Last week, news broke that Lego’s multi-million dollar investment, Lego Universe, will be closing down on January 31st, 2012 – marking an end to what was supposed to be an alternative to the extremely successful Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplay Game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft. The closure also reveals yet another digital venture in the wrong direction for Lego.
Lego Universe brings players from around the world together to build and fight against the Maelstrom and its minions. The player assumes the role of a Lego minifigure and travels to various themed worlds, each with different enemies and challenges. Players collect and earn gear that can be worn and fought with to aid them in achieving a wide range of set goals. Also, players can have Specialties, each one with their unique gear. In addition, minifigures can gain ranks which allow them to use more advanced gear. Sounds familiar? Take away the Lego skin and you’ll find the standard recipe for any other Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplay Game.
Since its launch in the autumn of 2010, Lego Universe struggled to maintain a sustainable revenue model. Despite succeeding in bringing in more user traffic by giving new players access to a freemium subscription, enabling them to play two out of 15 game-zones for free, Lego Universe still didn’t live up to its commercial expectations.
Unfortunately, the closure also means the Lego Universe staff, which includes Play Well Studios in Louisville, Colorado, and the game’s marketing function in Billund, Denmark, will both be closed, resulting in a layoff of no less than 115 employees.
Right now, we have almost 2 million players in Lego Universe, and we get extremely positive feedback from them. Unfortunately, we have not been able to build a satisfactory revenue model in our target group, and therefore, have decided to close the game, says Jesper Vilstrup, Vice President, Lego Universe.
Lego, a company who had a hard time adapting to its history and values in the hypnotic world of Game Boy, XBOX and Pokémon ten years ago, now holds an impressive portfolio of tech and digital products based on their core asset: the Lego block and building system.
One of their most innovative products, Lego Mindstorms, was created at the MIT Media Lab and is widely used in education and creative events such as First Lego League, where elementary and middle school students compete in designing and programming Lego Robots to complete various tasks. It is a brilliant design combining the original Lego block with programming, hacking, and inventing, making the technological layer support the core product and experience.
￼Lego video game titles such as Lego Star Wars, Lego Harry Potter and Lego Indiana Jones are all best-sellers, but they are all produced from the same recipe as many other games and do not offer the integrated Lego brand experience as products such as Lego Mindstorms. Lego is essentially about autonomous play, about experiencing total freedom and creative exploration. At its core, playing is about the ability to re-frame one’s attention around a self-defined activity, goal, challenge or story. Most Lego video games are platform games set in a predefined environment with an explicit objective. The players have to master rules of the game to solve the puzzles and make progress – even though Lego’s core values are based on imagination, creativity, fun, learning, caring and quality. Clicking through a static environment dressed up as a Lego hero beating up Lego villains may be the furthest thing possible from these brand values.
Minecraft – Lego for the digital generation
In 2009, it took a small team lead by Markus Petersson just a week to design the first draft
on what LEGO had been trying to do for over 10 years. Minecraft, an indie sandbox game, focused on creativity and building. The game was released online on the TIGSource Forums for testing and quickly gained great Internet popularity. Based on the popularity and sales of the early alpha stage version of the software, Markus Petersson founded his company Mojang in Stockholm to hire an eight man strong full time team to continue the development of the game. As of October 5, 2011, Minecraft surpassed 14 million registered users and over 3.5 million purchases, making it one of the best selling games in 2010. Despite the low price of only €14.95, it is estimated that Minecraft had made €23 million in revenue by April this year – none of which has been spent on advertisement. The secret? Understanding human play, user behaviorism and iterative design processes.
Gain early insights
Mojang released Minecraft on a very early development stage to gain important insights from their thriving community of gamers, enabling them to develop new iterations of the game before even reaching beta stage. This bottom-up approach to developing computer games is crucial in an innovation process. What makes a good game? Only your users can tell. Lego ignored this approach and literally delivered a finished universe ready to be explored, but it just didn’t work out as planned. When Lego decided to develop Lego Universe, it is very likely they looked at the most popular MMORPG (“Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game”) games on the market and decided to imitate the logic of market leaders such as the popular World of Warcraft. Instead, they should have looked at the foundation of their own company; the LEGO block.
Why did they not ask themselves; why is it – even after 50 years – still so much fun to play with Lego?
Our brains love complexity
Go is one of the oldest strategy games around, and one of the most popular board games,
on par with games such as Chess. A simple grid, two players and a very simple set of rules generate deep and rich complex outcomes, making the game of Go one of the most intricate of all. Recent research in the game by John H. Conway led to the invention of surreal numbers, because of the almost infinite legal game positions. One calculation shows up to 208 quadrillion quintuagintillion (or 2.08×10170) possible games. That is more than the number of atoms in the universe. This means the game of Go, unlike Chess, for example, is impossible to master in a brute force manner. Even the calculation power of today’s computers will not be able to beat the most talented kid in Go, as the patterns of moves are almost infinite and every move has to be inferred by true intelligence – stuff our human brains are so very good at. Just like Go, the intuitive system and interface of a Lego block offers endless combination possibilities and creative freedom. Simple, yet extremely sophisticated.
What kind of play?
In the late 1950’s the french anthropologist Roger Caillois argued that human play is spanned between two poles: ludus and paidia. Ludus describes order, rule-bound and civilized activity such as a game of Chess. It is very much about ruling and structuring the world and our activities in it. This is what most games focus on today – including the Lego games. On the other pole we have paidia, which is a creative, improvisational and loose approach to play. It is a mindset in which we can engage with the world around us – just like the Lego block and Minecraft.
Creativity and imagination is a natural element of being human. This is even agreed upon by Lego who recently awarded Sir Ken Robinson with their yearly Lego Prize. Evidence of human creativity could easily be used to make digital Lego products you never outgrow, expanding
the product range of a company whose biggest weakness is its own target-group’s maturity. To create paidic games, Lego has to learn to be more like its core product; the block. They should, in other words, be nimble, adaptable and plastic, though remain fundamentally unchanged no matter what kind of creation it is a part of.
Philip Battin is a student at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design in Copenhagen and Junior Designer at Kontrapunkt, a brand and design consultancy. In 2009 he was rewarded The Danish Ministry of Culture’s Travelling Scholarship and the following year the conference ‘New Media Days’ proclaimed Philip Battin ‘one of 38 young new media talents to watch’.