Longform

LEGO Universe — colorful plastic's answer to World of Warcraft — is the brainchild of Colorado-based NetDevil

Spencer and Braxton Jones have to get off this doomed spaceship. It's teetering on the brink of a black hole, and they're inching toward oblivion.

The only way out is via the ship's escape rockets, but there's a catch: The rockets' components are scattered all about the spaceship, in the form of little plastic building blocks.

The rockets must be made out of LEGOs — just like the spaceship itself, and the characters that twelve-year-old Spencer and nine-year-old Braxton are controlling. Poised in front of computer screens, the brothers are plugging away at LEGO Universe, a massively multiplayer online game being developed by Louisville-based NetDevil. They're using minifigs — the yellow-skinned, cherub-faced characters that are the signature LEGO denizens — to explore a virtual world akin to that of the wildly popular World of Warcraft, but with a family-friendly twist. In this sprawling realm of bricks and minifigs, hundreds of thousands of players will get to explore moon bases and castles and many other subjects covered by LEGO toys over the years, taking on massing forces of chaos and destruction — hence the black hole — armed with the game's powerful version of the Force: their "imagination." When characters are eliminated, they don't die; they just explode into pieces, and their spirits of imagination float into new minifigs. This is LEGO's universe, after all; anything smashed apart can always be put back together.

Before they started playing today, Spencer and Braxton got to design their in-game minifigs, selecting their facial expressions and outfits — everything from pirate caps to ninja garb. And right now, if the two don't act fast, their carefully built guys will be toast. Still, as they hurriedly pilot them around the spaceship, the brothers manage to shout out a constant stream of opinions about the game.

"All the rocket pieces are on the top level of the ship," one of them says. "That's really inconvenient."

His brother chimes in with a criticism of the rocket: "That's a really creepy nose cone, by the way."

Their play is being studied very seriously. In a darkened room next door, a crowd of NetDevil team members watch the boys through a one-way mirror. Cameras in the testing studio are trained on the brothers' hands and faces, capturing keyboard strokes and facial expressions and sending them to video screens. Other screens simulcast their game screens. A woman in the studio, armed with a clipboard, spouts probing questions when the brothers don't come up with feedback on their own. "Was it helpful having a reminder to look around the spaceship?" she asks. "Would you have been able to do this without a reminder?"

The NetDevil employees scrutinize every response and detail. They take note when one boy successfully knocks apart a laser turret and uses the loose bricks to build something else. They groan when the other finds a glitch in the game's geography and wanders off into some out-of-bounds corner. To retrieve him, one of the observers has to log into the game and, using a minifig, guide the boy back, sherpa-like, to the central action.

Recruited through their membership in an online LEGO fan club, the boys, who live in Erie, have been working with NetDevil for years, first giving feedback when the game was just a series of storyboards, then playing through levels as the digital nuts and bolts of LEGO Universe came together. There are many other kid testers in Colorado, and LEGO runs its own test in hot game markets like Europe. In all, the company has thousands of hours of gameplay footage — and not much time left to analyze it. NetDevil has ratcheted up the tests lately, scheduling one a day to make sure that the game is as polished as possible for its coming-out party: the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, which runs from January 7 to January 10 in Las Vegas. NetDevil will unveil LEGO Universe's official game trailer at CES, the biggest technology trade show of the year, letting people try a hands-on demo and sign up for an online beta version. It's all part of the lead-up to an as-yet-undisclosed date sometime in the second half of 2010, when LEGO Universe will hit the shelves. That's when all of NetDevil's work will pay off — or go bust.

But first, there's that wonky in-game camera, which is making the brothers' game screens jerk about. "Why does the camera fly around like that?' asks one NetDevil employee.

"It's artistic," responds a colleague.

No, says the first employee. "It's painful."

Chalk one up for the forces of chaos and destruction.


NetDevil got its start in a Louisville basement in 1997 when Scott Brown, now the company president, and tech-whiz colleagues Ryan Seabury and Peter Grundy began developing Jumpgate. The space shooter was a relatively early example of a massively multiplayer online game, or MMOG, which allows thousands of players from around the globe to explore expansive virtual worlds at the same time, even interacting with one another.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner