LEGO Star Wars' success managed to both be a surprise and entirely predictable. On the positive side, how could a mix of two of the most popular brands in the world of play not be a success? On the negative ... oh, for God's sake. LEGO Star Wars? Who takes such bastard children of capitalism seriously? Well, its creators, for one. LEGO Star Wars proved to be an enormously popular and quietly radical game - one whose innovations were often overlooked due to its veneer of adorability. But how did they do it? The clue is in the name. It's called LEGO Star Wars. The LEGO comes first.
Its roots lie back way before there was any connection to a galaxy a long time ago and far, far away, with an internal team at LEGO Company. Its mission was to explore everything that made LEGO a brilliant toy and see how its lessons could apply to videogames. Ex-Codemasters Jonathan Smith was a member. "LEGO Company doesn't work like other businesses," Smith - later Producer on LEGO Star Wars - explains. "In particular, it doesn't work like the way the videogame industry works." It's privately owned. It's fiercely proud of its 75-year heritage. Unanswerable to the market, it has no obligations to anything but itself and a distinctive internal culture based on children's play.
"That gave us a completely new way of looking at the task of making a game," Smith says. "It just set us free a bit from the typical industrial occupations to consider, with greater freedom and a greater focus on young players that was really energizing." To that end, they spent a lot of their time working with children. "Genuinely listen to what they're saying," he advises. "[Don't talk] to them to make sure your game is just good enough to make it in the time available, or hoping you'll find they'll put up with whatever you've put into the game already, but at the start of the process with a completely open mind." Alongside this, they worked with LEGO academics and experts from the toy side, and a theoretical grounding began to crystallize.
First off, everyone gets frustrated. A child simply deals with frustration differently than an adult. "It's a very unpleasant thing to see," Smith says. "It's not just 'I don't like games - sometimes they're too hard.' It's genuinely very upsetting for children. It's like in a classroom environment - which is a learning environment, much like a game, where you're trying to live up to its expectations - to be told all the time you're a failure. ... It's frankly fairly abusive, if you were to translate that to the classroom metaphor."
In addition to being more accommodating, a LEGO game would have to step away from the industry rhetoric about making players do things - trying to lead them along the next step toward a necessary conclusion. The play needed to be more like play. "What can be conventionally thought of as failure can be rewarding," Smith says. That philosophy appeared most noticeably in the health mechanism, where a player wasn't punished for experimentation. Instead, they developed a positive reward system based around gathering tokens, which are lost when struck. A second application of their theory was the importance of cooperative play - or rather, people playing at the same time, not traditionally cooperative or competitive, but sharing a gaming space, like on a playground. "What we always hoped for, and eventually delighted to find, was parents playing with their children," he says.
But this was a long way in the future. As it was, they had a set of worryingly abstract design principles, which were hard to make attractive to anyone. "One of the characteristics of LEGO is that you can make anything out of this set of bricks. That's its beauty," Smith says. "But that can become elusive - asking for a lot of work to be done for someone willing to engage." Put simply, as a game, something just offering LEGO looks like a lot of work for your pleasure. It needed something else.