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Building an MMO - Brick By Brick

LEGO Universe's Ryan Seabury talks about accessibility, user-generated content and keeping team sizes small

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. 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. 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. 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.

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