LEGO® Builder’s Journey, the game from Light Brick Studios was updated a couple of weeks ago. It delivers new content to a broader audience – extending from Apple Arcade to Nintendo Switch and PC (on Steam and Epic Games Store). Having completed the game in its first iteration, I sat down to replay it. The game follows the adventures of a father and son, initially hiking together, and playing. Then they get interrupted while the father goes to work.
I decided to extend this metaphor, by engaging the services of Harry, our household games consultant (ok… its my son!), to provide a review. I’m a dab hand on the iPhone, but as far as understanding PC gaming, I’m at a loss.
We subsequently attended a round table discussion with representatives the Light Brick Studios, LEGO Games and other Recognised LEGO Fan Media – Racing Brick, Cafe Corner, Bricksfanz, Blocks Magazine and ADFL.it.
Karsten Lund, Creative Director of Light Brick Studios, previously worked with the LEGO Games team in Billund. There, they had been working on exploring ways to distill the core of the LEGO Experience – playing with LEGO Bricks – and bringing that into a game. Karsten relocated from Billund to Copenhagen, and the decision was made subsequently to spin off Light Brick Studios from the LEGO Group.
He was joined in this discussion by game designer Jonas Haugesen, and art director Jonas Norlén. Also in attendence was Murray Andrews, from LEGO Games.
Who Is The Game For?
Damiano Baldini from ADFL.it kicked off discussion, asking about the target audience:
Damiano Baldini: Did you consider the game to be targeted more towards adults or children?
Karsten Lund (Creative Director): I actually think we consider the game for everyone. I mean, there are several layers in the game and we’ve tested it a lot on a lot of different types of players. So our idea of the themes of the game are universal: about playing, and about playing together. We believe that the challenges in the game are sort of completable for everybody. And so a lot of different players get a lot of different things out of it. So, in our design philosophy, we wanted one of these games to be for everyone.
Balasz Kiss (Racing Brick) followed up on this
Balasz Kiss I was wondering if it was intentional to make the game fit to TheLEGO Group’s new Adult focused approach where there’s a big focus on the mood with the music and also the sound design with the click of the bricks. It really resonates with the approach TLG is offering now , with the different experiences outside of brick building. Was it really intentional to fit in this world?
Karsten Lund It was not intentional to fit in that particular world, although we think it’s awesome. I think, ultimately if you want to make a great game, you have to make a game you want to play yourself. We needed to believe that this game was a very high quality and a lot of fun, and we needed to feel that it was fun. That’s where it starts. But we discovered along the way that it resonates with a lot of different players, including children. From our kids’ test, we’re seeing children, maybe not completing it super fast, but spending more time on each diorama and building whatever they want to build, having fun with it and only advancing when they wanted to. So I think there’s a lot of different ways of playing this game. For us it wasn’t sort of aligning with any kind of strategy, per se, it was just by saying, “This is what we believe the LEGO Experience is, and is for us.”
…I also think during our play-testing sessions we just got that this more zen-like feeling of playing. I think we intended everything to be a little bit more difficult, more passive, but it became a little bit more flow-like and meditative over the course of the development. And that’s sometimes what playing with bricks feels like, right: All of a sudden, time has passed and you don’t know where it went. And that’s the same feeling again. I don’t think we aligned with some sort of strategy rather than to align to a promise of what it would feel like.
The Narrative and Game Play
The game is a puzzle game, with an embedded narrative. The basic controls are simple enough: touch and hold on an element, to pick it up, and it will ‘click’ and follow your finger on the screen. Tapping the element will result in rotating the part around a central vertical axis – such that a plate will still be flat, but facing at 90º. Another touch and hold while overlying a stud will result in that element being placed down. Using this technique, you manipulate bricks and plates to typically build a path for your character to travel along. But it is not always so simple…
Rambling Brick: Were there any special challenges in setting up a story being told in the format of that puzzle game. And did you have any troubles, or any concerns that the players just may not get it?
Karsten Lund: I think the short answer is yes.
We were actually in the middle of developing the product. We spent a lot of time proving the first time user experience and the idea to solve a puzzle without any words and all that stuff. The amount of time that went into making sure that works was the most important thing for us.
Our second objective was to actually convey a narrative. We set ourselves that goal before the summer break: We wanted to get to a point where the narrative was [understood] by the players-just a short part of it that we had done. We tested it, and nobody got it.
We asked the players, “What do you think happens in the story?” They were like “Story?” Some of them came back with a completely different take on the story, and we were saying “Oh, no! What to do? What to do!?” It’s tough, this thing.
