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:

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
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.

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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
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!

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Ten Ton Hammer:
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

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
to be about
collaboration and creativity – earning
rewards and achievements, not simply paying for them.

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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
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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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
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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