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GDC08: The how, what, and why of LEGO Universe


Though anyone who has played the existing LEGO games would understand their charm, from an outside perspective you might be wondering why LEGO needed to go to the massively multiplayer scale. At GDC this past week, Mark Hansen, Director of Business Development for LEGO, explained the ideas behind their MMO to be, LEGO Universe. It's all about playing with LEGOS, of course! Playing and building with LEGOs is a creative experience, an imaginative experience -- and LEGO wanted a version of their product that would relevant for children of the 21st century who had grown up (and are growing up) around computers and technology.

Gallery: GDC08: LEGO Universe | 34 Photos

Hansen stresses that LEGO Universe was not a knee-jerk reaction to the expanding MMO market. Technology and the Internet is nothing new to LEGO, who has been online since 1996 (wasn't the Internet just a series of tubes back then?). The company has been working on software products throughout the 90s (who here hasn't played LEGO Star Wars or LEGO Batman?) and they already have something of an online game: the LEGO Factory. The LEGO Factory allows users to share and buy LEGO designs of that they made themselves (using the same tools LEGO themselves uses) -- a huge community has developed around the application, with users from all over the world creating unique designs that LEGO would never have the time or resources to do themselves. It wouldn't be practical, for example, for LEGO to produce 70 different models of trains: but their users can create them and share them with like-minded LEGO enthusiasts. For example, some of the unique models you'll find in the LEGO Factory gallery includes things such as a bowling alley (complete with pins), an oil platform, Niagara Falls, an articulated Emperor Penguin (with bow-tie), and a street's worth of narrow canal houses.

LEGO has fans from age nine to age ninety-nine (both of the physical and digital toys) and a large community following with its own magazine (the BrickJournal), talk show appearances by skilled builders, professionals who make their living from building LEGO models, fan conventions (BrickFest, BrickWorld) and numerous websites dedicated to bricks and building. Though this community could talk and share, they couldn't participate in LEGO's core gameplay mechanic as a group: they couldn't play. And this, of course, is where LEGO Universe comes in. With the wide-spread success of LEGO's games, the enthusiastic response to LEGO Factory, and LEGO's own community, LEGO Universe was simply a natural next step for the company. It combined the success of their adventure-based games with the creativity of LEGO Factory and the community of enthusiasts surrounding the toy.

After deciding to build a game (and partnering with NetDevil to develop it), the challenge was to decide on a way to convert LEGO's building sets into a vibrant, living world that players can enjoy exploring. For this they're drawing inspiration from existing products, as in the example above. They aren't constructing the universe from exact copies of existing models -- each is re-evaluated to ensure that it's really a fun place to play. From an existing LEGO set, they've stylized it and decided what gameplay elements could be included with it. (Should there be a trap door in the bridge? Crocodiles in the water below?)

In planning the world, the team (of over 80 people, at this point) has not only used traditional planning tools like drawing and concept art -- they've also used LEGO bricks, building huge tabletops of physical LEGO worlds. (In one example given by Hansen, the team used half a million bricks in 48 hours!)

Though the game's driving principle is creative play, the game won't be a free-for-all where anyone can build anything they want: there will be some limitations (i.e. you can't build a massive million-brick model) and the team is coming up with tools to provide some structure to the game's play. But if building isn't your thing, you're not forced to do it -- some players may like viewing models or exploring the world. The game will have level advancement, things to kill (though there won't be any blood -- defeated enemies will simply shatter into their brick components), and missions to accomplish.

The minifigure is a key part of the gameplay experience: they represent you and they're what gives this world of bricks its emotion. The whole world is scaled down to minifigure size. Imagine you're a child on the floor playing with a toy dragon attacking a toy castle -- LEGO Universe aims to give every player that experience.You'll be able to customize the face and body of your minifigure extensively (though you can't change its shape -- after all, this is LEGO!). You'll be able to acquire new accessories, weaponry, tools, and custom pets for your character, all of which will give you your own distinct look. Role-playing will be encouraged to get players to interact and, though it's a solo friendly game, it will support groups and guilds.

As far as story goes, LEGO has many different product lines, ranging from outer space to inner city to medieval castles. Just like playing with the toys, each of these worlds will blend together. (Why are you looking at us like that? Are you trying to say that you never played space ninja vs. Martian pirate?) Though all of LEGO's worlds won't be in the game at launch, they'll be adding to it regularly. (Says Hansen, "We won't just be doing it once a year.")

Questions & Answers

Q: How do you explain all of LEGO's disparate environments in a single universe?
A: When you look at LEGO you know there are going to be different play spaces in different worlds. just like our product lines. Though each product line is different, the play is similar: there's always a good and a bad side. Each zone will be a planet with different things.
Q: What are your plans for moderation? (I.e. how will you prevent "naughty LEGO creations.")
A: Everything in LEGO Universe will be moderated, both text and characters. We have technical solutions and we'll also have manpower.
Q: Is this geared towards kids?
A: Yes, this game is for 8 to 12 and all people who love LEGO. LEGO Star Wars is also an 8 to 12 game, but a lot more people play it
Q: Can any player come in and create their own little level?
A: No, that's not the goal. in certain goals you'll be able to make areas and customize, with more options as you advance.
Q: Can you speak to the method of distribution? Will it be retail or a web application?
A: Right now we plan to distribute it through existing LEGO channels.
Q: What's the revenue model?
A: Subscription.
Q: There's lots of IP in LEGO, with LEGO Star Wars and LEGO Batman. Where are you going with that?
A: Right now there's no IP in the game. This doesn't mean we won't have IP in the future, though!
Q: How do you deal with the kid who wants to knock over your castle... how do you control that?
A: Some constraints will be built-in. You can lock and unlock your creations
Q: When do you expect to launch?
A: We're looking at the next couple of years. [laughter from the crowd] It's coming soon!
Q: if I buy real LEGOS will there be anything for me in LEGO Universe?
A: Yes, boxed LEGO products will definitely be a vehicle for advertising and distribution.
Q: Can you describe the player experience coming into the game, the storyline?
A: There is a connected, overarching story
Q: Is there going to be a content economy? (Where players can design and sell items in-game, similar to Second Life.)
A: No, though you an buy your creations online through LEGO Factory
Q: Can you buy the minifigures?
A: Yes, but not IP product

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