Counting Down to 90 Years of Play, Part 9 2012-2021

We have been counting down to the 90th anniversary of the LEGO Group, which is now ( at the time of writing) only one more sleep away! We have travelled from the time that the company made wooden yo-yos and pull-along animals, and seen it pivot towards plastics and develop the brick. We have seen the Minifigure arrive and storytelling enter the fore. We have seen the company come back from the brink of financial collapse, to stabilise and start to grow.

As we travel through the 2010s, we get some new friends; storytelling becomes more animated, sustainability enters the agenda; and adult fans are asked for their ideas and become part of the acknowledged target demographic.

Making New Friends

In 2012, we welcomed a radical new theme into the company’s portfolio: LEGO Friends was developed to help girls to become more engaged with LEGO play. Bringing a new design of play figure – the minidoll – which is perhaps more relatable for some kids than the mini figure, the sets were designed in collaboration with the producers for the animated series to ensure they all tied together.

The original characters and the 2018 rebooted versions: Andrea, Emma, Mia,Olivia and Stephanie

We follow the adventures of a core group of friends as they go to school and share adventures in Heartlake City. We have the Sports Enthusiast, the Artist, the Performer, the Scientist/engineer and the Nature lover. Core stereotypes, the series celebrates their differences and the bonds of friendship that bind them together. After 5 years, the storyline was rebooted (with a new series, Girls On A Mission). The characters are essentially the same, but we see a change in appearances and skin tones – effectively increasing the diversity of the cast.

In the early years, the range had a heavy female bias in the included characters, with only one in four sets containing a male figure. Jump forward to early 2022, and we see the gender balance is being redressed, with 6 of the 8 sets featuring at least one male character. We also see a general increase in the representation of people of colour.

The theme celebrates 10 years this year. The 7 year-olds who were given those first sets are now ready to leave school, and it would seem that our core group are heading off to explore their passions: art school, theatre, sailing the world, Space School and Wildlife rescue – perhaps off on an extended gap year. On this year’s LEGO Con stream, it was implied that next year we may well see a new core cast. Indeed, the theme is now strong enough to survive without constant callouts to the core 5 characters.

Coming Up With New Ideas

So many fans dream of being able to design a real LEGO Set. Last time, we heard about LEGO Factory and Design by Me – which provided limited opportunities for fan input for LEGO sets, but it was apparent that there was a market for such sets. LEGO Japan piloted a program called Cuusoo – where builders could submit their ideas for models, and if there was sufficient public support, have them reviewed and considered for release as an official set. The first, Japanese exclusive set was the Shinkai 56500 submarine. Subsequently, Cuusoo was opened up, world-wide, and we saw the arrival of the Ghostbusters Ecto -1 and the Delorean Time Machine from Back to the Future. Renamed LEGO Ideas in 2013, the program has recently celebrated its first decade.

The popularity of Ideas surged during the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020, as people found themselves locked down or staying at home, and rediscovered LEGO play and design. While seriously there had been around ten sets meeting the 10000 vote threshold for review, that number has increased significantly in recent years, typically with more than 30 sets reaching the 10000 vote limit.

A side effect of people presenting elaborate designs on IDEAS has been that building digitally – using programs such as LDD or Bricklink’s – is an equally valid piece of expression.

LEGO Ideas, as a platform, now covers a multitude of ways for builders to engage with the Group: not only proposing sets, but also setting community challenges, running competitions (for a period run under the heading of Rebrick), and small challenges, such as designing Gifts with Purchase.

There have now been over fifty IDEAS sets released, and I have to admit, that two of my top 5 builds to date are Ideas Sets [ That would include the Saturn V and Tree House]

A Sustainable Vision

As years have progressed, sustainability and environmental responsibility have become closer to the consumer’s mind, as they have also been to the LEGO Group. With its core business involving a plastic product made essentially out of petrochemical derivatives, the company announced a billion krone investment in pursuing the development of sustainable plastics for the LEGO Brick. In 2018, they released foliage elements – which are made of polyethylene sourced from ethanol manufactured from sustainable sugarcane. Literally Plants from Plants. Its the same plastic. Not biodegradable.

At the same time, other moves are being made to phase out single-use plastics, and to improve the overall carbon footprint. In 2021, the first bricks made of recycled PET were previewed. The company continues to search for appropriate materials to replace ABS as the primary material for the brick.

In the meantime, the parent company KIRKBI has been investing heavily in wind and solar farms, such that the company now produces enough energy to offset the energy used in manufacturing and administration, and new factories are being built with the intention of being carbon neutral.

Storytelling Gets Animated

As mentioned with LEGO Friends earlier, Animated series seem to be the way to go to perpetuate the story-telling associated with LEGO sets for the time being – either short form webisodes based on YouTube and, or in the form of fully developed animated series. Both Ninjago and Friends have been teased as approaching the end of their current major storylines this year, with some form of reboot being likely in 2023.

But I digress. After the initial run of Ninjago was completed (after 3 seasons), a replacement story, Legends of Chima was set to take its place. Ninjago struck a chord with the market too well, and continues 11 years later. Chima ran in parallel for a couple of years. The next big thing was to be NEXO Knights: a Castle Space ( but more space than castle) hybrid theme, featuring collectable shields, which also interacted with a mobile game to provide different powerups.

