It's been three years since NetDevil started work on its LEGO-themed MMO, but there still haven't been any opportunities to try the game out. Those hoping for a hands-on session at gamescom were disappointed - there was nothing to see but some new screenshots, concept art and trailers, including a rather good one parodying the Mad World promo for Gears of War.
At least we got to sit down for a lengthy chat with LEGO bigwig Mark Hansen and Ryan Seabury, creative director at NetDevil. Read on to find out how LEGO Universe is coming along, and how you'll be able to build your own stuff into its online world.
Eurogamer: What was your initial vision for LEGO Universe?
Mark Hansen: The whole vision has been to develop an MMO where hundreds of thousands of kids can come and play this game. Building is a big part of it, the whole social aspect of it is very big, and then the LEGO playing - taking that from what they experience of the physical product into the virtual product. We're really trying to find those LEGO values and LEGO play and transfer them into this game.
As the name LEGO Universe suggests, it's not just about one theme. It's about the whole universe of LEGO, all the different play themes, all the different characters. It's about good versus evil. It's about building and creativity.
Ryan Seabury: I think of LEGO Universe as being almost like an actor. It can really express itself in lots of different ways. There's epic conflict and serious, heroic battle, but then there's also light-hearted fun. All of these things play out together.
Eurogamer: When will the game be released?
Mark Hansen: We don't have an exact release date yet, but it'll be in 2010. Everything is on time. We're very excited about it, so we're gearing up to start talking a lot more about it and show it much more.
Eurogamer: Is LEGO Universe an MMORPG? From the trailers you've shown it looks like there's more of an emphasis on platforming element within the game.
Ryan Seabury: We definitely lean more towards action in that regard. We want it to be a comfortable experience for the people who played the Traveller's Tales games, but with more role-playing elements to it. The big difference is in LEGO Universe you are the mini-fig - you're not playing Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones or whoever. You're actually in the mini-fig, looking up at the world and experiencing it all in 3D in a real environment.
From that standpoint you can advance your character, customise them completely, get more abilities, get more powerful as you progress through the game-world and unlock lots of stuff. So there are definitely RPG elements layered in on top of the platforming.
Eurogamer: Regarding customisation - you only have the basic elements of the hair, the face, the torso and legs in LEGO Universe, whereas in a game like World of Warcraft the options are much more wide-ranging. Aren't you going to have a lot of very similar-looking characters running around your game-world?
Mark Hansen: No. Perhaps to start with, but it's all about the items you collect through the game. You definitely change drastically as you progress.
Ryan Seabury: I'd be willing to bet we probably have more unique items and accessories than any MMO I can think of in the game right now. When you think about it, yeah, there's only the legs and the head, they're all the same shape - but really that opens up the possibilities.
Because we have one animation rig, one skin model, from a technical standpoint we can make tons of stuff to fit. It's a modular system and LEGO's already developed for us, over the course of 75 years, hundreds and hundreds of unique accessories. Of course we add unique animations and effects to those. So I'm pretty excited about the depth of customisation you're going to be able to do.
Eurogamer: What about the payment system for the game?
Mark Hansen: It will be a subscription model. I think micro-transactions are not what we want to do. For this game, the subscription model works best.
Eurogamer: World of Warcraft still dominates the market, even though it was released years ago and other MMOs have since come and gone. Does LEGO Universe have the power to break Blizzard's dominance?
Mark Hansen: I don't think we're in there to topple World of Warcraft, but I think LEGO Universe has the ability to be at the top. Just the potential for what you can do with this game and where you can go with it... The feedback that we get and the following that we have shows how strong it is. If you think about LEGO, it can be any game that's out there. There isn't a game this game can't be.
Eurogamer: Going back to the gameplay, you've previously discussed how players will be able to construct things within the game...
Mark Hansen: Yes, we're going to have multiple levels of building. You'll have very simple, small items to build, models which you put together for faster build, all the way up to brick-by-brick building.
Ryan Seabury: It's really a complexity problem. Have you ever messed around with building virtually, like with LEGO Digital Designer? It's difficult. The thing about working with bricks in real life is there's a tangible reward. That doesn't necessarily translate well to the computer screen.
One of the cool things that Traveler's Tales game has uncovered was this idea of the quick-build... Is it creative? No, but it's a great way to introduce you to the concept of putting things together in a LEGO fashion. We want to build on top of that so we build in more levels of complexity. But we also empower you more, so modules start coming together. It's not just a single brick but you start combining things in new ways, then you can get all the way up to designing from scratch. Ultimately our vision is to bring those creations to life - not just to create cool looking models, but things that actually do something.
Eurogamer: But when you give people that level of freedom, you encounter the issue of moderation. With such a kid-friendly game, how do you stop people from, say, building giant nobs, which is frankly what some of our readers would do?
