How devs design the Lego games to appeal to all ages

TT Games head of design Arthur Parsons opens up about how the studio designs and focus-tests its popular Lego games so that they're enjoyable (and accessible) for all ages.

Creating a game that’s entertaining for all ages is extremely challenging, but there’s one studio that seems to hit the mark every time.

TT Games seems an expert at making experiences for both younger and older players. It accomplishes this by sticking to the studio’s core principles of fun and authenticity, but also through ensuring there’s enough variety in the humor and the stage design.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2, the latest in the Lego franchise, is a great example. The game asks players to control a collection of popular Marvel heroes on a mission to defeat an evil time-traveling villain named Kang the Conqueror. Along the way you explore Chronopolis, the central hub world, completing missions, and building and destroying the Lego environments.

Appealing to fans with in-jokes

Like many of the other Lego projects TT Games undertakes, Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 follows a particular formula to ensure it appeals to as broad an audience as possible.

Arthur Parsons, the head of design at TT Games, says the Lego games stick to two core principles in order to ensure they're broadly appealing. 

“Ultimately, fun is number one. Fun, funny, humorous. Everything has to be enjoyable," he comments. "But then the second one – and I think this is where we probably manage to appeal to older gamers – is authenticity. And that’s authenticity to whatever the source material is.”

Parsons points to the humor in Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 to highlight this point. In the game, there’s plenty of slapstick humor for children, but there’s also tons of complex in-jokes and references to appeal to long-term fans. For instance, the game features humorous cameos from minor characters from the Marvel extended universe, like J Jonah Jameson and Giant Man, which may go over the head of those who haven’t seen the Sam Raimi films or read the older comics.

“You have that in-your-face humor,” Parson says. “That sort of 'someone has a ladder on their shoulder and they’re turning around and someone has to duck out of the way' slapstick. But then we also go onto another level where we do our best to add humor that’s very relevant to the IP. If people analyse the games, they’ll see the various influences [we draw from].”

The golden rule

The game’s art direction is another factor that contributes to the franchise’s broad appeal.

“Usually in our games, we have a very clear rule of you have environmental art and you have you’ve got Lego. A lot of people very quickly understand that anything made out of Lego is interactive and everything else isn’t," says Parsons. "It’s really nice because that’s just something that happens naturally when people play.”

This approach ensures that no matter what your age is, you can understand the environment and what options you have available. It’s a subtle bit of direction, but it’s one that’s been implemented in almost all the Lego games, including Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2, to help players navigate the map and find key items within the stage.

Introducing new challenges or distractions

As for the older and more experienced players, most Lego titles are full of additional challenges to cater to people looking for a greater challenge.

In Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2, specifically, you have tons of extra objectives you can complete, such as finding collectibles, locating 'Easter Eggs', or finishing additional objectives.

“We put a lot of Lego and interactive Lego into our levels, because we’ll have our core story path, but along the way we like to fill the level with a lot of peripheral content. A lot of the time that is just hidden free play or extra collectibles," explains Parsons.

“Sometimes it’s just stuff for fun. So it might be some little ride-on vehicle that you can have a lot of fun with, or just some bits and pieces that can be interacted with for fun. It’s creating something where there isn’t that one route start to finish. You want people to have a different experience. It may be that someone goes in and they just really want to go through the story straight through the level. Then there’s some people who really do just enjoy mooching around, exploring every nook and cranny, and seeing what every bit of different Lego does.”

Focus testing and playtesting

Playtesting and focus testing are key to balancing these aspects and ensuring that a Lego game remains accessible for all ages.

For instance, the team on Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 team put together a "first playable" build very early on in the development of the game to focus test it with a group, including younger players and experienced gamers. This helped them to see how players respond to certain obstacles, whether they are engaged, and where they might need help.

Parsons gives the example of Doctor Strange’s rune-tracing ability as something that was changed as a result of focus testing. This ability requires players to draw runes by tracing a line around a shape without overlapping.

“That was something we did focus test. And based off of those findings, we actually put something in where if people actually fail a rune-tracing I think three times, the rune fades and then comes back, but it actually goes back to the next level of difficulty," he recalls. "So as you progress through the game, the runes get more and more difficult, but if it’s something where people actually get blocked it will actually do a slightly easier one. They’ll never notice, hopefully.”

Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 seems to be well in line with TT Games’ tradition of making games not only suitable for all ages, but enjoyable for them as well. The team accomplished this by identifying areas they could improve throughout development, and by sticking to the core principles they’d developed over years of working on the Lego games.

To end the interview, I asked Parsons for any advice he’d give to a developer trying to make games for the all ages market.

“It’s a bit like asking the Colonel for his special recipe. I think any developer will openly state that the success of their game is down to their people," he said, with a laugh. “If you’ve got a great development team that really buy into what they’re making, then you can’t help but making something fun and engaging and rewarding. We do look at our games and we do try and have fun while making our games, because that’s how the fun is going to come out. We encourage creativity. We encourage people on our team to add to that mix.”

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