LEGO is famous for its mission, “To inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow.” However, when it comes to the digital space, especially video games, LEGO has had a hard time finding ways to actually turn this mission to reality.
In this post, I examine what LEGO has been doing in the digital space, where LEGO could shine, how competitors have already arrived there, and what LEGO could do to live up to its mission in the digital.
LEGO and digital: LEGO Digital Designer, LEGO Ideas, and digital marketing
LEGO has had some success in the digital space in the form of computer-aided design, crowdsourcing, and marketing.
LEGO Digital Designer (LDD) is a magnificent piece of software with which you can build virtual LEGO models using a comprehensive selection of LEGO bricks. For a long time, LEGO offered a connected service, Design byME, to which you could upload a model you created in LDD to order a custom set of actual bricks to build that exact model in real life. Unfortunately, the Design byME service was shut down in 2012.
The problem with LDD, which carried over to the custom set service, is that building a model in the program is not that easy. Technically, there is nothing wrong with the program, and it is a great piece of engineering, but in practice building LEGO by hand is much more intuitive and fun. LDD is much more work than play.
LEGO is also a forerunner in crowdsourcing with its LEGO Ideas portal, in which users can submit their own LEGO models (either hand-built or built in LDD) and vote on other people’s proposals. Models that are popular enough (10,000 votes) are then considered for inclusion in the LEGO model line.
Finally, LEGO has worked on fostering creativity in its digital marketing, for example in LEGO Architecture’s “filling the gap” campaign.
So, there are a number of aspects in the digital presence of LEGO that foster creativity and building. However, the main stage of the digital space is set for video games.
LEGO video games: entertainment, but not so much creativity
LEGO released its first video game, LEGO Island, back in 1997. However, when looking at what LEGO video games are known for, the big year is 2005, when TT Games released LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game.
LEGO Star Wars was the beginning of a stream of titles based on the same core mechanics with different licensed IPs thrown on top: Star Wars, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Batman (DC comics), Marvel, Lord of the Rings, and Jurassic World.
The gist of these games is to recreate the adventure of the original movies and comics in LEGO. Problems are generally solved by smashing objects, which then reveal loose bricks that can be used to build pre-determined models (no selection, simply press and hold the build button) that help the player to progress. The player can also switch between characters, who have a number of different skills that can be used to solve problems: small characters can fit into tight spaces, Indiana Jones has his trademark whip and so on.
The games have some replay value in hunting for hidden treasures in a free play mode that can be accessed after completing each level in story mode: in free play mode all characters are available, so the player has access to skill combinations that are not present in the story mode and that are needed to access many of the hidden treasures.
The user experience has constantly improved as the concept has been tuned: in the early games it was often the best tactic to simply smash all possible objects in a level, because the needed construction pieces were often hidden in seemingly random places. Newer additions to the product line have been smarter about object placement as well as introduced various mini quests and equipment to give the player more abilities to choose from – and thus a little more variety in solving problems.
Nonetheless, these games stand heavily on the shoulders of the story they tell. They are little more than interactive stories with a beginning and an end followed by a little more adventuring for the completionist who wants to explore every nook and cranny.
There is space on the market for such games, no doubt, and in a way they fit the mission of LEGO in that if they encourage children to play with actual LEGO bricks, and really build things, then that’s a mission success! (Not to mention they can increase LEGO products sales)
However, when you turn the same core gameplay into a persistent world, things are not as sparkly. This is what LEGO Minifigures Online has attempted to do: it is a simple game of smashing and, especially, collecting. Unlike the single-player titles, a persistent world is not a place where you follow the storyline and then leave it behind. Collecting minifigures is much like collecting Pokemon or one of the million other toys that have come and gone. You can build a very addictive experience out of collecting, but you can hardly inspire and develop people by doing so.
The competition is already here: Minecraft
LEGO has done a great job in positioning its products as something more than just entertainment – as enlightenment. One could say that LEGOs are toys that parents want their kids to play with.
But when it comes to digital, this phrase has already been used for something else: “It’s the one game parents want their kids to play,” remarked Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, on the day Microsoft’s acquisition of Minecraft was published.
Nadella continued: “If you talk about STEM education, the best way to introduce anyone to STEM or get their curiosity going on, it’s Minecraft. So I think what this open-world phenomenon will mean to the community at large, for people who builders, is pretty big, and we are very excited about the acquisition, obviously.”
