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The Lego Lesson

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Or 'How casual games are taking over'

Lego Starwars, Lego Batman, Lego Indiana Jones, Lego Rockband…  Lego Everything?

What started out as a gimmick and then evolved into a genre, now appears to be turning into a full-blown market.  So what makes Lego compelling?

At first blush, Lego Starwars seemed like a silly idea: start with a well-developed brand that takes itself seriously, and make a child’s toy out of it.  Yet it works, very well.

The brilliance of Lego Starwars is all the more impressive, when you consider that it started five years before Nintendo released the Wii and brought the casual market to the industry’s attention.

The Assumption
Before Lego Starwars, it was widely known that most people did not play video games.  The people that did were often assumed to be children or nerds.  Not playing games was a social decision, and it was left at that.  The casual market was largely ignored.  For those that were immersed in the business and played games regularly, it was hard to believe that games were simply too difficult for most consumers.  The truth is, video games require a significant amount of eye-hand coordination.  Most consumers are willing to play games but had been discouraged by early failures.

The proposition
Lego Starwars made a proposition; it basically said,
“Look, I’m a video game but I’m like Legos; you remember Legos, right?  Even a five-year old can play with Legos.  I’m not going to make you feel inadequate.  What I’m going to do is give you that same feeling you had when you were a kid playing with little plastic blocks.”
Of course, much of the audience was actual children, but adults are just as much a part of the buying process as children, and the decision was unanimous –buy Lego Starwars.

The reality
In a way, Lego is just pointing out something that most consumer industries have understood for decades, if not centuries: If you want to sell more copies, aim for the lowest common denominator.  The Lego franchise is successful for two reasons: first, clearly, it proposes safe, clean fun; second, few people are intimidated by the intellectual proposition it makes.

iPhone example
The iPhone is proving this point over and over again.  The point can be made just by looking at a few of the recent top-selling games: Flight Control, The Moron Test, Stickwars and Camera Zoom.  Let’s take these one at a time:

Flight Control –trace a line with your finger to guide the plane.  That’s it.  The whole game fits on one screen.  You’re only doing one thing at a time.  You’re not even guiding the line through narrow gaps, so your strokes can be broad.  Yet the premise is that you’re doing something quite complicated, so you feel very good about yourself –look at me, I’m playing a video game!

The Moron Test –This poses the itchy question that just can’t be ignored: Are you smarter than your friends?  Presented as a ‘test’, no prior videogame experience is required, or even expected, and the test is so simple, you’d have to be a moron to fail, so clearly, there is little reason to be intimidated.

Stick Wars –This game’s art is drawn with stick figures.  Gameplay consists of wiping the screen like a mop.  Everything about this game’s premise implies simplicity and the game delivers: the only real ‘decision’ is to upgrade defenses as soon as funds become available. 

Camera Zoom –Ok, so this one isn’t actually a game, but it’s telling for a few reasons.  First, this app is almost completely unnecessary; the iPhone already allows you to zoom in on any picture.  All ‘Camera Zoom’ does is cut out the extra resolution that you wasted by not framing your photo properly.  Second, and most amazingly, this app didn’t even work for over two weeks, yet still managed to stay in the top 3 of sales during that time, demonstrating that implied accessibility is more important than even a functional product.

The Future
So what does this mean for the future of gaming?  Are all games going to devolve into Fisher Price for adults?  I posit that the movie industry holds the answer.  Mass market drivel like Pearl Harbor and Transformers dominate the Box Office, but complex, artistic and intellectual pictures still have their place.  Although, less ‘complex’ venues, like the iPhone, Wii and PC, will host more than their fair share of mass-market games.