When my oldest son was 4-years old, I started buying Lego by the pound on eBay. Let me rephrase that; I bought them in lots of 20lbs. His father had kept all of his blocks from childhood - a time when the only block to exist was well, the block. A second son and 6 years later, my boys collectively own nearly 500lbs. of Lego. It's...insanity. They also play MMOGs (I am their mother, after all). Two pre-tween boys in the house - both Lego and MMOG fanatics - mean that I have a rather vested interest in seeing NetDevil's Lego Universe done right. It's far far too early to tell; but after my time at their 10th Anniversary Celebration, I am hopeful.
Their new 30,000 square foot offices are divided by game, with a play area, break area - the basketball court - and well... their very own mini-Legoland. The team has recently grown to 65 people (the last office was only 10,000 square feet and was a little cramped); at least that much space is devoted to Lego development. Lego trains run around the office; there's a 12-foot Lego brick upon entering; mini-figures are at work and play in the scaffolding; and I wouldn't want to hazard at guess at how many hundreds of buckets separate the bricks they have unpacked. It's astounding.
A cynic might wonder what all this has to do with making a game. Come now...many of you reading this are cynics. Admit it! It's the first step to recovery!
But consider how vital the knowledge of "building" a Lego creation from the beginning, without a blueprint, will be to the design of the game. NetDevil did and to help them with this process they hired a Lego Community Manager (from the Lego community) and a Lego Brick Expert. Apparently, it took the two of them several iterations just to get the brick shelving system right.
After wandering around in stunned awe, more than a few members of the press peppered Producer Ryan Seabury for an hour regarding gameplay. You could tell it was frustrating for him not to answer many our questions. What do we know? There is a working playable. This is born of their experience with Auto Assault. For every iteration, make sure there's a working playable and ensure you are playing! Then, if something doesn't feel right or you find a bug, you're sure to fix it.
The Lego Group is intimately involved with the process. Did I say intimately? Let me restate that. It's their brand, their toy, their community and they have very high standards regarding anything associated with it. We were told more than once that they know their brand and the consumer who buys it (no, not the kids, the moms!). Oh, and the lunatic fringe of incredible builders that live for everything Lego.
What does this mean? Play-testing. Lots and lots and lots of play-testing. Play-testing by young kids, older kids, old kids (adults), groups of kids of all ages. And, as Ryan pointed out, kids in particular are wonderful testers because they pull no punches; they are brutally honest in their criticism of something they don't like. Unlike us adults who have learned not to hurt someone's feelings (unless we're playing in Xbox Live), they've no qualms about saying, "this sucks". Using kids as play-testers is also advantageous because they tend to get down to the basics very quickly. Subtle nuances are for adults; core gameplay is for kids.
While Ryan wasn't able to confirm if Duplo would be included in the world, he did assure us that mini-figures would be present and fully customizable. No matter the imitators, Lego minis are iconic; they're defining. Just as you can recognize a mini as Lego, NetDevil is ensuring that any piece of art from the game is immediately recognizable as Lego Universe.
We were shown two pieces of concept material. The first, a waterfall, showed the grey blocks at odd angles representing rock formations as the water cascaded down the middle with the standard green plastic Lego palm trees. But, more than that, the cascading water was obviously affected by the bricks beneath.
The second was a hand drawn image of a fort of sorts - the type you'd see in Lego jungle safari. It was three stories; the top story was the building itself, below were platforms made of wood with ladders leading everywhere. In the drawn image you saw wood textures, shingles... all that you would in a drawn image. The next image was all Lego. The platforms had the classic raised dots. I know I've shoved the rungs of those ladders into the webbing between my toes on more than one occasion. The building was no longer flat-paneled but made of blocks. It was Lego come to life.
Beyond the myriad of questions that simply couldn't be answered yet, our biggest focus was on building the game so that it's safe for kids of all ages. Both I and the other mother in the room were very quick to point out that we weren't as concerned about age, as developmental stage. Not all 8-year olds are alike nor are most 45-year olds! Once again we were reassured that Lego would let nothing tarnish their brand. Nothing: in unequivocal terms. (By the end of the night my head was bruised with this statement).
And you know what? This was the 10th Anniversary/Open House celebration for NetDevil. It wasn't just the developers and a few press but the families of all those who work there. The spouses all know each other; there were many children in attendance and they too, were good friends. This is a game they're not only building for the public, but for their families. I'm still wary - I have kids, too. But, as I said when I began this preview, after the evening I left hopeful. Very hopeful.
My children both play games so I often play them first, getting to know exactly how something may effect my sensitive and easily stimulated older child vs. my stoic and imperturbable younger.
I like games for games; for the pure enjoyment of them and believe that no game is wholly bad, though some are real stinkers.
I also have the dexterity of a camel in mittens so find playing FPSs difficult (and I also don't like the gore) and RTSs at times can stump me. I just can't seem to move quickly enough to keep up with them. Some of my favorite games are arcade games and I'll spend 3-5 years on the same 5-6 levels because I just never get any better. But, I have fun.