And we all went on a break thinking “Okay, we really, really need to get back to the drawing board and figure out how we actually then convey and get [the story] across”
Coming back with fresh energy, we kind of collectively decided that we were not writing a story, we were writing a poem, and we need people to just interpret what they get. We’re going to keep on telling our story the way we think it should be told. And then we’re just going to have players interpret it, however they wanted.
We realised that after a few months of doing that and testing, … players started telling us back the story, unprompted. And I’ve started to begin to think that maybe we were testing player’s ability to retell a story, by asking them to lead directly. And that’s just not how it works, right? A lot of players have a hard time conveying back what they experienced, but if you just let them experience it, they will tell you at some point what it is they’re feeling.
Jonas Haugesen Yeah, I think it’s also about compromises. Instead of just telling the story that the dad works at a milk company or something like that. It’s just that Dad goes to work, and portraying the emotions you get from having a boring day job, instead of explaining what kind of job is doing and what it’s about. It’s just about portraying the emotions that come with the consequences of doing something.
Rambling Brick: I did find, on some occasions, that I was so overwhelmed by the overall sensory experience of the game that the narrative wasn’t entirely apparent to me.
Karsten Lund: If you are busy solving a puzzle, it’s very hard to get narrative. If you are in awe of a beautiful model, you really need a lot of [mental] bandwidth in the experience to be able to take it all in.
The campsite moment exists because we wanted to show players that we can have levels that do not have puzzles. That’s the main function for this one: it actually says this part of the game is super easy. It’s just telling you something, not highly important, for the story, but there’s something you can be told, and then when it happens next, you’re like “Okay, I get it”
We did a lot of stuff in the game to make sure that you understood the grammar of the language, so you will be fine to start using the language. I can recognize your comment about missing something because you’re focusing on something else, that’s tough to design for.
While the basic controls are particularly simple, the challenges behind a level vary, sometimes taking a left turn as the story enters a new chapter. Graham Hancock from Blocks Magazine asked about the temptation to include a more overt narrative.
A challenge for the game was to stay in keeping the LEGO Experience: promoting learning through play. As you come to understand the new mechanics, understand the patterns and ultimately figure new challenges out, the play leads your discovery and understanding of the journey.
The designers feel this is the most powerful experience for the player to have. It becomes about learning, playing and experiencing the game: there was no real desire, on the part of the designers, to go throwing in numerous cutscenes to drive the narrative along.
Conveying the direct story might be challenging, but there is no doubt that while I played the game I found myself taken on an emotional roller coaster: content and satisfied, confused, upset, even frustrated, and ultimately happiness. I found all of these feelings being delivered to me as part of the game experience.
CC from the Cafe Corner Community asked about why the brick built figures were used, rather than adopting a minifigure:
Jonas Norlén For us, it’s all about celebrating the brick. And I also think there is a more poetic feel to it than with a minifigure. The minifigure is more: it steals the attention. We want to put focus on the actual brick building and what you can do with brick building. The minifigure would kind of kill that idea for us. There are many reasons to it, but I think that’s the main one: to celebrate what we can do with bricks.
CC How difficult was it to convey the emotions of the characters despite them not having faces and there being no words in the game?
Jonas Haugesen That’s kind of the overarching problem of portraying a story without words, and just these simple figurines. I guess we put most of our effort into making the player feel the emotions, and just having the characters reflect the same emotion that we try to impose on the player. So, we don’t really need a full animation studio with arms and faces and words and stuff, because it’s just that just mimicking the same kind of feeling that we’re trying to convey to the player.
Karsten Lund I think it was a challenge, definitely. And I think we had several bumps in the roads in terms of “Are we actually getting our story across at all?” “Do they get it?” and “What is it that the players get?”
Because we have no words, it’s very hard to describe what it is you’re experiencing. We came to the conclusion that we’re a poem, more than we’re doing a story, and the broad strokes, sort of emotional narrative that comes through, actually comes through with the end user. We can see that a lot with the user reviews that they actually get it in the end. So for us, it was about holding on to our vision of wanting to convey this story about play and having the players interpret it in, in their own way.
The [Physical] Level Design
And what about the actual designs? All of the ‘levels’ in the game are built in LEGO Digital designer, before being imported into the game development environment Unity. Only real elements and real LEGO Colour are used – although some combinations might not actually exist yet. Overall, a significant number of colours are from the more ‘muted’ end of the colour palette: olive green, dark tan, nougat.
