There's no question at all: Lego Universe is a game built for children. Creative Director Ryan Seabury says the primary audience of the game is ages 8-12, and the interface is very clearly young user-friendly, with big, brightly colored buttons, and easy-to-use UI widgets. The game centers on collecting "imagination," and while there is combat in the game, it's simple and trouble-free, more fun than strategic.
But here's the thing: good game design is ageless. And Lego Universe seems like a tidy summation of everything both developer NetDevil has learned about making MMOs, and Lego has learned over 75 years of making classic toys.
The game starts by creating your own Lego man or woman, called a "minifigure" in Lego parlance. You can customize the character, of course, with various hairstyles, torsos, and face parts, and while you can create a name the old-fashioned way by just typing it in (and hoping that it's not taken), NetDevil has also come up with a MadLibs-style name creator that throws three words together and comes up with a random name. "UltraGreatKitten" was the one that appeared during our session, which we all agreed is a pretty solid character name.
The name creator is the first sign of moderation in the game. Obviously, with Legos, users and characters will be building things with blocks in the game, and with the audience of children, NetDevil is proactively moderating everything user-created. So all user-created names need to go through moderation, while MadLibs names get to go on through. There is a "best friend" system that parents can use to allow their kids to share content without moderation, but otherwise, everything goes through NetDevil's filters before it's seen by players. Under the oversight of Lego, NetDevil is working hard on the tough task of making the game safe for all audiences.
After your character is created, the game loads up a cinematic, and players are introduced to the story of the Lego universe. The most popular Lego games in the past have been licensed games, but this game is specifically about Legos, and NetDevil has built up quite the mythology behind the little plastic pieces. The game has four factions, and each of them is tasked with fighting against The Maelstrom, a troublesome force attacking the world's imagination. Basic gameplay consists of exploring the world, completing various missions, and grabbing loot and Lego pieces while traveling through the story.
Of course, once you have Lego pieces, you have to build with them, and there are a few ways to do that in the game. First, there are special areas in the game where you can simply hit a button and watch Lego pieces go together themselves. Second, there are a few quick instanced areas where you can use found parts to build custom objects and items, which then can be brought back into the game world for other players to see you using. In the very first area, for example, the player is tasked with building a spaceship to leave a space station, and once you find enough parts, you can assemble a spaceship in whatever form you want, allowing other players to see you driving it right out of the escape tubes.
Finally, and most interesting, there are actual instanced property spaces in the game that players can actually own and control. After clearing The Maelstrom out of their area, players can go nuts, building whatever they want with any Lego pieces they've found or purchased so far. There are some astounding possibilities here -- you can build a full Lego castle piece by piece, or finally complete that pirate ship set you've had since you were a kid. Other players can join you in these spaces, and they can interact or experience your creations while you're putting them together.
There are even various Lego animals and creatures that can be placed in the space, and NetDevil has created a "behavioral system" to govern their behavior. By connecting a few different variables and directions, you can tell objects to act a certain way when something happens, or move in a certain pattern. While the UI seems simple enough for children to use, I was impressed by how powerful it was -- just while we were demoing the game, the devs created a small sequence with floating boxes that, when touched by a friend who jumped in the same space, would explode. In other words, they recreated Mario in the Lego Universe in a matter of minutes.
That was pretty amazing, and the mind spins to think what players of all ages will create with their Lego pieces when the game launches. The plan is to offer up access and content for a $9.99 monthly subscription after the initial game purchase. This week at E3, the release date was set for October 26. From the demo that we saw earlier this week, it'll definitely be something to look forward to.