Brick by Brick

LEGO Star Wars‘ success managed to both be a surprise and entirely predictable. On the positive side, how could a mix of two of the most popular brands in the world of play not be a success? On the negative … oh, for God’s sake. LEGO Star Wars? Who takes such bastard children of capitalism seriously? Well, its creators, for one. LEGO Star Wars proved to be an enormously popular and quietly radical game – one whose innovations were often overlooked due to its veneer of adorability. But how did they do it? The clue is in the name. It’s called LEGO Star Wars. The LEGO comes first.

Its roots lie back way before there was any connection to a galaxy a long time ago and far, far away, with an internal team at LEGO Company. Its mission was to explore everything that made LEGO a brilliant toy and see how its lessons could apply to videogames. Ex-Codemasters Jonathan Smith was a member. “LEGO Company doesn’t work like other businesses,” Smith – later Producer on LEGO Star Wars – explains. “In particular, it doesn’t work like the way the videogame industry works.” It’s privately owned. It’s fiercely proud of its 75-year heritage. Unanswerable to the market, it has no obligations to anything but itself and a distinctive internal culture based on children’s play.

“That gave us a completely new way of looking at the task of making a game,” Smith says. “It just set us free a bit from the typical industrial occupations to consider, with greater freedom and a greater focus on young players that was really energizing.” To that end, they spent a lot of their time working with children. “Genuinely listen to what they’re saying,” he advises. “[Don’t talk] to them to make sure your game is just good enough to make it in the time available, or hoping you’ll find they’ll put up with whatever you’ve put into the game already, but at the start of the process with a completely open mind.” Alongside this, they worked with LEGO academics and experts from the toy side, and a theoretical grounding began to crystallize.

First off, everyone gets frustrated. A child simply deals with frustration differently than an adult. “It’s a very unpleasant thing to see,” Smith says. “It’s not just ‘I don’t like games – sometimes they’re too hard.’ It’s genuinely very upsetting for children. It’s like in a classroom environment – which is a learning environment, much like a game, where you’re trying to live up to its expectations – to be told all the time you’re a failure. … It’s frankly fairly abusive, if you were to translate that to the classroom metaphor.”

In addition to being more accommodating, a LEGO game would have to step away from the industry rhetoric about making players do things – trying to lead them along the next step toward a necessary conclusion. The play needed to be more like play. “What can be conventionally thought of as failure can be rewarding,” Smith says. That philosophy appeared most noticeably in the health mechanism, where a player wasn’t punished for experimentation. Instead, they developed a positive reward system based around gathering tokens, which are lost when struck. A second application of their theory was the importance of cooperative play – or rather, people playing at the same time, not traditionally cooperative or competitive, but sharing a gaming space, like on a playground. “What we always hoped for, and eventually delighted to find, was parents playing with their children,” he says.

But this was a long way in the future. As it was, they had a set of worryingly abstract design principles, which were hard to make attractive to anyone. “One of the characteristics of LEGO is that you can make anything out of this set of bricks. That’s its beauty,” Smith says. “But that can become elusive – asking for a lot of work to be done for someone willing to engage.” Put simply, as a game, something just offering LEGO looks like a lot of work for your pleasure. It needed something else.

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The something else came from a brainwave from Tom Stone, the project’s leader, who came up with the idea to introduce LEGO’s free-form play to Star Wars‘ engaging world.

“Suddenly everything crystallized,” Smith says. “Not only do we have interesting ideas of what we can do with LEGO, but it’s linked energetically to nothing less than the world’s favorite characters and stories.” It allowed them to seduce people in a way LEGO alone wouldn’t. There was a prior relationship between the LEGO Company and Lucas, stretching back to the Phantom Menace, when the first LEGO Star Wars playsets appeared. As the game gestated, LucasArts was beginning to market Revenge of the Sith. With a demo version, they approached Lucasfilm. “It was immediately received very kindly by the Lucasfilm group. It was the credibility of being part of the LEGO Company that gave us that trust.”

