Designing Genesis City: Roads & Urban Planning
Using roads to navigate and browse virtual worlds
The Terraform Event
Decentraland’s Terraform Event made history as the largest sale of virtual land ever, creating one of the most valuable non-fungible token collections on Ethereum. A significant part of the Terraform Event included unveiling the layout of Genesis City, Decentraland’s first city. Although we had plans to include a central plaza with roads connecting districts, we hadn’t committed to any specific layouts until the auction opened.
The community made some impressive contributions to our early urban planning efforts including an array of creative solutions. Unfortunately, as awesome as the hexagon grids looked from above, the technical challenges lefts us on square one. We also felt that a lighter touch with a bigger range of experiments would be better than committing the entire city to a single design. Using our early centralized authority to build a complete urban plan before the world even existed didn’t make sense, given that we expected the world and its needs to evolve unpredictably over time.
With this perspective, we began to tackle the questions: what jobs do roads fulfill in Decentraland, and how can we use them to help order a decentralized, virtual city?
Working on projects like this — planning a virtual road system — is one reason why helping to build Decentraland is so exciting and challenging.
The Role of Roads in Virtual Reality
We originally thought that roads would just be used to move around the city, especially between districts and plazas.
At the same time, we knew that districts would have to be evenly spaced throughout Genesis City to leave room for individual LAND owners. Given the size of Genesis City, this would result in long travel times for users walking between districts. Although we personally love walking in the real world, it doesn’t always make sense to do so in virtual reality.
We thought that if roads aren’t the best way to travel in Genesis City, they at least should help us to sightsee along the way. So, in Decentraland, their primary role would be to allow people to browse and discover content hosted on different parcels.
Before we dive deeper into how roads as a spatial browsing tool affected how we placed them, remember that organizing Genesis City on a square grid is only one way to visualize parcels. Other layouts and interpretations of Genesis City are possible. As curators of Decentraland, we want to incentivise and expose good content, so we designed transportation and navigation to promote free and fast exploration.
There are many additional proposals for enabling content discovery, all of which are compelling and unique to Decentraland’s spatial interface.
A Critique of Urban Planning
Applying traditional urban planning to Decentraland has two caveats.
- Life in urban environments is unpredictable and organic: it’s problematic to impose static frameworks on dynamic environments.
- Virtual space is a novel environment, so we need to be careful when relying on traditional methods to design virtual spaces.
The Unpredictable Nature of Urban Life
Traditional urban planning assumes that we can fully understand a city and its residents’ needs. A planner designs with the assumption that their centralized authority has the most information about what a city needs and how best to satisfy those needs.
Historically, planning came from a state’s need for legibility in the process of standardization and centralization. This isn’t bad if you live in 16th-century France (the birthplace of standard measurements). No one today can argue that standard units of measurement, street addresses, or last names are bad tools, but they don’t necessarily apply to Decentraland.
Jane Jacobs, a pioneer in mid-century urban sociology, recognized this dilemma and the error of trying to shape life through urban planning by comparing the city to a social organism. Summarized by James C. Scott in his book Seeing Like A State:
For Jacobs, the city as a social organism is a living structure that is constantly changing and springing surprises. Its interconnections are so complex and dimly understood that planning always risks unknowingly cutting into its living tissue, thereby damaging or killing vital social processes. She contrasts the ‘art’ of the planner to the practical conduct of daily life: ‘A city cannot be a work of art… In relation to the inclusiveness and literally endless intricacy of life, art is arbitrary, symbolic, and abstracted. That is its value and the source of its own kind of order and coherence…’ The core of Jacob’s case against modern city planning was that it placed a static grid over this profusion of unknowable possibilities. ¹
The Novelty of Life in Virtual Reality
The closest relatives to Decentraland are Robloxs, Second Life, Minecraft, and the various MMOs, MUDs, and Farmville-genre virtual worlds, all of which differ from Decentraland in their centralized control. In these worlds, rules are designed to increase immersion and enhance gameplay. Because Decentraland is both a protocol and a place, our rules are less clear.
We often cling to preconceptions of how things should be, instead of experimenting to discover the way things could be. We want to carefully consider each element brought into Decentraland, because this virtual city is very different from a real city, rendering traditional design methods irrelevant, or possibly even detrimental.
