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Blockworks interview: creating amazing worlds in Minecraft

James Delaney, Managing Director of Blockworks, talks about creating a game about climate change in Minecraft and the game's creative power.

Seamus Byrne
Seamus Byrne
14 min read
Blockworks interview: creating amazing worlds in Minecraft

You'll be hard pressed to find someone on the planet today who doesn't know about Minecraft. It's one of those games that has evolved to become much more than just a game, but also a tool for creativity and for education. And today I'm speaking with James Delaney, Managing Director of Blockworks, one of the absolute world leading design groups creating amazing environments and architectural designs using Minecraft. Blockworks recently worked with NRMA Insurance here in Australia to create a map called Climate Warriors, which is available for download through Minecraft Marketplace for free.

It was designed to teach kids age seven to 12 about sustainability and the impacts of natural disasters on Australian, rural and regional areas. I speak with James about his own journey with Minecraft, how Blockworks has developed to take his expertise. And the importance of working on projects like Climate Warriors and how it elevates Minecraft as a medium. Blockworks is a true world leader in this space so it's a pleasure to talk to James about his company and its placed in the evolution of Minecraft and using these kinds of platforms for engaging styles of education like this. So I start by asking James to remember that very first time he opened up Minecraft.

James Delaney: Yeah. A long time ago, probably coming on 10 years now. Yeah, a friend showed it to me. And at first I thought it was a bit of a funny game. You know, the graphics weren't great. It wasn't quite sure what was going on. But, as a kid who absolutely loves Lego, I very quickly found myself spending hours making myself the best, you know, hole in the ground that I could.

Um, I think very quickly, I sort of graduated from the survival mode of the game, which wasn't that interesting to me to kind of create a mode, which is where you have unlimited building materials. And it's really just this amazing, platform for kind of creating whatever you can imagine. Really.

Seamus Byrne: In those first moments, is there any clue back then that you like this game is going to define a very large part of the future of my life?

James Delaney: Yeah, not at all. I mean, it's probably unsuspecting in that regard. And even for the first couple of years playing, it was just a sort of a as a hobby.

Um, and at that time I was kind of thinking about the future, what to do at uni and architecture kind of made sense to me, that was interesting. And then those kinds of interests just, just grew together. And I actually ended up doing my, degree project really based on Minecraft and my post-grad degree as well.

So it's, um, And I played a big part of my life.

Seamus Byrne: Awesome. So if let's say you were at a barbecue, and you're talking to someone who only has a passing understanding of what Minecraft is, how do you explain what Blockworks is to someone like that?

James Delaney: Yeah, I mean to start with, with Minecraft, I guess it's a form of digital Lego, really. It's a really simple game where you can place blocks or destroy them. And there's this infinite worlds generated from these large chunks. So us at  Blockworks what we do is we use Minecraft to create educational or engaging experiences inside the game. So we're really building games inside the game.

Minecraft for us is just a platform to kind of deliver these, these cool experiences.

Seamus Byrne: So then how did you start to piece together I guess a team, you know, you said you got it, got into the creative mode type stuff, was there a moment there where you started to just engage with people, whether it was online communities or things and you started to realize, Oh, actually if we work together, we can start to do a lot more than just mess around with this.

James Delaney: Absolutely. How about Minecraft has sort of these amazing online communities that people who've never met, but have the shared passion for what they do. And interestingly, um, before Microsoft acquired Minecraft, The original creators of the game, Mojang, didn't spend a single dollar on marketing. It was the first, I think, four or five years of the games existence was purely word of mouth and online communities kind of sharing their work. Um, and then the next stage up from that is people actually getting together in the same, uh Minecraft server being able to work on the same project at the same time.

I was lucky enough to sort of find several other people online who had sort of a shared passion. We thought, wow, we can build bigger and better if there's more of us. And it's sort of developed from that.

