"What is life like as a minifigure?" It's not a question many of us will have posed ourselves. Little plastic men with interchangeable body parts are normally our subjects, there to be manipulated and puppeteered by the all-too-visible hand of the play-god. Even in Traveller's Tales' phenomenally successful LEGO Star Wars, Batman and Indiana Jones, the minifigures exist only as a comedic vehicle for someone else's characters and stories. We don't generally try and empathise with them.
But that's just the question that NetDevil's Ryan Seabury asks himself every day. It's the question he's trying to answer with LEGO Universe, the studio's ambitious project in collaboration with the Danish toymaker; nothing less than a full-scale adventure MMO set in the unlicensed, unrestricted world of LEGO itself.
To make his point, Seabury's done something we didn't expect him to do. He's brought an actual, working build of LEGO Universe along to our meeting at the Game Developers Conference. We know that the game's not out this year, and that LEGO is keeping gameplay details substantially under wraps for now, so our eyebrows rise.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, it turns out that the only things he wants to show us are the login screen and the character creator. But this being an MMO, this being LEGO - and Seabury's mission being what it is - these are worth paying attention to all the same.
The bright white background, the liveliness and colour and polish of it take you aback. Minifigures scamper and gesticulate and frolic in the background behind the proud red logo, while another looms in the foreground, beckoning you into the game. In this and the in-game footage and screens we're shown (but can't show you yet), they are tremendously expressive, with more elastic and fluid bodies than in the TT adventures.
Perhaps too much so, since they seem just that little bit less like the tiny, socket-footed playthings of your childhood; they have a little bit too much... attitude. But you can't blame NetDevil's animators for getting carried away - having realised that they only needed to animate one body type for the entire game, they've gone to town, and Seabury promises the widest range of emote animations in any MMO to date.
In the character selector, we flick between three character slots - two occupied by bold, posing characters, one (empty) by a ghostly figure with a glowing core. This is his "creative spark", best described as the "soul" of a minifigure in the game's universe. A LEGO character can't die, but can be smashed apart and rebuilt quite differently from how it was before.
Then we're into an extremely swift and slick character-creation screen, Seabury using the mousewheel to spin through rotating racks of outfit-printed body parts, facial customisations and shiny modular hair. He's piecing me together - it's kind of him to pretend that I have hair, but I let him off the hook and tell him I think the naked yellow nubbin would be most appropriate. It's a surprisingly unmistakeable likeness, in the end.
You don't have to be yourself in the game, of course - but the idea is that your base starting character will be a fairly normal, contemporary type of miniature plastic person. But if that sounds dull, don't worry. LEGO Universe uses the "you are what you wear" philosophy adopted by its close competitor, Sony Online Entertainment's Free Realms, as well as that same company's spy MMO The Agency. Your abilities are determined by your kit.
Naturally, this makes even more sense in LEGO Universe, because you really are what you wear. Outfits are body parts, hats are hair, tools and weapons are the clip-on yin to your grasping yellow socket-hands' yang. Dress up as a pirate or a ninja and you'll acquire the appropriate skills, but also effectively remake your modular avatar into a new character. (LEGO and NetDevil clearly know their tween-to-teen-to-thirtysomething-geek target market well - our presentation is awash with pirates, ninjas and spacemen). Unlocking all this stuff is an obvious and powerful motivation for play.
As to how LEGO Universe will tie all the diverse cultures and play themes of the toys together - contemporary, medieval, space, pirates - NetDevil's not saying for now, other than that they will all be represented. Screens of a space-station hub with portals in it and lots of minifigures running around looking panicked are accompanied by some fairly heavy hints from Seabury that it will be of central importance to the storyline.
Time or dimensional travel then - does it matter? The point is that there will be an attempt to tie them together into a narrative and thematic whole, unlike Free Realms' shameless theme park setup. Whether this is a wise decision or not, we're unsure. We're steadfastly denied any detail on the meat of the game, but we get the impression it will be more focused on expansive, traditional combat-driven adventure than a grab bag of mini-games.
Any more hints form the screens? Pets will definitely feature, and there's a reporter character seen barking into a microphone who'll star as a guide and information resource in the game. The environments are a blend or organic, naturalistic elements with limited LEGO brick highlights - one of many cues NetDevil is taking from the TT games. Everything Seabury says suggests his team has studied them intently and understands their strengths well.
Another lift from TT is the one-touch brick-building, where you can just hold a button down to automatically assemble a bridge, or a rocket ship. It's essential to give even the least able player the sensation of playing with LEGO - but, in LEGO Universe, it's only the start of a system that goes through lightweight modular customisation all the way into a full-feature brick-building editor. And this leads us to perhaps the most exciting element of LEGO Universe we hear about at GDC.
Despite the game still being at an early stage, LEGO and NetDevil have turned over a brick editor to a group called LUPS, or LEGO Universe Project Support. This, in effect, is the vanguard of what will be the game's user-generated content community: a hardcore group of adult LEGO fans, established architects of the plastic brick.
And the LUPS group is using the editor to build: houses, vehicles, stuff, some of it insanely detailed. They're testers, but they're also creators who will ensure that the game has genuine user-generated content to explore before it even hits beta. Players will be able to own private spaces where they'll be able to display their creations - and we already know that they'll be able to order real-life LEGO kits of them, too. This is no feature-creep pipedream, it's an extension of the existing LEGO Digital Designer and Factory, waiting to be slotted into NetDevil's world.
The cheapest and simplest thing you'll be able to order from the Factory, of course, is you: your minifigure avatar made real. Which brings us full circle - and despite the frustrating lack of hard detail on the game, rams home why LEGO Universe has the potential to be so special. Other MMOs may offer something similar, but they're offering an expensive, glass-encased sculpture of a character you made, but they designed - a bespoke bit of luxury merchandise.
LEGO Universe, however, is offering you a cheap, irresistible, indestructible toy made in your chosen image. LEGO and NetDevil between them are plucking you up and putting you right back in your childhood - or if you're still a child, making your worlds of imagination, virtual play, real play and real life connect with each other. If that's not a great premise and recipe for success for an MMO for everyone, then I don't know what is.