Building A Better LEGO Game -- Quick Tips On How To Keep One of Our Favorite Franchises Alive

Posted July 24, 2012 - By Adam Rosenberg

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Lego Batman 2

LEGO turned what many have scoffed at as just another kid’s game into a powerhouse that has proven itself often – but not every time – to be a a fantastic experience shared by old and young alike. As one of great bits of nostalgia gone digital, I feel that it’s time to take stock of what makes the Lego series of games great as well as look at how it can be improved on it.

First though, my apologies for taking the role of armchair developer. I don't live and breathe the realities of hectic development schedules, and I don't know what sort of effect they have on the production process. Speaking as a gamer, I can tell something's not working when I see the same old criticisms chasing release after release after release. Even in the case of sterling examples like LEGO Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

The beauty of LEGO the toy is that it is never a static construct; they're always changing, always being reconfigured by the fans that love them. So why should your games be any different?

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Forget About The Children

That sounds a bit harsh. Obviously, don't forget about the children. They're small, they're inexperienced, and they can't really be trusted to fend for themselves. In terms of video games, they're also your core audience. LEGO games are family-friendly, and there's no reason why they shouldn't remain that way. That doesn't mean you can't aim for a broader crowd though.

Let's take the recently released LEGO Batman 2, your first game to feature proper voice acting. LEGO game storylines tend to shoot for the amusingly cute, but the writing in the new game leaned a bit too heavily in the direction of "message-driven after-school cartoons" for older gamers' tastes.

LB2 could have done a better job of straddling the line between kid-friendly material and adult-friendly humor. Watch some Animaniacs. The Steven Spielberg-produced animated series from the '90s is a master class in the art of universally appealing comedy writing. If you're going to stick with using a voice cast in future games, make those speaking roles an indispensible part of the experience.

Also in the realm of forgetting about the children: online play. We all know you can do it. LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga supported online co-op play. We loved it. I make a point of asking when we're going to see it return anytime I demo a LEGO game. I'm always told the same thing, that it's not a priority because of your audience. That's hogwash. I'm your audience too, and there are a lot of people like me in their 20s, 30s, and up who want to see this feature revived.

LEGO Pirates

Fix What's Broken

Appealing to a wider audience is only part of the trick to building a better LEGO game. You've also got some work to do of the “roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-your-hands-dirty” variety. The engine, that you've built to power your games, is holding up well. You've adapted it to deliver stories spread across multiple franchises, many of which require entirely new mechanics or quirks.

After all this time, however, the core LEGO formula is beginning to creak. On the creative side, the hub-based level delivery system and unique character abilities work when you innovate. Looking at Clone Wars, you really did a great job of freshening up the experience with a well-thought-out hub and killer "bonus" levels like the ground battles and bounty hunter missions. In contrast, Clone Wars follow-up LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean felt like a very rote, by-the-numbers LEGO game, with nothing that really set it apart, structurally speaking, from your earlier efforts.

Then there's the split screen. As important as I think the addition of online co-op is in gaining wider appeal, that doesn't mean your couch co-op gets a pass. The dynamic split screen that you use is a cool idea, but it's confusing and finicky. It needs to go. Or, better, it needs to be optional. Keep the dynamic split screen. That's fine. But also give players the option of a horizontal or vertical screen split. If I'm a 34-year-old guy who is having trouble keeping track of characters when the screen splits and re-forms on its own, imagine how tough the little ones have it.

LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5-7

Don't Iterate, Innovate

Yes, this one is obvious. It's a central tenet not just of game design, but of creative pursuits as a whole. And in fairness, TT Games releases are not without innovation. Clone Wars I've already discussed. LEGO Batman 2, barring some technical and mechanical quirks, introduced a proper open world and mission challenges built to support the presence of a nearly invulnerable, flying superhero (Superman).

There's room for improvement, however. Look at all of those optional boss fights in LEGO Batman 2 that all share roughly the same strategy of "punch, punch, punch, win." Or the total lack of anything relating to sailing a ship in LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean. These feel like missed opportunities. Let's see some more variety and a steeper challenge. A surprise or two that nobody would see coming. Something that goes above and beyond the expected cornerstones of any LEGO game.

You've got a fan in me, TT Games. As a longtime lover of all things LEGO, I can honestly say that I greet each of your new releases with a wide smile and an open mind. We've all had a fun ride since that first LEGO Star Wars game dropped in 2005, but it's time to re-evaluate as we approach the end of the hardware generation. You have all the right pieces; you just need to put it together. I know you can do it.

Building A Better LEGO Game -- Quick Tips On How To Keep One of Our Favorite Franchises Alive


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