Adam White (BricksFanz) asked “Were there any aspects levels environments the games built with actual physical Lego elements outside of the game? In concepts to create the levels ?”
Karsten Lund I mean the biggest dream in the Universe is to make a game and then have a Lego model built out of it, so we had to do that ourselves! We have a few small little set pieces from the game, but I guess Jonas Norlén can talk a little bit about the process of actually building the game, because that wasn’t done physically.
Jonas Norlén I used to work as a LEGO designer in Billund, and it’s something different to actually a touching a brick or doing it digitally because I don’t need to care too much about if [the build is] stable because [the game] doesn’t doesn’t tell. Granted, I always have bricks on my table because that gives me a better idea of what it actually feels like. “Is this pretty good for here or there” I did the characters – tons of the small characters used quite a lot of LEGO builds to get down to the scale. In the end we actually managed to do [it all] within the LEGO rules I think, or at least close. To see what the scale looks like, it’s much easier to do it in real life with real bricks but not every level. We did the house and a few figures. There’s the scale of a bridge and stuff like that for myself. Mostly for myself, but also because it’s nice to see it in real life. Yeah, we did use bricks.
Graham Hancock: What about building smaller dioramas or biomes, rather than using one larger world?
Jonas Norlén It was a struggle because we wanted to be playful and still detailed but not too stylish and not too detailed. I think we found a pretty nice mid-ground. We took a few bricks and built everything with that set of bricks, to celebrate the fun of building. We had feedback once from a kid that actually built one of the levels, with his brick assortment and that never happened to me: I was working as a designer for four years, and there was never a kid that sent us a picture of his version of the Hulkbuster with his brick assortment. So that was really a really good [indication] that we managed to communicate that playfulness and simplicity.
Karsten Lund I think we, the whole crew, were constraining were ourselves in a way. We started up thinking a little bit bigger than this, and when we decided to go down to sort of 16 by 16 diorama size. It freed up creativity so much for us. The whole location and how do we leave and enter and what are all these things actually we just say the story and we believe that that is actually also core to the LEGO idea is that LEGO bricks are unlimited. BUT they are also limited, somehow: You have to place them on the studs and you have to make do with the bricks you have, you have the colors you have: you need to make creative decisions at all times. You always decide where things go and what it is you want to do. In that sense we were kind of playing away to this result.
The User Experience
While working through some of the levels, the destination, or goal was not entirely obvious.
Rambling Brick: Was it ever tempting to put a little dot or light to draw the player towards the objective for the levels or is that exploration part of the experience and a way of drawing out the gameplay?
Jonas Haugesen Tempting? Yes, but I think it was also part of the story that has this kind of thought, either it’s the dad character or it’s robot friend we call him, or similar like that. But, I mean, it’s intentional, at least that it’s not always super obvious where you’re supposed to go, because it’s also about, just keep on the reflection, mood, keeping on the reflection of the player to always think, “What is the context which I’m sitting in?” rather than “Where should I go?” and just go finish it. Instead of actually trying to understand “where my character is in this world”, look at “What am I feeling?” and, “what is the game trying to convey to me?”
Rambling Brick I never know where I’m going, when I pick up a pile of bricks to play with either.
Karsten Lund And you could say I think the two Jonases spend so much time trying to figure out how to indicate stuff. So, it is not a red dot. It is something going on in the level that you can actually get to target to explore the level, right. There’s been a lot of work going into that.
But when the approach to a level is not immediately obvious, how should that be conveyed?
Harry J (Rambling Brick) There were a couple of bits where it wasn’t necessarily immediately obvious, not just where you needed to go, but how you needed to go about getting there. Two bits that come to mind are where the skates get introduced, and the duplication mechanic: the one-by-one tile becoming the two one-by-one tiles. What was the process of coming up with these mechanics and trying to introduce them in a way that it was clear enough for players to know what they were meant to be doing, but not so clear that it was like, “Oh, okay this is trivial and there’s no puzzle here.” What was the process of figuring out that sort of tutorial and difficulty curve?
Jonas Haugesen A lot of it comes down to testing. I think you can make many assumptions as a game designer on what the player will find logical. But, actually seeing it is much more relevant than just trying to figure it out yourself. So a lot of the data comes from testing each week on different players. With that said, I think the philosophy behind introducing every game mechanic is that we always only teach one thing and the thing that we are teaching shouldn’t be so complex that it’s not understandable, but at the same time it should still be complex enough that you can actually iterate on the same base idea for a few more levels afterwards, and kind of expand on the original idea, rather than just toggling it around and making something different at the end.
