Published Nov 24, 2015Lego, the toy brickmaking concern begun in a Danish workshop back in 1949, was on the brink of bankruptcy just a little over a decade ago.
This year, though, Lego supplanted Ferrari as the world's most powerful brand. Having produced 600 billion bricks to date, it now dominates toy store shelves with sets incorporating countless pop cultural touchstones.
Its first foray into film, The Lego Movie, earned an Oscar nod (albeit criminally only for its Tegan and Sara-sung theme "Everything is Awesome") and a half-billion bucks. Sequels and spinoffs are in development. Oh, and they have a pair of popular cartoons based on original properties Lego Chima and Ninjago.
But the company's third pillar, one that helped fuel their mid-2000s resurgence, is gaming. They've sold about 120 million copies of nearly 20 titles in the ten years since Lego Star Wars: The Video Game launched their brick-based subgenre.
Now they're merging toys, film and TV and videogames together with Lego Dimensions, an ambitious mash-up that will have you racing down the yellow brick road with Homer Simpson in the Batmobile against Marty McFly in his DeLorean.
After you build them in real life, that is.
Lego videogames have been around since the late '90s, but their middling interactive division was shuttered in 2003 as the money-losing company refocused on its core brick business. That job soon fell to UK studio Traveller's Tales, now known as TT Games, owned by Warner Bros. Interactive.
The popularity of Star Wars-licensed Lego sets and a short-lived stop-motion toy called Lego Studios had led to fan-made "Legomation" or "brickfilm" videos (which would eventually inspire The Lego Movie's animation style). TT built on their viral buzz with a playable version that combined platforming and puzzle solving while lightly spoofing the source material.
It was an instant hit, and TT began brickifying fan-fave franchises from Indiana Jones and Harry Potter to Marvel and DC superheroes to Lord of the Rings and Jurassic Park.
"Humour has been critical," says Dimensions exec producer Kirsten Gavoni. "Even in the earlier video games, when we didn't have speaking characters, they got a lot of that humour across with just the Lego characters being silly or funny. You expect things to go one way, but then Lego gives it that satirical feel that takes it another way."
As well as evolving from silent cinematic spoofs to incorporate voice acting and original storylines, the games also grew in complexity from linear adventures to the open worlds of Lego Batman 2 and the GTA-inspired Lego City. Along the way, they built a massive fan base of both kids and adults.
This bled back to the critically acclaimed Lego Movie, too — TT founder Jon Burton was a co-executive producer and the satire of the games served as inspiration for the film, though it was more biting.
Gavoni compares the Lego gaming experience to Pixar, as far as multigenerational appeal, but boosted by the older audiences' own memories. "I played with Lego as kid," she recalls. "I wanted to be an architect growing up. I didn't even need the sets; I just wanted to build houses. So I think it has that nostalgic factor."
Indeed, and that nostalgia has never been employed quite so deftly as with Lego Dimensions, their entry into the money-printing "toys to life" genre where physical objects can be bought to unlock in-game characters, levels and worlds.
They're following in the wake of originator Skylanders and subsequent success story Disney Infinity, which first mashed up traditional Disney characters before incorporating corporate cousins from Marvel and Star Wars.
Dimensions feels unique right off the bat, though, as it almost immediately asks you to put down the controller and build a full-on Lego set. For an hour. That's confidence in the source material.
From there the game unspools its starter kit story featuring The Lego Movie's Wyldstyle, Batman and Gandalf. These disparate characters then set off on a ten-hour, 14-level, comedic quest through a series of dimensional portals to lands ranging from Oz and Springfield to Metropolis and Middle Earth.
A series of not-inexpensive expansion packs opens these worlds up even further. Some, like Back to the Future and The Simpsons, are "level packs" with playable campaigns, while others, like the Wicked Witch or Scooby Doo, are "fun packs" or "team packs" of characters and vehicles that provide free-roam access to their homelands. More expansions will be released for at least the next three years, including Ghostbusters in January. (Standalone games like next years Lego Marvel's Avengers will keep coming out, too.)
These add-ons are smartly aimed at various age groups. Little kids might lose it over Lego Chima or Ninjago but they likely won't have the same geek-out over exploring Portal's Aperture Science, or after realizing that every time you die in the Doctor Who world you cycle through all 12 Doctors! Or care that the voice cast includes Michael J. Fox, Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks, Joel McHale, Dan Aykroyd, Orlando Bloom, Gary Oldman, and Chris Pratt. (OK, maybe they'll care about Chris Pratt.)
Much like the 2523-piece Simpsons House and 2179-piece Kwik-E-Mart on display in my own home, Lego Dimensions is expensive as all get out, but it's no cash-grab. From the in-jokes and level design to the real-world brick builds, the game is far better than it needs to be — like most everything they've been doing since returning from the brink and setting off on a Marvel-esque creative streak.
"Lego would never allow us to put out a substandard version of anything that has that brand with it. And we wouldn't want to, either. Ultimately, quality sells products," Gavoni says.
"Lego's attention to quality is like nothing I've ever worked with in the industry over the past 14 years," she adds. "That's how they've been able to rebuild their brand and keep it at the top of its game. Their demands are so high. I would expect nothing less of them."