Cadastral Legibility: Making Sense of Genesis City’s Geography
All that being said, cadastral legibility — a fancy term for the ability to see all parcels displayed on a map — is a useful tool for understanding Decentraland. Exposing a top-down view of Genesis City during the auction meant that roads would be viewed for all to see. Furthermore, we understood that road placement would have a big impact on the auction as well as the future environment of Genesis City.
Providing this legibility also meant people would make value judgements using limited data about how roads might function and how the world might be experienced. We thought bidders might overvalue roads, so we designed them to counteract the center-of-gravity effect that 0,0 had in the world and to spread value around the map instead of concentrating it in the middle. This has proved to be fairly accurate, as you can seen in the heat map of prices (figure below).
LAND Price Heat-map
As a side note, the only thing that makes the middle of the map more valuable is Genesis Plaza’s function as the first entry point into the world for a new user. Default experiences like this are massively influential in virtual worlds, and shaping the impact of these experiences is probably design’s biggest role in Decentraland.
We concluded from all this discussion that we needed roads but that we shouldn’t lock the entire city into one structure. We also understood that the final use of the world we’re building was unknowable and unpredictable, so we should rely on a variety of approaches and hypotheses.
After establishing our philosophical framework, we began putting pen to paper.
Content Discoverability and the Value of LAND
Roads increase the value of surrounding LAND by exposing parcels to pedestrian traffic. Roads also happen to be one of the few indicators on the map, along with x,y coordinates. It follows that between two parcels equidistant from 0,0 — the parcel closer to a road will have a higher value. Because of this, users with a lot of MANA would grab the most exposed parcels.
Although features like renting and alternating content will combat the concentration of wealth around roads, we felt that roads could be laid out in a way to expose content more equally.
Assuming that roads would make surrounding LAND more valuable, we worked to control the severity of this. First, confirmed in the heat-map above, people love isolated squares. The idea of having your own “personal island” is appealing because it makes your parcels a focal point. While laying out smaller roads, we took care to make implicit and explicit 2x2 and larger squares.
A rule of two helps when thinking about small estates — collections of parcels owned by the same person and used for one purpose (support for this is in progress). With a few experimental exceptions, one-lane roads follow a rule of two in which most parcels are either adjacent to a road, or in the case of corner parcels (previously solved with the hexagonal concept), no more than one parcel away from a road.
Content Discovery and the User Experience: Making Decentraland Interesting
Roads were an opportunity to add variety to Genesis City. Although street layout isn’t interesting when you’re walking around as a pedestrian, there are a few ways to improve this experience.
Intersections are a great solution by doing two things:
- When standing at intersections, you can see more parcel faces than if you were standing on a boulevard.
- Intersections also limit sightlines, which aids performance. This can limit the number of parcels exposed at any one time, focusing attention on fewer parcels than would be exposed on long straightaways.
So, to make the best use of roads, we included as many intersections as possible, hence the crazy patterned roads in the quad and heavy use of intersections in the south.
We hypothesized that the top-down view of roads would help users self-select into different “neighborhoods”, creating trends within the city. Although it’s too early to tell, my guess thus far from user interviews is that this self-selection didn’t happen because the bidding process was more competitive and take-what-you-can-get.
What about parcels removed from the Decentraland road system?
The Genesis City map makes one thing clear: the vast majority of parcels are nowhere near roads. What does that mean for people who own these “wild” parcels? In theory, they could be blocked in if surrounding parcels are built edge-to-edge with impassable geometry like buildings or terrain. Decentraland’s client has solutions to problems like this. One of our general objectives is to enact censorship as late in the chain as possible, granting the last-link client total control.
However, being blocked-in is an unlikely scenario. Given the variety of structures we see in other user-created virtual worlds like Second Life and Minecraft, we think that most parcels will be passable. Would you put a 10x10x10 grey cube on a piece of LAND you bought for 5000 MANA? We wouldn’t. How about something floating off the ground entirely? Like those platforms on Kamino in the Star Wars prequels — very cool. Unless the Decentraland user base is unlike any existing virtual world’s user base, people won’t build edge-to-edge occluding geometry. User interviews have already provided evidence backing this hypothesis.
We designed a layout with a conglomeration of styles and solutions to different challenges present in Genesis City. Our core hypothesis about roads was proven by the end of the auction: roads create value through exposure to pedestrians. In response to this, we took several steps to counteract extreme concentrations of expensive, high-exposure parcels and are optimistic that Genesis City will grow into an engaging and accessible virtual landscape.
- Scott, C. James. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven. Yale University Press. 1999. https://goo.gl/ovVwgT