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