Monday, November 26, 2012

Lego Lord of the Rings: Open-world game design for kids

I'm new to English developer Traveller's Tales' series of surprisingly well-received video games based on the Lego universe. But as a Lego enthusiast and die-hard The Lord of the Rings fan, I had to pick up their new Lego The Lord of the Rings title (it didn't hurt that its pre-order bonus was a nerderrific Elrond minifigure from LotR's prologue).

From what I've heard about previous Lego video games made by Traveller's Tales, they've begun to head in an open-world direction, and Lego Lord of the Rings is the logical next step in this approach. While there are about a dozen isolated "story" levels based on the pivotal events in Peter Jackson's film trilogy, the bulk of Lego LotR lies in its open-world Middle-earth.

It's interesting to see how Traveller's Tales adapts the open-world concept for kids. Of course, it's simplified: locations are all incredibly close together, and virtually no enemies appear while players are exploring the world (bad guys appear in story levels). And to make a waypoint system that kids can understand, not only is your destination pointed out with an arrow on the map, but a trail of translucent blue Lego studs leads you in the right direction. Much like a car GPS, it recalculates your trail depending on where you are.

AND SO MANY COINS. Well, not coins--in the Lego universe, they're Lego studs. But these studs are literally everywhere in Middle-earth, and hitting any bush or rock or tree in the game will unleash a wave of silver and gold studs. This in-game currency is the very definition of a virtual Skinner box, but kids love it. I talked to multiple parents of children who play the Lego video games, and all the kids are addicted to smashing Lego walls all day for studs.

Strangely, if you play through the game from story point to story point without exploring, you miss a huge portion of the game. For example, when you first get to Lothlórien, it activates the cutscene where Galadriel and Celeborn send the Fellowship on its way. Before you know it, you're already rowing past the Argonath. If you never backtrack to Lothlórien on your own, you never get to explore the forest city. I expect a large number of players will totally miss areas like this.

The game is meant to be played by two people together. On your own, you can play the game switching between characters on the go, but when played co-op, the two-part puzzles become much more fun. It reminded me of Portal 2's co-op missions. And either player can drop out or re-join any time they want, which makes it perfect for parents playing with kids.

The bulk of Lego LotR's content happens after you destroy the Ring. My brother and I blazed through the game's story over Thanksgiving weekend, but we finished with only about 30% "completion." After the game ends, players unlock Free Play mode, and are encouraged to explore every nook and cranny of Middle-earth to find every playable character and goofy costume. It's surprisingly meaty, especially considering Traveller's Tales developed the game so shortly after this summer's Lego Batman 2.

Lego Lord of the Rings' condensed open-world Middle-earth means there's no dead space anywhere. And while players can fast-travel wherever they want, it often doesn't take much longer just to walk there. This encourages players to travel on their own and experience this beautiful, kid-friendly Middle-earth.

The fact that there are no bad guys to kill you while you're exploring the world means kids don't feel intimidated from veering off the beaten path. And the blue-stud waypoint system means it's impossible to get lost.

We often wonder when we'll see a truly great open-world Lord of the Rings game. While Skyrim has the "open-world Tolkien ripoff" market cornered, Lego Lord of the Rings may be the closest thing we've seen so far to this ideal LotR game. It's got the depth and epic scale of Middle-earth with the charm and wit of Lego. And it teaches us a little about our approach to open-world games, too. While it's a very abbreviated version of Tolkien's story, it's a great introduction to the series for kids, and a wonderful trip through memory lane for the rest of us.

Oh, and it features one of my favorite Easter eggs ever.

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