Going forward we have seen the development of LEGO City as an animated series (LEGO City Adventures). Introducing characters with names to LEGO City was too much for me to deal with. In 2020, a new series was introduced: Monkie Kid. Drawing inspiration from the classical Chinese Novel, Journey to the West, the series and sets draw on a mixture of futuristic vehicles, traditional tales and fortresses.

By the middle of 2022, all of the in-house play-themes are associated with an animated series: Friends, Ninjago, Monkie Kid and LEGO City Adventures.

Combining the digital and physical

One of the big challenges that the LEGO Group has faced over the last 20 years has been the onslaught of digital entertainment options available to children today: mobile games, streaming services, console games and more. This challenge has been approached in many different ways:

  • The development of apps integral to the storytelling in the theme: for example, Ultra Agents which used conductive bricks to interact with a mobile app.
  • The use of Augmented reality to expand the playspace around an assembled set – such as LEGO Fusion – test marketed in the USA in 2012.
  • LEGO Dimensions was a multi platform game in the toys to play genre: minifigures on RFID platforms are used to provide players with a wide variety of powers and engagement, including multple licenced properties, including Harry Potter, the LEGO Movie, Mission impossible, Doctor Who, and Jurassic world. There were over 100 minfigures released as part of this theme, but unfortunately the themes/game was cancelled with half a wave remaining, as well as the closing aspects of the story remaining to be seen.
  • The NEXO Knights game used the phone camera to identify shields which were an integral part of the power-up process
  • with an associated game. These shields could also be found at events, in theme parks, and occasionally tucked into the cartoon series.
  • Augmented reality has been utilised in several play-themes including Hidden Side and VIDIYO – with varying effectiveness. The Apps associated with these themes needed beefy phones or tablets to run smoothly. Augmented reality had also been used in conjunction with the paper catalogues, to give them the feeling of coming to life. Unfortunately, to run properly, these Apps have required the associated sets to remain intact

The challenge has been to identify the things that make Fluid play simple – where the child flips from the digital game to playing with the LEGO Bricks, and back again.

In recent times, some more successful options have appeared: one is LEGO City Missions – where you follow an animated story, and build a vehicle according to the needs in the story, and the other is LEGO Super Mario. The physical bricks give us the structure of Mario’s World, while the interactive brick can scan bonuses and enemies, interact with friends, jump, fly, turn: all on the basis of its 6-axis accelerometers, and interactive screen.

Adults are acknowledged as a target audience.

Ten years ago, there were sets appearing at regular intervals aimed at Adult fans. You could set your clock by them: Modular house in January; Motor Vehicle in March; Star Wars UCS for May 4th; a super heroes direct to consumer set in October, along with the Winter between, there were one or two Ideas releases along with bit of Architecture. It was predictable AND Achievable for your typical AFOL. Then things accelerated: Fairground rides were added into the mix; Every second year would see the release of a Technic Supercar; Marvel heroes demanded attention and then, in 2020 it happened: The flood gates opened.

Packaging on some sets turned black, we saw new ranges of products: Star Wars and Marvel Helmets and Busts; large Mosaics (followed by even larger mosaics), and then we saw some huge sets being released. Within 12 months, the top 10 largest set list was rewritten 4 times. Football stadia; Ninjago City Gardens; the Colosseum; Titanic all stood to disrupt this top 10 list that had been pretty well unchanged in 5 years. Around this time the pandemic hit, and the market for LEGO increased exponentially. Now we have more sets aimed at adults than the typical adult can hope to make in a year. And of course this year we have seen the arrival of the 10497 Galaxy Explorer and the 10305 Lion Knights’ Castle – harking back 45 years to the early lives of minifigures.

The Casual adult fan is now well and truly part of the commercial audience.

Expansion into Asia

During this decade, we have seen an expansion into Asia by the LEGO Group. There are now a couple of factories in China, and hundreds of Certified and Brand Retail Stores have opened up across the country.

We have also seen Chinese culture demonstrated in sets for the first time, with the rollout of the LEGO sets celebrating the Chinese New Year, Lantern Festival, markets and more.

Incorporation of the classic novel Journey to the West into a new theme – Monkie Kid – is also indicative of the group’s push into this region.

The Home of the Brick

The LEGO House: source – the LEGO group

The LEGO House, a tribute to all facets of LEGO, was opened in 2017. The building is located in the heart of Billund, meters from the former family residence, and has something for everyone. There is an extensive history collection in the basement, and places to explore building forms for the natural world, some creative exhibits, and finally the Masterpiece Gallery, where 3 giant dinosaur models stand along side amazing MOCs built by AFOLs from around the world. The Dinosaurs are built using Technic, System and Duplo elements respectively. I was fortunate to visit the house in 2019 and I believe that even if you have just a passing interest in LEGO, there is something here that you will find appealing.

Well, its getting late, and it feels like there is so much I have not mentioned for this decade: the arrival of the LEGO Minifigure Baby! The purchase of Bricklink – a major hub for the secondary market – by the LEGO Group; a drop in profit in 2017 resulting in some significant staff redundancies; a new CEO Niels b. Christiansen; the arrival of the fourth generation owner, Thomas Kirk Kristiansen; the 60th anniversary of the brick; the role of the LEGO Foundation; Increased focus on diversity and inclusion, including sponsoring programs for neurodivergent children, as well as the development of spoken LEGO Instructions and Braille Bricks. And more.

Join us tomorrow as we look at what has happened this year, and what we might be able to expect going forward. Rampant Speculation will follow.

Until then,

Play Well!

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