Have you been enjoying Bricks N’ Bits, the podcast detailing the 25 year history of LEGO® Games? The second series launched properly last week, with a discussion of LEGO Brawls. Along with Extra Pieces co-producer (and editor of Jay’s Brick Blog), Jay Ong, I was fortunate to attend the Recognised LEGO® Fan Media Days last week.
This virtual gathering provided an opportunity to participate with other Fan Media in several briefings about projects that the LEGO Group has underway. We were treated to a presentation by the LEGO® Games team. They took us on some deep dives into the world of podcast production, as they brought us some of the stories behind researching and producing Bricks N’ Bits.
The second season is now underway and the latest episode has just been released. It brings us some of the stories behind LEGO Marvel Superheroes – a game first released in 2013.
Meet the Team
We heard from several team members behind the podcast: the presenters, Brian Crecente and Ethan Vincent, along with Producer Ronnie Scherer and Associate Producer Nannan Li.
Brian Crecente is a journalist by training and looks after the research and writing for the show. After a career as a newspaper crime reporter, he turned his hand to writing about videogames – where he founded Kotaku. Before going on to be the videogame editor for Rolling Stone and Variety magazines, he later co-founded Polygon.
Co-Presenter Ethan Vincent serves as the Creative Director of Bricks N’ Bits. He handles the story fine-tuning, the documentary aspects within the podcast, and finally, the editing and sound design along with some engineers. He has spent years working on documentaries and feature films. Ethan was involved in documenting the making of LEGO® Universe: a massively multiplayer online game, from early in its development in 2008 until it was closed in 2012. He has worked as a freelance documentarian since 2006 and is currently working on a TV series about Visual artists.
Associate Producer Nannan Li has been working for the LEGO Group for seven years. Based in Shanghai, she works as an Associate Product Lead with the LEGO Games APAC team.
Producer Ronnie Scherer has been with the LEGO group for nearly 20 years. During this time, he has worked in software development and games design around the world. He was involved in developing LEGO Digital Designer, Mindstorms, WeDo, LEGO Universe LEGO Worlds, LEGO Dimensions, LEGO Cube, and a lot more. Currently, he serves as a Director for LEGO Games, based in Singapore, where his job is to help expand the Lego group’s digital play footprint in the broader Asia Pacific region.
How Bricks N Bits Came To Be
Ronnie set out to explain how the podcast came to be: “In the summer of 2019, we started conversations about the 25th anniversary of the first-ever Lego video game coming up in December of 2020.” They worked to create this timeline which essentially distills over 180 published titles over those 25years.
“I reached out to Brian and asked him if he would be interested in exploring the history of LEGO Video Games. At the time, we didn’t really know how we wanted to celebrate the anniversary or if there was anything to celebrate at all. We had a strong sense that there was something important, and it was really hard to find what we were looking for in the LEGO Group archives, which of course has been amazing, … but when it came to digital play and video games, there was a little bit of a gap. We found a lot of really appealing, interesting, moving stories about the people behind the games and the player experiences that we created over the years. We recorded all these different interviews and interviews and transcribed them, and archived them for posterity. And throughout that process. Brian, Ethan and I got together on a regular, weekly basis to sort of discuss these different findings.
So as we were going through that process, the Pandemic hit. I had a lot more time to dig into this because I didn’t have to travel as much as I used to do in my job. We found these gold nuggets, and we felt like, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to do something about it? “
Eventually, Brian pitched to write a book based on all the stories that we unearthed and discovered. Ethan, as you may be able to imagine, he pitched a documentary film. The two even did this pitch and a nice documentary trailer that brought it home in terms of bringing interest up to the level that I needed for us to move forward on what we discovered.
“So by May 2020. We realized that we had all this great content, and we decided to do a live internal event: with LEGO employees joining us on Teams. We took them through what essentially was very similar to what became the podcast. That event was so well received that we decided to greenlight a pilot for the podcast. We originally planned ten episodes. However, Season One ended up being 19 episodes, and we’re probably doing at least another 19 episodes, as we finish off the celebration by the end of this year with seasons two, three and four.”
So, the podcast was announced to the world on December 1, 2020, and the first episode, which detailed the unfinished development of a Minecraft-LEGO Game, went live the next day.
