LEGO Universe v. Minecraft

Lessons Learned

Educator Marianne Malmstrom ~aka ~ Knowclue
January 31, 2012

What's wrong with this picture?
I was gobsmacked when I read the article "LEGO Minecraft is Coming" posted on Wired. Why would LEGO create a model of the game that economically pwnd LEGO Universe, its first MMOG? Thinking more about it, the irony of this odd business decision actually helped to illuminate something that has been perplexing me for past year. What is it, exactly, that makes Minecraft so massively successful?

Compare the two games! LEGO Universe is arguably the most beautifully designed MMOG created for young kids to date. Even my young Minecraft players have said so :-). As gorgeous and well designed as it is, LEGO Universe will close today because LEGO did not get enough subscribers to offset the massive cost of producing the game. Sadly, the decision leaves a sizable fan base deeply upset and LEGO has taken a huge hit to their reputation by closing the game after only one year. Kids from all over the world used social media to express their distress and even try to organize efforts to save their beloved game: Save LEGO Universe & Occupy LEGO Universe.

On the other hand, most people have a hard time understanding Minecraft's appeal when they first see the game. I know I did. Minecraft's archaic,16 bit graphics are the complete opposite to LEGO Universe's sophisticated and gorgeous interface. However, this simple game has out performed LEGO Universe in drawing players. Why? I've been pondering that question for the last year as I have scurried to keep up with my students passion to play this game.

Minecraft came on my radar when my middle school students overwhelmingly voted to play Minecraft over World of Warcraft and Second Life during their tech club. That got my attention! It was also approximately the same time I started "Saving the Universe", an after school program using LEGO Universe with grades 3-4. Both classes were hugely popular. However, it was Minecraft that unexpectedly took on a life of its own when students started to drive the learning. At the students' request, we expanded our Minecraft program to include a community server (called "Morrowcraft") to provide a safe space for the kids to play at home.

Last summer, my colleagues and I decided to allow students at our camp to choose their own "Epic Adventure". We offered LEGO Universe, Minecraft or OpenSim to kids in grades 4-6. What we observed was fascinating. While several students tried more than one platform, most settled on a single choice and stuck to it during the entire program. The play on all three platforms was social and imaginative but differences soon became evident. OpenSim (we used JokaydiaGrid) appealed mostly to the girls. LEGO Universe drew more boys. Minecraft attracted both genders equally. As the summer continued, the difference in the three games became even more apparent. Something extraordinary was happening in MInecraft. Students were building complex communities (1 & 2) and constructing metagames within Minecraft. They were even publishing game assists on their wiki. Several students were purchasing their own accounts and begging to join our "Morrowcraft" server so they could also play from home. A community was emerging, one that the kids were driving. They were taking ownership of their own learning and freely sharing their knowledge with each other.

My colleagues and I learned a great deal from stepping back from our "teacher" roles and simply playing games along side our students in order to observe and understand how they use virtual spaces. As we did this, it became clear that Minecraft was bringing something unique to the table that we had not observed with any of the other platform. While those other platforms continue to be popular in our program and bring value to our curriculum, Minecraft is emerging as a "game changer" that educators need to be watching. I can give you a list of reasons as to why teachers should be paying attention, but until I saw the article in Wired I could not clearly articulate why this game is dominating the market. Now, I believe I know.

LEGO has long been the champion of creative play and is best known for their iconic locking plastic bricks that allow players infinite possibilities to build anything they imagine. Over the years, to stay economically competitive, LEGO has continued to innovate by offering specialized bricks, minifigures, digital games and pre-packaged models. They partnered with famous brands like Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter. They also developed their own themes for games and models such as Bionicles and Spinjitszu. That being said, purchasing a simple bucket of bricks is no longer as easy as it once was. You either have to go to the store and buy bricks individually or dig deep into the catalogues to find one of their limited offerings. Even then, they can be a "Hard to Find" item! :-) Additionally, when you do find boxes/bucketes of bricks, themes such as farms or cities are often pictured on the packaging. I found the pink brick sets with pictures of ponies to be especially fascinating. Obviously LEGO has found these marketing strategies to be a highly profitable strategy. However, what we are observing as we watch the kids play Minecraft is that kids just want the blocks and a place to play with their friends.

bricks.pngLEGO invested millions designing and running LEGO Universe, a state-of-the-art MMOG for young players based on the story of saving creativity. Even though the game is well loved, it is economically unsustainable. Mojang, on the other hand, build a simplified world that relied on emergent gameplay rather than a large team of designers dictating what the experience would be. Think about it, Mojang has become a financial success by creating virtual bricks! Mojang's virtual world of blocks allows players to build - simply build... anything they imagine! Ironically, that is why people often refer to Minecraft as, "The LEGO-like game". LEGO Universe containes a beautifully designed building component but, unfortunately, it is confined to an individual play mode that does not allow for collaboration. Both games provide the opportunity for social play but only Minecraft allows community created content. Additionally, Minecraft has no predetermined story or script. That is where the differences lies! We have become a culture that is overtly pre-packaged and prescribed. You see it in our toy stores. You see it our standardized schools. Play is relegated to pre-determined play-dates and recess has all but disappeared from the school day. What we are observing with the phenomenon of Minecraft is that kids are starved for a place to simply play. They want their bricks! And, they want their friends! And, they want a space to play and exercise their own creativity with their friends! Ironically, isn't that the concept that originally launched LEGO?

LEGO may make money creating a model of Minecraft but, in doing so, they also may be demonstrating that they are missing a very important point. While we love LEGO games and LEGO models, we don't need LEGO to just create a "model" of a cool bricks game, we need MORE bricks.... buckets and buckets of bricks... both real and virtual. We also need spaces to play with our friends, and today that means digital spaces. It's a complex problem to adapt to new technology, but I have faith that LEGO will figure it out. There was so much that was "right" about LEGO Universe. Hopefully LEGO will take the lessons learned from LEGO Universe and redesign a new MMOG incorporating some of the principles that has made Minecraft successful. LEGO is, after all, the company of good play!

It is a terribly sad day to see LEGO Universe come to an end. It truly was an EPIC Game! My students and I loved working together to slay dragons and battle the evil Maelstrom. We want to thank all of the wonderfully talented people that created this space and allowed us to play in their world this past year. It was an Epic Adventure!

LEGO, Thank YOU for creating LEGO Universe! You were visionary to understand that kids are moving into digital spaces and need a safe place to play. It is upsetting that such a fantastic idea did not work, but please take a lesson from the success of Minecraft. Don't let LEGO Universe become an Epic Fail by throwing away all of the great technology that was developed for this game. There is still a way to save creativity. Salvage the building piece of the game. Unlock it and give it to schools. Draw on the Minecraft model and give educators the flexibility and control to modify the platform for age and curricular needs. Think about it. Giving school's LEGO virtual blocks (and programable behaviors) could be an Epic Win for LEGO and students everywhere!

Finally, thank you for sponsoring "Saving the Universe" this year. It was an EPIC learning opportunity for all of us!