Interview – Doug Heder, Executive Producer of LEGO Dimensions

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LEGO Dimensions - Sonic the Hedgehog

Doug Heder, the executive producer of LEGO Dimensions, happened to be in town for the launch of LEGO Dimensions Year 2. This new batch of content releases begun this week, with six new packs available for purchase. Doug was gracious enough to spare some time to answer a few questions we had about the game and its development.

MA: So Year 2 of the game just started this week, what were the biggest lessons that the team learnt from Year 1 that you applied to Year 2?

DH: I think the first thing you notice when you pop on any of the new expansion packs – whether that’s a Fun Pack, Team Pack, Level Pack, or Story Pack – like last year each of these packs unlocks a new Adventure World, however the Adventure Worlds are bigger this time around, there’s more content and locations to explore, and we were excited that we were able to bring in interior spaces that you can discover. Some of these are hidden spaces that you have to either complete a puzzle to unlock, or maybe there’s just a door. If you happen to turn down the right alley or street, you could discover you’re suddenly in an entirely new space. So it’s fun for us to be able to add more content to the spaces, and give players even more value in our packs. That’s a feature that’s consistent among all our packs, each gives you access to an Adventure World for that specific brand.

The other big thing I would say that’s from direct feedback from our audience and fans last year was that we had some inconsistencies in the size of the levels that we offered in our different Level Packs, and we’ve been able to, without having to worry about a full game sequel on a disc like we did last year, we were able to put more attention and resources toward these levels to make them more consistent. We’ve effectively doubled the size of each level that comes in the Level Packs, so giving more value. The price of the Level Packs hasn’t changed but we’re giving you more content in each of those packs.

And of course, if you get one of the new Story Packs there’s tons of new content in there. You get six levels in each of these new Story Packs. Those levels are also integrated into their Adventure Worlds, so it gives you more of an open world game experience.

MA: Year 2 builds off the original starter pack rather than introducing a whole new game or starter pack, what made you settle on this manner of distribution?

DH: We, from the very start, wanted to try something different. This was an experiment for us. We wanted to see if we could find a new way to recreate the system of play that LEGO is so famous for. The LEGO toy company has built this incredibly system of toys that, if you bought a set from 30 years ago, that same set will still play with the sets that you buy today – they’re interchangeable. What’s even more fun, is that say 30 years ago I bought one of the classic castle or city sets, now I can get sets from Star Wars, or Batman – any number of different entertainment products out there – and these toys all play together. Nothing’s stopping me from mixing and matching all these sets together. So that was the inspiration for LEGO Dimensions – can we find a way to recreate that experience that kids are having with their physical toys and bring It into the gaming environment. We’re also looking into the space of what the Toys to Life category in general is doing. We wanted to avoid the need to have to go reinvest in new hardware each year. We really wanted to make a commitment to our audience that this was an initial investment – you bought the Starter Pack that gives you the basic tools to get into this experience. Obviously there’s a ton of gameplay just within this experience, there’s a lot of value there. But beyond that, you don’t need to rebuy a disc or new hardware, it’s just about the expansion. By not putting rules around those expansions it allows the audience to purchase in a similar manner to how they would purchase those toys in a physical collection. If you want to get one of those higher prices sets that comes with more gameplay content or toys, you can do that. But there’s nothing forcing you to do that – if you just want to spend $10 and get one of the smaller packs and still open some great gameplay content, you can do that too. So it gives the player much more choice into how they expand their own game.

MA: One of the big features of Dimensions is the way the Toy Pad interacts with the game with all the different Keystone mechanics, what was your approach to designing this kind of gameplay without making it too gimmicky?

DH: A lot of that starts with intuition and imagination [laughs] You start with an idea and you prototype it, and you start to test it. You put real world kids on it – and adults, quite frankly – playing it, trying it, iterating on it until it feels right. It feels fun, it works, people are enjoying it. That’s the same process for any game, but especially when you’re looking in that kind of space, when you’re trying to think outside the box a little bit and introduce a new idea of how to interact between your physical toy and your digital games. So there was a lot of work put into that, and we’re just at the beginning of what that Toy Pad functionality can do. As you know, from the Starter Pack there were 5 different Toy Pad modes that were unlocked through game progression. We’re adding new modes this year from the different expansion packs, particularly through the Story Packs tied into the different waves. There was the Ghostbusters pack this week, we’ve got the Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them pack coming in November, and then we’ve got the LEGO Batman Movie Story Pack coming out next year. Each of those packs, the size of the content and the number of levels within them allows us to roll out those new features within those packs. If you play the Ghostbusters pack then you’re actually going to unlock some new Keystones and new Toy Pad abilities through that, as you will with the other Story Packs. So it’s a system that we continue to build upon and evolve as we create new content for the game – and we still haven’t fully tapped into the potential of that hardware, so it’s something we continue to look at and think “How can we do more? How can we make it better?”