Brian Crecente went on to explain: “So, over those first, that first season’s initial 19 episodes, the team dove into all kinds of things that included the creation and depth of LEGO Universe. We discussed the impact of fluid play on the LEGO Group, we talked with game designers and model makers, and we even were fortunate enough to have interviews with Kjeld Kristiansen, grandson of the company’s founder and the LEGO Group CEO Niels B Christiansen, and Lego brand group executive chairman, Jorgen Vig Knordstorp.”
“Those 19 episodes included nearly 90 interviews and ran for a total of about 18 hours combined. And fortunately, thanks to a lot of the AFOL community and fans of LEGO toys and LEGO Group, the response was so positive that the LEGO Group decided to renew the podcast for three more seasons.”
Season two has recently started, beginning with the May the 4th episode, followed by a look at LEGO Brawls. Brian continued, “We have about half of the episodes complete or nearly complete right now. Because of the nature of creating these episodes, which we’ll get into a little later, our production calendar isn’t completely locked down yet.”
The second season will run weekly, with the final episode running on July 14. Several games are planned for season two, including LEGO Bionicle, LEGO City Undercover, LEGO Loco, LEGO Cube, LEGO Marvel Superheroes, LEGO Racers, and LEGO Rock Raiders.
Brian went on to explain that they paid a lot of attention to the listeners’ requests when they were planning these future episodes: “As you can imagine, there were a lot of requests, and a lot of them were about LEGO Bionicle. So that one is deep into production right now, and we’re hoping to wrap it up shortly. Racers, Loco and Rock Raiders were also really big fan-requested titles.”
Sneak Preview: Marvel SuperHeroes
At this point, Ethan brought us a preview of the next episode: LEGO Marvel Superheroes. He played an excerpt where Arthur Parsons, Head of Design at TT Games, revealed a hitherto unknown gem from the days when that game was in development:
I got to meet Stan Lee, and I was just like, absolutely awestruck.…The thing we don’t have long enough to talk about all the stories for this game, but I remember when I said internally. “I want to put Stan Lee in the game.” I remember people going,” You want to do what?” I said, “He is the king of cameos. He cameos in the movies. How cool would it be to cameo in the game?” And then people are scratching their head. “This … it’s not going to happen,” it’s like, “It’ll cost too much money,” or “He won’t want to do it” or whatever it was. Anyway, I pushed and I pushed, and eventually, it’s like, “Okay, we’ll have the conversation.”Arthur Parsons, Head of Design at Tt Games.
He just said, “Yes,” He was like, “Sounds like the coolest thing ever.” He came in, did some voice recording, and that panel was actually the first time he saw the footage of him in the game. …We not only put him in the game but then gave him every ability so that you could web swing, he could transform into Stan Hulk, had the Stan Iron Man Suit. It was just incredible. But the one thing that was meant to go in, that never went in was the Spider-Man Theme. We just couldn’t seal the deal on that; the old school “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, Does whatever a Spider can.” This didn’t go into the game because we didn’t get the rights to the original song. Wespider recording of Stan Lee singing “Spider Stan, Spider Stan, does whatever a Spider Stan Can”. And it was just magic that never happens. But anyway, there you go. “
The current plan is for season 3 to run from August until October, and season 4 from early November, until the end of the year. There will be nine episodes in each season.
“Because we try to give listeners a chance to have a direct impact on what topics we explore in our episodes, we haven’t locked in the topics,” Ethan explained. “But we have a few that we’d like to mention, and I know some of you will be happy! They include Lego Chess, Lego Junkbot, Lego Harry Potter games, Lego Rock Band, Legends of Chima online and (drumroll) Galidor!”
“So, we’re also weighing up the possibility of tackling several bigger topics and themes like virtual and augmented reality with the realm of LEGO games within the realm of, you know, LEGO games, LEGO mobile games and web games. Obviously, topics about the AFOL community and the process by which the LEGO group decides which games should be created, which ones should be shelved: there’s a whole process there that’s really fascinating. And then, as I mentioned earlier, we’re going to pay attention to what the fans are asking for and try our best to build episodes around those requests. So those suggestions can come to us directly by Twitter, or they’re written in an email, which is, of course, email@example.com.”
A question was posed about the possibility of LEGO Dimensions: Ethan responded: “I know that’s somewhere in the list; I’m not making promises. I know Brian, and I are like, “Well, we’ll see- creating the episodes can be quite time consuming, as you guys can imagine, and it’s an involved process, which is why we really need to get these requests in early, early enough so we can actually start them for the seasons we’ve got planned.”
