Over the last few months, I have begun to come out of my second LEGO Dark
Ages. Whereas my first Dark Ages was brought on by growing up and having
better things to do than play with LEGO, the second one was brought on
because of a knowing lack of interest in a product that I felt, as many do
and have, that had changed to the point of not being what I loved so much
Any discussion of this type must begin with the recognition that what LEGO
created for kids and, as it turns out, adults, has been phenomenal. A simple
concept the building block taken to a new level in a direction that it
had never seen before. Open ended possibilities, thanks to the unique system
of play and the incredible amount of forward-thinking that so rarely is
witnessed in commercial organizations. As stated so simply in the 1979 LEGO
US catalog, The magic of the LEGO concept is best summed up in one word:
Over the last few years, LEGO has been bitten by the technology bug. On the
one hand, this has allowed LEGO to venture into a new and welcome direction
with Mindstorms. On the other hand, the many licenses, software products and
items such as the Moviemaker sets have probably contributed greatly to the
financial troubles LEGO has reported for FY 2000.
Most of all, though, the juniorization of the LEGOLand sets and the addition
of many pieces that replace flexibility with single-purpose elements has
hurt the LEGO brand.
The fact that LEGO recognizes a need to refocus on their core business
is encouraging. But this refocusing must be part of a fundamental change
back to what made us love the toy and the concept so much. It must reach
across every aspect of LEGOs products, how they are designed, how they are
packaged and how they are marketed and promoted.
Some may argue that the need existed, and still exists, to do things a
certain way in order to provide sets at a reasonable price. But price was
never an issue when people felt the sets were worth it.
The refocus must start with the product ranges themselves, and their
integration and lead-in to one another.
Basic or Universal building sets should include a wide enough variety of
pieces for beginning builders to understand the concepts involved with the
LEGO system of play. They should include instructions for various models,
and the models should inspire creative thinking. As many long-time LEGO
enthusiasts can attest, there were many moments during the building of a set
when our young minds realized Aha! Thats how that works! or That is such
a neat way to use that piece!
The Universal sets were at their finest with sets like 402 and 404 all the
way up through sets like 715. These sets offered a lot of building
possibilities and a strong entrée into the LEGOLand / LEGO System themes.
In addition, the original LEGO figures, constructed with the flexible arm
elements, should be re-introduced. The desire to add human and other
characters into the LEGO play environment is incredibly strong. The
maxi-figs as they are affectionately called, provide a good way to add
figures on a scale that younger builders are capable of matching with their
Adding mini figures into a set with maxi-figs sets an appropriate scale of a
family with a baby. This is something that should be important for young
girls a market segment that LEGO seems to never quite get ahold of. It
also goes back to the idea of better integration between the products for
younger and inexperienced builders and those who want to create expansive
scenes and large models on the mini-fig scale.
The LEGO System
the mini-figure scale sets
must return to the level of
detail that LEGO had achieved during the late 80s and early 90s. I dont
think anybody who loves LEGO products would argue that new elements should
not be introduced, but they should offer more flexibility and possibilities,
The themes and sub-themes, as we all call them, that LEGO has introduced us
to have all but disappeared. LEGO Town doesnt even exist in the 2001
lineup. Buildings hardly exist anymore. The basic ingredients to build a
town are scarcely available. And the core elements needed to build your own
vehicles dont even seem to exist. Of the nearly 70 sets shown in the 2001
in-box catalog, only one has the 1x3 car doors in it, and its a three year
old set that will soon be discontinued.
By contrast, the catalogs of the 80s and early 90s were so rich with the
themes that we all grew to love
Town, Space, Castle, and Pirates. Sets like
6390 Main Street, 6383 Public Works Center and 6372 Town House allowed us to
create the wonderful environments pictured on the pages of your catalogs.
Each set, no matter how small or large, contributed to expanding the
possibilities of the theme and of the LEGO system of play as a whole.
Today we have only scattered sets that fit into formulaic price / piece
count categories within each theme. No effort has been made to keep
continuity between the old and the new. The history of LEGOLand, as a play
environment, has been lost.
It is very important that LEGO return to the theme-based set design
philosophy. And its important that these sets be marketed in such a way
that makes sense for what they are. Ive heard people who work for LEGO
claim that part of the reason the design of the sets has changed so much is
that kids want more action in their toys.
First of all, I never felt like I was missing out on any action with the
old LEGO sets. The sets allowed me to create the environment in which I
dictated the action (or lack thereof, depending on what I built and how I
played with it).
Second, LEGO was successful in introducing more action-oriented elements
into themes such as Wild West, which didnt suffer from a lack of detail or
creative set design.
Third, the catalogs must also return to a more simplified state. The older
style catalogs, where each set is presented in its own little frame,
intermixed with the panoramic views of the vast layouts possible with all of
the LEGO sets in the theme, were perfect. It was easy to see what each set
offered. And it was fascinating to dream of how, once I had all the sets in
the catalog, I too could have my own LEGO town or lunar environment or
And LEGO should not consider civilian-type sets to be boring. Even as a
kid, I wanted the Town Houses, Holiday Villas, Vacation Campers and other
such sets. Main Street is one of the most prized sets in my collection.
Recently, Ive been trying to find more of the housees
the glue that binds
the town of race car drivers, astronauts and firemen together. :)
In the 80s and early 90s, LEGO was very successful at building excitement
for new sub-themes by integration of the new sets with the old, mostly due
to the scenes presented in the catalogs. Houses, hotels, fire departments
and auto repair shops stood along side each other.
Space Police chased the Blacktron rebels. The Black Monarch and the Black
Falcon battled it out while the Forestmen waited in the wings. The various
Pirate bands fought each other on the high seas. This integration was only
natural, given the average three-year product cycle of LEGO sets, and it
worked. Each year, I anxiously opened the newest set to see what magic
awaited inside. The last few years, when I got around to it, Id pick up a
small, new set to see if there was anything good in the new catalog.
If LEGO feels the need to make sets less boring, it should do so by adding
the type of action elements seen in the Wild West sets, or by using the LEGO
System (mini-fig scale) sets to introduce basic Technic elements to perform
action-related tasks. Again, this has the benefit of introducing one buying
group to another through integration and crossover.
Even many of the Technic sets have become more play-oriented than
engineering oriented. The Super Car, Mobile Crane, Farm Tractor, Space
they inspired builders of all ages to think outside the box,
turn things on their side and think fresh. They are inspired models and
designs that all hold up well.
And LEGO should not discount the importance of its packaging. It is
impossible to store small sets in their boxes (without using an inner back,
etc.) because the flaps dont stay closed and the pieces fall out. In the
70s, small sets came in a much more usable box with a traditional tab and
slot design that actually worked and stayed closed.
Medium and large sets should return to the box flap / cardboard tray scheme.
Large sets today must be stored horizontally due to the box cover that
doesnt fasten to the box.
Box graphics and set photography have even suffered. I could barely read the
set name on the Alpha Team Helicopter box because the box graphics are so busy.
I think its wonderful that LEGO Direct is listening, and Im glad to see
that there are more core building elements available through Shop at Home /
Bulk Sales. But its time that LEGO return to a more simple (not to be read
as 'more boring') premise: That of building and expanding and allowing our
imaginations to create all the crazy or not-so-crazy types of things we used
to be able to.
Refocus on building. Refocus on themes. Refocus on detail. Refocus on the
integrity of the product and what it stands for, and dont give in to the
fear that if its not electronic, people wont buy it. They are different
mindsets, and they can co-exist. Look back at your past successes and bring
your product lines, themes and sets back in line with where they were. Give
LEGO enthusiasts of all ages the opportunity to find that magic again.
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