This post is not meant to take away the fantastic job that Travelers Tales has done with their Lego “Insert Batman/Star Wars/Indiana Jones/Harry Potter/Pirates of the Caribbean” games, but there is something oddly unsatisfying about the games beyond their simplistic yet engaging game play which is recycled with each subsequent release. Whatever goodwill that was built by TT and the Lego Star Wars titles has been chipped away through the overexposure of the Lego + Licensed franchise formula. The absurd number of games that TT has been able to ship over the past 6 years (which sits at 21, an average of more then 3 games per year), is a testament to their management, but little else. In order to recapture the  true nature of Lego, it is time to go back to the drawing board – or more aptly the big plastic container that is sitting under the bed.

Creating a Lego game in a Post-Minecraft world

Whatever thoughts may percolate in your mind about Minecraft, there is no doubt that the industry at large has taken notice of the fusion of elements that designer Notch Persson managed to cram into his PC world building game. Assuming that the folks at TT haven’t been hiding under a rock over the past year, they should have come to the logical and apparent conclusion that they have been beaten at their own game – a modular based building system that allowed for simplistic and emergent game play experiences to flourish.

Minecraft hearkens back to a misspent youth which saw me focus on taking a bucket of parts and creating my own fantasy world. I truly felt like a God, writing my own narrative of biblical proportions as I continued to build and reshape the world as I saw fit. While I haven’t spent a ton of time playing around with Minecraft, I have seen my younger brother fall into the same deified state that I did with my tub of bricks.

Having spent a significant time in the ill-fated Lego MMO, Lego Universe, it is clear that the game’s design was focus tested into a state of mediocrity. Ideas were thrown around with reckless abandon leading to a broken experience that didn’t do any one thing particularly well, and in most cases just felt broken. The core tenant of building was relegated to a strange mode where pieces collected in the wild could be assembled, but it failed miserably compared to Lego’s own CAD style construction program, Lego Digital Designer. The racing felt like a shallow Mario Kart ripoff, and the combat left much to be desired. Instead of following in Lego Universe’s footsteps by creating what would amount to a skin pack for Minecraft, the Lego group needs to look to Minecraft’s design philosophy while focusing on any one single element.

Building a better game, by stealing from Activision

Lego is a toy, which doesn’t necessarily guarantee a successful transition to the realm of video games. The TT method of using a licensed franchise, or co-opting one created by Lego, only provides a minor refinement to the character action genre while doing little to leverage the “cool” factor of the bricks themselves. The comedic tone that creates the “cool” factor of the TT developed games is nothing short of brilliant, but trying to bring that same mentality into a next-generation product would be misguided.

What makes Lego, and by extension Minecraft, cool, is the internal narrative that is created as a direct result of creation. Without solving some of the shortcomings that are present in Minecraft, the internalized narrative that make Lego such an interesting concept will ultimately fall flat in the video game space.

I can’t help but look at the things that Activision is doing with their Skylanders franchise as a possible jumping off point for the decision makers at Lego. By melding a physical object with a video game, Skylanders has a certain tactile interaction that seems rife for further exploration. Despite seeming like a marketing scheme on the grandest scale, Skylanders has proven to be a mainstream success with a marketing push similar in scale to a Call of Duty title. By bringing the toy aisle into the video game aisle, the “brand synergy” (ugh I am disgusted with myself for writing this phrase) that Activision created seems an uncanny fit for Lego to exploit.

Without trying to do the heavy lifting of actually putting forth a fully formed idea, imagine slapping your Darth Vader Lego minifigure on the “Portal of Power” and adventuring with friends through a world that you helped to create. Microsoft has demoed Kinect’s ability to scan real-world objects into a game, another emerging technology that seems like a perfect match for Lego.

The future…

The future seems cloudy for Lego. The continued distancing from its roots and narrow focus on instruction based construction sets has created an ‘eggs in one basket’ scenario for the company. By relying on licensing deals, Lego ceases to be about construction and becomes just another form of action figure. Is this necessarily a bad thing? No, but in order to stay relevant within the video game industry, a point will come, or arguably already has come, where the consumer would rather just buy a set then be forced to explore a narrowly constrained game world.