Meanwhile, at Disney
If LEGO has been about education in the physical world and has more recently moved more towards pure entertainment, one of its main competitors, Disney, is moving in the exact opposite direction. (To be more specific, the relationship between LEGO and Disney is more properly characterized as co-opetition in that they both compete and co-operate with each other. In the increasingly networked world, this state of affairs is becoming quite common.)
Disney became interested in combining entertainment and learning in 2007, and has been making steady progress since, first in the form of Disney Connected Learning program and as of late 2014 with its rebranded version, Disney Imagicademy.
To hear it straight from Disney, consider these quotes from the Imagicademy launch:
“Parents told us that there was a need, in a cluttered marketplace, for a solution that helps with supplemental learning.” (Jeff Sellinger, Senior VP Disney Learning)
“As you can see, it’s so much more than a set of digital apps — it’s about a brand. It’s a comprehensive suite of connected experiences, all of which have been created with quality, attention to detail, and, yes, magic.” (Andrew Sugarman, Executive Vice President, Disney Publishing Worldwide)
OK, the word magic gives away that this is Disney talking. However, think about the LEGO System of Play and bringing a similar experience into digital – these words could have just as easily been spoken by a LEGO executive.
Disney’s efforts are not limited to new apps. In fact, the very first test bed for Disney’s learning initiative was Disney’s main online game, Club Penguin (Disney closed down its other similar offerings in 2013 to focus on Club Penguin). Club Penguin received several new minigames designed to both entertain and educate starting from 2011. The Executive Producer of Disney Connected Learning at the time, Starr Long (of Ultima Online fame), remarked that “No child should have to choose between a ‘learning’ game and ‘fun’ game.”
However, Club Penguin was originally built for entertainment only, and the learning elements were merely an afterthought. As such, even though Club Penguin is not doing too well right now having undergone layoffs in April, it may be too early to say what effect the learning elements had there – other than that they have been among its most popular minigames.
What can LEGO do?
LEGO may be behind the competition, but it is not out. Comparing it with Disney, for example, whereas Disney can use a number of interesting IPs to build educating games around, they are merely the surface. What has Mickey Mouse got to do with learning? Inherently, not much, but the character can be used to motivate children and get them interested. On the other hand, LEGO bricks are a learning platform by their very nature.
There are two major lessons LEGO could learn from Minecraft: non-massively multiplayer persistent worlds and customization.
When it comes to online multiplayer and young children, parents are always concerned about the people kids meet online and their online interactions. Excessive censorship, however, removes the parts that are essentially massively about the online experience, maybe even the parts that are multiplayer about it to an extent, so it is not a solution. It is much easier to do online without doing massively multiplayer – let people host their own servers and play with people they choose. There is a significant industry already renting out Minecraft servers, with Mojang being just one of the suppliers, and there is no reason LEGO could not pull off something similar with LEGO Worlds – and with easier admin setup included.
The other lesson is about fulfilling the mission of LEGO: customization. Let people customize and modify their games. That is the real path to inspire and develop children – not just offering them the carefully crafted experience, but letting them explore it in their own ways. To take this to its logical conclusion would mean that LEGO should allow for modification beyond just building objects from existing bricks within the game. There are quite a few precedents for this in the physical world by the way, as people have been tuning their LEGO sets with non-LEGO parts for a long time.
Furthermore, LEGO has something that Disney has been lacking: a brand that appeals to children and adults alike. As the original gamer generations are now parents themselves, there is room for games that parents can play together with their children – and this market opportunity will only get bigger as time goes on. How many adults want to play Mickey Mouse games? How many adults want to play with LEGO? I think the more popular answer is obvious. (This makes for an interesting case regarding Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm, by the way, as the Star Wars IP is also universally loved by children and adults alike.)
Finally, the point where LEGO is uniquely positioned is the intersection between physical and digital. As the physical LEGO bricks are a learning toy by their own right, if LEGO can find a way to merge the physical and digital experiences and make them support each other in learning, no other company has a clear answer to that.
To recap, there are multiple paths to creativity LEGO can take in digital, even simultaneously:
- Non-massively multiplayer with customization (all audiences)
- Massively multiplayer with customization (teens and adult fans of LEGO)
- Toys-to-life (children and teens, possibly adults)
LEGO Fusion, LEGO Worlds, and LEGO Dimensions are taking the first steps into this direction, but whether that is intentional and how far will they go, remains to be seen.
Photo: Retro Rocket by Mike @ Flickr (CC)