Well, that and the demo. The LEGO Company forged a relationship with children’s action game specialist Traveller’s Tales, who’d previously worked with Pixar and Sony, to develop the game. While the demo was rudimentary, Lucasfilm fell in love with it. They could walk around. They could turn their lightsabers on and off, with appropriate noises – though they couldn’t swing them. But still, the game’s charm showed through. “For all that it was limited, it was immediately technically accomplished at the engine level and crucially fun to play,” says Smith. “The characters were just fun to walk around. And they had to be, as you couldn’t do much else with them. To have nailed that at the start, it was only ever going to get better. … We stared with pure fun.”

Once the game got its go-ahead, things started to change, and the LEGO Company was having trouble working with Traveller’s Tale on day-to-day operations. Eventually, members of the LEGO Company splintered off and formed Giant Interactive Entertainment, to create games on the LEGO Company’s behalf. “It became clear to us that this business of creating games required specialized attention and focus,” Smith says.

This wasn’t a traditional publishing company. This was a publishing company that lavished all its attention on creating one game, passing off any issues not directly connected to making that game onto others. (For example, Eidos handled its distribution.) In some ways, it’s reminiscent of the “production company” model Wideload used when they created Stubbs the Zombie. (For more on Wideload’s production method, see “The Wideload Way” by Allen Varney.)

One element they kept in-house was marketing. In the case of LEGO Star Wars, that’s proved relatively tricky, even with the Star Wars name attached to it. “Throughout the course of developing LEGO Star Wars, almost every meeting [we went] into, people had not known what to expect,” Smith says. “They were, to some extent, confused to what a LEGO Star Wars game could be. How did it fit in with LEGO? How did it fit in with Star Wars? How did it fit in with the gaming market at the time? Was there a place for it?” That lasted until they actually saw it. People played it and understood. “Our job was to get as many people as possible to play the game. The risk was that it wouldn’t be found, people wouldn’t encounter it.”

Up to release, there was a lot of coverage, but there were understandable jitters leading toward launch day. “We’d staked a lot on it, from a publishing side, on its success. It’s a very costly business,” Smith says. “The moment a game goes on sale and all that work translates to a commercial reality is always unpredictable.” The launch was a mild success, but its sales continued, a factor Smith attributes to word of mouth. Eventually it was “much more successful than any of us had ever hoped,” he says. “We knew we loved it, and we’d set out to make a game with broad appeal … but we didn’t really know what that would mean commercially.”

Great reviews and retail success was one thing. Perks, like receiving e-mails from parents saying it was the first game they ever played with their children, or when they see people laugh at the game for the first time, are something else. “That was always incredibly heartening,” he says. “And we were very privileged and lucky to have those experiences.” After Giant Interactive’s achievements, they retain the rights to LEGO gaming, and they eventually joined with Traveller’s Tales to form a single entity, TT Games . They’ve since gone on to create a highly successful LEGO Star Wars sequel and have moved on to future projects together, including LEGO Batman.

But what’s the game’s secret? “Seeing people laugh” is something that sticks with Smith, which surprised him at first. “One of the most important things about LEGO Star Wars is that it’s funny,” he says. “That wasn’t something we initially set out to do. … Because so few games are funny, it’s not something we identified ourselves as. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we were able to. I think it’d be quite hard to just set out to ‘be funny.'”

A lot of that comes from the playful juxtaposition of Star Wars and LEGO, but that’s not to say it works as a parody. “That’ll be something quite different and quite knowing and more ironic and reliant on a close knowledge of the source material,” Smith says. “We find that our game is so widely played, especially at the younger age group, that there’s many younger players who are encountering LEGO for the first time in the game. And even encountering Star Wars for the first time. There’s no necessary knowledge of the movies. The characters are engaging in their own right.”

The game’s humor more comes from – perversely – the faithfulness. By simply trying to render Star Wars in LEGO, it changes things. “Inevitably, it was going to have a fresh take. When we looked at the drama of the movies and put them into LEGO, then brought them to life as energetic game characters … they tended to act not exactly as they did in the movie. They tended to fall over quite a lot more.” Cue physical comedy, double-taking and – always popular – things being smashed up. Which, in terms for recipes for success, seems likely to remain a solid one.

Kieron Gillen has been writing about videogames for far too long now. His rock and roll dream is to form an Electro-band with Miss Kittin and SHODAN pairing up on vocals.

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