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

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!

Ten Ton Hammer: Along with level progression, the LEGO Universe team introduced Faction Kits for each of the 4 player factions. Are these premium offerings, and what do these kits add to the game?

Jordan Itkowitz: Yup, we added 4 new Faction Kits to the game in August, and these are only sold by the Faction Vendors in Nimbus Station and Nexus Tower (you need to become a Member in order to travel to these worlds).  As with the original Faction Specialty Kits, each of these 4 new Kits has 3 full Ranks to move through, and each Rank has 4-6 pieces to earn and equip.

Sentinels can now become a Space Ranger, which is more tech- and ranged-based than the melee Knight and Samurai kits. It also has a pretty sweet sub-orbital laser beam AoE and you also can create a black hole and suck enemies into the void.

LEGO Universe interview with Jordan Itkowitz

Assembly Faction members can now become an Inventor (in addition to the Engineer and Summoner kits), a mad scientist-like kit which allows you to spawn swarms of bees, summon an electrical Tesla shield and a floating robot protector. Lots of wacky stuff.

Venture League has the new Adventurer kit (joining the Buccaneer and Daredevil) which gives you a hat and a whip like that famous adventurer guy. You know, Johnny Thunder. It’s also Venture League’s support kit, so you can perform team heals and team speed buffs (the longest speed buff in the game, by the way).

And the Paradox Faction adds the Shinobi kit (the other kits are the Space Marauder and Sorceror), which has all kinds of nasty Ninja tricks, including an AoE that calls down bolts of lightning, a shadow rush, and a skill that lets you spray the field with hundreds of shurikens. (I’m playing this kit right now and it’s awesome).

Faction Kits are some of the most popular (and expensive) gear in the game, and so we also added some content in the August release that lets you preview 4 of the original Faction Kits in Avant Gardens as a free player. Just a taste of some of the awesomeness you’ll experience once you get to Nimbus Station and start working on your real Faction Kits.

LEGO Universe interview with Jordan Itkowitz

Ten Ton Hammer: Is creativity in building rewarded with the new 40 level progression system? Or are ratings and bragging rights still the standard among LEGO builders?

Jordan Itkowitz: You do get U-Score towards your Level by completing building-themed Missions and Achievements and by visiting Properties, but ratings and popularity are still the major metrics by which players judge each others’ Properties.

We will be making some specific, targeted changes to this system in the coming months. There are a ton of amazing Properties out there – it’s mind-boggling what some of the builders have created on their worlds. We’re also seeing a lot of fun role-play activity on the Properties – groups of players banding together to play out adventures in the worlds they’ve created. Eventually we’d like to give more concrete incentives and rewards for that type of creative play.

LEGO Universe interview with Jordan Itkowitz

Ten Ton Hammer: The Spider Queen encounter was a nice bonus - should players expect new content regularly? Should we expect content updates more often now that LEGO U is free to play?

Jordan Itkowitz: Yeah, I was really excited by how epic that battle turned out – all part of the revisions to Avant Gardens to give it a more complete and dynamic experience arc.

And yes, there will be new content regularly – in fact, the Ninjago update was just released, and it’s one of the biggest content releases we’ve ever done. A huge world, 100+ new Missions and Achievements, awesome new Spinjitzu powers for all 4 Elements, new Skeleton enemies, 150+ new pieces of gear, and we’ve raised the level cap to 45. Of course, you’ll need to sign up to play it all, but given how much of a blockbuster Ninjago has been for the LEGO Group this year, we’re hoping that will be a no-brainer for our free players. 

Our thanks to Jordan Itkowitz.

To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our LEGO Universe Game Page.

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