MA: Another way that the toys interact with the game is the vehicles – each one has three different forms, and you can build each of these forms using the same physical LEGO bricks – how do the game designers and the LEGO designers collaborate on that?

DH: We have our own internal LEGO designers here at TT Games – they’re licensed Master Builders [laughs] These guys are the real deal, they know their LEGO bricks backwards and forwards and are fully part of our team at TT Games. These guys come with a lot of ideas with that expertise and speciality of working in the LEGO space. We’ve had that for a long time – a lot of our games include a lot of original LEGO models, including our licensed games. Everything you see built out of LEGO in a LEGO game is something that you could physically build out of real life LEGO bricks. None of it’s cheated in the game, that’s a pillar rule for us. You see it, and it’s built out of real LEGO? You can build it in the real world. We have that sort of DNA built into our company culture, but when we came onto making LEGO Dimensions, there’s that part of LEGO Company that we worked very, very closely with. The process starts where we come up with different versions and try to select which brands and properties are going to come into the next wave. That’s a collaboration between the three companies – TT Games, Warner Bros. Games and LEGO – so we work together on that and once we’ve narrowed down that list of brands and we have a good idea of which character gets released in that pack, then we start to work on the vehicle – what makes sense from a brand point of view? We make sure that the initial item that comes with that character is iconic for that character or that brand. You wouldn’t expect to see Harry Potter with a spaceship, you want to see something that represents the brand of Harry Potter, right?

So we start there, but then of course once you’ve got outside of that first model, anything goes. Nothing is of the table and you let your imagination go wild. Suffice to say, we go through a lot of iterations – there’s a lot of models that were cut from the gameplay perspective because even though it can turn into something cool, not every model translates into compelling gameplay. That’s a screening process that we have to go through – if that were to be the second or third model, what does it mean, what kind of abilities could it have and does it make sense? Is it fun? We get a lot of cool models that have to be scrapped because they just don’t translate to good gameplay. The designers at LEGO are incredible at how fast they’re able to come up with alternate models. It’s like, are you literally just dreaming of these in your sleep? These guys just eat, sleep and breathe LEGO creativity, it’s incredible. It’s a fun process for sure, but there’s a lot of steps through it, a lot of people involved, and a lot of steps we have to go through before things get finalised.

 LEGO Dimensions - Adventure Time

MA: On that process of deciding on brands for the game, what does LEGO deem appropriate and inappropriate for their audience? Gremlins is known for being a super violent kid’s movie, so I was equal parts excited and surprised to see that one revealed

DH: Yeah, LEGO’s been great, going outside the normal boundaries of the LEGO IP. That said, I think yeah maybe Gremlins has a bit of that reputation but it’s also a property that’s almost 30 years old, and I think the standards are a bit different from back then [laughs] You go back and look at those films and, as great as they are, there’s a nostalgic factor there. Every title that we bring into the world of LEGO is going to get its own LEGO interpretation. If we’re recreating a scene from a film and a character dies… you know, LEGO characters never die. We always adapt the moment to make it light-hearted and funny. That’s one of the important aspects of LEGO games in general. And you’re not going to see any violence or gore in a LEGO game, it’s never going to be that. It’s always going to take the property and adapt it in a way that’s in the spirit of the original brand, and keep all the sensibilities in mind. So we do have to think about that when selecting the different brands that come into the game – how far do we have to adapt it? Is it so far that suddenly it doesn’t feel like it’s in that same world? It’s something to poke fun at a little bit, like spoiler alert – when Han Solo dies in The Force Awakens

MA: [gasps]

DH: …in LEGO form we’re going to have some fun with that moment so it’s not a traditional death moment in the story. But you know, one change like that is ok, but if you have to make that change, say 20 times? Suddenly maybe it feels like you’re not telling the same story anymore. And maybe that’s where that particular brand doesn’t work. So you have to just look at that and see how much adaptation you have to make, and whether it’s still in the spirit of that original brand. That’s something we pride ourselves on very much at TT Games and WB Games, we keep things authentic and stay true to them while serving the needs of the LEGO franchise as well. But we’ve been doing that for a while and people just kind of get it.

MA: Yeah, I think it’s fair to say you’ve had a bit of success with that [laughs]

DH: So yeah, I don’t think we’ll be seeing any Mature titles coming into the LEGO space.

MA: No LEGO Mad Max then?

DH: [laughs] Right, right

MA: So when you’re working with these rights-holders, do they take a very hands-on approach? Or do they sort of just let you go free to do whatever you want?

