Brick-heads are clamoring to get into the beta of Lego Universe, a massively multiplayer world that debuts in Q2 2009. Imagine hundreds of Lego nuts logging in to collaborate on the construction of Frank Lloyd Wrightâ''s infamous design for a mile-high skyscraper. Itâ''s a virtual sandbox where you can build your own gravity-defying rocket ships and dinosaur eggs. For a paid subscription, you can get your online creations made real through orders to the Lego Factory (and then shipped to your doorstep). Lego is leading the toy industry from plastic to pixels.
But this doesn't come without challenges. Here's one hassle: how do you keep out the Butthead who attaches a giant square schlong to your rocket shipâ''s bow? â''Objectionable content is number one concern,â'' says Mark Hansen, director of Lego business development, and the focus of our story, â''how do keep people from doing that? Weâ''re not going to claim we can keep everything out [but] we intend to keep 99.999% of that content out of the game, and remove it as soon as possible.â''
The Lego world underscores one of the key challenges for the future of digital toys: taming the unruly online worlds so theyâ''re considered â''safeâ'' for kids. Lego is hatching a YouTube style self-policing community, as well as a mission control of employees who monitor the content â'' and respond accordingly. Bottom line is: When a toy company goes virtual, they donâ''t just launch a world - they run it. Suddenly toy companies look less like plastic makers than Sony Online. â''Itâ''s a huge undertaking to be able to man this in the right way,â'' Hansen says wearily.
Lego is based in Denmark, but theyâ''ve contracted a Denver-based start-up called Net Devil to design its virtual world. This is really interesting â'' and funny, I think â'' because Net Devil is the antithesis of Lego. Theyâ''re a scrappy game developer known for making first person shooters and auto combat online games. Itâ''s the manifestation of this culture clash between the old and new story of toys. Stay tuned.