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LEGO Games

Allen Varney | 15 May 2007 12:01
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Since 1958, The LEGO Group has sold over 300 billion plastic toy building bricks, an average of 52 bricks for every person in the world. Did your 52 LEGOs get lost in the mail? Then you're missing a lot of games.

LEGO bricks tower high in geek culture, as shown by the extensive LEGO Wikipedia portal. In addition to esoterica like The Brick Testament (a retelling of Bible stories using LEGO mini-figures, or "minifigs"), the LEGO Bandit and an introduction to brickfilm, the portal offers a decent list of LEGO-related games.

Sure, you've seen the LEGO Star Wars computer games - at The Escapist Daily, no less - but they're only the tip of a huge thermoplastic iceberg. Many LEGO games use real building blocks and minifigs as tabletop miniatures. Some games are robotic contests and trials employing the LEGO Mindstorms sets beloved of young engineers everywhere. And LEGO is now joining a growing field of blocky online games.

Learning the range of LEGO game activities, even the most jaded gamer may say, with strong emotion, "Huh!"

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A family-owned company founded in 1934 in Billund, Denmark, The LEGO Group is the world's sixth-largest toymaker, with 2005 revenue of US$1.1 billion. The company has just weathered a dire financial crisis and, thanks to its Star Wars license and Bionicle toy line, is regaining profitability - at the cost of 1,200 jobs, factory closures and sale of a 70 percent stake in its four LEGOland theme parks. The company retains its LEGO retail stores, where you can buy bricks in bulk, like raisins. LEGO also founded the world's largest maker of architectural signs, Modulex.

LEGO makes 15 billion blocks annually of 20 different materials in 55 colors. Bricks are manufactured to tolerances of two micrometers; LEGO bricks made in the 1950s still interlock with bricks made yesterday. There have been over 2,000 different products. The LEGO Group 2005 annual report (.PDF) described the brand as "a synonym for creative building experiences and roleplaying, which makes learning fun, as children learn through play."

LEGO stands out among toy companies for its close relationship with its fan base. Fans helped create the new LEGO Hobby Train set, and the company intends to rely heavily on user-based design going forward.

The LEGO community gathers online at the LEGO Users Group fan site, LUGNET, and collector site Peeron. At Brickshelf and MOCpages, you can upload photos of your own LEGO creations for others to rate. ("Am I studly or not?")

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The tabletop LEGO games listed on LUGNET's gaming page are all, conceptually, tactical miniatures games. The rules explain how to assign differing abilities to LEGO creations (usually minifigs), move them across varying terrain, attack other figures at range or hand-to-hand, inflict damage and (inevitably) destroy stuff in a shower of bricks.

LEGOWars launched the form in 1991. Today there's BrickQuest (fantasy), Starship (space opera) and Mechaton (giant robots). Evil Stevie's Pirate Game is by Steve Jackson - yes, that Steve Jackson, owner of Steve Jackson Games and designer of GURPS, Munchkin, Illuminati and others. His pirate game covers battles between minifig-laden ships (including rules for being eaten by sharks) and adds live-action roleplaying. At conventions, Jackson runs his pirate game for up to 20 players at once, all down on their knees pushing big plastic ships across the hotel carpet and shouting "boom!"

A standout LEGO tabletop effort is Mike Rayhawk's BrikWars, a voluminous recasting of all imaginable miniatures activity in LEGOlian terms. The 2005 Tenth Anniversary BrikWar rules are online; the 2001 version is a 135-page .PDF.

Unlike industrial-strength miniatures games such as Games Workshop's Warhammer series, LEGO tabletop games, one and all, play pretty loose. They charm you with humor and frivolity. BrikWars begins with copious etiquette advice for the Enlightened BrikWarrior: "Be a cunning and challenging adversary, but when your opponent blows your prize creation into its component bits, share in his excitement and the sheer glory of destruction. Play as if you were drunk (many players will not need to fake this); when faced with difficult decisions, ask yourself what Homer Simpson would do."

One technically inventive LEGO miniatures design is Alban Nanty's BOW (Bricks-Only Wargame). Though slight in detail and clearly inspired by BrikWars, BOW uses LEGOs not only as figures and scenery, but also as dice and character sheets. To determine an action's success, you throw 2x2 LEGO squares; the ones that land on their side count as successes. Measure distances with a ruler made of bricks. Record your minifig's abilities on a six-by-eight-stud baseplate divided into regions for movement, attack and hit points; on each area, place a color-coded brick with a number of studs represent the ability score. BOW is interesting for its complete LEGO grammar, a proof of powerful flexibility.

But if you want true LEGO power, you're talking electronics and software.

