With the reinvigoration of the LEGO brand through videogames - notably those titles created by Traveller's Tales using Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Batman franchises - it was no great surprise when the Denmark-based toy bricks firm revealed that an MMO was underway.
We met up with NetDevil's Ryan Seabury, creative director on the project, in Cologne this year to find out how the game is developing, what he thinks about user-generated content, and how the making of a premium MMO title can be accomplished with a small team.
Q: Most people look at the two ends of persistent games as sandbox and theme park - where would you put LEGO Universe on that list?
Ryan Seabury: We specifically wanted to get away from just a pure sandbox to start with. I've seen a lot of virtual worlds, when it comes to user-generated content, going all the way back to Alpha World - the problem I always had with worlds like that was that they'd just dump you in and say, "Hey, here's the toolbox!"
You don't have an emotional contact with it - you might be able to do cool things with your avatar, but there's no purpose for you to be there. Layering the game into the virtual world is that hook, and gives you a compelling reason to stay there.
For us, and especially when we talk about kids and play styles - true LEGO play, and how kids and families play together - we really felt strongly that we wanted to have an epic, living universe that was there as a backdrop for you, and a game to play. And the more you get into the game, the more it opens up into a sandbox or virtual toy.
The real vision is that the stuff you're then doing in the sandbox is the user-generated content, and we want to bring those creations to life and make them a meaningful part of your life.
Q: Where do you draw the line on creation?
Ryan Seabury: For us, there are a lot of lines... LEGO is a system of constraints in a way, it gives you more of a jolt to creativity to something like modelling clay, or something like that. Because you have to think about the elements, the shapes and how they all fit together.
I think the fundamental metaphor plays out for us too - you can't just dump a castle down in the middle of the world, and then everybody else's quests get broken, it just destroys gameplay and so on.
So you're going to be able to have user properties that branch off from the main world, and then there are small, medium and big. The bigger ones will cost more, and be harder to get, and that kind of thing - but that's a place where you can put whatever you want to, and that becomes your world, your rules.
So even though the official rules might say one thing, you might be able to tweak some of those parameters and change how things work - then invite your friends over to play in that space together.
Q: There aren't too many creation-orientated persistent worlds out there aimed at a younger demographic - how important is it for that age range to have an opportunity to express themselves, do you think?
Ryan Seabury: I think it's interesting - we've done extensive testing over the years, with a lot of kids, families, some adults as well. The first thing that kids really want to just do is play - they want to get in there and battle, smash stuff, go on adventures with their friends, and so on.
But when they see you're collecting bricks as part of the game, they realise they can build stuff... it's a basic expectation that's there. I'm not sure it's a question of how important it is.
Q: It has to be presented in a different way to something that was primarily for an older audience - say, LittleBigPlanet and its creative tools - how far do you have to guide the process of making content?
Ryan Seabury: We're taking an approach that's basically an accessibility curve. If you start with the simplest thing, that's probably the LEGO Star Wars games that Traveller's Tales built, you walk up to a pile of bricks, hold a button... and you're not doing anything creative, but the conceptional experience you're walking away with is that you built the bridge to solve the problem.
I think that's great, because it captures the magic of LEGO coming together in the way that it builds things - and everybody can do that, it's simple. That's the starting point. From there, what we're going to layer on top of that as far as LEGO Universe goes is the next step, which is modularly designing something.
So you can build a rocket which will take you to different places - you'll be able to customise that from different models that you've found and collected, and put it together. That's also simple, and pretty much anybody can do it.
Then the next step up is free build, or brick-by-brick - literally design something from the ground up with elements you've collected, and that starts getting a bit more complicated, so we expect to see some fall-off there. Because is it different to putting LEGO together in real life, right?
Q: There's not the same sense of tangibility...
Ryan Seabury: It's a magical thing, and when it translates literally to the computer screen it's not quite the same experience - so what we're trying to do is look at ways to keep the mini-figure connected to it, so it doesn't lose its emotion, and feel like a boring 3D application in which you're moving things around. The mini-figure is involved in constructing things, and we're making a lot of effort on that.
Beyond there you can get even more complex and bring your creations to life - that's the whole vision we have. Not only will you be able to build models that look cool, but they actually do things, and people can interact with them. Of course, that takes a whole other level of thought.