Seamus Byrne: Then thinking about, I guess the creation of Blockworks rather than just James and some friends hanging out and making stuff online. Where's that moment where you go, okay, we're making cool stuff too, Hey, wait a minute, we can Create art. And then ultimately even, we can start building this kind of collective organization and really structure ourselves into what you've become.

James Delaney: Yeah. I think it was our first commissions really where  that changed between doing what we do because we love it and getting paid to do it was, um, came about because of Minecraft YouTubers. So maybe three or four years into the game, people starting to have serious careers about just creating video content about Minecraft and posting it, you know, getting millions of views and some creators approached us. They thought, well, if we have some cool stuff to play on Minecraft and cool maps to explore, that'd be good for our viewers. We were well-placed to provide that for them, um, developing from that there are then Minecraft servers which developed their own little micro economies where you can pay to, you know, advance yourself in the game.

Those servers needs maps for people, for, those games to live on. So we then became  a map-making map design group. And then the next level up from that was actually when Microsoft reached out to us. This was when they acquired Minecraft about 2015. And they said, can you do some marketing projects for the game for Minecraft?

So yeah, why not? And from that, we'd be lucky enough to work with a whole range of, um, companies and education institutions. And you have all sorts of people really.

Seamus Byrne: So then like at a technical level, how does it go from building, a block at a time to doing the kinds of things that you're able to do? I know there's  clever tools and things out there, but it's you know, what is it that helps you be able to actually design something rather than just guess what you're going to be able to build along the way.

James Delaney: Yeah, I think a lot of it's experience instead of having a team that really understands each other, because although we're in the same virtual space, our team members are all over the world. We're not in the same office. Um, so having to coordinate, essentially a 3d environment, from remote locations is quite difficult, but, we'll normally have a project manager who has kind of the project leader who has the blueprint in their head. And as a team, we have enough experience of working with each other to understand what people's strengths are. Um, Yeah, it's an interesting, it's an interesting way of working, but it's worked well for us.

Seamus Byrne: Thinking about that all these years on,  is there still that moment when you're working, I guess in that global kind of way, where you get up in the morning, some things have happened overnight. You kind of log back in, you see something cool and do you still get that mind where you go? Cool. Someone's like, done the next big bit.

James Delaney: Yeah, absolutely different times as well. So I was working at funny hours. It's quite, almost improvisational. You know, you've really rely on different builders to lend their own expertise and knowledge and stuff like that happens to this sort of in nice and unexpected ways. Yeah, we'll take you on the more creative projects, but we don't have a very strict brief. It's a, it's a really kind of spontaneous and fun way.

Seamus Byrne: So let's talk a bit about this climate warriors project. That's happened here in Australia with NRMA's support, I think. We've  heard lots of stories over the years, about how Minecraft has become this sort of really useful educational tool, as well as a fun place to explore, you know, for you what do you feel like is the importance of projects like this, um, in, you know, engaging with interesting topics within the tool that is Minecraft.

James Delaney: Yeah. I mean, Minecraft has such a huge audience now, every kid's if they haven't played Minecraft they know about it. So it's a really great way to sneak important topics or learning into more schools wherever it is.

Um, and I think the platform itself is just so versatile and adaptable. It's relatively easy for us to create that content. Um, versus if we, I don't know if we had to create a video game from scratch about climate change. Firstly, it would take a lot longer. It would cost a lot more. And also it wouldn't be as fun because, um, whatever we do at Minecraft, it still has that magic that makes Minecraft really fun.

So you've got an easy job in the sense that the game that we're building on, is already a hugely successful. And that's a really good base.

Seamus Byrne: Um, so with Climate Warriors, was that one of the types of jobs where someone came to you with a pretty clear brief, or was it one where they say, we want to reflect on the bush fires or something like that, and what extra ideas do you and bring to the table?

James Delaney: Yeah, it was a bit of both. We, we helped a lot with kind of the game, came to sign and concept and what was possible, but at the same time, a lot of expertise from an NRMA think about, to do with, you know, the issue of Bush respires, I'm not from Australia. It's something, I see all the news. It looks absolutely horrendous, but I have very little experience of the realities of it. So working with someone like NRMA who had a huge amount of data and information on the topic was really interesting.

