What's the thinking behind going subscription-based for this versus free-to-play?
RS: Well there are a couple thoughts on that. We didn't think of the business model up front, we thought of the vision we had, which was: what is it like to live life as a minifig in a LEGO universe? First and foremost, we wanted to make the game a pure game experience. That allowed us to craft the design that made the most sense and captured the LEGO spirit without worrying about how we were going to monetize it.
As we got into it and the game evolved, subscription just felt like the natural choice. We didn't want it to be a commercial experience where we are constantly pushing you toward microtransactions here and there.
The other thing we saw was that while micropayments were taking off in Asia and starting to get some traction in Western markets, when it comes to parents, they really don't like the nickel-and-dime effect; they'd rather pay once a month and have access to all the updates and upgrades and everything. That kind of steered us more toward subscription to begin with.
The other thing is that LEGO is an established brand that is all about quality; you might pay a slightly higher price for a LEGO toy, but that toy provides a much more high quality experience than most of the other toys you find in the market, right?
It's the same idea here; we want to have something new in LEGO Universe once a month for subscribers, and we want to make sure that the people that are playing are committed to having a fun, creative, online world.
A lot of what you see in the freemium model is you have this mass of anonymous people coming in -- and speaking of objectionable content coming into the game, those are the kinds of people that would really pour it in there. We want to make sure the game has a good, strong, core community first before we look at expanding those business models.
Maybe five years down the road we might have some trial free-to-play mode, we might add micropayment if it makes sense in some other content extension of the game, but for now, we feel that subscription works best for what parents wanted and what players are asking for.
Interesting. Because other folks who do the free-to-play model tend to cite parents and accessibility, but in the other direction, saying that parents don't want to have a large credit card charge, and kids don't have credit cards, so they can buy the prepaid cards. It's interesting to hear the other perspective.
RS: I'll be frank, there's a huge industry movement right now towards the free-to-play and micropayment model, and I think it makes sense in a lot of, or maybe the majority of, cases if the game is coming online.
But for this particular title, if this was the same exact game, but without the LEGO brand on it, and no one knew the brand, it would make a lot more sense to use a free-to-play model to start with, because that's how you attract a lot of attention to a game, because it has so much visibility. Since everybody knows and loves LEGO, we don't need to swarm it with the anonymous internet, right?
It's also nice because LEGO is a brand, not a specific property that you have to be beholden to in the ways you are with others. Of course you have to have the blocks be right and everything has to look correct, but you don't have things like, "This staff of ultimate smiting has to be stronger because in the canon…"
RS: Yeah exactly, until we get into the cross-IP stuff like LEGO Star Wars or things like that, and I'm sure we'll run into some of that. But you're right in terms of the fiction, the mechanics, and so on.
The other thing with those free models when you have a big brand, imagine if three million people tried out the game day one, and they're playing it for free, it's not free for us to operate. There are real costs involved with that, but I think it's a great way to start a new IP or a new kind of game where you're going to be smaller to start with.
It sounds like the art is a bit challenging on the technical side, but does it make it easier from an art direction standpoint when so much of what you can do has already been established for years?
RS: I actually think it was a very difficult job to get to where we are now -- happy with the visual direction. Since it's this blend of non-LEGO with LEGO, and things that imply LEGO, and how the minifigs move, everything is under a microscope when we look at it. We have to ask, "Does it meet the brand values with LEGO?"
The look of the toys is very established; they're manufactured, right? They've been doing that for 75 years, but there's really only a few other examples we can look at in the video game space, and most of those are the Traveller's Tales games, which have been very successful. But those draw from the IPs they are associated with, so we really carved a lot of new ground with LEGO Universe, and made some unique and new style choices.
It took us years to get to a point where we were all happy, where LEGO was happy, where NetDevil was happy, the kids were liking what they were seeing. But even so, the interface is still undergoing constant iteration all the time. It's kind of like the blocks; you think it might be easy, because it's such an iconic and established visual brand, but when you get down to the details of what it means in the context of an MMO, it was really quite a challenge.