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LEGO hasn't just realized the purchasing power of its long-enduring fans (and, by extension, the fans' children); the company has also recognized the hazards of getting on their bad side. That was a lesson learned during the gray-brick debacle of 2003, when LEGO tweaked its manufacturing process, resulting in gray bricks that had a slight bluish hue. "Bley," is how obsessive collectors described the unfortunate change. "It created quite an uproar in the adult community, says Eric Kingsley, a Massachusetts-based AFOL who helped found the New England Lego Users Group. "These people are very interested in keeping a consistent color palette." Although LEGO kept the new color, the company made sure that future changes were run by their fans first.
While LEGO Universe is geared toward players ages eight to twelve, it's a fair bet that many AFOLs will log in, too. And the game could be a fan fiasco if NetDevil doesn't get the final product just right. So the game's developers have taken a novel, even radical approach: They've handed the keys of the digital kingdom over to some of the most passionate AFOLs and told them to build part of the game themselves.
That's the idea behind LEGO Universe Partners — known, thanks to the LEGO community's penchant for ungainly acronyms, as LUPs. "LEGO knew from the get-go it wanted a community portion to the game," says Foulds. "The community itself offers tremendous skill in building." Over the past few years, the game developers have recruited dozens of AFOL volunteers, including Kingsley and CoWLUG's Guarnieri, and provided them with the software necessary to build LEGO worlds on their home computers that could become part of LEGO Universe.
Exactly what they're coming up with is still top-secret, but according to Brian Johnson, LEGO Universe's community producer, it could range from levels that resemble giant versions of the old Milton Bradley board game "Operation" to adventures with J.R.R. Tolkien-like backstories. And once the game launches, even more LUPs may be brought on board to keep the strange, fantastical fringes of the virtual world flourishing. "I like to think of it like Tatooine in Star Wars," says Johnson. "It's what's going on in the outer rim of the universe."
That means that more hard-core fans will be spending more hours in front of their computer screens, building virtual LEGO worlds. It's a labor of love, says Guarnieri, who explains that it's all about "loving the brick." Even if it's a slightly bluer shade of gray.
Their LEGO escape rockets assembled, Spencer and Braxton Jones make it off their ill-fated spaceship just before it slips into the black hole.
They zoom to safety: a hilly, forested planet inhabited by friendly minfig townsfolk. But the forces of chaos and destruction have reached here, too. Hostile robots are running amok, and the locals have been forced, in true LEGO style, to repurpose their belongings in order to survive. One village seems to have fashioned a security perimeter out of a LEGO Winnebago.
Braxton takes his time exploring this colorful world, looking for new objects to accessorize his outfit and his rocket ship. Spencer is more detail-oriented, having been schooled in mission-centered games like those in the Call of Duty series. For him, it's all about getting through the level as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Next door, NetDevil employees take note of the different playing styles. They know the game has to accommodate both kinds of players, and many more — everyone from hard-core World of Warcraft vets to bumbling MMOG newbies, 'tween LEGO builders on the verge of the toy company's dreaded "dark period" and obsessed forty-year-old AFOLs.
Even if they pull that off and the game does well when it's finally launched later this year, NetDevil employees will still have their work cut for them. Unlike typical video games, MMOGs like LEGO Universe are far from finished when they hit the market. While NetDevil hasn't announced specific pricing, LEGO Universe will be a subscription-based game, with people paying a monthly fee to play it. "We have more in common with a business like HBO than Madden NFL," says company president Brown, who admits he was more into Star Wars than LEGO growing up. "They are going to continue to pay us to play the game, so we have to provide new content and features all the time." He points out that World of Warcraft, which boasts 11.5 million monthly subscribers and rakes in more than a billion dollars a year in revenue, now has hundreds of employees just to handle customer service. That means NetDevil could soon be knocking additional holes in its studio walls to accommodate even more workers.
If the game's successful, that is. It's also possible that the twelve-foot-tall LEGO brick may end up alongside the Auto Assault car as another in-studio testament to a game concept that got away. For all of NetDevil's work, no one really knows whether the unique alchemy of sensations that's made LEGO such a hit — the crunch of the bricks in their box, the pleasing snap of the pieces clicking together, the exhilaration of smashing a model to bits — can ever be fully re-created on a computer. "The hard part will be going from tactile to virtual," says Guarnieri. "You're going from something where you can pick up a piece and feel it and rotate it to maneuvering it with a keyboard and mouse."