Seamus Byrne: Yeah. How do you then I guess try to, you know, look at how do you. We're going to do a thing about bush fires and climate change and create a way for people to try to build better understanding your, how do you then work the magic of going well, we have to make sure that someone actually wants to explore this thing and finds it interesting as well as, as you say, accidentally being educated along the way.

James Delaney: I think the key thing is not to. A lot of people talk about Minecraft and education as kind of a gamification, which is the idea of applying gaming principles to an educational process. What we do isn't really that but it's more the other way around. We apply educational principles to a game. So the key thing is keeping what makes Minecraft fun, which is a bit of exploration. It's a bit of creativity. It's a bit of building, um, not disturbing that recipe too much. And just kind of threading in bits of information and knowledge that kind of serve the topic of bush fires.

Seamus Byrne: Yeah. Um, and so I guess, can you explain a little bit about when someone downloads this and, and jumps in and has a bit of a go, what kinds of things are they actually gonna find and explore and hopefully, take away from it.

James Delaney: Yeah, so game,  will probably take 30 to 45 minutes to complete. It's kind of an adventure mode. So you go from stage to stage, but you, we recreated, um, sort of an imaginary Australian, rural coast, coastal town,  we used a lot of references to kind of hopefully make it quite accurate. And you start off with a mission control, which is kind of like a climate surveillance center, just on the outskirts of town.

You learn a little bit there about  the context of climate change and the increasing threat of bush fires. And then you get this warning, that a bushfires heading to town. So you hoping your helicopter, your NRMA helicopter. You fly into town. Uh, you've been at the fire station. You get to go into a fire truck and all of these things we've added, you know, you don't get firetrucks and helicopters in Minecraft, but we've been able to add them. Um, along the way also we've got lots of nice Australian flora and fauna, koalas, kangaroos. Um, and you really go around this town. I mean, firstly, it's about preparing for bush fire and it's about surviving bush fire and then it's about recovery. So there are a little different activities and  which corresponds to each of those.

And the whole thing is, essentially time. So you get a score at the end of it, depending on how effectively and efficiently you've completed, but that, you know, you could go back and try and do it again with a, with a higher score.

Seamus Byrne: No one ever likes to try to speed run something after they've, uh, you know, played it once I'm sure.

From this whole thing. Did you learn a few things along the way as well, or, yeah. Yeah.

James Delaney: Learnt a huge amount, as I said about bushfires it's, living in the UK, I think not that I can remember we've never had anything like that. So we see it on the news, but particularly understanding the. What you have to do to prepare and, um, all the kinds of things you need to think about to ensure the safety of you and your community. Yeah. A lot of things that I'll take away with me, um, and hopefully for Australian kids, it's a bit of reinforcement.

Maybe some of this stuff they will hopefully know already. Um, but what's great about this is, you know, it's designed for Australian curriculums, but anyone around the world can play to this. I think we've already had close to half a million downloads internationally. So what's going to be lots of other kids elsewhere learning about this.

And, you know, climate change is, is an issue that affects us all. So,

Seamus Byrne: Yeah that's great. So just to wrap up, I'm curious, do you still play Minecraft for fun these days or do you get your kicks elsewhere when you're not at work?

James Delaney: Yeah, I'd be lying if I said I did to be honest. When it's a nine to five, it's not necessarily the thing you're going to do in your off time. I mean, it's still, it's still enjoyable. It still surprises me, uh, particularly working on projects like this, where it's a bit of a first, I've never seen any, any kind of. Project deal with the topic like this before. So, it's still kinda satisfies me in that way. , There are members of our team who still play Minecraft for fun. Really hardcore Minecraft fans. Yeah.

