Everyone knows LEGO. Everyone loves LEGO. Whether we were introduced to the plastic bricks through childhood toys or the hit video games, it’s a brand everyone knows and trusts.
The company’s relationship with the games industry wasn’t originally as lucrative as it is today. Almost a decade of small but relatively accomplished titles preceded the surprise hit that was LEGO Star Wars, but both those early games and the more recent licensed titles thrive on the core concept of the toys.
“LEGO play is, at its core, a process of creative exploration based on LEGO bricks and their endless combinations,” says LEGO’s video games marketing manager Sten Lysdahl. “When children make things, and when they make things up, they use their curiosity and playfulness to explore and unlock their creative potential.”
However, the toys’ natural appeal wasn’t enough to prevent LEGO running into problems at the turn of the millennium – something that games eventually helped to resolve.
“For the early part of the Noughties LEGO had lost its groove and its profitability,” says former Toy News editor Ronnie Dungan. “Distracted by investment in peripheral projects such as theme parks and experimenting with new lines that moved it away from its established play patterns, it hit financial trouble. Over-reliant on expensive licenses such as Harry Potter, with which it overplayed its hand, LEGO needed to get back to basics and remember what it did best. So theme parks were offloaded, licensed lines were pared down and LEGO started the long road back.”
THE NEW MODEL
The key was in striking a balance between originality and licensing. And in 2005, the company got it spot on.
Developed by Traveller’s Tales and published by Eidos and LucasArts, LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game took both the toy brand and George Lucas’ flagship franchise in a whole new direction. No one expected what looked like a childish movie tie-in to take the world by storm. But no one fails to recognise the significance of this title.
“When TT Games first partnered with us to make the original LEGO Star Wars game, they brought a deep appreciation of the Star Wars brand, signature humour and superior production capabilities that led to a highly successful game,” says LucasArts’ senior director of marketing Peter Kingsley.
“From there, fans of both Star Wars and LEGO toys were hooked. Almost every consumer has a childhood memory involving LEGO, so it’s natural that this passion translates well into the game space.
“Once you get your hands on a LEGO Star Wars game, it’s easy to figure out why they’re so popular. They really connect with fans young and old, transcending generational gaps – that’s the real magic.”
Since then, more iconic properties have been combined with Traveller’s Tales’ winning formula, including Indiana Jones, Batman, Harry Potter and even games brands such as Rock Band. Each one achieved success in a way that no pre-Star Wars LEGO title ever had, as they drew fans by recreating beloved universes and characters in a unique way.
“The different franchises – Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter – enable children to immerse themselves in their favourite environments and characters,” Lysdahl says. “Both the LEGO sets and the video games actively engage children in highly immersive role playing where they can discover new adventures and use their creativity to progress in-game.”
TT Games’ head of production Jonathan Smith adds: “LEGO games are like a caricature of their source material – the franchise is immediately recognisable, but with all the major features exaggerated, in a way which makes you laugh. We can distil the drama, colour and action of a great story, then give players the freedom to fool around in it, and create moments they would never have imagined before.”
And there’s more on the way. With the Star Wars saga well and truly covered and an inevitable Harry Potter follow-up hidden behind closed doors, publishers are keen to give their biggest franchises the LEGO treatment – and Disney is first in line.
“LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean: The Video Game, due in May, is another high quality game production from the talented team at Traveller’s Tales,” says Disney product manager Jeff Suter.
“It’s a great fit – the setting features beautiful islands, seas and pirate havens, and the characters such as Captain Jack Sparrow and Davy Jones make brilliant LEGO minifigures. The development team has added its distinct LEGO interpretation to the films, and we’re delighted with the media reaction so far to the game.”
Pirates is a seemingly perfect IP for the LEGO team to play with. The films’ popularity is largely based on their humour, which has been a key pillar of TT Games’ success.
“In the LEGO medium, we can have lots of fun with humour and those classic moments – Luke dueling Vader, Han and Leia kissing, the battle of Hoth,” says Kingsley.
“You may have seen Anakin, Padmé and Obi-Wan escape the arena in Attack of the Clones, but you won’t look at that scene the same way again after playing our games.”
Suter says that LEGO Pirates will be no different: “The humour that runs throughout the films complements the humour that is part of every LEGO game.
“TT Games is a top quality studio that has completely grasped the essence of the movies this game is based on, so we have high expectations of the video game.”
Looking forwards, faith in the LEGO formula certainly isn’t waning, and some believe it will be instrumental in the continued success of the toys that inspired the games.
Toy expert Dungan says: “The games keep the LEGO brand cool and move it away from merely being a nerdy boys’ construction toy, retaining children for just that bit longer. This is crucial to the toy market, which loses its core customers at an earlier age.”
THE FUTURE OF LEGO
And the teams behind this phenomenon are more than confident that there is still plenty of life left in the brand’s relationship with gaming.
“As long as there are LEGO bricks and fascinating stories to be told, there will be LEGO video games,” says LEGO’s Lysdahl.
“And don’t forget that the target group is ever changing; every year boys and girls grow too old for these types of family-friendly games, but at the same time others reach the target age.
“That said, we are always challenging ourselves to never be satisfied with what we have got now. Developing new games based on the LEGO play experience is a constant learning curve, and so it’s always exciting and challenging.”
TT’s Smith concludes: “We have been able to sustain the magic of LEGO video gaming for many years so far, and I can guarantee that we will be able to continue to do so far into the future.
“We’ve been privileged to work and play with characters from our favourite movies, books and comics – the greatest entertainment properties of all time.
“There are exciting plans for the future, though – because anything is possible in LEGO.”
It’s one of those regular speculative office conversations every time a new entry in the series is announced: what else would make a great LEGO game?
There is plenty of source material out there to draw from – movies, books, comics, TV shows – and publishers are even keen to see what Traveller’s Tales could do with games IP.
LucasArts’ Peter Kingsley says: “As a fan, there are many of the great gaming and entertainment brands that I would like to see translated into a LEGO game. If I had to choose one, I would say the Gears of War franchise. Who doesn’t want to see LEGO Marcus Fenix and Delta Squad take on a LEGO Locust horde? That sounds like fun to me.”
Meanwhile, the team behind the toys has been inundated with suggestions from fans and consumers – all of which they consider very carefully indeed.
“We are always interested in fascinating worlds with powerful stories and characters that are emotionally engaging,” says LEGO’s video games marketing manager Sten Lysdahl.
“Over the years, we’ve been surprised at how many people have asked for LEGO Back to the Future, but it seems to be something people consistently want us to do. People also love to ask for completely inappropriate games with brands that are absolutely not suitable for children.
“The great thing is that you can create anything out of LEGO bricks, so I guess that we’ll just have to wait and see what the future brings.
BRICK BY BRICK: A HISTORY OF LEGO GAMES
Before LEGO Star Wars (1997-2005)
Believe it or not, there was life before licensing. Starting with 1997’s action adventure LEGO Island, there were 23 titles based on the toys. These were mostly released on PC and often focused on allowing users to create in-game objects or worlds, as did the first two licensed titles: LEGO Creator: Harry Potter (2001) and Chamber of Secrets (2002).
LEGO Star Wars (2005)
The shot in the arm for both LEGO’s gaming ventures and its toy sales. The game explored the three prequels and coincided with the film release of Episode III.
LEGO Star Wars II (2006)
Following the surprise success of the first game, the sequel turned its attention to the classic trilogy.
LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga (2007)
A compilation that bundled the two previous titles together and remastered some of their weaker sections.
LEGO Batman: The Videogame (2008)
To date, the Dark Knight is the only licensed character to star in a LEGO title that featured an original storyline.
LEGO Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures (2008)
TT Games dipped into the other major franchise to emerge from the Lucasfilm empire. It arrived one month after Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
LEGO Battles (2009)
This DS exclusive, developed by Hellbent, brought the brand’s focus back to the original toys in a strategy title.
LEGO Indiana Jones 2: The Adventure Continues (2009)
Dr Jones’ return introduced Crystal Skull-based antics, a new hub structure and the first LEGO level editor.
LEGO Rock Band (2009)
The LEGO team joined forces with Harmonix for a more family-friendly take on peripheral-based rhythm action.
LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 (2010)
Last year’s chart-topping smash hit allowed fans to relive the Boy Who Lived’s first four books and films. A sequel seems inevitable.
LEGO Universe (2010)
Once again shying away from licensing, this MMO pits players against a dark lord with the power of imagination. It is handled in-house by the LEGO Group.
LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars (2011)
Last month’s title proved that plenty of consumers still want to deconstruct that galaxy far, far away.
LEGO Ninjago (2011)
Out next week, the sequel to LEGO Battles features characters from LEGO’s latest toy line.
LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean (2011)
Due on shelves in May, this title explores Jack Sparrow’s adventures including those from upcoming film On Stranger Tides.