Linden Lab and LEGO

Now that I'm working at Linden Lab, I'm spending a lot of time thinking about creativity software and discussing ideas, and sometimes I'll even come up with something worth sharing on my blog! :) Just keep in mind that this is me talking, and what I say here is not an official pronouncement from Linden Lab.

Talking with a coworker at lunch today, I realized that LEGO is a perfect example of sort of "shared creative spaces" that Linden Lab is trying to make. When it comes to LEGO, playing is creating, there is very little room on the pyramid devoted to pure consumption, shopping, or decorating - it quickly ramps on to full-blown creation. There is also very little inaccessible expert territory at the top - even the amazingly ambitious stuff that people create feels accessible, like you could have done that too if you put enough time into it. That's what "high skill floor, low skill ceiling" means.

And why is this? A significant part of it is that everyone understands LEGO bricks and how they fit together. Very little ramp-up is required to become fluent. Easy to learn, and well, pretty easy to master too. And yet it is not trivial. You can do so much with it, both in terms of building things and in terms of playing with the things that you build. It's important to remember that make-believe play with and within the things you build are also a significant part of the experience of LEGO. Most kids will spend as much time acting out imaginary adventures and battles as they do building them! Of course, different people will focus on different things - I happened to be more of a builder than a storyteller, but I still liked that my creations stood as evocative worlds that could imply stories or scenarios, whether or not I actually acted them out.

LEGO also excels at making the creation process fun in itself, as gameplay. I realized this when introducing a six-year-old to LEGO for the first time, examining my own experience with a game designer's eye. I discovered that building something with LEGO, especially building a model from instructions, is very similar to playing a hidden object game, in terms of the skills exercised.

To read LEGO instructions, which have no words, is to play a spot-the-difference game between the image of each step and the next, to see what has changed, identify the pieces involved, and imagine how you will put them there. You might not think that takes much skill at all, but you would be amazed at the performance gap between a six-year-old who has never seen LEGO instructions before and a twenty-something-year-old with an entire childhood of LEGO experience.

Similarly, once you know what pieces you want, you must play a hidden object game where you visually pick out the specific pieces from a cluttered jumble of dozens if not hundreds of other pieces, recognizing them from any angle, partially obscured or otherwise. I could see those pieces like an eagle spotting a mouse from high above the savannah, while my six-year-old apprentice took much longer, often to the point of giving up and asking for me to help.

Then of course there is the mechanical process of snapping the pieces together, which is not very sophisticated, as far as gameplay goes (though try teaching a robot to do that!) but is still a skill to be learned, and has a very satisfying payoff (click!).

This all may seem trivial, and not worth thinking about, but when you are making a digital game, you don't get any of this for free. Dragging an image onto another image is not equivalent to mechanically snapping in a plastic spear into a plastic hand, and choosing a brick from a menu is not equivalent to searching for a brick in a jumbled pile on the floor. I think it's very much worth thinking about.

The interesting thing is, while we're making comparisons with spot-the-difference and hidden-object gameplay, I actually find building with LEGO more fun than the computer games that cater exclusively to this activity. To me, searching for a LEGO piece that I can actually then use to build with is so much more interesting and rewarding than searching for a random piece of junk in a list in a hidden object scene that I will end up using in an arbitrary puzzle in a generic mystery adventure story. I think creative tools can be more fun than those things we call strictly "games", at least for people like me, and I don't think we should shoot for anything less.

1 comment:

Hawk said...