Seamus Byrne: I remember, once upon a time, a big part of what I did  was reviewing games on, on a regular basis. And so you'd always have that thing, like, ah, you know, it must be amazing to get, to spend all your time playing games and it's like, there's a difference between playing and working.

James Delaney: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Seamus Byrne: Um, so yeah. W w well, you kind of just touched on a day, but I'm curious then where the pleasure does lie for you in Minecraft now, you know, is it, I guess, by using it as a medium, rather than as a game, you know, is there an element there of, as you say, you studied architecture, you know, is there, is that really where the, the, the pleasure lies in the creative process?

James Delaney: I think so I think for us, we have a lot of architecture students on the team as well. It's really seeing Minecraft as this,  exciting virtual medium , for creating stuff. I think the potential Minecraft has as well and education and tackling these topics is really huge. And you know, still lots of exploration we can do there. Although it's what 11 years old now, it's, it's still on the up and it's still got a lot to, to, um, a long way to go. Yeah. Yeah.

Seamus Byrne: So for any budding builders out there, you know, do you have any hot tips for people who are kind of going okay, creative? I can do anything. Um, cause there's that old issue, right? If you can do anything, then you're often more hamstrung than if you, if you could only do three things.

James Delaney: The best builders that, that I've seen , start with things that you're familiar with. It might just be outside of the street. It might be going to the city, you see a museum, but, anything that you can build in Minecraft, it's going to have to come from somewhere. So whether that's inspiration in your, your town or city books, films, things like that, that's all really fuel for the imagination. Um, and it's also great to look online and see what other people are building that's the beauty of the virtual communities. You can gather inspirations from all corners of the world, and to really put that, to creating something unique.

Seamus Byrne: I've got the Blockworks sign page open on a second screen here and yeah. It seems like there's an element of scale there as well. Right. That, you know, once those blocks start becoming pixels at a much larger scale, suddenly the resolution gets a lot more.

James Delaney: Yeah, exactly. The bigger you build, the more detailed essentially it is the better it looks. But scale isn't everything. I mean, we've done some nice little small builds as well. It depends on how much time you've got end of the day.

Seamus Byrne: Um, awesome. So I look, lastly, what excites you about the future of Minecraft, I guess as a game and a platform?

James Delaney: Yeah, I think starting to see Minecraft being adopted a lot more in schools, I think this year with COVID, it's actually been really interesting to see Minecraft become this alternative public space, almost a lot of, uh, universities and schools have recreated their campuses in Minecraft, some of them have hosted graduation ceremonies.

Seamus Byrne: Cool.

James Delaney: Um, and seeing my craft really almost as an alternative to like the traditional. You know, Facebook or Zoom or whatever it is, Minecraft could do all that, but it's in a three-dimensional worlds, which you can, you can play with.

Seamus Byrne: I mean, that's about it for me. I'm curious. Is there anything else that you know about this project or about what Blockworks does that excites you? That I haven't touched on that I think is always enjoyable to share with people.

James Delaney: I said, no, I just say, yeah, go and go play the match, check it out. And hopefully you'll, you'll, you'll learn something new. Um, And yeah. If you were interested in sort of getting into my craft, creating yourself, just give it a go, you know, there's nothing stopping you, but we've got people on our team from all over.

We've got sort of a trainee policeman and we've got physics. PhD is you've got people to work as chefs. It's a real. There's no type of Minecraft builds, whether you ask your creative of what there's something in Minecraft for everyone. So, um, just give it a go.

Seamus Byrne: Awesome. And look, I totally encourage people to go and find I've seen the block works book out there as well.

And I think that was one that when I saw the Climate Warriors pitch come across. I, yeah, I was like, I know that name and then suddenly realized I'd remember seeing, um, my kids seeing some of your builds in some of the other Minecraft books out there and that you do have your own book out there.

So yes. I definitely encourage people to go and look you up because just looking at your homepage, I'm like, I'm inspired. I need to go and try to make something awesome, James, thank you so much.

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Seamus Byrne Twitter

Founder and Head of Content at Byteside.

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