A Preview of LEGO Universe: a New MMO for 2010 with Minifigs, Bricks, Questing, and Plastic.

A Preview of LEGO Universe: a New MMO for 2010 with Minifigs, Bricks, Questing, and Plastic.
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Life Amongst Lego

Lego might be accused of cross branding, but they do it well. They work with other big licenses (Star Wars, Batman) and the products share the quality that their vanilla bricks do. The company motto is “Only the best is good enough” and you don’t destroy an international household name’s reputation to make a quick buck, after all.

Perhaps more importantly, Lego bricks are fun, interactive entertainment, so video games aren’t that big a stretch. Their games are generally regarded as amusing and cute for adults while being perfect for younger players who would ask their parents too many difficult questions if the game played was Grand Theft Auto. Coincidently, there is still no word on Rockstar and Lego hooking up for an M-rated Grand Theft Lego.

The jump from solo games to MMOs isn’t an easy one, but it isn’t as tricky as the one from making toys first patented in 1958 to video games. Lego is likely to at least deliver a quality game that will excite and entertain younger players; but if “only the best is good enough,” will LEGO Universe do more and draw in a broader audience? Currently, no version for Mac has been announced.

Cute Plastic People Meet Really Ugly Fish

Lego is working with NetDevil to bring LEGO Universe to life. This company, run by divers and named after an odd-looking creature of the deep that uses a bioluminescent lure to attract prey, is most widely known for the Jumpgate and Auto Assault MMOs. The name is meant to reflect the company’s commitment to exploring the unknown and embracing the unique, and the games they release back it up. I am not sure if the fish can do the same thing, but the company has approximately doubled in size in the last year or so.

Turning its back on the crowded fantasy-MMORPG field, NetDevil makes MMOs that bring large numbers of players to other gaming environments. Auto Assault lasted little over a year, but it did allow players to customize and drive a heavily armed vehicle through a post-apocalyptic landscape. Unfortunately it was burdened with drab graphics, confusing crafting, and repetitive delivery or kill x of monster y type quests. The quests were as derivative of bad fantasy RPGs as you could get, leaving the impression that this was a traditional MMORPG with post-apocalyptic graphics and vehicle avatars, ultimately trampling the originality of the death car MMO. The game’s servers were shut down permanently on August 31, 2007.

Despite having its publisher go under while the game was being released in 2001 and having to market and distribute the game themselves, NetDevil fared much better with Jumpgate. They’ve had to merge servers, but seven years is a pretty good run for an MMO, and they are planning on launching a sequel, Jumpgate Evolution, this year. The game has an excellent UI and physics (for 2001) that, while making for a rather steep learning curve, allows players to engage in actually piloting their space craft. You are in the cockpit, not just ordering your ship from a distance, making combat a seat-of-the pants twitch type of game a la Wing Commander or X-Wing games of yore. MMORPG elements are fleshed out with experience leading to increased rank and the ability to obtain nicer equipment, a detailed economy not only of player equipment but trade resources for merchant oriented players, and an elaborate story line the player can move along by completing certain quests.

Taken altogether, NetDevil seems quite capable of developing the original kind of MMO that Lego wants to make, particularly if one figures that Lego’s quality commitment will prevent the faults that sunk Auto Assault and that Lego will have a downloadable version on their website and probably have boxes not just in video game but toy stores.

Game Mechanics: Nubs, Bricks, and Plastic

So what is this game actually going to be about? Well, from the MMO world, there will be exploration and questing that can open new areas and access to new items, as well as an over-arching storyline, though about what we don’t yet know. Quests might be a little different from what we are used to, with more of a mini-game, puzzle, or platform flavour than WoW or LOTRO, but you will be able to group, and your “Minifig,” or character, has fighting animations, so there could be some combat going on. Minifigs will be highly customizable and will have access to different accessories as they advance (see a concept video here), perhaps a perfect combination of the traditional MMO and traditional Lego.

There will be currency and item rewards, but that is where things get decidedly more LEGO-like: in-game rewards will often be bricks, and the currency is plastic. You can trade bricks for plastic or other bricks, buy bricks with plastic, and even make your own bricks out of plastic. Below is concept art of a tree house with an oriental theme.

The bricks are used to build things, by yourself or in groups, and now LEGO Universe takes some old MMO concept and ups the ante in a big way: player housing, pets, and even more broadly, player content. What you build with your bricks (concept video here) will exist in the LEGO Universe for all to see. The only comparable thing out there since the Sims Online shut down last week is Second Life, but that game’s UI and crafting, though immensely powerful, is downright hostile towards the user, and there is no questing or story. Couple that with a choice between casinos full of people selling porn or cute plastic Minifigs battling for plastic, and LEGO Universe has a lot going for it.

OK, but Is It Just for Kids or Not?

Obviously one can’t give a final answer for the time being as that question won’t be truly answered till months after launch, but from what has been released about the game, there is a good chance that LEGO Universe will draw people a lot older than the 8 year old recommended minimum.

Clearly many parents and relatives will use this as a way to spend time with children, from the same router or halfway round the world, but how often will they keep playing after their younger family members are in bed? Will other players, be they traditional MMO gamers, Sims Online refugees, or new gamers entirely, be drawn to this game?

MMORPG players are nuts for some of the features that LEGO Universe plans on implementing to a level not traditionally seen: lack of options in tweaking the appearance of house or character is a constant complaint from the MMO crowd, and fans of the Sims were able to get into a game where that was the main part of the content. Furthermore, many MMO traditionalists are almost addicted to crafting, and wouldn’t dream of playing a game without a robust crafting system. The level of customization in terms of what you’ll be able to build in the LEGO Universe looks pretty impressive, possibly getting some of those crafting types out of their dungeons and onto a green piece of plastic from time to time.

Lego is almost certain to turn out a successful game that will appeal to droves of young players, and it might actually have enough meat on it to appeal to older gamers, even hardcore MMO fans, looking for something a little different.

Concept Art