Mark Hansen: This is where we have a lot of experience. We've been working with digital tools and moderation for the last six or seven years, and we have some really cool technology that will be able to moderate this material relatively quickly. We're still working on technology to improve that all the time. We're very aware of that.
Eurogamer: Can players allow other people to modify their models, or protect them from being altered?
Mark Hansen: Yes. You can lock your models, you're the one who puts it out to the world so you decide which characteristics the model will have. You can allow access to other people to come in and destroy and break it up. It's your world.
Ryan Seabury: You get to write the rules.
Eurogamer: I'm struggling to envision how you fit all this stuff people have made into the world. What happens if I decide I want to build a massive palace - is there room for that? What if everyone else is building big stuff at the same time? How does it all fit together?
Ryan Seabury: In broad strokes, there's a property system. You can earn property over time, and that's the area where you can bring your content to life in that sense. Because you're right - if I just plopped a castle in the middle of ninja land and nobody could walk around it, obviously that breaks the gameplay for everybody.
Eurogamer: And you'd have a lot of unhappy ninjas on your hands. So you're saying players will have their own plot of land where they can build stuff?
Ryan Seabury: In essence, yes.
Eurogamer: So I could make Ellieworld, where I just build stuff I like, and other players could come and visit?
Mark Hansen: Yes, exactly. That's the creativity of LEGO, that's exactly want we want to get across... We want kids and all fans who love LEGO to be able to create their worlds. It isn't just people saying, "Here, this is exactly what your LEGO world is going to be, done by LEGO". It's very easy to do with IPs because you're telling a story and it's someone's perception of that.
LEGO itself is about telling that story just enough to excite people, to expand their world. We're giving little snippets, but we want them to take what they do in the physical space and do it in the virtual space and just expand it - share it with people, collaborate with their friends, build and expand the world.
Eurogamer: What can you tell us about the storyline you've devised?
Ryan Seabury: In broad strokes it's an epic struggle between good and evil. It's really more about creativity versus chaos. You bring order to the universe, and you're there to help in that conflict.
We did feel very strongly that we didn't just want this to be a purely sandbox world. I've been doing online worlds since the nineties, and there were things back then... Even MUDs...
Eurogamer: I didn't even know there were online worlds in the nineties.
Ryan Seabury: Yes, there were, and a lot of them were very interesting. Technologically you could create user-generated content. But I felt there was always this problem where you never had an attachment to the world. I didn't emotionally care about why I was there. I just got in, it felt like a toy, but... Meh.
It's like handing someone a blank piece of paper and saying, "Draw something". Hmm. But if I say, "Draw an elephant," now you have a starting point. It was important for us to have a meaningful, coherent experience, something that could rationally explain how all these play themes could fit together. From there you can create your own stories.
I've always felt MMOs in general, even the ones that have stronger narrative elements to them, it's still really about your story. When I play WOW, I focus less on the narrative than the story I created with the people I played with that day. We've got a similar thing going on.
Eurogamer: So there will be structured missions, fetch quests and so on?
Ryan Seabury: Free, directed and problem-solving are the three academic types of play we talk about a lot. So yes, part of the directed play stuff is certainly missions, achievements and things like that.
Eurogamer: What about combat? Again, as it's such a kid-friendly title, presumably there's no blood and guts, but what about weapons?
Mark Hansen: Weapons are accessories we have in our playsets already. We're not going to have blood of any kind. It will be just like all the games we've done before, the models and the mini-figures break apart. The humour element will be there.
Ryan Seabury: It's pretty fun to see all the different ways a mini-figure can get smashed. So there will combat in the game, that was one of the first things we saw when we started talking to kids - especially 12-year-old boys. That's what they love to do. And frankly, so do 30-year-old boys.
Eurogamer: Is LEGO Universe just in development for PC?
Mark Hansen: [Long pause]
Eurogamer: That's an answer right there...
Mark Hansen: We know right now that we will be coming out on PC and Mac. We know that.
Eurogamer: So you're considering the console options?
Ryan Seabury: [Long pause]
Mark Hansen: We're considering them. There are a lot of issues with console right now, a lot of MMOs trying to figure out how to get onto them. I'm not saying we wouldn't want to be, I think we would love to be - it's just trying to find that access.
Eurogamer: Isn't Free Realms coming to PS3?
Mark Hansen: Yes, that's the whole thing. When Sony's working on that, it's like...
Eurogamer: Maybe Nintendo? Looks like a good fit to me...
Mark Hansen: Exactly. So we're very excited about that and we're very open to a lot of things to do with LEGO Universe. We know it's going to be a big hit.
Ryan Seabury is creative director at NetDevil. Mark Hansen is senior director of LEGO's Digital Play Studios. LEGO Universe will be released for PC and Mac in 2010.