to create by asking them to turn natural chaos into order in his neighborhood sim, Block'hood.

Minecraft captivated millions by giving players the power to create whatever they can imagine, but only if they were willing to destroy and manipulate the world around them.

Now, neighborhood-builder Block'hood, designed by architect and lecturer Jose Sanchez, is aiming to take that idea even further in an attempt to understand what it is exactly that compels players to build something new. Something better. 

In fact, the elevator pitch for Block'hood might simply be "Minecraft with consequences." 

"Resources in the game are all interconnected, says Sanchez, "So a tree will need water to create fresh air. The tree can then be used to create an apartment, which can house a consumer. That will allow players to create money, but it will also create waste."

The ultimate question

"In my lectures, my class and I talk about entropy and negative entropy, and the idea that you can take a pile of Lego that'll be in complete disorder, and build something with those bricks to create order," says Sanchez.

"Running with that idea, I wanted to figure out what cues I could give to a player to encourage them to go through that process themselves. I wanted to figure out how people could be creative on their own if they were just given the tools"

"I'm very curious about that, and Block'hood is me trying to look at that problem through game design while, at the same time, attempting to engage an audience."

In order to understand why players are driven to create, Sanchez first had to design his own set of building blocks. Somewhat ironically, his experience with architecture actually proved to be a hindrance. After years of studying complex systems, designing a simple system that would become naturally complex over time was a daunting task. 

"The challenge of Block'hood was to get rid of that complexity and create a set of simple rules that would naturally become complex over time."

"It was difficult to keep track of what's moving where, because it really does become this sort of living entity," he says. "We have a series of deeper rules, but I think the game plays well when it's restricted to simple resource management. 

"We're wary of overwhelming players with features, because we might end up creating a complex system that just isn't very fun. 

Everything's connected

Fortunately, the modular nature of the game means that Sanchez can make alterations with relative ease. Unlike, for example, Sim City, which is a more macro-level attempt to simulate an entire urban sprawl, Sanchez has drilled down to simulate individual components of a neighborhood, such as solar panels and wind turbines. It's up to the player to figure out what works and what doesn't. 

The only way to thrive in Block'hood is by figuing out how to strike the right balance, and it's the ability to help players learn and adapt that attracted the architect to the games industry in the first place. 

"I think architecture has its own legacy of trying to facilitate participation, but it's always struggled to do that," continues Sanchez. "It's all about having meetings with a community and asking them what they really want, but it's always difficult to gauge from those ideas what the end result should be. 

"With Block'hood, it's the opposite. Players everywhere can start conceptualizing, and they can show evidence of those ideas - the ones that work and the ones that don't. I hope the game will let them jump into the shoes of a city planner, and that's not something I've ever been able to do through traditional means.

Sanchez' desire to open up an educational dialogue with the Block'hood community is evident, and if there's one thing in particular he's hoping players will take away from their time with the game, it's the understanding that everything comes at a price. "Once you go so long without a particular resource, your world will start to decay and eventually die," he says.

"It ties into the way we do architecture today: we spend the money, build something, and then realize it didn't really work. After that, it becomes an abandoned neighborhood or a segregated part of the city. We want to put the player in that position. They'll definitely be able to enjoy their handiwork for a few minutes, or maybe even an hour. But then there are consequences."

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