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Levels and LEGOs: A Q&A with LEGO Universe's Design Director

Updated Thu, Oct 13, 2011 by Ethec

LEGO Universe completely redesigned its gameplay when they went free-to-play. Ten Ton Hammer talked with Design Director, Jordan Itkowitz, about the new progression system, faction kits, future content, and staying microtransaction-free.

Ten Ton Hammer: LEGO Universe is hardly the first triple-A title to go free-to-play, but its the first to completely redesign its gameplay to incorporate a DikuMUD-style level progression system rather than the previous hitpoint and gear-based progression system. Why was level progression a good fit for LEGO U's new freemium outlook?

Jordan Itkowitz: We have a lot of Missions and Achievements to do in LEGO Universe (accessible via the Passport), but until recently, you were mainly compelled to do them all in order to earn the rewards and gear attached to them. That collection incentive was satisfying on its own at first, but we felt we could do more to bring focus and structure to the game, while also encouraging players to drill deeper into their Passports.

LEGO Universe interview with Jordan Itkowitz

A level progression system seemed like the most natural fit. You earn Universe Score by completing Missions and Achievements (rather than incremental xp drops from mobs) to raise your level. Pretty straightforward, and it drives players to really explore everything we have to offer.

As far as gear goes, it was critical that we design a progression system that integrated neatly with the collect-and-customize experience that’s so integral to our game – frequently outfitting your minifigure is just a very LEGO activity, after all. Aside from max Life and Imagination, all of your stats are stored in your gear, and so we went with a system that maintains that dichotomy (as opposed to a typical upgrade path where you tweak your character’s stats and skills.) We also gated the gear, based on your level, rather than just allowing you to use overpowered gear at any point in the game. It definitely provides a much smoother pace and experience through the game.

I’m very pleased with how the level progression system was integrated. It accentuates the systems that were already working well – frequent character customization and the deep reserves of Missions/Achievements – while also bringing more clarity and momentum to the overall experience. It’s been especially gratifying to watch new players ding Levels all around you – and also to see how many of our existing players really took up the challenge to hit Level 40. And now they’re able to hit 45!

LEGO Universe interview with Jordan Itkowitz

Ten Ton Hammer: LEGO U has never been a game to nickle and dime players for bricks, and you've upheld that microtransaction-free approach now that the game has gone free-to-play. Premium subscriptions are still all-inclusive, much like the game was under the previous monthly sub model. Is microtransaction-free still the plan moving forward?

Jordan Itkowitz: Yes. Our main goal right now is just to open the game to as many players as possible, and get them so excited about the worlds we’ve created – and more importantly, the worlds that they can create themselves – that they want to sign up and continue the adventure.

Once you’ve become a paid member, everything in LEGO Universe is available to all players equally. For our core audience (8-12 year olds), this is a crucial consideration for parents, and directly affects how children view the overall gameplay experience. We want LEGO Universe to be about collaboration and creativity – earning rewards and achievements, not simply paying for them.

LEGO Universe interview with Jordan Itkowitz

Ten Ton Hammer: Will players be able to play all the way to level 40 without opting for the premium subscription? Are higher level worlds premium only?

Jordan Itkowitz: Not really, no, although I suppose if you kept doing the Dailies in Avant Gardens (the main content zone in the free offering), you might get close to 40. But to really take advantage of the higher Levels  – where you can access Faction Kits and Spinjitzu and race cars and Pets and lots of other worlds – then you’ll need to become a Member!

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