As Lego Di­men­sions Year Two pre­pares for ac­tion, its cre­ators ex­plain how they’ve as­sem­bled the most di­verse cast of char­ac­ters in game his­tory

EDGE - - IRON BORN - BY SI­MON PARKIN

ere’s a clutch of nugget-sized, quiz-ready facts about The Lego Com­pany: 1 The Lego Com­pany is the largest pro­ducer of car tyres in the world: 318 mil­lion (more than 870,000 per day) roll off the pro­duc­tion line each year. 2 That pro­duc­tion line, housed in a kilo­me­tre-long fac­tory in Bil­lund, Den­mark, rat­tles un­ceas­ingly 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

3 It was 17 years be­fore the com­pany, founded in 1932, pro­duced its first plas­tic brick. Be­fore then it mostly pro­duced steplad­ders, iron­ing boards and wooden toys. 4 The name Lego de­rives from the Dan­ish phrase ‘leg godt’, mean­ing ‘play well’.

5 In 2003, the com­pany teetered on bank­ruptcy – it was sell­ing many Lego kits at a loss while the com­pany’s name had, to its board, at least, lost the orig­i­nal mean­ing. 6 By 2015, so many film­mak­ers wanted their IP to fea­ture in Lego Di­men­sions that the game’s devel­oper had to start build­ing worlds and char­ac­ters be­fore the con­tracts were signed.

In the cen­tre of a flowerbed out­side the front doors to The Lego Com­pany’s head­quar­ters in pan­cake-flat Bil­lund, Den­mark, stands a gi­ant yel­low Lego brick (a two-by-four, nat­u­rally). On a grey morn­ing in early 2012, Jonathan Smith, head of pro­duc­tion at TT Games, the Cheshire-based stu­dio that has, since the mid-2000s, been re­spon­si­ble for a col­lec­tion of bil­lion-dol­lar-profit-mak­ing Lego videogames based on var­i­ous megawatt IPs such as Star Wars, In­di­ana Jones and Bat­man, walked past the brick for the umpteenth time. He was headed to a rou­tine meet­ing, the kind that he at­tends ev­ery cou­ple of months, to dis­cuss new ideas with the Dan­ish, who re­main in­ti­mately in­volved with ev­ery as­pect of the Bri­tish stu­dio’s work, even oc­ca­sion­ally loan­ing their own kit de­sign­ers to lend a hand on its games.

Dur­ing a cof­fee break, Smith’s phone rang. He stepped out­side of the of­fice, into a cor­ri­dor lined with the or­derly, grin­ning pho­to­graphs of Lego em­ploy­ees who have worked at the fac­tory for 25 years or more. Jon Bur­ton, founder of TT Games, was on the line. Bur­ton had been wrestling with the prob­lem of how to bring the world of phys­i­cal and dig­i­tal Lego closer to­gether for years. Sure, his games al­lowed play­ers to press a but­ton and turn a pile of bricks into a rocket ship with the sweep of a Jedi minifig’s palm, but they’ve al­ways strug­gled to repli­cate Lego’s ele­men­tal ap­peal: the re­as­sur­ing click when squeez­ing two bricks to­gether.

Bur­ton ex­plained to Smith that over the week­end he’d been play­ing Sky­lan­ders: Spyro’s Ad­ven­ture, a re­cently re­leased game in which play­ers place plas­tic fig­urines con­tain­ing RFID chips onto a plat­form con­nected to a con­sole to con­jure them into the game. “This is how we do it,” Bur­ton said. Smith re­turned to the meet­ing and re­layed the mes­sage. Lego was, Smith re­calls, im­me­di­ately taken with the idea. “It felt like des­tiny,” he says. “All the ideas, spec­u­la­tion and pos­si­bil­i­ties we’d had across the years had, at that pre­cise mo­ment, co­a­lesced into an im­per­a­tive for ac­tion.”

Back in wet and leafy Knutsford, a skunkworks team within TT Games started work on a pro­to­type, based on the orig­i­nal Lego Star Wars game, us­ing a jury-rigged con­troller and a PlayS­ta­tion 3. What­ever form the fi­nal de­sign of the Toy Pad took, Bur­ton was adamant that it would need to play more than a sup­port­ing role in the game it­self. “If all this thing does is make the char­ac­ter ap­pear on the screen then we’re just build­ing an elab­o­rate ‘Start’ but­ton,” he would tell his team. “We al­ready have one of those.” Rather, Bur­ton wanted the Toy Pad to open up new pos­si­bil­i­ties for play. “Jon was al­ways com­ing up with new ideas, ex­per­i­ment­ing, dis­card­ing, and dis­cov­er­ing new so­lu­tions,” Smith re­calls. “Ev­ery pos­si­ble mech­a­nism for en­abling Lego toys to in­ter­act with a PS3 was ex­plored. The con­cep­tu­al­is­ing was in­cred­i­bly ex­pan­sive.”