Murray Andrews (LEGO Games) And just very quickly, just something that you guys might not know about Light Brick: they test a lot. And that’s a really good thing, they test every week. They have the Fridays set aside just purely for testing. So, you know, they come up with these ideas and it’s something that’s ended up in why the game is so well crafted because they do go through this process with, with real players so it’s not just these guys sat in a darkened room trying to come up with cool stuff. It’s really about that that journey with the players back and forth during development. and I think that that’s something that’s that’s built into their studio, and it’s really great to see that process working, and an ending up with awesome stuff like builders journey.
Karsten Lund Yeah, it’s a big part of our culture is that we almost have the audience sitting at the table, and it’s painful, but sometimes because not everything is a success in the first [attempt]. But it’s so good and so healthy, so it really helps us with the quality. When things aren’t working, and players aren’t getting it, we can adjust and iterate and move on so that’s that’s really pretty valuable for us.
Henrik Lindstrand, the composer/musician was not present at the round table, but he had worked very closely with the team during the development.
CC asked about thought process behind the music direction for the game:
CC: I guess you might have kind of already touched on that with saying that you wanted it to be a more poetic type of journey, but could you go a little bit more into that
Karsten Lund Henrik obviously isn’t here and he’s the composer. We always wanted to both believe in the power of music, and the way that music can convey emotions. So from the very beginning focussed very much on the good melodies and the good harmonies and the mechanics of that to underlie the emotions we have in the game. Henrik was just right from the get-go, totally into this idea of creating some sort of soundscape narrative in music to underlie this. So that’s been a very, very interesting journey and especially with the expansion, there’s a lot of new interesting songs there as well to underline the little bit bigger story.
Along with the visual art style, the music of Henrik Lindstrand fits perfectly with the game in this context – the exploration, the anticipation, the disappointment and the joy are all well conveyed in his piano based music. All of the music is ultimately piano based – he uses inventive techniques to generate his percussive sounds. There are some tunes where the piano sounds a little out of tune, and this is probably a deliberate decision in the production. The soundtrack to Builder’s Journey is now available on a number of music streaming services.
Ray Tracing Brings Graphics To The Fore
I won’t pretend to know much about the finer aspects of computer graphics processing. But there is no doubt, the screen shots from the new version, taken using the RTX Graphics card, are spectacularly photorealistic. However, this requires a pretty high-powered machine to be able to deal with this aspect of the game.
Karsten Lund The real challenge in the ray tracing version of the game was the whole idea that LEGO bricks are not just a solid piece of plastic. There’s a lot of stuff going on in actually depicting a LEGO brick, so it looks like a LEGO brick. Like subsurface scattering; if it’s a transparent brick, there is translucency, refraction and stuff like that, and the way the colour bleeds onto other bricks. We have a little bit of dust and scratches going on as well, to make sure that the LEGO bricks really looks like our [physical] LEGO bricks. So there’s a lot of elements going in that you don’t really see, but you would definitely be able to see the difference. I mean, looking along the edge of a LEGO brick you can see that it’s a little brighter because, obviously, the density gets smaller and smaller and smaller, up until that point right, yep. So stuff like that he needed to write some routines and use the render in a very particular way to get to get to that certain look, that’s been an interesting challenge for him. That’s for sure. A lot of work has gone into making the bricks look like real bricks.
The team used Unity to develop the game, incorporating a High Definition Render Pipeline, and a custom solution to incorporate the ray tracing. Mikkel Fredborg, who was responsible for the rendering the game has a presentation about his workflow on YouTube, which you can find here. It becomes apparent that a huge amount of work has gone into this new version, as far as the overall appearance is concerned.
Balasz Kiss, from Racing Brick raised the subject of the game’s hardware requirements:
Balasz Kiss (Racing Brick) So the game is promoted with the new RTX visual features. I was wondering how is it supposed to scale with previous generation: my laptop hardware is not very bad. I think it’s six core CPU and P2000 quadro but I started the game and everything was defaulted to low…?
Karsten Lund Obviously the ray tracing version needs a lot of horsepower to run at a good frame rate and a good resolution, but we have three different versions in the PC that you could choose from when you launch it: we have a classic mode which means it can run on almost anything. And we have two versions of the high end game to run on different spec hardware, so this should be a vision for almost every single piece of PC hardware you can have that will give you the experience, at least, but obviously the raytracing one at 4K takes some horsepower.
