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City Block Builder is a city building simulator in the “tycoon” genre of games, developed by Benglauru-based studio Tentworks. The game is launching at PAX West, which starts September 3, and it has also been selected for a showcase at Gamescom 2021, which is currently underway. The small indie team at Tentworks says it took inspiration from RollerCoaster Tycoon and Cities: Skylines, among other games, but said that what sets it apart is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) which gives the citizens or guests unique personalities that influence the player’s decisions. The guests in City Block Builder have their own reasons for the choices they’re making, and the game will communicate these to the player, so that the player can then use marketing and other systems to decide what types of guests visit their city blocks.
Ahead of the official launch, Gadgets 360 got to see some of the City Block Builder gameplay alongside Tentworks Interactive founder and CEO Jayaditt Basani, and Chief Marketing Officer Rishi Shah. The team wanted to make a game that takes the player through a long span of time, and Basani explained that a tycoon game that is set in 1950’s LA was one way to do this without a AAA budget. He explained that one of the inspirations was Chris Sawyer’s RollerCoaster Tycoon and said that he wanted to give the player the ability to narrow the focus down to a single business or pull back and handle many of them at one go.
“In this game, we want the player to discover culture on their own. So maybe the player wants to start off with a tiny fast-food restaurant, which was the big thing that started in 1950s, or maybe you want to start with a movie theater, or maybe they want to start with a bowling alley or whatever,” Basani said. “We want to give players that flexibility and that choice to choose, okay, how am I going to tell my story of a rags to riches story? How am I going to become LA’s next tycoon?”
Again, taking a cue from tycoon games, Tentworks wanted to make sure that the people visiting your businesses feel real, with their own personality, likes, and dislikes. “I think that’s really, really special, and something that hasn’t been done at this scale in a tycoon game before. And for that to come from a team in India, I think, I’m really, really proud to say that’s awesome,” Basani said.
In the demo we saw, we watched a player start off with a cinema, just one of the many businesses people can launch. Everything is being rendered in real time, Basani said, with the trees growing in front of you, and it can handle up to 5,000 people at a time, although he added that this has been capped at 1,000 for now.
Basani says that there isn’t more than a basic tutorial, by design. The team wants to let people figure things out on their own. Whether they want to create the first multiplex or build a McDonald’s inspired fast-food chain is up to them. “It’s the 1950s. The player starts off with black and white cinemas and very basic food, and you can research stuff,” Basani said, and added that the team wants players to make mistakes and figure things out through trial and error.
Shah added that players can build multiple businesses, so they could be running a chain of beauty parlours, but also managing a jazz club, or perhaps a bowling alley, and each of these has its own research tree.
After our demo ended, Gadgets 360 had a few questions for Basani and Shah. The rest of the conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity:
Gadgets 360: So, like with other tycoon games, there’s probably a starting amount of cash that you can use. Is there a free creative mode as well?
Basani: There is, that’s called sandbox mode. We have three modes in the game. And the first is sandbox mode, or creative mode, where you would have unlimited money, or you can set your parameters on what you want, maybe you want to start in late 1950s or you want to start, I don’t know, a very particular like, do you want this much money or that much money, just like RollerCoaster Tycoon. We let the players have their freedom.
And then we have one more mode called scenario mode which would basically be a few missions and the scenario mode would keep updating every month. We’d have monthly challenges and something new for the player to explore. And our final mode, I think is our most exciting. We were gonna tease it a little bit later next month, is story mode. Story mode is, because 1950s is like the golden era of colour books and I felt like, we had to somehow incorporate comics into our game. We have a bunch of video cutscenes, and we actually animated those comics. So you can explore through the game like a little story mode, and it’s kind of really funny. So I’m actually really, really excited to show people a sneak peek in the next one month.
The city also will constantly evolve around your business. So if you want, if you if you’re going to open a super fancy French restaurant, where a bunch of people can’t afford it, then you’re not going to do very well. Because the AI means that every single person here has their own like purse and how much money they have in their wallet, personalities, and likes, and obviously 15-year-old kids can’t afford $100 (roughly Rs. 7,400) meals.
Gadgets 360: And these personalities are randomly put into all the characters?
Basani: Yeah, so the thing with RollerCoaster Tycoon was like, they would have to make a certain personality, and then tell that personality how to react. What we did is we didn’t hold the hand of the AI so much. We had these parameters like every person has this need to drink water, to eat food, to have fun and their happiness and stuff like that. And we didn’t tell the AI how to solve that solution. So we kind of like just gave the AI a field of view and if the AIs thirst level is going up, it could see a water fountain, or a restaurant, it could see a movie theatre.