Some of the Lego master builders – the ti­tle given to Lego ex­perts who are able to build com­pli­cated struc­tures with­out plans – who work at TT Games be­gan to pro­to­type some de­signs, ac­cord­ing to a

loose def­i­ni­tion of the de­vice’s pro­posed shape and the re­quired ca­pa­bil­i­ties. The hot-spot at the cen­tre of the Toy Pad, used for pro­gram­ming the tags to tell the con­sole when, for ex­am­ple, Homer Simp­son’s car has been re­fash­ioned into a more pow­er­ful sub­ma­rine, was in place from the be­gin­ning. “With the ex­cep­tion of a few tweaks for us­abil­ity and to aid build costs, the orig­i­nal de­sign is pretty much what we ended up with,” Bur­ton ex­plains.

As the team looked at the ways in which the Toy Pad might be used in cre­ative ways to af­fect game­play, Bur­ton be­gan to com­pile a doc­u­ment out­lin­ing all of the dif­fer­ent uni­verses he wanted to draw to­gether un­der the um­brella of this game. “I’d just fin­ished The Hob­bit,” says Jimmy McLough­lin, game di­rec­tor on Lego Di­men­sions. “Jon emailed me and said, ‘There’s a se­cret pro­to­type we’ve been work­ing on’. Then he passed me his doc­u­ment. I re­mem­ber open­ing the page and the first im­age was a clus­ter of lo­gos: Lord Of The Rings, Bat­man, Dr Who, The Simp­sons, Back To The Fu­ture. I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘You can’t be se­ri­ous?’ It was some­thing else. It was one of those projects that I felt I’d been born to make.”

Mark War­bur­ton, pro­ducer on the game, had a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence. “Jon said to me: ‘When you put toys in a box they’re all mixed up to­gether. Why can’t we do that with Lego?’ I thought it was a joke when he told me we’d be work­ing with Valve, the BBC, Fox and all these oth­ers. I thought he was wind­ing

me up.” For McLough­lin, that ini­tial thrilling jolt of in­trigue and won­der be­came a ral­ly­ing mem­ory. “Half­way through the project, when things were tough and days were dark, I’d re­mem­ber the re­ac­tion I’d had on that first day,” he says. “Ev­ery­one was go­ing to have that ex­pe­ri­ence. It kept me go­ing.”

In fact, the idea of a mashup be­tween scores of dif­fer­ent film and tele­vi­sion se­ries had been seeded at TT Games years ear­lier. 2006’s Lego Star Wars 2 had a se­cret level fea­tur­ing In­di­ana Jones, while nu­mer­ous Star Wars char­ac­ters ap­peared in 2008’s Lego In­di­ana Jones: The Orig­i­nal Ad­ven­tures. “We were flirt­ing with this ap­proach long be­fore peo­ple were us­ing terms like ‘mashup’,” Smith says. Still, this fore­shad­ow­ing didn’t lessen the im­pact on the au­di­ence that McLough­lin had an­tic­i­pated. When the team first be­gan show­ing the game off to chil­dren in the months lead­ing up to the game’s launch, their re­ac­tion was mem­o­rable. “There was a Lego brick show in Lon­don,” War­bur­ton says. “There was a sea of chil­dren at this pre­sen­ta­tion. I re­alised they’d stopped lis­ten­ing to me. They were fix­ated on the screen, where Bat­man was driv­ing through Spring­field in the Mys­tery Ma­chine. That’s when I knew we had tapped into some­thing. They were see­ing on­screen what they do in their bed­rooms with their toys.”

When­ever a new em­ployee joins TT Games, they come with a clutch of ideas for which beloved film or TV se­ries could work with the Lego treat­ment. “It’s not that we couldn’t make a Lego Dr Who or Back To The Fu­ture game,” Smith says, “but we have made choices about the one or two big games we make each year. In the mean­time, ev­ery­one has so many ideas be­cause Lego can be any­thing. There are too many ideas. Lego Di­men­sions be­came the place where much of that en­ergy could be di­rected.”

Com­pil­ing a dream list of IPs to work with is one thing; wran­gling the le­gal sig­noffs is quite an­other. But when it came to ap­proach­ing the var­i­ous IP hold­ers, the con­ver­sa­tions were re­mark­ably smooth. “Lego car­ries so much weight,” Smith says. “So much of what we get per­mis­sion to do comes from peo­ple’s affin­ity for and trust of Lego. They have a re­la­tion­ship with the toy from their child­hood and their chil­dren’s re­la­tion­ship with the toy. We make sure it’s the first word we say when we sit down. Im­me­di­ately they’re lis­ten­ing at­ten­tively. Then, of course, we only ap­proach peo­ple whose work we care for and are fans of. That brings the as­sur­ance we’ll be treat­ing what they have made with care, at­ten­tion and love.”