Ronnie explained that sometimes it is hard to find the right people: looking back through the years, sometimes, team members have passed away, others are in different places in their lives – “It’s been a really both joyful, but also emotional, journey to go back and revisit the people that we worked with previously.”
Putting the Podcast Together
Speaking from Shanghai, Nannan Li provided us with an outline of the process behind producing each episode:
“Once we determine what an episode is about, Brian researches the topic and sets up the interviews. Once Brian and Ethan have the interviewed everyone for this episode, Brian writes a script, and both of them start recording the episode. Ethan compiles the recording with the interviews and delivers that copy to our producer, Dave Tach, who usually listens to that and provides his notes.
Ethan will create a new version: reacting to these notes and layering in sound effects and music to add more lift to each episode. Finally, Ronnie listens to the last version and takes note of anything that might need further work.
Once the episode is locked, it is handed off to an audio engineer who cleans up everything and tweaks the sound to make it perfect. Meanwhile, the episode is transcribed, and Brian writes a feature and social copy.
Ethan and I, then working together with his team, create visuals for the episode. Once everything is complete, a package of the content is put together. I deliver it to various people within the LEGO Group to upload it into the website, publish it on YouTube and podcast players, and promote on social media. Each episode takes about two weeks and so forth to produce.
Once a season, we create a more involved feature which can take three or four weeks to produce, so there is a quite intensive production behind each episode.”
Questions and Answers
From here, the team fielded questions from some of the assembled media.
CapnRex101 from Brickset asked “I think it’d be fair to say that there are a select few LEGO games which are sort of, shall we say infamously awful, but sometimes in the best way. How do you approach those when it comes to discussing them on the podcast?”
While some games might be, in retrospect, truly awful, the team find that they are just as interesting to look into: If people dont want to talk about the game, its hard to make a program about it, but ultimately, the story behind a game is a story about people: Brian explained: “There is never a stage where we’re like “well let’s just find the games that we think are fun, or we think are great or that reviewed well on Metacritic.” It’s more about, you know, “What stories have or what games have interesting stories to tell?” and the reality is, all games have interesting stories to tell.”
Brian and Ronnie both mention that LEGO Loco might be one of those games which… might not have, visually, stood up to the test of time, although it has a very dedicated fan base. However, the story about it has a great twist that…And then they left us hanging! Of course, no one sets out to make terrible games – there are always learnings to be made.
Ronnie went on to discuss another theme that LEGO Fans love to hate. No, Not Jack Stone, but rather Galidor: “That’s a hugely controversial product line. For some, and the games associated with it as well. My kids grew up on Galidor and loved it. And so I, as a parent, I’m a super fan of Galidor. It represents some of the LEGO toys that have lasted the longest in my household, which some people will not agree with. That’s where it becomes a little bit personal.”
I asked, “What the most surprising thing you learned during the interview process for the podcast?”
Ethan started: “Everyone wants to work on a LEGO game. Any developer is excited. They start with this huge burst of enthusiasm; they want to be a part of it. They take their trips to Billund; they love what they see. Many of them have grown up with it, and their passion for it gets rekindled. And there’s just this enthusiasm and love to do something great, and especially in the early days, that is what it was all about. That digitization: how do you get the plastic brick into a virtual and digital form, and how do you make it fun to play with. And can it ever match the play experience you get in the physical world?” I think that the interviews have revealed time and time again just the amount of passion behind that. And then I think some of the highlights have been discovering the obstacles that always stand in the way of creating a great game. Some of them have to do with game companies, some of them have to do with complications within the communication between the LEGO Group and the game developers. Some are just the nature of trying anything big and great and trying to have a breakthrough. So I’ve been most touched by some personal stories that have been shared: things like Tom Stone, putting his house, his mortgage, up for the first LEGO Star Wars video game; some of the personal stories, even on LEGO Bionicle that you’ll be hearing, kind of the background of people involved in that’s also kind of back to what Brian’s saying about the people behind it. I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to make a game and how amazing it is. Anyway, let’s see. Obviously, some of the greatest interviews I think we’ve had so far has been with Jorgen V or with Kjeld, not only being able to have those interviews and talks with them, but them giving us the time of day and taking [not only] the podcast seriously but also taking the history of LEGO games so seriously as to sit down for an hour, and just talk with us, I would say that was one of the biggest highlights for me too, in this process.”
