Undoubtedly the first massively multiplayer game based on Danish building blocks, Lego Universe is finally coming to the close of its four-and-a-half-year development cycle. According to developer NetDevil, the game has actually been an idea at Lego's HQ for over 11 years, so it has been a long time coming. The US-based developer responsible for Jumpgate Evolution brought its game to Gamescom to show it to the thousands of visitors heading to its booth, and we managed to get a private look at the game.
The demo started with a spot of customisation, and this being a Lego game, you can mix and match a huge variety of different plastic pieces to create your avatar. Creative director Ryan Seabury showed us how it worked, with a very accessible system allowing you to change every aspect of your appearance. There are lots of nice touches at this stage--the Lego characters in the menu system cover their eyes as you enter your password, subtly emphasising to kids the importance of keeping your password away from others.
Once that's all set up, though, you can jump into the game, where you'll find a huge maelstrom is tearing through the Lego galaxy and breaking everything. It's your job to join Nexus Force and save the universe, and the first stop is to build your rocket. Whenever you build something in the game, you enter a private room where you can be alone with your imagination to create in private. It's easy to build things using the templates provided, but you can also get in and change minute details, using Lego bricks that have been out of production for years, and even in colours that may never have actually existed.
There won't be any XP earning or levelling up in Lego Universe, and instead the game will have a much more open and flexible approach to progression. According to the developer, a Lego character should be able to reinvent himself, so you'll gain new gear to customise your character as you progress through the game. You'll also be able to engage in challenges with your friends, such as a Left 4 Dead-esque co-op game where you need to face off against wave after wave of enemies.
One of the most important parts of the game is the social interaction, and as the game has a young target audience, the approach is markedly different to most other MMO games. The core idea is based around real-world interaction, with the idea that parents or guardians register friends based on who they know in real life. Kids will then be able to interact with their friends via text chat, which incorporates predictive text to make typing easier, while emotive actions such as breakdances keep things lighthearted. It's then also easy to share creations just between these friends so that minors are protected from content made by people they don't know.
There's a lot of Little Big Planet-esque creativity in Lego Universe, and if you've tried to build something in the PlayStation 3 platformer, you'll be familiar with the concept behind NetDevil's game. We were shown an example of a simple game that the development team had built as a proof of concept. First of all, they created two giant ducks from Lego bricks and placed them in a small area. They then attached a set of basic premade behaviour types to the ducks, such as avoiding players when they approached and breaking into a pile of bricks if they hit another object. Using this simple programme, the team was able to create a simple race for two players, who had to try to make their duck do a lap as quickly as possible.
As for the long-term, NetDevil has a five-year road map for the game once it has been released, with new content being incorporated into the game on a monthly basis. The team is also looking into supporting voice chat at some point in the future. The game will be sold in retail form, with a subscription fee of 9.99 euros per month. It will launch in the UK on 15 October 2010, so watch out for more coverage on the game in the run up to release.