Disney gave up on its Infinity games earlier this year, but Warner Bros. is forging ahead in the battle for the toys-to-life market with Lego Dimensions, which combines Lego toys with big entertainment brands and funny Lego video games.
In a war with market leader Skylanders and other rivals, Warner’s TT Games division has continued to release a bunch of new toys and games for Lego Dimensions fans. A new starter pack, dubbed Wave 6, is available now for $80-90 with a bunch of new characters and intellectual properties. Arthur Parsons, the game director for Lego Dimensions, is responsible for the new waves, which will keep on coming through 2017. I got a demo of the latest wave and interviewed Parsons in San Francisco this week.
Parsons believes that innovation will keep Lego Dimensions thriving in the market, where consumers are getting a bit tired of shelling out a lot of money for the hybrid toy-game combinations. Lego Dimensions products come with figures, vehicles, and gadgets that can be reassembled into different toys. And the games are full of Lego humor that appeals to all ages, he said. And this year, players will be able to play on a couch with three friends in a split-screen head-to-head battle experience. You can mix and match characters any way you want or pursue the new story campaigns for story packs such as Harry Potter or Ghostbusters.
Will it be enough for another successful holiday season? Parsons is betting on it. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Arthur Parsons: We have 16 new [intellectual properties] coming. Here are a few of them. The ones coming first are Adventure Time, Harry Potter, the Mission Impossible level pack, the Ghostbusters story pack, and the A-Team fun pack. As we head in to November we have Fantastic Beasts, Gremlins, Sonic of course, as well as the E.T. fun pack. After that we have the Lego Batman movie. That’s another story pack. We’ve got Goonies, Powerpuff Girls, Teen Titans Go, and some other bits and pieces coming through next year. It’s about Lego Dimensions 2 being a big addition onto the starter pack, which I’m sure you’re familiar with.
GamesBeat: How many toys does that make altogether?
Parsons: That’s a difficult one. I can’t remember the exact number of packs in year one. I think there are 22 packs in year two. It’s quite a few. It all revolves around that starter pack, though. We’re not asking you to buy another game pad. It’s the same game pad that you get in the starter pack. Here we just have it dressed with a Ghostbusters-themed portal, which is included in the Ghostbusters story pack that comes out next week.
The Battle Arena is something new for year two. If you buy the E.T. pack with the gold tag, aside from unlocking an adventure world for E.T., it’ll unlock an arena. That’s a new four-player multiplayer mode. Every year two pack comes with a unique arena.
This is the area where you would have accessed all the adventure worlds in year one. DC and Scooby Doo and Portal and Doctor Who, all those core IPs. These 16 new IPs for year two, we have this extra area hidden in the back, and that’s where you can access all the new content. The idea with year two is that the game has just gotten bigger. There are no restrictions. All the toys work together and can be taken anywhere. We’re not stopping you taking Gremlins into Harry Potter or Sonic into Adventure Time.
This is the new Harry Potter adventure world. It has a bit of something from every book and movie. You can go to the Ministry of Magic, down through the phone box like in the movie. The Chamber of Secrets is hidden down there. If you’re a Potter fan, there’s a load of content to explore and find. Quests with Hagrid or Luna Lovegood. Neville’s somewhere hidden away. We’ve tried to make all the worlds as big as we possibly can.
There’s a mixture of gameplay in the hubs. We have some quests, some races, but it’s about exploration. The more that players explore, the more they’ll uncover and find. All sorts of nods to the fiction. There’s puzzles in here where you can do various bits and pieces for rewards like gold bricks, find a variety of secret interiors. I can come into the great hall. Depending on when you come in, there are three different variations, all based on an element of randomness. There’s a Halloween version, a winter version, and a candlelit version.
Each of these characters you get—take Harry and Voldemort, which you get in the Harry Potter team pack. They all have different abilities. Harry can cast several spells you might imagine, Expecto Patronum and so on.
With these IPs, you have everything from shows that are popular on the Cartoon Network now, back to ‘80s stuff like A-Team, Knight Rider, Goonies, Gremlins. It’s a diverse mix for year two. We found that our audience—there isn’t a specific audience for Dimensions. It’s anyone and everyone, hence why there’s so much variation in the range.
GamesBeat: Is the tone still generally light and humorous?
Parsons: Oh, of course. Everything that applies to the stand-alone Lego games is carried through into Dimensions. Even with something like Mission Impossible, it’s still very light-hearted, very tongue-in-cheek. It’s all fun and whimsical. Something like Mission Impossible, we’re retelling the story from the very first Mission Impossible movie, but you’ll also get access to an adventure world that features content from all the other movies, plus an arena.
But no, it wouldn’t be a Lego game without it being more of a parody. It’s an authentic parody, but it’s still a parody.
GamesBeat: Do you think that variety of gameplay is something where you’re trying to separate yourself from other toys-to-life games?