Once it’s con­vinced a po­ten­tial part­ner, how­ever, TT Games has the gnaw­ing is­sue of how to en­sure that, for ex­am­ple, the BBC is happy with the way in which Dr Who rubs shoul­ders with Homer Simp­son, or that Warner Bros can see that Gizmo is get­ting a com­pa­ra­ble amount of screen­time to Doc Brown. “Con­cerns about mix­ing char­ac­ters is again where Lego changes the rules,” Smith says. “It’s the uni­ver­sal sol­vent. We’re now in the Lego world. It cre­ates a

“SO MUCH OF WHAT WE GET PER­MIS­SION TO DO COMES FROM PEO­PLE’S AFFIN­ITY FOR AND TRUST OF LEGO”

“NOW WE HAVE SONIC THE HEDGE HOG DRIV­ING AROUND ON THE HOG WAR T’ S EX­PRESS THROUGH BREAK­FAST LAND”

space that al­most ev­ery­one leans into and gets ex­cited about. Those dis­tinc­tions be­tween prop­er­ties and brands don’t ex­ist in the minds of chil­dren. The part­ners end up feel­ing the same way.”

It’s a log­i­cal sell, but even so, TT Games of­ten finds it­self tus­sling, both in­ter­nally and with stake­hold­ers, about spe­cific lines of di­a­logue, or an­i­ma­tions, and the ques­tion of whether they are con­sis­tent with the char­ac­ter, even in their car­toon­ishly warped Lego in­car­na­tion. “Of course, peo­ple who care deeply for these char­ac­ters have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to make sure we haven’t gone crazy and are tak­ing them in ways that aren’t au­then­tic to the way the au­di­ence would recog­nise,” Smith says. “There is back and forth with li­cence hold­ers – some more than oth­ers -- but it of­ten de­pends on how far we’re push­ing things, how sur­pris­ing or trans­gres­sive our rep­re­sen­ta­tions feel. We have end­less es­o­teric con­ver­sa­tions over cer­tain words or cer­tain an­i­ma­tions that would seem ab­surd to an out­sider, but are al­ways im­por­tant in the pre­cise con­text.”

In the ma­jor­ity of TT Games’ Lego ti­tles, play­ers col­lect studs, which are used as a cur­rency to buy new char­ac­ters and thereby gain ac­cess to new abil­i­ties that un­lock the world. This de­sign no longer works in Lego Di­men­sions’ model, which re­quires play­ers to buy new char­ac­ters us­ing real-world money. Some have crit­i­cised the ap­proach, ar­gu­ing that it places sec­tions of the game be­hind gates that can prin­ci­pally only be ac­cessed with an ex­pen­sive trip to the su­per­mar­ket or toy shop.

“It was tricky to get he bal­ance right but we had a rough idea of what we wanted peo­ple to feel with the vanilla pack,” McLough­lin says. “We made sure they could play through two-thirds of every­thing with­out mak­ing any ad­di­tional pur­chases. The vanilla playthrough is about 21 hours.” Arthur Par­sons, a se­nior de­signer on Lego Di­men­sions Year Two, is quick to point out that it’s pos­si­ble to un­lock every­thing in the game us­ing the ‘hire a hero’ fea­ture, which al­lows play­ers to pur­chase 30 sec­onds of play­time with any char­ac­ter in the game, enough time to get past most abil­ity-spe­cific puz­zles. “It’s also like test-driv­ing a car: you can try out these char­ac­ters for a bit be­fore buy­ing them,” he says.

It’s ar­guably a risky de­sign be­cause, in al­low­ing play­ers to spend some in-game cur­rency to play as any char­ac­ter for a lim­ited amount of time, it could un­der­mine the need to buy char­ac­ter packs. “That’s not how we thought about it,” Smith says. “If we start chip­ping away and make ex­tra re­quire­ments and fi­nan­cial de­mands on our play­ers, trick­ing them into buy­ing ex­tra stuff, we would’ve cre­ated an ex­pe­ri­ence that was com­pro­mised and in bad faith. We weren’t go­ing to over­turn the prom­ise of value that we’ve worked hard to build up over the years with games full of sur­prises. You buy the fig­ures be­cause the fig­ures are bril­liant and you get lots of ex­cel­lent new things.”

