Lego has offered the world so much fun these past 70 years, it seems only fair that the world reciprocate in some way.
At a time when Lego is reaching further and further into a broader role of entertainment giant, mashups turn out to be an absolute gift for the toy-maker. If you want to see Gandalf trading punchlines with Homer Simpson or Scooby Doo chewing the fat with Doctor Who, Lego has you covered.
Through the avatars of building-block toys, Lego becomes the bagman for highly desired, vaguely illicit conjunctions of "entertainment properties" in new and interesting ways.
At a recent media event in Santa Monica, the company showed a playable demo of Lego Dimensions. Developed by TT Games and published by Warner Bros., it's a toys-to-life gambit that features a cocktail of TV shows, movies, games and toys that have ostensibly been thrown together on a kaleidoscopic world of "transmedia" high jinks.
TT Games' boss John Burton says that this product is the result of a "vision" that he had eight years ago. But its appearance has been helped along by the current vogue among consumers for seeing characters from different universes interact with one another in novel ways.
The Lego Movie was the defining moment of this phenomenon, which sprang more from an emerging culture of unofficial mashup creations on places like YouTube and in the world of music than from the fevered desires of game executives. Such a movie, in which characters from different worlds crack wise with one another, would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
There was a time, not so long ago, when most of the people who controlled entertainment characters — aka IP owners — would have rather gouged their own eyeballs out than witnessed the sanctity of their properties being compromised by goofy crossovers.
But now that the walls have come down, they find that the whole thing is actually kind of a money-spinner. People enjoy novelty. Sticking (say) the Ghostbusters crew inside a Portal level, accompanied by Toto from The Wizard of Oz provides novelty as well as plenty of scope for humor. Mashups might have begun as a way to subvert the controlling designs of entertainment corporations, but today, they add useful revenues.
More than most companies, Lego can make a fair claim to this shift. It has been selling licensed theme toy-kits like Star Wars for the last 15 years or so. Children have been mashing these worlds together within a Lego framework for a long time.
Also the Lego versions of characters like Batman and Homer Simpson are sufficiently removed from the real ones in a physical sense for the whole caboodle to clearly sit within the realm of playful fantasy. They carry their own identity, attached to but separate from the core character.
Lego Dimensions is obviously going to be popular. But it also enters a highly competitive market with a product that has some advantages and some disadvantages.
Skylanders, Disney and Nintendo have all staked out places with really nice collections of toys. The Lego toys are, necessarily, more blocky than the toys for those rivals. Their utility (on some models) is in being break-downable, generally into three different toys. For example, the Batmobile, which comes with the core set, can also be turned into a Batblaster and a Batray. It's a smart piece of engineering, but with only a small number of pieces at play, the results leave a lot to the power of imagination.
The visual and tactile attraction of the models is a big advantage for Lego's rivals. From my own experience watching my children play Disney Infinity, the ratio of time spent playing with the toys alone against time spent interacting with the video game is about 9:1. The Lego toys are just not as nice as rival toys, and the fun factor of their limited mutability has yet to be really tested.
The game itself, judged on the demo shown, will be extremely familiar to anyone who has ever played a TT Games Lego title. Puzzles, if such is the right word, are designed to be solvable by five-year-olds. The action situations have long since lost their sense of novelty although, of course, they are new to small children.
Lego's Toy Pad can hold seven different characters and models at the same time. In the gameplay demo shown to me, this essentially means moving them around on the grid according to gameplay prompts, or swapping them out for new characters or remaking models in specific new ways.
The entire business model rests on Lego's ability to sell add-on packs. So, you initially spend $100 on the Lego Dimensions Starter Pack which includes the Lego Toy Pad, game, three characters (Batman, Gandalf and Wyldstyle from The Lego Movie) and some objects.
Then the game progresses through levels which can be completed with only the core set of characters, but which also open up areas that require additional sets. If you come across the Scooby Doo arena and your kids love Scooby Doo and wish to experience it in full, an extra purchase is likely. This dynamic is common in the toys-to-life business, but many parents may find it irksome.
So much of this product's appeal rests in the entertainment value inherent in the mashup. Lego today confirmed the long-known fact that its game will include The Simpsons, Doctor Who, Ghostbusters, Portal, Jurassic World, Midway Arcade, Lego Chima and Scooby-Doo as well as previously announced stuff like DC Comics, The Lord of the Rings, The Lego Movie, The Wizard of Oz, Lego Ninjago and Back to the Future.
There is a lovely scripted moment in the demo during which Gandalf, Batman and Wyldstyle set off down the Yellow Brick Road and come across Dorothy and her companions. Much mirthful banter ensues that plays on our collective appreciation of these fictional worlds. (Batman thinks Oz is way too colorful and mistrusts the Scarecrow, which is a pretty funny take on his persona.)
Lego's ability to write great lines and to convincingly accommodate fish-out-of-water stories is going to be a strength for this game's linear story, which may well afford many families a fun time come Christmas Day. But Warner has so far declined to show any of its more open-world plans, which have generally been a strength for TT Games, and which may well sway those who demand more than a linear campaign with good jokes and some toys.
Lego Dimensions will be released on Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3 and Wii U on Sept. 27.