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We think of LEGO blocks as simple, elemental toys, but the company has always embraced high tech - first in its precision engineering, then by adding motors, gears and, later, microprocessors.

LEGO released its Technic Computer Control in 1986, in consultation with MIT's Media Lab; in 1998 came the first Mindstorms robotics kit. LEGO and other organizations have sponsored many regional Mindstorms sporting games, such as Botball and RoboCup Junior. Founded by inventor Dean Kamen, a non-profit called FIRST - "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology" - stages robotics competitions for high-school students, and has a dedicated LEGO League. Inspired by FIRST, Wired editor Chris Anderson has proposed an aerial robotics league and, with his son, is building a cheap Unassisted Aerial Vehicle (UAV) using a LEGO autopilot.

The booming field of pure-software LEGO design starts with Ldraw.org, which defines an open CAD standard. Many open-source Ldraw-compliant programs model, render and export LEGO software creations. The LEGO Group offers a similar, proprietary client, LEGO Digital Designer, that uses LEGO Exchange Format (.LXF). You can download user-created models into the client, modify them and then order that exact custom set of real blocks directly from LEGO.

As for computer and videogames - well, there's a cute Super Mario Bros. brickfilm, but that's not what you had in mind. Wikipedia's list of LEGO computer and video games has 30 entries, including the first LEGO computer game, 1997's LEGO Island, and straightforward branding exercises like LEGO Chess.

Chief on that list are the best-selling LEGO Star Wars games by TT Games Publishing, formerly the Traveller's Tales studio. In a February 2007 GameSpot interview, TT Games Creative Director Jonathan Smith credited managing director Tom Stone with the original concept: "It seems obvious now, but back then we would go into meetings and say 'LEGO Star Wars,' and people would just shake their heads [in confusion]. But it was a brilliant idea, and we didn't screw it up. Which is harder than you'd think."

Dan McAuliffe, producer of the GameBoy port of LSW2, commented in an About.com interview, "The most important element to the overall feel was an unwavering attention to scale. All LEGO objects and set pieces were built in 3-D using rendered LEGO pieces. This allowed all of the game objects and characters to remain as though they were constructed from the original toy sets."

The LEGO-Star Wars connection has produced other wonders. The largest LEGO kit ever released is the Imperial Star Destroyer - 37 inches long, 3,104 pieces. The alliance goes both ways: The most recent DVD re-re-re-release of the movie saga includes a LEGO animation featurette narrated by Mark Hamill.

Next up from TT Games, in 2008, is LEGO Batman.

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In March 2007, The LEGO Group licensed online game studio NetDevil to create a LEGO-based massively multiplayer online game (MMOG). A Killer Betties interview with NetDevil's Scott Brown and Ryan Seabury reveals little about the new game, but it's early yet.

The placeholder LEGO MMOG website emphasizes building and creativity, heretofore notorious weaknesses of MMOGs. The idea raises bold hopes of players importing their own models into the game, in.LXF or Ldraw format, and gaining status based on, perhaps, community judgments of their studliness. Cross your fingers; NetDevil's previous MMOG, Auto Assault (published by NCsoft), bombed within weeks of launch.

The desire for online LEGO has produced a couple of low-end, somewhat dorky precursors: Blockland ("that game where you build stuff"), now mostly dormant; and Roblox, which emphasizes multiplayer games based on deathmatch and other shooter models. The Roblox coders are working hard and seem to know what they want, so more power to them; still, in playing up PvP carnage, Roblox shows a regrettable shortage of imagination. As all these games amply demonstrate, LEGO is about imagination.

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To an extent, LEGO has always mirrored society. In the 1950s, the blocks were identical and interchangeable; in the '70s, you could buy mechanized kits to repurpose those blocks for many functions. Starting in the '90s, you could buy customized sets; now, there are online LEGO networks. We can imagine more innovation ahead, such as smart, networked, globally aware LEGOs with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tracking tags.

And how long until we get collectible LEGO games a la HeroClix? Designing a good clicky-base miniatures army feels (metaphorically) like assembling a model - that is, putting together a little machine with lots of complementary, interlocking parts.

Inevitably, responding to the current zeitgeist, plastic building blocks will go open-source. The field of 3-D printers - "fabs" - is barreling along. In 10 years, maybe less, you'll have one on your desk, using Ldraw-based software to spit out LEGO-like knockoffs of your own design - thousands of them, for no more than the cost of the plastic.

Yet somehow The LEGO Group, given its high-tech savvy, will probably still make a fortune in brick-design licensing fees. Because LEGO has always mirrored society. Maybe once all those Mindstorms-trained robotics engineers grow up and get loose, it'll be the other way around.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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