Un­de­ni­ably a huge num­ber of play­ers agree with Smith’s as­ser­tion. As well as videogame play­ers, Lego col­lec­tors have bought the packs en masse, in part be­cause many of the minifigs, such as The Wiz­ard Of Oz set, are only avail­able via Lego Di­men­sions. While Dis­ney re­cently an­nounced it’s ceas­ing pro­duc­tion of Dis­ney In­fin­ity, one of Lego Di­men­sions’ main toys-to-life ri­vals, pro­duc­tion on Lego Di­men­sions 2 has dou­bled in size in many ar­eas, with more than 200 staff work­ing on the game, in­clud­ing two game direc­tors, two sep­a­rate de­sign teams, and three de­sign­ers ded­i­cated to up­grade trees. It’s fan ser­vice at an in­dus­trial scale.

The busi­ness model also pro­vides TT Games with novel in­sight into which packs and abil­i­ties prove most pop­u­lar. “Cer­tain brands are more pop­u­lar in cer­tain re­gions,” McLough­lin says. “Lord Of The Rings is mas­sive in Ger­many, but not so much in the States. Nin­jago is very pop­u­lar in the EU, less so in the UK. There are fan favourites on a per coun­try ba­sis.” Like all Lego, the packs are com­par­a­tively ex­pen­sive to other toys. To help im­prove the sense of value in year two, ev­ery pack will con­tain unique dig­i­tal con­tent, Par­sons ex­plains. Even so, many of the packs in year one sold well de­spite not hav­ing a unique dig­i­tal prize. “Em­met sold very well, for ex­am­ple,” Par­sons

ex­plains, “but you al­ready have ac­cess to The Lego Movie hub thanks to Wyld­style. “I think, in the end, peo­ple buy from films they like and re­late to.”

A dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of those films ap­peal to much older play­ers than those who prin­ci­pally play Lego games. With Year Two’s se­lec­tion of of­fer­ings drawn from the ’80s, bring­ing to­gether The Goonies, Beetle­juice, Grem­lins and ET, this fo­cus on the nos­tal­gia fac­tor for par­ents rather than chil­dren is even more ap­par­ent. For War­bur­ton, it’s all part of what makes the games ap­peal­ing to the com­pa­nies that lend their char­ac­ters to the uni­verse. “It’s in­tro­duc­ing a younger gen­er­a­tion to these films,” he says. “Many young peo­ple got their in­tro­duc­tion to Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings through the Lego games. It’s an in­stant, easy bar­rier to get into them. I see it as a great priv­i­lege.”

“I re­mem­ber look­ing over some­one’s shoul­der dur­ing pro­duc­tion and think­ing: have Bat­man and Gan­dalf re­ally just dropped onto the Simp­sons couch?” Par­sons says. “And now we have Sonic The Hedge­hog driv­ing around on the Hog­wart’s Ex­press through Break­fast Land. You look at screen­shots and think it’s been Photoshopped.” To crit­ics who would say that the game is all celebrity and no sub­stance, McLough­lin is un­equiv­o­cal. “We have more than 60 unique me­chan­ics in the game now,” he says. “It shows the breadth.” For Par­sons, who has worked at TT Games for 17 years, no mat­ter how broad and de­sirous the cast of Lego char­ac­ters in the game, it’s just one as­pect of what makes the com­pany’s games so suc­cess­ful. “No mat­ter how long we’ve been here, we want ev­ery game to ad­vance on ten dif­fer­ent fronts, just to en­sure the per­cep­tion is that we have, at the very least, ad­vanced on one or two fronts.”

De­spite the slow de­cline of Sky­lan­ders, and the to­tal demise of Dis­ney In­fin­ity, TT Games ap­pears not only pos­i­tive but pos­i­tively ebul­lient about the fu­ture of its game. What­ever hap­pens, the com­pany has added a new Lego fact for quiz­mas­ters to snatch:

Lego Di­men­sions will be the first game to set­tle the old ques­tion of who would win in a fight be­tween Harry Pot­ter, Lumpy Space Princess and Mr T.

Six­teen new IPs fea­ture in Year Two, a di­verse set that in­cludes icons such as Grem­lins and Harry Pot­ter as well as lesser stars such as Beetle­juice

Jimmy McLough­lin, Mark War­bur­ton, Jonathan Smith and Arthur Par­sons

The most un­usual in­clu­sion within Year Two’s lineup? It’s hard to beat Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt char­ac­ter from the Mis­sion Im­pos­si­ble se­ries

The game is filled with nods to fans of the films it repli­cates. If The A-Team’s Mr T climbs in­side any fly­ing ve­hi­cle, for ex­am­ple, he in­stantly falls asleep be­cause he hates fly­ing

While many of the game’s unique LEGO mod­els are de­signed us­ing dig­i­tal tools, the stu­dio keeps a vast col­lec­tion of bricks for in­spi­ra­tion

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