Parsons: I think so. There’s a number of areas where we’re trying to distinguish ourselves. First and foremost we’re a toys to life game where the toys are toys. Every one of these toys, you have to build it. It comes in pieces like you’d expect from Lego. There’s a very strong focus on rebuilding. Every one of these vehicles rebuilds into like three different things from the same bricks. Even though that’s the Hogwarts Express in its default build, it builds into two other vehicles. We’re encouraging people to play with that. We do a lot of gameplay on the game pad as well, moving the characters around based on different mechanics you come across.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like the sector is in need of a morale boost after Disney’s exit?
Parsons: As a developer I was more sad than anything else, yeah. A lot of people there lost their jobs. It’s an unfortunate part of the business. But for us, our plans weren’t affected. We had a three-year plan with Lego Dimensions. We’re just carrying on doing what we were going to do.
It’s always been about giving people that starter pack. They buy that and that’s all they need for their journey. Then they can pick and choose whatever toys they want. If they’re into Fantastic Beasts, they’ll buy that pack. Hopefully they’ll buy all of them. [laughs] But there’s no requirement. You buy whatever packs interest you.
You can see we’ve put a lot of effort into getting the minifigures as unique and authentic as possible. Gremlins might not be something eight-year-old kids know, but their parents will, and they can experience that with their kids through Lego Dimensions.
GamesBeat: Is there any way around the inventory challenge that Disney talked about? On the toy side, you have to figure out which toys to stock and so on.
Parsons: We’re probably lucky there, because you have to remember, we’re working with Lego. Lego know their stuff when it comes to selling toys. We have a great relationship with them at TT. We’ve been working together since 2004. We rely on their expertise and the expertise of our colleagues at Warner Bros. As a developer, having that to fall back on, we can just concentrate on making a great game.
We were obviously last into the toys to life market. It’s about making a compelling experience, though. If the experience is right then people will buy the toys. If a toy sells out we’ll have to make some more. Thankfully we have some clever people who do the number-crunching.
GamesBeat: Is there a difference in how you’ve approached this new year? Activision seems to always introduce new tech each year. This year, it’s the personalized toys.
Parsons: We wanted to build on what we started with, that huge number of IPs from year one. We always had a plan to come with more IPs, because what game allows you to have Batman and Harry Potter and Ethan Hunt and E.T., just popping these toys in and having fun with them? We’re the game that has no rules. You can interact with anything.
But at the same time, we still innovate. The adventure world you saw with Harry Potter is a huge open world. We’re also offering huge levels in terms of the level content. We’re bringing the four-player mode. That’s separate from the main game, but it allows you to take any of your toys into the arenas.
As I say, every pack comes with a unique arena. You can play each one on its own or you can string a tournament together. I think there’s 22 altogether. I’ll be Finn from Adventure Time. The AI can pick some others. There are four different modes – base bash, tic-tac-boom, objective mode, or capture the flag. I’ll do base bash, and we’ll go and do the A-Team world.
We’re still innovating. There are new pack types this year, the story pack. Every one of those has two new game pad mechanics, revolving around the player moving their items around on the game pad to proceed. We see that as a controller. It’s not just a method you use to place things in the world.
GamesBeat: How many studios work on this now?
Parsons: At TT we have ourselves, Traveller’s Tales in Knutsford, and then there’s our sister studio, TT Fusion. They’re based in Wilmsford, just down the road from us. They recently did the Lego Star Wars: Force Awakens game. We’re using one of their smaller teams to help us out on the Lego Batman Movie pack, because they did the Lego Movie game. They have the experience of working with the filmmakers. But we have pretty much the whole Knutsford office on Dimensions at the moment.
It’s definitely a multi-team property. We have more staff on year two than we had on year one. We’re trying to deliver a bigger, better experience.
GamesBeat: Do you have anybody in Salt Lake, where Disney was?
Parsons: No, we’re all based in the U.K., except for our Warner Bros. contingent in Burbank. We couldn’t really absorb any of those people, which is a shame. We’re always on the lookout for talented people.
This is one of the modes. You see it all becomes a bit hectic. I’m actually dead. I’m in the top left quadrant there. But even though I’m out of the game, I can still influence how it pans out. You can see there’s all sorts of pickups and power-ups and collectibles. The idea is that this is just a fun extra mode. If at any time the other guys have a better character than mine, I can go and tag, put another character on, and switch to being E.T., for example. There are traps and puzzles. I can handicap other people if I really want to.
It’s almost a bit like Mario Kart, really, with the power-ups and so on. But the idea is that this sits alongside the main game and allows people—even if they’ve found every collectible after however many hours, they can keep playing with this mode.
GamesBeat: Do you have any statistics as far as average hours played per pack?
Parsons: It’s very difficult to put a time on that. We have so many different packs. You have the main base game and starter pack, which is a huge game in itself. It’s probably the biggest game we’ve ever made. These other packs, something like the Ghostbusters story pack, that’s a huge amount of time. I couldn’t put a number on it, but it’s a full movie experience plus the adventure world. To unlock everything would take a long time.