I have a few screenshots included for comparision: from my phone, Harry’s PC (using an nVidia GTX 1060 video card) as well as the RTX screenshots provided by Light Brick/LEGO Games.
The other change with the wider release has been the addition of new material. The version on Apple Arcade has also been updated to include the same gameplay as is available to Nintendo Switch and PC Users. I asked “How much of the game’s content is new?”
Karsten Lund I think we’ve basically doubled the amount [of levels] in the game. They often vary in length. Some of them are conveying something very simple and short. Some of them are very long because they need to be solved, but we have basically just doubled the amount of content.
Balasz brought up the topic of the pricing. $20USD on PC/Nintendo feels more expensive compared with an Apple Arcade subscription (currently $AUD7.99=USD $4.99/month), particularly with a relatively short gameplay. Which of these is the better offer? I’m not so sure. I probably signed up to Apple arcade (one month free trial) to play this game, but failed to deactivate the subscription. Twelve months later, I suspect I have ultimately paid more than the purchase price on other platforms. Fortunately, I was able to update the game following the release of version 2.
And What Of The Future?
Balasz Kiss (Racing Brick) So, are you planning to add extra levels or sandbox mode-like, builder experience or some cooperative features? The game itself is beautiful, but the experience is short. Are there any plans to extend it?
Karsten Lund We are talking about updating the game, definitely. I can’t get into any details on what it is exactly we’re going to do but we are going to update builder’s journey. Obviously we’ve been focusing on quality of experience, quality of visuals and the emotional impact is where our focus has been. We are going to keep continuing that focus: we’re very proud of this experience. We really think it works. But it’s a dear baby of ours, and we want to add to it, and make it even better if we can. So we are definitely talking about updating but I will not reveal what our plans are.
Murray Andrews The guys have been working hard to build out new content [since the original release], so there’s a whole load of new mechanics and awesome levels in there. And I think what’s really exciting about the Light Brick team is their focus around that quality. It’s really making sure that they craft every level and every experience. You’re right: the experience can be fairly short, but I think it’s really more about that short period that you have, the quality that you’re getting from that. That was something that we really liked about working with these guys, it was always focusing on how can we make the experience the best it can be. And I think that has come through in the game itself when you play it, even if it is over relatively quickly compared to many other games.
Adam White (Brick Fanz) Are there any plans to bring it to any other platforms apart from what it’s currently available on?
Karsten Lund Yes, obviously we want to reach as many players as possible, and we are looking into adding many more platforms.
Murray Andrews We are exploring when and how we can bring it to Xbox and PlayStation. But the main focus for this launch obviously was the PC and Switch and updating the Apple Arcade version which is in parity with those two, but we’re definitely exploring that and also alongside that loads of cool new stuff that the guys that Light Brick are exploring for future projects. So, this is just a bad sort of pun: this is the start of the Builder’s Journey for Light Brick and LEGO games together, because there’s going to be lots more stuff happening over the next sort of 6, 12, 18 months.
I’d like to thank everyone who was involved in the Round Table. I learned a lot about the process of building this game, both through this round table, and it builds on the material that can be heard, listening to the specific episode of the podcast Bricks ’n bits. Special thanks to Sara Skahill from The LEGO Group’s AFOL Engagement Team for coordinating and facilitating the event.
As an AFOL, I enjoyed playing the game, but while being initially overwhelmed by the environment and the challenges, I found myself not paying any attention to the underlying story, until I had almost completed it.
Revisiting the game this week, I find I am spending more time playing with the brick-building aspect of the game, searching for alternative pathways, rather than ‘speed running,’ experimenting with different mechanics in the game. I still find there are levels, new and old, that I just cannot remember the solution too.
I am, however, biased: I am entrenched in the brick, building when I can, as well as immersing myself in stories of the brick where possible. I found the experience delightful, but relatively short. It probably took me around 3 hours to get through the game, playing the iPhone version. I have invited Harry to review the game, and his comments will follow in the next post.
With further reflection, I find myself considering my own ‘Builder’s Journey’ – both using the analogy of the narrative within the game to consider the relationships I have had with my children as they have grown up: playing together, spending more time at work, heading off in different directions as they establish their identities, ultimately getting to know them better as young adults. I am grateful for being able to spend this time connecting with my son, which is part of what the game is all about.
I hope you have enjoyed this insight into LEGO® Builder’s Journey. Thanks again to all involved. Have you played the game? What did you think? Do you think the developers achieved their goals? Why don’t you leave your comments below, and until next time…