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Building the Lego ­niverse Online

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Lego Universe character

With the online game Lego Universe, the Danish company will try to translate plastic bricks into digital play.

Credit: The Lego Group

Ten years in the making, the online computer game Lego Universe is scheduled for release in October. It marks the legendary company's first foray into massively multiplayer gaming, and for the iconic building-block maker, it's a major gamble. With the game, the creators are aiming to pull off three incredibly difficult feats: translating the creative, distinctly tactile Lego experience into a virtual arena; creating an online environment that's both kid-friendly and kid-safe; and opening up a new market for the U.S.-$2-billion toy company.

And because this is an international project and brand, addressing these issues is a global challenge. On launch, subscriptions to Lego Universe will be available to over 20 countries, from Austria to the United States. Success for the project—estimated to cost over $10 million, though the Danish company does not make the budget publicly available—is by no means assured. The company has had occasional troubles before, such as trying to create Lego theme parks.

Most massively multiplayer games cater to an older crowd, where norms of behavior need not be strictly enforced. But Lego Universe seeks to capture the grade-school set and the estimated $20-billion children's game market. With the company's reputation as one of the most venerated and parent-friendly toy brands at stake, Lego has had to find a way to make a safe online space without squashing creativity.

In addition, Lego must stay faithful to its meticulous engineering. It can't afford to disappoint users looking for the familiar interplay of studded plastic pieces that families have been clicking together for generations. Everything built in the game must be buildable in real life.

"From Bricks to Bits," by David Kushner, will be published in the July 2010 issue of IEEE Spectrum.


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