Tuesday 31 January 2012

Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together

Poor old LEGO Universe has been dismantled, put back into its storage box, and stashed in the attic of ex-MMOGs. Its passing is generally unlamented; I only really knew of one person who played it, briefly; everyone else was in Minecraft. As catastrophic launch timings go, putting out a child-friendly game based on a building block IP at the height of the Minecraft craze was a bit like Karl Benz spending years designing and building the Motorwagon to include unparalleled safety features (crumple zones, rollbars, airbags etc.), but a month before official launch finding some dude called Notch knocking up jet bikes in his garden shed for a tenner powered by fusion reactors that never need refuelling. It also required a subscription just as almost everyone else (EverQuest II, Champions Online, Lord of the Rings Online, Pirates of the Burning Sea etc.) moved to free-to-play models.

There’s a fascinating piece on PC Gamer containing some lovely concept art, and also tantalising glimpses of what might have been, such as PvP with construction:

“We always had capture the flag PvP in the internal build of the game, from some of the very earliest pre-beta versions. Besides the usual CTF run-and-gun, a lot of the strategy revolved around managing your minifigure’s Imagination supply—do you spend your points defensively to seal up breaches in your own wall, or tactically to construct bouncers and shortcuts that let you outmaneuver the enemy, or offensively on siege weapons to open new holes in his defenses? Do you sacrifice valuable time harvesting mobs for more Imagination, or do you rush straight into battle?”

(Which reminds me I must try Ace of Spades sometime)

It seems the LEGO IP was a double-edged sword (or double-sided brick), and the benefits of the global brand might have been outweighed by concerns for its image:

“LEGO is extremely sensitive about the safety of kids’ online interaction, to the point that implementing even the most basic social functions like in-game chat or friends lists became these kind of monumental tragic struggles that swallowed systems designers whole. A lot of our PvP games had to be backburnered while we were waiting for final word about how team functionality would work, or whether we’d be allowed to have it at all.

LEGO’s dedication to child safety superseded all concerns of production schedule or profitability, which was a principled move on LEGO’s part but it made some seemingly-straightforward parts of development really, really tricky.”

You have to wonder why they were so worried, really. I mean sure, Little Timmy might have stacked a few bricks on top of each other in the game and said to his friend “ha ha, it looks like a willy!!”, but it’s inconceivable that sensationalist press would make up insane, lurid accusations of online perversion based on the flimsiest of pretext, isn’t it? That would be like translating a glimpse of alien sideboob into “full digital nudity and sex”, and… oh. The Mass Effect nonsense probably didn’t do Bioware any long term harm with its Mature rated games (and may even have fallen into the “no publicity is bad publicity” category, apart from the people demanding refunds over the lack of hardcore digi-shagging), but it’s not hard to see LEGO’s quandary.

After reading that piece I’m regretting not giving LEGO Universe a try when I had the chance, but though there was a token nod towards free-to-play later on, by all accounts it was little more than a strictly limited trial. With news that the Wii-U controller will have near-field communication support you could envisage a future of different payment models, such as buying a physical box of LEGO bricks, popping them on the controller, and unlocking those same bricks for online use as well, but for now… well, at least there’s still Minecraft.

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