On the surface, it seems like The Lego Group is chasing a well-established trend with its new toys-to-life franchise.
Thereâ€™s nothing new about the genre, in which you can swipe real-life plastic doodads to unlock new characters and bonus features inside of a virtual playspace. (The first Skylanders game appeared in 2011.) Itâ€™s not even new to see a toy to life franchise that mixes up various media propertiesâ€”Nintendoâ€™s Amiibo line brings together characters from all of its franchises, and Disney Infinity offers toys representing all facets of its vast stable of intellectual properties.
But there has never, ever been anything like Lego Dimensions, available Sunday on multiple platforms. It mixes and matches elements of blockbuster IPs with the heedless abandon of a fanfic author hopped up on Pixie Stix and Mountain Dew.
This game doesnâ€™t just bring together characters and props and settings from its own franchises, like Chima and Ninjago and The Lego Movie. It mashes together Batman, Gandalf, and Homer Simpson. Doctor Who and Scooby Doo. Thereâ€™s a velociraptor from Jurassic Park, a companion cube from Portal, and a winged monkey from The Wizard of Oz. They can jump behind the wheel of the DeLorean from Back to the Future, the Ecto-1 from Ghostbusters, and the G-6155 from the arcade classic Spy Hunter.
It is a miracle of commerce, a prodigy of cross-branding. Media companies are usually very protective of the sanctity of their IPsâ€“they donâ€™t want to cross the streams, as it were. The fact that so many rights-holders signed on to this daft project is a testament not just to the clout of Lego, but to that of the Lego games franchise created by Manchester studio Travellerâ€™s Tales. What began as a branded toy tie-in has become a ridiculously successful brand in its own right.
May the Jokes Be With You
A decade ago, Travellerâ€™s Tales was tasked with doing a game based on a successful line of Star Wars Lego toys. The game they produced followed the action beats of the trilogy, but the heroes occasionally had to pause and build weapons and tools out of bricks, or make tongue-in-cheek gags at the expense of the source material.
â€œIt was the first official parody of a massive license,â€ says John Burton, co-founder of Travellerâ€™s Tales. â€œItâ€™s making fun of itself in a knowing way, but without diminishing the brand.â€ (This was long before Phineas and Ferb, Robot Chicken, and Family Guy did their Star Wars crossovers.)
Lego Star Wars sold millions of copies. Since then, the team has pumped out Legofied versions of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Pirates of the Caribbean, Lord of the Rings, Marvel and DC superheroes, Harry Potter, and Jurassic Park.
Whatâ€™s the secret to the franchiseâ€™s appeal? Look at Lego Gandalf. He has maize-yellow skin, a squat squared-off torso, and a ridiculous waddling gate. â€œBut he truly believes that he is the Gandalf, just like Buzz Lightyear believes that heâ€™s an actual a Space Ranger,â€ says Burton.
The devs also took pains to license every bit of the movies, so Lego Gandalf sounds exactly like Sir Ian McKellen, and Howard Shoreâ€™s booming score accompanies him wherever he goes.
â€œYou add the right music, the right sound effects, the right voices, and these cute little characters that are so endearing and funny are also somehow veryâ€¦official,â€ Burton says.
Travellerâ€™s Talesâ€™ Lego games have sold a combined 120 million units, and that was before the release of Lego Jurassic World, which was the best-selling game in the U.S. during the month of July.
Along the way, the games have introduced many to the toy line. â€œLego has had double digit profit growth for the last ten years, which just so happens to coincide with when we launched the games,â€ says Burton.
â€œAnd things have gotten more synergistic with Lego. When we did the first Star Wars game, our character designs were based on the existing toys. By the time we did a DC Comics game, someone on my team noticed that the Harley Quinn character model we designed for the game is the exact one they eventually used for the toy.â€
Lego Dimensions is the logical extension of Travellerâ€™s Talesâ€™ success, a chance to bring together some of its favorite franchises that werenâ€™t new enough, or big enough, to build a standalone game around.
â€œWe made a list of the best franchises that we wanted to have in the game,â€ says Burton. â€œWhen you can sell a toy pack branded Back to the Future, then from a financial point of view, Universal will feel more comfortable.â€
The pitch worked, over and over. â€œBarring one licenser, everyone we talked to said yes,â€ says Burton. (He didnâ€™t name the abstainer, but Disney would seem the shoo-in candidate, given that Star Wars and Marvel have been key Lego crossover franchises in the past but that the company makes its own toys-to-life game, Infinity.)
They decisions were made based on which characters and settings had the most potential for fun gameplay. But people at Travellerâ€™s Tales also knew that they were essentially wishing new physical Lego toy lines into existence.
â€œPart of the motivation was that I really wanted to own a Lego Doctor Who and Tardis!â€ says Burton. â€œI want a Lego version of Chell from Portal!â€ If you see Lego DeLoreans and Lego Ecto-1s adorning cubicles around your office, you have Travellerâ€™s Tales to thank.
Lego also coaxed (or cajoled or money-hatted) superstar voice talent for the game. Christopher Lloyd will voice Doc Brown. Elizabeth Banks and Chris Pratt will reprise their roles from The Lego Movie. Dan Castallaneta and Nancy Cartwright will voice Homer and Bart Simpson. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman will appear as the 12th Doctor and Clara. (All of the other doctors will be playable, but with archival voice footage.)
Ultimately, Burton says, the big design constraints with Lego Dimensions werenâ€™t the licensing hurdlesâ€”they were the limits of real-life Lego toys. The Lego Batmobile has to move the way it would if it were actually made of Legos.
â€œWeâ€™ve always tried to be very honest to the brick,â€ says Burton.