LEGO followed the same stategy as it expanded into the digital realm. While the company has produced a variety of video games, it struck gold when it partnered with a British game developer named Traveller's Tales to develop a series of titles that retell the Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Batman mythos through carefully re-created LEGO bricks. The quirky, family-friendly games have been huge hits, capturing everything that's unique about LEGO.

Everything, that is, except the ability to build your own creations — and that's where LEGO Universe comes in. "When it launches, the thought is at first that 90 percent of the game will be created by NetDevil and 10 percent will be user-generated content," says Geoff Jones, LEGO Universe's lead game designer. "We want those numbers to flip down the line. Ninety percent of the stuff will be user-generated." In effect, it will be a user-friendly take on Second Life, the online virtual world where everything is created by its users.

LEGO thinks the game has the potential to change the way kids play with the building blocks. "When kids build with LEGOs on the floor of their bedroom, they just don't get up and take their collections to their friend's house," Hanson says. "This adds much more social interaction to the game play." Eventually, players will be able to purchase customized building sets from LEGO based on their in-game models, similar to a program LEGO currently offers on its website called Design byME.

See more photos on the slideshow page.
See more photos on the slideshow page.
Spencer and Braxton Jones test-drive LEGO Universe in the NetDevil studio.
Spencer and Braxton Jones test-drive LEGO Universe in the NetDevil studio.

But allowing people to construct their own creations in an MMOG creates a host of new challenges. For one thing, Seabury says, LEGO doesn't want older players logging in to what's supposed to be a kids' game and building whatever comes to their twisted minds. And even if players aren't making LEGO versions of dirty jokes, they might want to build Terminators or Gandalfs or other things that could violate copyrights. When players started re-creating their favorite comic-book characters in the online game City of Heroes, Marvel slapped the developer with a lawsuit. The NetDevil team members say their solution to these puzzles is so clever that they're not at liberty to fully discuss it. But it involves giving players the ability to build whatever they want on private, virtual property that each player owns in the game, then subjecting these creations to the oversight of moderators and safety screens if players want to show them off to others.

Equivalency posed another problem: In a game featuring creations from every time period imaginable, how do you figure out whether a pirate ship or a jet plane is more powerful? And then there was the conundrum of digitally rendering those bricks. To re-create the particular sheen of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, the type of plastic used in all LEGO pieces, NetDevil art director Phillip Atencio and his team had to develop a process called ambient inclusion that mimics the way light bounces off the different colored bricks. And just making a sixteen-stud virtual LEGO brick requires twice as many three-dimensional surfaces, or polygons, as a World of Warcraft character, thanks to all its knobs, divots and underside tubes — not to mention the tiny LEGO logos emblazoned on each stud.

To make sure the game can handle all these complicated structures and still work on kids' hand-me-down computers, the NetDevil team turns to Hess and a fellow modeler. Now when Hess builds something that's going in the game, he has to make sure the final product doesn't exhibit too many complicated studs or tubes but is still recognizably LEGO. To do so, he's developed clever new building techniques that allow his bricks to sprout in seemingly every direction at once.

"He was a pretty good builder to start with," says Stuart Guarnieri, one of Hess's CoWLUG colleagues. "Now what he can do is astonishing."

Its three days before Christmas, and the LEGO outlet store at Colorado Mills is just steps away from consumer chaos.

Parents vacillate between which sets to purchase while kids plead for the hot, pricey versions. Throughout the store, fancy displays offer up pre-built models to tempt shoppers: robots, futuristic drilling machines, Indiana Jones battle sets. In one corner, a display features one of the most intricate models of all — but this one's not for sale. It's a busy city intersection, accurate to minute details. Inside one building is a packed pizzeria that's amazingly realistic, save for the fact that R2-D2 robots are serving the pizzas. Across the miniature street, an auto shop is in full swing; under an elevated car, a flickering electronic light mimics the sparks of a welding tool.

The display showcases the handiwork of CoWLUG members — another example of LEGO's recent interest in catering to adult devotees. The company has launched an ambassador program to collect feedback on new sets from AFOLs and has also developed grown-up product lines such as LEGO Frank Lloyd Wright models. "Bear in mind, the basic concept of LEGO is a building toy," says Jim Foulds, LEGO's community development manager. "But what is happening is that the adult fan community has made the company think about it from a broader perspective, that LEGO is not just a toy. LEGO is also a creative medium being used by professional architects and hobbyists."

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