Team members of LUPs - Lego Universe Partners were on hand at CES 2010 to show off Lego Universe together with Lego and NetDevil. These are adult volunteers that are assisting Lego and NetDevil to playtest and refine Lego Universe. The team number about 50 adult Lego builders and all were invited by Lego to participate in the LUP program to provide feedback and suggestions. I met Joel Hoornbeck who was happy to show me the Lego Digital Design program, a free download that's available from www.lego.com and how it was used and integrated into Lego Universe.
Targeted at boys aged eight to twelve, Lego Universe will also appeal to Lego fans who are gamers and perhaps MMO fans who also enjoy the building brick toy. To begin with, it's a PvE world. Much like many other Lego branded games such as Lego Star Wars and Lego Indiana Jones, you take on the persona of a Lego mini-fig and go about whacking Lego monsters which break down into component parts, some which can then be used to build other helpful objects such as a turret.
Darkling forces have damaged the happy world of Wonderland and you, the intrepid mini-fig have been called upon to defend your world, rebuild what has been destroyed and build more of the world. Lego Universe is very much a platforming style game and because of the target age, it is interesting to see how complex the world is for a kid's game. The UI is amazingly simple and tool-tips let you know when an object may be interacted with and all actions are accessed with the same key. Quests are the usual kill this, deliver that, but you won't see walls of text, just simple sentences and eventually some voice-over will be built into the game as well. Instead of a trail of breadcrumbs, NetDevil uses camera tricks such as a zoom to a location or NPC to show the player where he needs to go when he first accepts a quest. Binoculars in game allow players to get a closer look at the next area, and Lego animals abound, many tamable as long as you visit Pet Rock and learn the skill to acquire a pet.
There are three stats: life, armor and imagination. Imagination is gained as you explore, interact, build and even smash enemies, but it is also used in interaction and building objects. It definitely is similar to a "boost bar" that you fill in order to access special actions, which in Lego Universe, is the building of objects such as a bridge across the canyon or a tower to reach a higher level. It is also a social world and special rewards and actions can only be attained if you do things in-games with your friends. Players cannot build an item together, but coordinated efforts such as one building a platform and another building the next will yield special rewards. Some quests involve exploration, some involve mini-games and like all good adventures, side-quests are myriad and varied.
The goal of the game is exploration and players will likely develop pack-rat tendencies as everything that is dropped has a use. It may not be immediately apparent but as you explore an area, that banana you picked up just might be the enticement for that monkey to give you the key he's holding; the key that just might open up that door that just might lead to another fascinating area with plenty of quests.
There are no levels, but pieces you find that you can equip. Some equipment pieces contain skills and we activated a Pirate Hat's dance command in a circle of Alpha testers, complete with music, prompting other players to go, "How did you do that??" There is no death, but your mini-fig can get smashed and all you have to do is rebuild it and you spawn again in a safe location. You might lose a few coins and a few minutes of time, but your creative spark lives on to build again. Speaking of building, let's circle back to the Lego Digital Design program. In game, players gain bricks as rewards and loot drops. With them, they can build things, and they can display them in display showcases as well as in their own player properties. Not only that, there are Widgets, which are behaviors that can be applied to items in your property. In the demo, we saw a Lego windmill that turned slowly and a Lego elephant that circled it. We applied other behaviors such as the jump behavior which can be activated upon approach of a player or a click of the mouse. Behaviors are not consumed and as you gain them, may be re-used and layered on each other. Bricks however, are when used to build objects, but never fear, you can always break them down to reclaim your bricks.
Anyone who has ever played any of the Lego games will immediately find Lego Universe familiar. There are treasure chests to be smashed and looted, coins and bricks fly around, mini-figs get smashed with a rather horrifying scream (but kids just love that...) and get re-built, and there's so much to collect and so much to build.
Last but certainly not least, we saw many of the internet safety features built into the game. Parents can choose for their kids only to use and see menu-chat, all names go through moderation, and objects built for display will not be seen by anyone else until they have been optimized by the server and have passed a visual check. No, no bouncing phallic symbols ala Spore creatures in this world!