And we just let it make a decision. So in the beginning, obviously that caused a lot of bugs, but it was worth it. Because the AI learns the more and more it makes these decisions and realises okay, this is a better solution to something. For example, one of the characters in the game could be a health nut but he needs to solve his thirst problem. So he’s not going to go have… we didn’t tell it not to have a sugary drink. So the AI on its own kind of like, has to figure it out and make its mistakes and figure out.
And so it was a lot dumber a month ago. It’s a lot smarter now. It’s gonna be way smarter in a month. So every month it is just getting smarter and smarter and smarter. That’s what’s really, really cool, because by next year, we’re gonna have such a complicated AI for our next game, or even in this game, when we add DLCs and stuff like that, we’re gonna have a really real feeling AI that’s suitable.
Gadgets 360: And the new UI you spoke about, that will be available at launch?
Basani: Yes, the new UI actually will be available to play at PAX in Seattle, so we’re planning on showing it to people in three weeks, not very far away. We’re just currently testing everything.
Gadgets 360: The level of customisation available here in this cinema scenario will be available in all other businesses?
Basani: Yeah, so if you actually saw the research tree, the size of our research tree for each single business is as big as a standalone game would have. So what makes it really easy is we can keep adding more and more businesses, and that’s our plan. So after the launch also, we’re not going to stop there. Like you can expect a new business coming in every three or four months. You can see there’s spas, salons, casinos, bowling alleys, there’s so much stuff to do, so there’s really a lot of replayability.
And we can see, you know, what do we think is of 1950s that we want to explore next, maybe we want to do a different city, or maybe we even want to go 1960s and introduce a new hotel or business. So that’s what’s really exciting is that the AI is already there and understand what to do, how to do many things. All we have to do is build out these assets and build out the core aspects of the game. And then we can add a business in. It makes it really easy to turn things around and add in new businesses.
Gadgets 360: In some of the other city building games you move from an older era to a modern era as you progress. In City Block Builder, you’re in 1950s throughout?
Basani: We start in like late 1947-1948, the story actually starts somewhere there, and it ends in late 1959-1960. It’s a 10-year period. But the thing about 1960s is what happened from 1950 to 1960, it’s insane how much technology there was. Initially the game’s plan was to be 1950 to 1980, but then I thought, no, let’s just focus on one era and if we wanted 1960s, we can always add it on to the game. So obviously, that that door is not closed for us, but we thought 1950s had more than enough content, and exciting stuff to explore.
The radio has different channels, you can switch through the radio, and you can listen to music. And you have like, same kind of weird 1950s ads and stuff like that. We really, really went out of our way to make sure that it feels like 1950s. We sat down with some of the university professors, the same university that me and Rishi [Shah] went to, to talk to them about how people acted in the 1950s, the culture around it and just small, tiny things and how people think differently in the 1950, because it was really, really important that when you were there, it should feel like you felt that super glamorous 1950s look and that feels so important to a game, I think.
Gadgets 360: So apart from RollerCoaster Tycoon, what other inspirations did you have when coming up with City Block Builder?
Basani: Cities: Skylines, The Sims, RollerCoaster Tycoon were really big. And also for some reason, Boardwalk Empire, the show, kept coming up every time we were making the storyline for the game and basically the look of the game. When it comes to the game, we always want to be very stylised. I think Boardwalk Empire was really cool in like bringing us into that environment of the 1950s while not being too in the face about it.
Gadgets 360: What would you say is the key differentiating factor between City Block Builder and other simulators?
Basani: I would say that it’s the AI and the fact that you’re not running just one business. It’s not restricted to just one type of business. You can be running an entire fast-food chain, you could be running spas on the side, you could be running a super Michelin star type, fancy restaurant, you could be running a movie theatre all at the same time. And you have all these multiple things that you’re managing. In other games, you’re focused on just one business, and it’s very micromanaged. But here the game evolves from you managing one tiny business, to you managing an entire empire where it becomes more micromanagement heavy, so the problems that you face in the later game are not the same as you face in the early game.
The most of these games like RollerCoaster Tycoon and Cities: Skylines, money doesn’t become an issue later in the game. But in our game, it’s not like, if you do a certain tactic, you’re just going to win it and just going have money all the time. It really, really throws a lot of challenges at you. And I think it’s that challenge that really is super exciting and super fun.
One more thing is I think, we spend a lot of time to make really small things matter, like hiring staff. The staff get experience, and they can get certain perks about them that makes them better to keep. So were kind of like incentivizing the player to keep certain staff or like fire certain staff. And there’s all these tiny, tiny little things when they all come together, it makes the world feel super organic. And it feels super challenging, but really rewarding, because it makes sense.