How Lego is using Doctor Who and The Simpsons to create the next big video game

Building a gaming empire, one brick at a time

In 2005, Nick Ricks started a new job at a then-little-known British game studio called TT Games. He’d previously worked at places like Lionhead and Bullfrog Productions, game studios where beloved titles like Dungeon Keeper and Fable were made, but he decided to make the move to TT for one very specific reason: “It was Lego,” he says. The same year Ricks joined the studio, TT released Lego Star Wars, a game that would fundamentally change the company. Games aimed at kids, and games based on licensed properties, don’t have the strongest track record, yet Lego Star Wars managed to be both and still have commercial and critical success. And the studio hasn’t slowed down — since the release of Lego Star Wars, TT has released 27 Lego video games. In 2007 the company was acquired by Warner Bros., and it now focuses on the brand full-time.

Later this month, though, TT will be breaking out of the formula that has brought it so much success, in favor of something more ambitious. Lego Dimensions, which launches on a range of platforms on September 27th, is a game that combines the Lego video games with actual Lego bricks and minifigs. It’s what’s known as a “toys-to-life” game, a new-but-lucrative genre that already features massive names like Skylanders, Disney Infinity, and Nintendo’s amiibo line. Because of this stiff competition, Dimensions is a game that has been in the works for a long time, with the studio starting work on the project eight years ago, while still continuing to pump out traditional Lego games simultaneously.

TT was founded in 1989 as Traveller’s Tales. Its first release was a fantasy-themed action game called Leander, but it wasn’t long before the developer started focusing on making games based on films and other licensed properties. 1994 saw the release of Mickey Mania on the Sega Genesis, and in the intervening years Traveller’s Tales worked with big-name publishers like Sega, Activision, and Disney, among others.

In 2005 the developer merged with publisher Giant Interactive to become TT Games, and that same year it prepared to launch a joint project with Lego and Star Wars studio Lucasarts. Given TT’s history, there was little reason to believe that Lego Star Wars would be anything more than a standard, forgettable tie-in video game. But Ricks says he saw the appeal straight away. "People thought that it would be a great Star Wars game, but perhaps they didn’t expect it to become the phenomenon that emerged," he says of the feeling at the studio at the time. "But as soon as I played the first Lego Star Wars game I could see how this could be continued to be adapted and expanded."

A large part of the franchise’s appeal is its sense of humor. It’s just plain funny to see serious characters like Darth Vader or the Joker or the T. rex from Jurassic Park rendered in Lego. "What we’ve found is the darker, or the more evil a character is, the more inherently humorous it is when it’s represented in Lego," Ricks says. The shift to Lego also means that the studio can have a lot of fun with things: when Batman punches a bad guy, they’ll crumble into a pile of bricks, and in Lego Jurassic World you can dig up dinosaur bones and turn them into a bridge to reach higher parts of the level. It’s the same appeal as The Lego Movie, except TT was doing it nearly a decade earlier.

The other part of the equation is the focus on cooperative play; these are games explicitly designed for parents to play with their kids. It’s a tough balance to strike, as kids games tend to be overly simplified to avoid frustration, which makes them boring for more experienced players. Outside of Nintendo, TT is one of the few developers that has managed to strike the right balance, and its games are consistently enjoyable and fresh. Each new property brings a new game element; the Star Wars games have a focus on vehicles and spaceships, for instance, while the Lord of the Rings games have an almost RPG-like structure.

Of course, much of the appeal also comes down to the properties themselves, franchises like Batman, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. Next year will see TT tackle Marvel with an Avengers title. The combination of humor, family play, and big names has made the franchise a success; the Lego games have sold more than 100 million copies as of last October, generating an estimated $2 billion in revenue.

Those are big numbers, but the toys-to-life space has even bigger potential. Skylanders is the biggest name in the genre, and since 2009 it has generated $3 billion, selling more than 250 million figures. Other competitors, meanwhile, have seen success, but on a smaller scale; as of March Nintendo says that it has sold 10.5 million amiibo figures.

Lego Dimensions will be looking to differentiate itself in a few ways. For starters, there’s the sheer number of diverse properties that will be smashed together in the game. Dimensions will include characters from:

  • Back to the Future
  • Doctor Who
  • The Simpsons
  • Portal 2
  • Ghostbusters
  • Jurassic World
  • Scooby Doo
  • Batman
  • The Lego Movie
  • Lord of the Rings
  • The Wizard of Oz

It’s a huge range, and likely to grow bigger as new expansions and add-ons are announced. (If you’re wondering why Star Wars, the franchise TT built its name on, isn’t included, it’s because Disney just launched its own Star Wars-based toys-to-life game.)

The other feature that makes Dimensions different is that the game uses actual Lego bricks and figures. The base game will include Batman, Wildstyle, and Gandalf minifigs, along with a Batmobile and a portal used to scan characters and vehicles into the video game. The car and portal are made of standard Lego bricks and pieces that you put together yourself. Characters and vehicles rest on an NFC-enabled base so you can scan them using the portal, and more will be sold separately.

According to Ricks, one of the big reasons the game has been in the works for so long is the R&D required to create new Lego sets that would work with the game. They have to work as toys and be small enough for a child to play with, but they also need to fit alongside other Lego sets on the portal, so the vehicles you build can’t be especially large or unwieldy. And since each vehicle has three different variations, this took a lot of testing. "Everything has been exhaustively tested by the Lego Group," he says, "ensuring that there’s the right balance." All of the Lego sets you see in the game started life as real toy bricks.

The appeal is obvious, but that’s not a guarantee of success. Instrument-based music games were once gaming’s hottest genre before players became burnt out on buying lots of plastic instruments. The same could happen for toy games, too, now that there are hundreds of millions of plastic figures already out there. Lego is also coming to the game very late, as Skylanders launched in 2009, while Disney Infinity followed up in 2013. Families that are already invested in one series — full games cost upwards of $60, while individual figures are around $13 each — are unlikely to want to take on another expensive hobby.

That said, the Lego brand has proven very resilient. Last year it overtook Hasbro to become the biggest toy company in the world, and while The Lego Movie seemed like a strange idea at the time, it went on to gross more than $468 million. If there’s any company that could enter the toys-to-life field so late and still be a success, it’s probably Lego. "We’re just concentrating on what we know, and what we do best, and what Lego does best," Ricks says of the market.

Outside of Dimensions, TT is also continuing to grow Lego video games in different ways. There are still traditional TT-style Lego games like Lego Avengers in the works, but next year the studio will also launch Lego Worlds, a creativity-focused game that looks more than a little bit like Minecraft. (While the full launch isn’t until next year, Worlds is currently available as an "early access" game on Steam.) It’s not clear what form the Lego games will take in a few years time, but there’s a pretty good chance they’ll still be around one way or another.

"I think we’ll be crafting Lego games until I’ve got great grandchildren and long grey hair," Ricks says.