The creative director of upcoming MMO "LEGO Universe" talked about finding the "secret sauce" of TT Games' titles and how they're talking about working collaboratively in the future.
I met with "LEGO Universe" creative director Ryan Seabury and LEGO Group's director of business development Mark Hansen during GDC, and we talked about how development was going for the upcoming MMO since its delay was announced last month. The big challenge that developer NetDevil faces is combining the physical and the virtual and making the game fun to play -- without the licenses that TT Games has had.
"Why would I want to build in 'LEGO Universe'? The answer has to be more than 'It's fun to build LEGO' because that's just not enough when it comes to a video game," Seabury said. "Customizing yourself and putting your identity into that mini figure is the central point. It sort of contrasts with, say, the Traveler's Tales games, like 'LEGO Star Wars' and all of that. Those are strong narrative games. You're playing Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones and it's fun, but it's not you."
"You're playing Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones and it's fun, but it's not you."
So without the licenses, Seabury explained that NetDevil had to establish a sense of purpose so that players could get into the game and its social aspects. "We provide this pretty epic story and this conflict," he said, "a good-and-evil type thing where there's some dark chaotic forces that make different things across the universe come together, battle and save the day. Battle and build, with creativity at the core. Then you make your community bond, and the creative possibilities open up from there, which leads to you having much more of an investment to stay in that world and continue building."
I asked Seabury if NetDevil had learned a lot from the LEGO titles that TT Games has made. "They set some good groundwork in terms of crossing building and creativity," he said. "As developers, we look at it very technically and dissect it a lot, but the experience comes through very cleanly for them. So I think they found some secret sauce there. That's good for us to expand on and say, 'Hey, that's a good staple of LEGO in a video game. What could we do to take it to the next step?'"
Some specific things they've gleaned from TT Games' titles include the build mechanic -- the ability to walk up to LEGO bricks, hit a button and have the bricks come together to form something quickly. "Another big element I always talk about is how they brought the mini figs to life, moreso then what I've seen in past LEGO games," Seabury said. "When I started on the project I grabbed everything I could find. The first incarnation of LEGO games were from when LEGO as a company was like, 'Things can't be too different then the bricks. If the plastic is bending in weird ways someone will freak out.'"
"The mini figures became, what I thought, what a kid actually sees in their head."
Hansen assured me that LEGO has become more flexible over the years. "From a LEGO perspective, what NetDevil and TT have done is broken down some innovation walls on where to take things," he said. "Of course, we've been very protective of our [intellectual property] and our brand and our values, but they've helped us and shown us where to take things to."
"So [TT Games] broke that wall down," continued Seabury, "and the mini figures became, what I thought, what a kid actually sees in their head. When you're playing with a mini figure it's not actually coming alive and doing all kinds of action -- it's their imagination. So video games are the opportunity to make those creations come to life. What comes alive in your head can be displayed for other people to share."
"What's fun on the computer screen may not be what's fun on the floor, but it's about finding the spirit of what is LEGO play."
Seabury added that TT Games somehow made mini figures seem like epic heroes. "It may be due to the IP associations, because everyone wants to be a Jedi, but they made mini figures have capabilities that are really cool and powerful," he said. "They understood that it doesn't have to be about translating literally what the build experience is on the floor or on the table to what's on the screen because they have different strengths and weaknesses. What's fun on the computer screen may not be what's fun on the floor, but it's about finding the spirit of what is LEGO play. We want to build on that and make it comfortable for people who enjoy the TT Games titles, so it feels like a familiar area for them."
NetDevil has even had TT Games developers play-test the game. "We've met with them, and they've given us some really good feedback and insights that will ultimately save us lots of time," he said.
Seabury revealed it was possible for the two companies to collaborate on a LEGO project in the future. "They do those kinds of games extremely well, and we have a lot to learn from them," he said, "but on the other hand we have a lot of online MMO experience. We're looking at ways we can collaborate long-term, strategically."
"LEGO Universe" is slated for release in 2010.