Brian followed up: ” There were quite a few revelations that sort of blew me away. I think the biggest was the fact that the LEGO Group was working with Mojang on their own take on Minecraft. I think that was my second biggest surprise.
My biggest surprise was that the LEGO Group then let us do a whole episode about it, because typically, you would expect a company to say, “No, no, no! We don’t want to talk about that.” I think that that sort of thread runs throughout all the episodes and hopefully the entire podcast, as Ronnie said, this idea of learning from history. I think that the fact that they’re so willing to be so open and transparent, not just with themselves, but with the world. I think it is very interesting and adds to the stories, and it should add to everybody’s sense of what the LEGO Group is and how it has become the company that it is.”
Jay (Jays Brick Blog) asked “After Minecraft, Overwatch and now Super Mario, if there were any IPs that you think would be ideal for the LEGO Brand?”
After lamenting the fact that he lacked the level of executive power to make that happen, Brian went on: “I was so excited that they are doing the Sonic themed set and the Super Mario – I think is astounding. I would love to see that Zelda Castle that’s on LEGO Ideas and the Metroid. Those are probably at the top of my list right now. Those two are just so stunning. I would love to see them come to brick form and then, and then just to get super meta, have someone make a game based on the bricks based on the game.”
Ronnie added, “We don’t have [any new games or products] to announce at this time! But I do appreciate that you did bring up Sonic. It was also a great privilege for us to be able to interview Viv [the fan designer] and the LEGO Ideas team. In general, I just think LEGO Ideas is just a huge inspiration for seeing how AFOLs are taking video game universes to heart and translating that into brick.”
When asked if the team use consultants in researching episodes, they said it was essentially Brian’s preliminary interviews that covered a lot of the groundwork. There have been discussions with members of the FLL community, as well as the Bionicle fan community. There is also a large library of around 190 preliminary interviews that were recorded before the podcast was planned: they are great for research but not for including in the final podcast. Fortunately, a lot of those interviews were able to be rerecorded for the podcast. Another area in which the team has been fortunate is in the level of access they have had to the company owner, as well as CEO during production. While setting out to inform on the topics at hand, the team are fortunate to be able to include a voice from the company.
Jun Heng Wong, BrickFinder asked “What would you see the future of LEGO games to be?”
“That’s the question we ask other people, Brian quipped. “I feel like it’s a lot of what we’re starting to see with things like Lego Super Mario and with Hidden Side, not to say that the other sorts of games won’t come out. But I think that the idea of this sort of fluid play is very powerful, and it’s just starting to be explored. I’m also on the other side: you look at things like Builder’s Journey, which is this amazing game, unlike all the other LEGO games that have come before. I’m really hoping we’ll see a lot more of those sort of ‘out of the [LEGO] box’ thinking. “
Mobile gaming is massive, probably the most critical platform in Asia. The Mobile Game LEGO Cube has been soft-launched in China only. Ronnie explains, “That’s a true mobile-first social multiplayer online platform that kind of gives you some hints on what we’re thinking about [for the future].”
What about hands-on research? Brian has done his best to play every game they have discussed on the show. He even found a copy of the Bionicle game to play on an old Game boy Advance. With the episodes about Racers and Rock Raiders still early in their planning stages, he hasn’t run through those ones yet. Fortunately, he collects old gaming consoles and has been able to play most of the games on that those platforms at least. Except one…
“I’ve gotten this close to buying Pico, and I’d have to track down ‘Fun to Build’ [the very first LEGO Game]. Probably, the completionist in me is going to have to go out and buy that for sure.”
It was great to hear from the team behind the Bits N Bricks podcast, and gain some insights into their production process, to say nothing about learning about where they are heading over the next 6 months. I’m excited that they have paid so much attention to the fan community’s feedback concerning future content. I remember seeing LEGO Loco and LEGO Island on the shelves back when I was well and truly in my dark ages, but I never picked them up. Life is full of regrets.
In the meantime Bits N’ Bricks Series 2, Episode 3 – LEGO® Marvel and the Missing Spider-Stan Song is now available to download from your favourite podcasting service, or you can find more details on the LEGO Games 25th Anniversary Site.
I will have a few more reports from the 2021 Fan Media Days over the next few months, but Jay and I will have some more to say about things we saw and heard at the Recognised LEGO Fan Media Days in our next episode of Extra Pieces, available this weekend.