For almost three and a half years, MMO developers NetDevil (Jumpgate, Auto Assault) have been working on their latest creation. In that time, the world of LEGO Universe has remained shrouded in darkness. Let there be light.
LEGO Universe doesn’t play like a typical MMO game. It isn’t an open world. It doesn’t ask you to grind. It won’t expect you to spend hours punching boars. It is, like the LEGO Star Wars games before it, a platform game. Just one that happens to be home to thousands of other players. This makes it an aesthetic and intellectual challenge for developers Netdevil. LEGO is as much a cypher as it is a toy. LEGO isn’t just LEGO. It is LEGO City. LEGO Pirates.LEGO Castle.
Ryan Seabury, NetDevil co-founder and project lead on LEGO Universe sets the scene: “LEGO has many different styles and looks. We’ve come up with a story that ties all the disparate worlds together – an epic conflict between Chaos and Imagination. You’re here to save Imagination.”
After creating our character, we arrive on a vast starship. A starship having its hull ripped out by a black hole. “That’s what we’re talking about when we say Chaos,” laughs Seabury. “There’s no hope of repair, you just have to escape.” Large glowing arrows on the floor rush us toward the ship’s bridge. There we meet Bob, who’ll activate our Imagination, if we can find a handful of Imagination icons – simple pickups scattered across the bridge. After we collect enough icons, Bob bathes us in swirling light, activating our Imagination bar. Imagination is to LEGO what mana is to most RPGs. You use it to build structures or objects, and to perform certain actions.
The next task is to get off the ship. According to the ship’s sexy (well, sexy for a minifig) Captain Sky Lane, we need to find three rocket ship parts to escape. The pieces are hidden in crates, but the third proves elusive. Running around, Sky Lane provides a further hint, and we’re directed toward a pile of bobbling bricks. These jumping bean bricks will be familiar to anyone who’s played one of the Traveller’s Tales LEGO games, where a quick button press has your character automatically building a predetermined structure. In this case a lift to take you up to the last rocket part. If all your rocket parts are from the same style set, you’ll receive an achievement.
Rocket parts in hand, we stand next to the rocket building area and put our Thinking Hat on to assemble our vessel. The Thinking Hat is a natty topper, found in a nearby crate, which, when worn, shrouds our character in a white light, fading out the background action, and fading in a peaceful whale song soundtrack. It’s there to help our building: it filters out the relevant pieces in our inventory (in this case cockpits, nose cones and engines) for easier construction.
Once our rocket is assembled, a short cutscene shows us erecting it and standing back with a look of pride. Then it’s simply a case of running to the escape hatch, selecting the rocket, and blasting off to the world below. “LEGO have been working on the infrastructure to support LEGO Universe for a long time now,” says Seabury. “Log-in details for LEGO Universe will also be linked to a LEGO.com profile. At the website, you’ll be able to view other player’s passports, to measure achievements and progress.”
LEGO Universe has cross-generational appeal. It’s one of the first MMOs to be aimed at both adults and kids, and adults and kids playing together. LEGO have taken the challenge seriously, consulting parenting and educational experts from around the world on child safety, and developing one of the most sophisticated content moderation systems online gaming has yet seen. LEGO clearly don’t see this as a cheap MMO cash-in. Despite being made in Colorado, thousands of miles from the LEGO base, the game looks bang on; it understands the bright colours and shiny surfaces.