The level packs are a bit smaller, just one level, but it’s still an immersive experience. Those are probably around four to six hours. And you can take those toys into any other part of the game. There’s an awful lot of gameplay to be had. On top of which—say, for example, you bought Harry Potter and your friend didn’t. You can take your Harry Potter toys to his place, put them on his game pad, and play those together with him.
Who exactly is winning this? Is the AI winning this? I think so. But you can see the feeling we’re going for. The idea is that it’s just something fun that people can play again and again outside the game. It comes from watching people play our games and seeing that—they’re in one of our stand-alones, doing puzzles and fighting bad guys, but they always end up fighting each other when they play co-op. We thought we’d harness that in its own mode. We spent a lot of time focus-testing it with kids, just to make sure the balance of fun and frustration was just right.
GamesBeat: It seems like there are not as many split-screen games these days.
Parsons: No. I have kids myself, and it’s really hard to find games that I can play with them like this. We play quite a lot of Rocket League at the moment. But good kids’ games are quite difficult to find. Ratchet and Clank is a great game, but it’s single-player.
We’re hoping that parents and kids, if they didn’t pick up Dimensions last year, they’ll see something the like here – Adventure Time, Sonic – and that’ll draw them in. The response to year one was great. Everyone seemed to love the game. We made a promise to carry on adding to it and that’s why we’re here with year two.
When we work on the stand-alone games—we did this in Lego Batman 3. We had a whole ‘60s Batman level. The idea with that was, we know kids play the game with their parents quite a lot. Being able to play something an adult grew up with and share that with your kids, it resonates really well. Taking that into Dimensions, we know kids may not be aware of the Goonies or A-Team or Knight Rider or Gremlins or E.T. But it’s a way of bringing parents and kids together.
We don’t want kids going into the bedroom and locking themselves away to play the game on their own. This is about sitting on a sofa together and having fun. Kind of the stuff I did when I was a kid. I’d sit and play Sensible Soccer with my dad, that sort of thing. Now, being able to do that with a toys to life game—adults are going to want to play this. The adult fanbase for Harry Potter is huge. And now enough time has passed that it’s new to a generation of young children.
The Goonies, there will be kids that never watched it, but hopefully they’ll play the level pack in Lego Dimensions and then go and watch the movie. It’s a great movie, one of my favorites. That’s why this offering is so diverse. Sonic is an iconic video game character, so bringing him into Lego Dimensions was another no-brainer. That has fans of all ages as well. There are people who played Sonic like I did on the Mega Drive, and people who watched Sonic Boom on TV just now.
GamesBeat: Is the approach to doing these characters in Dimensions very different from doing a standalone Lego game?
Parsons: We take what we learned from those and apply it to Dimensions. We’re never going to get to make an entire Lego Beetlejuice game, but we have Beetlejuice in Lego Dimensions because it’s a cool iconic movie. It adds some complementary diversity to the range. We’ll never get to make an A-Team game. But at the same time you have something like Harry Potter where we’ve already made two full games. Those have just been remastered. They’ll be out in a few weeks. We can obviously bring that into Dimensions. There’s a strong mix.
Again, there will be people who are new to Dimensions this year and they’ll pick it up because of, say, Fantastic Beasts. Then they’ll go back and maybe pick up Doctor Who or Portal or Scooby-Doo. There’s a lot of choice for the gamer out there.
For every IP we treat it like a stand-alone. Authenticity is key, along with fun. Whether it’s an E.T. fun pack or a Ghostbusters story pack, we go as deep as we can into the property and use as much content as possible. Someone that’s a fan of Adventure Time, they’ll want to have the Lumpy Space Princess and B-MO and all the little jokes and nods from the show. When they’re playing it they’ll be reminded of this episode or that gag.
It’s the same with every single property. Something like Knight Rider, there are lots of nods to individual episodes. Someone like me would get that, whereas someone who didn’t grow up on Knight Rider would still have fun. It’s about layering all that in with the fun and humor.
GamesBeat: Is the relative strength of characters an issue? Batman kind of has to be less powerful than Superman.
Parsons: For us, every character is whoever they’re going to be. Someone like Finn, he needs to have all his various swords. He needs to have his gauntlet, all the powers and abilities he has. But it doesn’t really matter. He’s not going to become overpowered because the other characters are completely different. Supergirl is able to fly. She has laser vision and ice breath and all those cool powers. But it doesn’t matter. It’s about someone who’s a fan of any one of these properties just enjoying that character. They’ll know what to expect. Ethan Hunt will have spy gadgets. Mr. T, B.A. Baracus, he’ll be able to fix things and make cool vehicles. That’s what happens. Every character is cool for a reason. It doesn’t necessarily matter if one’s more powerful than another. They all have their uses in Lego Dimensions.