"There's a darkling, dude! Come on!" It's after school in Louisville, Colo., and two boys are playing just like generations of kids before them—with Lego bricks. As their little yellow Lego guys battle some evil monsters called the Darklings, the boy in the blue shirt yelps to his friend, "You gotta start building a bridge now! Hurry!" A bridge takes shape as interlocking Lego bricks snap together.
But this is no ordinary playdate. The boys are sitting in a windowless room behind a two-way mirror. Cameras monitor their every move, and a scruffy technician taps notes into a laptop. The biggest difference, though, is the Lego blocks themselves. They aren't made of plastic. They're made of pixels.
The boys are play-testing Lego Universe, an online computer game due out in October. Ten years in the making, the game is being created here at a company called NetDevil, with supervision from the Lego Group. It's a children's product, but it's also serious business. Lego Universe marks the legendary company's first foray into massively multiplayer gaming, and for the iconic building-block maker, it's a major gamble. With the game, the creators are aiming to pull off three incredibly difficult feats: translating the creative, distinctly tactile Lego experience into a virtual arena; creating an online environment that's both kid-friendly and kid-safe; and opening up a new market for the US $2 billion toy company.
And because this is an international project and brand, addressing these issues is a global challenge. On launch, subscriptions will be available to over 20 countries from Austria to the United States. Success for this project—estimated to cost over $10 million to create, though the Danish company does not make the budget publicly available—is by no means assured. The company has had occasional troubles before, such as trying to create its Lego theme parks.
Most massively multiplayer games cater to an older crowd, where norms of behavior need not be strictly enforced. But Lego Universe seeks to capture the grade school set and the estimated $20 billion children's game market. It's one thing to unleash bawdy mayhem in a fantasy game like EverQuest and quite another to nurture a virtual play space where kids can be kids—and not fall prey to predators or bullies or other unwelcome Internet lurkers. So with Lego Universe, the company's reputation as one of the most venerated and parent-friendly toy brands is at stake.
In addition, Lego must stay faithful to its meticulous engineering. It can't afford to disappoint users looking for the familiar interplay of studded plastic pieces that families have been clicking together for generations. Everything built in the game must be buildable in real life.
But unlike traditional Lego play, the online version will offer unprecedented opportunities for players to share and interact. The sprawling Lego fantasyland will be able to support more than half a million "brick heads" from around the world. Each player will start by assembling a personal Lego miniature figure to serve as his or her avatar. Players can then venture into the live Lego Universe, where forces of chaos and destruction—monsters such as the Darklings—threaten to destroy the Land of Imagination.
As players explore brightly colored lands such as the Avant Gardens and the Gnarled Forest, they'll get to build rocket ships and skyscrapers and animals and whatever else they can imagine. With over 2000 types of pieces in 26 colors, the variations are seemingly endless. Players will also receive their own property, which they can populate with their constructions. Using the simple icon-based programming that Lego developed for its Mindstorms robotics program, players can even animate their creations—a rocket ship that flies or a Ming dynasty vase that rotates when visitors get close. And of course, online virtual creations can be made physical—for a price. Using a service called Design by Me, a player can have a kit of physical blocks shipped directly from the Lego factory and then rebuild the virtual Lego construction for real.
"It's definitely going to be a challenge," says Michael Gartenberg, a partner with Altimeter, a technology research firm based in New York City. "They want and need to protect their brand; they need to make sure this experience will be kid-friendly." But given the popularity of Lego, there's little room for error. "They're taking a fairly big risk and they have to get it right immediately," Gartenberg says. "It's not something they can check out and hopefully have it work and work out bugs. " In the end, though, it all comes down to winning over kids like the two boys behind the two-way mirror.