Today LEGO Universe will shut down after being live for 15 months. The product is beautiful, and many good designers, engineers and animators poured their hearts into bringing it to life. From afar it appears that an unfortunate combination of organizational issues, high expectations, and complexity may have all contributed to the shutdown.
The dream of LEGO Universe was captured in early press releases and video trailers. Trailers showed a bustling city made of LEGO, with vehicles, monsters, and highly engaged mini-figs. Demonstrations of “creating” were also very cool, with virtual translucent blue-prints and lightning fast vehicle construction. Users were captivated by the dream, and soon the press was talking about how the game might be bigger than World of Warcraft.
This early press, coupled with LEGO’s incredibly strong brand, must have put enormous pressure on the development team at NetDevil. Everything LEGO does is so exacting, and this game’s expectations were held up to the same standards. These high expectations coupled with LEGO’s quality ethic may have made it difficult to ship the game earlier (and then iterate). It was over two and a half years from when the game was first announced until shipping in October, 2010.
It also appears that the target may have shifted during this period to include more creation and building, as can be seen by the late inclusion of a building interface similar to LEGO’s Digital Designer CAD system.
An MMO or online destination is very different than a PSIII or Xbox360 game. The MMO must “run forever”. This creates a tricky relationship when working with a 3rd party. Because LEGO’s quality and safety standards are so high, it must have been difficult to completely hand off the reigns. When NetDevil was purchased by Gazillion, LEGO had to work with both Gazillion and NetDevil. LEGO Group eventually acquired LEGO Universe from Gazillion and hired many of the core team in February 2011, possibly as a way to simplify these issues.
A complex dream
The dream of LEGO Universe brought with it technical complexity. An MMO with building and moderation is more complicated than a boxed console game. LEGO Universe was built on the Gamebryo engine, included physics simulation from Havok, and seemed to be integrated with existing LEGO CAD tools. In addition, servers were required, and a moderation system. User creations also had to be uploaded to a server-side “baking engine” of some sort to convert them to in-game objects. This complexity requires many developers, which in turn may have caused organizational overhead.
Honesty and transparency
LEGO Universe can be viewed as a successful MMO, albeit one that had extremely high product and revenue expectations. It is possible that these expectations could just not be met. In the end, LEGO responded with an extremely honest and transparent shutdown.
LEGO had losses in 2003 and 2004, but returned to profitability in 2005. The introduction of branded products such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones in 2007 brought double-digit growth. Today, LEGO is as strong as ever, with net sales up 25% in the first half of 2011. The shutdown of LEGO Universe was most likely very difficult, but it may be a sign of an agile and adaptive LEGO.