You look at something like LittleBigPlanet, which I think is a fantastic game, and really cool, great styling - but I think they jumped from playing the game, and then you have to create an entire level. It's overwhelming a little bit, there are so many things. When you talk about level design you've got to think about the entire player experience, so with the modular building steps on the way up there we're going to try and focus you into worrying about one object first that does something - and not the whole landscape that's out there.
We're trying to keep that accessibility curve, so once you're comfortable designing objects that are interactive, then you take the next step into a deeper complexity rating.
Q: Do you have a sneaking suspicion that LEGO Universe might just appeal to a broader audience than those the initial marketing will be aimed at...?
Ryan Seabury: Definitely - I haven't met a person yet that doesn't like LEGO.
Q: That makes me feel a lot better...
Ryan Seabury: I think a lot of people are excited about LEGO Universe - because any of us that grew up with LEGO, you have a fond memory of it. It's always a positive childhood thing, and here's a chance where there's an MMO - there are things for you to do in there. There are probably a lot of people, even people who don't have kids, who'll probably pick it up and play it for that reason. It's cool to start with to make yourself as a mini-figure... but then to develop that character, get all this gear and do cool abilities with them, start creating a place that's your own and build your house and whatever else...
Q: How has the relationship between NetDevil and LEGO been building?
Ryan Seabury: Just in general terms, it's fantastic. It's hands-down the best relationship I've ever had in any field, games or otherwise. They do so many things well - from process, to everything including business model and game experience, they put the premium experience at the forefront.
After some of our previous projects, we like to say that the best way to make games is to play them. I don't know who it was that coined the phrase, but it's true: "Great games are played, not made". LEGO really supported us with that - we wanted to do lots of rapid iteration and prototyping, and tonnes of consumer testing.
We've been literally testing before we had lines of code written, with the same group of 19 people that started with us, and their families - they still test with us today, and come into the office on a weekly basis to play a build of the game and give us feedback.
Q: Projects like this aren't cheap - how have you managed that aspect?
Ryan Seabury: We definitely believe at NetDevil that smaller development teams over a longer time is better - rapid prototyping keeps the cost low, so just as a general strategy we keep the teams as tight as possible and only grow when we really, really have to.
The other thing is methodology - being transparent is a big deal. The relationship is good, and that's been extremely helpful, because I've certainly been in other developer-publisher relationships where we'd maybe hide things from the publisher, everybody diverges on what they expect to happen... and all that does is make it worse, and generally cost more in the end, because you have to fix things, or get them realigned.
So just keeping things really transparent is good - here's the state of the game, these are the things that worked, and the things that didn't, and just be upfront about it. In turn they've been really upfront with us about their organisational structure and what's going on with them - they actually present to us, and treat it very much as a peer relationship. Being on the publisher side, they're giving us status updates... and they don't have to do that.
I think that's a tremendous thing that helps everybody move along, because then we have a chance to give them experience and insight that our team has accumulated over the years in terms of running online games.
And then finally I'd say development process - everybody's moved to agile and scrum methods on the floor, and we've been doing that for a couple of years now. That's helped us not get in the rut of having a three-year design and development plan, and then every little detail is charted out... then two years in, we said we were going to do this and we still have to because it's in the contract...
No - let's not waste money on something that's no longer relevant for the user experience. Trade that out, because now we can see from the feedback there's a much more important feature or element to work on.
All of those things combined, we've a team of less than 100 including the LEGO team from Denmark. There's a supporting cast around that of maybe a couple of hundred that occasionally touch the project, but in MMO development terms it's probably a third of typical team.
Even on our Jumpgate: Evolution team I think it's still sub-20 - you get good people and good passion and you can have a really tight team. You don't need to generate tonnes of costs.
Q: Supporting a product post-launch is something people are more and more familiar with now - how do you look upon that challenge?
Ryan Seabury: I think that's a very comfortable place for us, we've really operated that way since day one. We've always thought of MMOs as a service for our products - we care a lot less about the traditional one-shot boxed product revenue model, and much more about the service revenue, whether that's micro-transaction or subscription model.
I saw Gabe Newell at DICE this year talk about Steam, and boxed product as a service model, and I think people are starting to look at it like that - yes, that's a way that you can start to combat all of the issues, like combating piracy, getting the long tail, and all of that.
For us it's just intuitive - we've always made games that are built on that idea, so it's cool to see everybody else is recognising those models.
Ryan Seabury is creative director on the LEGO Universe project at NetDevil. Interview by Phil Elliott.