Lego has a remarkably important place in the gaming industry, and not just because the building-toy company has put its stamp on titles like Lego Star Wars and Lego Marvel Super Heroes. Games that let players build virtual worlds are on the rise again, and in conversations about those games, Lego comes up all the time.
Take, for example, Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson’s book about the creation of Minecraft, which came out in English last year. In explaining the game to unfamiliar readers, the authors offer the following:
Maybe it can be thought of as LEGO pieces on steroids … Just like LEGO pieces, Minecraft gives the player infinite freedom to create, while the potential is strictly set by the characteristics of the raw materials. A block is always a block, but enough blocks can become anything the player can imagine.
Indeed, the book cites Lego as a major influence on Markus “Notch” Persson, the game’s original creator, a childhood obsession interrupted only by his introduction to computer programming. And Persson seemingly wasn’t alone:
- At the Gaming Insiders Summit last October, Ken Levine — co-founder of the now-defunct Irrational Games — praised the fact that Lego bricks could be anything, arguing that games needed “narrative Legos” to be more replayable.
- Before Toca Boca released its mobile building game Toca Builders last year, company reps positioned it in a press call as less like Minecraft and “more like Lego,” since the game focused on building and didn’t imitate Minecraft’s multiplayer features.
- In addition to being a gateway to game development, Roblox is like Legos-plus, marketing VP Brad Justus said in an interview last month: “Unlike Lego, you never run out of pieces. You can build the thing that’s in your mind and bring it to life.”
- During a recent demo of Microsoft’s new Xbox/Windows game Project Spark, a developer explained to me that the game will let players download virtual building materials that work “like Lego”: Pieces that do one thing in one intended combination, but that may then be broken apart and recombined in unintended ways.
You get the point. The build-anything freedom connoted by the Lego brand is a convenient shorthand for explaining, in part, why virtual world-building (“sandbox”) games are fun.
But Lego itself hasn’t put out a sandbox game since the Lego Creator series ended in 2001. Instead, the company has focused on story-driven games in a variety of genres, the latest of which is the massively multiplayer online game Lego Legends of Chima Online, which lets kids level-up warriors who battle through a series of missions.
Available as a Web browser game and (starting today) on iOS, Legends of Chima is a cooperative game based on a Cartoon Network TV series of the same name, so the game’s story isn’t coming out of nowhere. But representatives of Warner Bros. Games Montreal, which developed Chima Online, said they also didn’t see the appeal of a story-less Minecraft-esque game.
“It was kind of a one-hit wonder,” WB Games design director Bill Money* said in an interview with Re/code. “It’s hard to explain why it took off so well.”
Creative director Louis Lamarche added that Minecraft was initially designed for a niche (albeit, a niche that has now grown to 100 million players on the PC alone), whereas Legends of Chima is aimed at bringing a AAA-style experience to Lego fans between the ages of seven and 12.
Players can build up personalized “outposts” in between missions — using Lego pieces, of course — but the buildings are assembled and modified automatically by the game based on collectible blueprints. This is because, Money and Lamarche explained, placing them brick by brick wouldn’t be as fun.
Plus, Lamarche noted, Minecraft is “just one brick with multiple textures.” WB Games retains a Lego “master builder” who designs and constructs each of the game’s buildings with all kinds of real Lego bricks from scratch. His buildings are then submitted to the main Lego office in Denmark for approval before they can be entered into the virtual world. It’s a company mandate that also applied to the Lego Movie currently in theaters, they said.
Players itching to build something without a story might try Build With Chrome, a Lego-Google collaboration that lets players make things with virtual bricks and share their creations on a global Google Map.
* Which is a fantastic name, by the way.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.