DH: It really depends on each brand. Each partner is different, no two are alike and the collaboration with each is unique. We have a good track record from past LEGO titles, and that gives our partners a lot of trust in us and I think we’re afforded a lot of leeway. We present our first draft, if you will, of the game to our partners and we work together to ensure there isn’t any detail that doesn’t make sense or doesn’t feel a part of that world. Or in some cases, the partner is able to give us information we didn’t know going in! Little behind the scenes knowledge of how something came to be in that world. You’d be surprised that sometimes that helps us understand the DNA of that property even better and helps us make our game even better. Sometimes we can throw in a little Easter Egg to that fact. As a simple example, if you go into the Back to the Future Adventure World from LEGO Dimensions, you can walk around downtown Hill Valley. The film on the marquee in the original movie was Jaws. Well in our game when you walk by that banner, even though a holographic shark does pop out, the name there doesn’t read ‘Jaws’, it reads ‘ Bruce’. And that’s a little insider joke – Bruce was the name Steven Spielberg gave to the mechanical shark when they were filming the story. And I believe he named it after his attorney [laughs[ That was a little inside joke that fans who followed the Back to the Future or Jaws properties will know, but the general population doesn’t. It’s a fun little nod and homage to the inside jokes we find throughout the process.

MA: One of Year 2’s new features is the inclusion of Battle Arenas, how did that idea come about?

DH: We’ve always had two player co-op in the games, where whether you’re sharing the screen or splitting the screen we’ve had that in LEGO games since the beginning with great success. I think that’s even a core tenet where parents and kids or friends can enjoy that experience co-operatively on the couch. The question just came up naturally when we were developing LEGO Dimensions. Kids, and adults, whenever you put two characters on the Toy Pad, what’s the first thing everybody does

MA: They bash each other to bits!

DH: [laughs] Right! Everybody does it! Before we even had a Batman v Superman movie we had people putting Batmand and Superman toys down to see who would win. It’s just somewhere everybody’s imagination naturally goes – who’s better? Would Harry Potter or Gandalf win in a fight? Two powerful wizards from their respective brands. So seeing that happened over a number of weeks, we decided we had to do something with it. How can we reward players for doing this and make it part of the experience? That’s where the idea of Battle Arenas comes from, it’s something that was already in the DNA of the games. People always did it, now we’re just giving you a form to do it in [laughs]

LEGO Dimensions - Mission Impossible Battle Arena

MA: The other big addition to Year 2 is that instead of a main storyline we’ve got different Story Packs that follow the plot of movies. Why the decision to move to a focus more on individual properties rather than a big mash-up story?

DH: Honestly, we’d already started working on Story Packs while we were finishing the story levels from the Starter Pack, so there was a lot of overlap between the two. Our content doesn’t all come out at one time, everything’s sort of staggered within the studio and how we work on everything. We have a lot of activities going on in parallel, so from a practical side we weren’t entirely sure where the story was headed in Year 1 when we started to work on these new Story Packs. That said – the Story Packs are kind of a new feature, a new tier of expansion and… we’ll see how it goes. That’s not to say we wouldn’t do more of the main story moving forward, this is just something we wanted to try and do now. And as you play through those… I won’t spoil anything but there are hints within each Story Pack of what’s going on within that crossover storyline. So there are hints, and there is a future for Lord Vortech! We just don’t know yet and we haven’t talked about that yet [laughs]

MA: Yeah, that post-credits scene from the end of Year 1 is driving people NUTS [laughs]

DH: [laughs] Wellll, all I can say is you’ll have to wait and see

MA: So there’s going to be some answers to what that was about this year?

DH: I’m not going to make any promises [laughs]

MA: We’ll have to wait and see! So one final question – the game has two promotional characters, Green Arrow and Supergirl. I think it’s fair to say that there’s been a negative reaction to how they’ve been handled, will this have an effect on the way you guys approach special figures in the future?

DH: We’ve always got an interest in how people are reacting to things, we’ve certainly got a motivation to do anything to reward players and give them fun things to look forward to. No-one’s looking to block anybody from getting game content, that’s for sure. Look, I can tell you that we’ve seen all that feedback and it’s at the forefront of our minds. Take that for what it’s worth, there’s going to be programs… I can’t say a lot just now because a lot of it’s unannounced, but we definitely want to get these characters into as many players’ hands as possible. We’re trying to do that in any way we can. [laughs]

MA: I’m sure those words will cool the flames a little bit [laughs]

DH: There’s also those players who go to great lengths to come and visit at us different events where these exclusives pop up, and we want to reward these players too. We’re definitely not going to be selling them, I can tell you that much – we’re not going to sell them individually at any time. That’s not going to change, we’re not putting them into a pack that we sell on a retail shelf, but we’re looking at ways we can help to share these characters with different people.

LEGO Dimensions - Red Lantern Supergirl

 

LEGO Dimensions Wave 6 is available for purchase now, and you can keep up with all future releases by checking out our calendar.

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