Last week, Eurogamer broke the news that LEGO-based MMO LEGO Universe would be shutting down on January 31st, 2012, only 15 months after servers first went live. According to LEGO group executive Jesper Vilstrup, the game was well received and had over 2 million active accounts, but “unfortunately, we have not been able to build a satisfactory revenue model in our target group.”
LEGO Universe strikes me as one of those games that should have worked really well. Most kids in this country played with LEGOs, or at least knew what they are, and they remain some of the most open-ended imagination fodder around. I used to stage battles between a pirate ship and a royal frigate before I discovered I could disassemble them and create a freakin’ bomb-ass Super Mega Ship. This play concept should have benefited immensely from translation into digital form. Sure, the LEGO Star Wars, Batman, Harry Potter, and Indiana Jones games are popular, but those only scratch the surface of the infinite scope of endless rebuilding inherent to LEGOs. If Universe was the culmination of those aspirations, it seems like a slam dunk. Why did it fizzle out? It boils down to a few reasons.
As an MMO, the idea of building and showing off your creations to an MMO audience should have been ideal for a video game. Even better, the game would bring to life functions of your machines that 8-year-old you with the physical version would have had to explain to a friend (“No, no, this one shoots lasers and this one shoots missiles. And this one makes grilled cheese sandwiches. I got all the based covered.”) But Universe wanted to be a character-based action-RPG MMO as well, something simple that a kid could latch onto without needing the expertise required for World of WarCraft. That required a storyline, class-based character progression, equipment, quests, and all the usual fixin’s that come with MMORPGs, even simple ones.
The idea of acquiring building blocks during quests is sweet, and worked well as an engine to make the questlines go. But the problem was that beyond the starting areas, the game never really branched into a bigger and better world of quests and challenges. Like many MMOs, it got monotonous very quickly, but there just wasn’t the breadth of content there, the huge world of conflict to explore, the challenging dungeons and bosses that required creative, team-based combat planning.
That would have been forgivable if LEGO building had more in-game utility. There was only one class that could really do very much in combat with the things it could build, and even those machines tended to be prepackaged. To go really nuts with creative building, you were more or less relegated to buildings that served little purpose beyond visual amusement. Now, visual amusement is a worthy goal in itself, and some people clearly had a blast with that. You could put together some basic vehicles, and I can understand why they wouldn’t let you field an ominpotent eight-armed rolling battle mech in combat. But there just wasn’t all that much you could do with what you could build. So was the game supposed to be combat-focused, or construction focused? Without intertwining the two together very well, Universe sort of half-assed both and excelled at neither.
The Free-to-Play Version was Sufficient
I feel strange arguing that a developer should have charged more for their product, but Vilstrup admitted they had revenue problems, despite stating they “have almost two million players in Lego Universe, and we get extremely positive feedback from players.” Two million subscribers should be enough revenue to sustain an MMO project, but the problem was that not all players were paying subscribers. Too many were content to stick with the F2P version of the game, in which the player could play the first two worlds and associated quests, as well as access properties on which they could build their house or fortress of doom or whatever.
If a player really wanted a solid MMO adventure, they were likely to look elsewhere, and so Universe needed the creative construction to be its hook. It turns out that you could do pretty well with that using the F2P version. If you think it would be fun to play around with building something the size and complexity of a three-person deep sea submarine or an understated ranch house, you could probably get there without having to lay down the first dollar toward a subscription. Those sort of projects are what are likely to appeal to most players. If you’re a hardcore LEGO architecture enthusiast, you’re going to need access to more game content. It’s unlikely most potential Universe players are LEGO engineers of that caliber.
Minecraft Ate LEGO’s Lunch
When a buddy of mine first told me about Minecraft, he explained it as using LEGOs to construct equipment and defenses for a resource extraction operation. I was impressed with the capacity of Minecraft to employ relatively simple mechanics to provide potential for boundless creativity and tinkering, but I didn’t expect the mind-boggling, explosive success the game had. Clearly there was a niche there for a very open-ended building-blocks game, and (like World of WarCraft) while Minecraft certainly wasn’t the first game to play with the concept, it was the first one to succeed in broadening the audience to mainstream gamers.
Minecraft beat LEGO to the punch. It’s very easy to envision the entire Minecraft game with LEGO graphics (here’s a mod), and it seems like Minecraft was the game that LEGO people should have worked on when someone first suggested making a video game about LEGOs. Admittedly, Minecraft isn’t an MMO with much of a storyline and class-based combat, but it executes the construction concept very well – better than Universe. Minecraft also includes far more piece parts that can perform various functions, giving the player’s creations a bit more practical utility if they want it. While Minecraft‘s original spread came from a F2P version, a large enough fanbase has formed that is willing to lay down some money for bigger, more deluxe versions and updates. Perhaps that was the hope for LEGO Universe as well, but in the meantime, they had a whole bunch of MMO servers to maintain.
Unfortunately for LEGO, Minecraft sneaked in and quickly became the Team to Beat in the building block game genre, and Universe just couldn’t compete in that aspect. From there, it would have to fall back on the appeal of its MMO adventure, which is too weak to attract many adult MMO players, and it’s unlikely that very many parents would subscribe long-term on behalf of their kids. Game over.