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December 4, 2011 / jwaxo

Lego Creator (Scarcity)

There’s interface design… and then there’s bad interface design.

So. Legos. Where can I even start with this?

I can start with my brother and I selling off our big box o’ Legos at a garage sale, ignoring the cries from our mom that we would some day regret it, words that still haunt me.

I could start with an overview of the toy’s history, telling you things that I’ve learned through the years and supplemented with a brief look over the Wikipedia article.

I might go over the numerous Lego wannabes that I’ve encountered throughout the years, talk about the disappointment of being unable to find that specific brick in a giant box, the pain of stepping, barefooted, on a lone Lego.

Fact is, there’s a heck of a lot I could tell you about Legos. But I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you know all about them. After all, they’re one of the top three best-selling toys of all time (after Barbies and hula-hoops), are used for everything from basic mockups to teaching science class to entertaining boardroom members during long lectures. They’re a universally understood and accepted toy, that, guaranteed, will entertain any kid for hours and hours if you plunk them down in front of a large enough pile.

We had a pretty large collection of them, kept in that aforementioned big box. It accumulated over the years, cobbled together from tiny model sets that we bought with pocket change, various birthday gifts, and just found blocks and bricks. We had some from the Robin Hood-style set, a heck of a bunch of sci-fi themed ones from the 80s, and the rest from the generic, multi-colored, “make random stuff out of this” sets. I hardly even remember making the actual models that you bought them for with them, although I do have vague memories of the flimsy cardboard boxes they came in and the complicated instructions.

Most of my memories of our Lego sets are of the stupid, random things we made out of it.

The pride of many Saturday afternoons.

The combination of Legos and video games was, to say the least, a pleasant surprise. We had picked up Lego Island at some point in 1997, played through it and enjoyed it for its simple storyline and sandbox adventure, but were disappointed with what it actually let you build. For a game that was based on a toy franchise whose entire purpose was to let one build anything, it was frighteningly boxed in. So the little advertisement for Lego Creator inside the case made me water at the mouth.

I got Lego Creator sometime in 1999, at the extremely hefty price of $50. It was still a brand-new game, and I had to borrow a lot of money from my parents to get it. But I absolutely could not turn down the opportunity: after all, if I had a video game where I could make anything I wanted in Legos, I wouldn’t have to buy more, real-world Legos! What would be the point?

I quickly found out.

Once I got through the very difficult to understand interface and controls, took some tutorials on building and creating, I found a particularly complex system. Sure, you could place blocks, but you could also color them (obviously), give them movement controls, tie wheels and levers and hinges to particular button-presses, all kinds of interesting stuff. You could even group specific Legos together and print out instructions on how to build it in real-life, if you were so inclined.

It was a giant, open world.

It should have been like this.

But it was more like this.

You see, I was missing one important fact: it was really, really boring.

Let’s brush aside the complaints of how its so much less satisfying when you aren’t clicking the bricks together, turning a model in your hands as you add on pieces to create a giant monstrosity, a sculpture to your greatness. The joy of kneeling for hours on end to make a city of bricks, with a fleet of tiny vehicles that you can push around. The loss of the tactile was important, but not key.

No, the problem was that it was infinite. Or rather, the resources were.

I didn’t realize it until I had Lego Creator in my hands, but half of the fun of playing with Legos was working with what you had. That giant spaceship we made was fun because it used almost every single Lego we had, and we had to cut out planned parts due to lack of resources, and tacked on other, interesting things because we had those parts. True, not having the ability to use any brick we wanted whenever we wanted made it more difficult, but whoever said difficult does not equal fun?

Having an infinite amount of bricks, bricks of every conceivable shape, color, and transparency, became monotonous. Oh, joy, I can make entire buildings. One uniform brick at a time. There was no rooting around in a giant pile, picking out pieces you’ll probably need later while finding the one you need now. No making strange and outlanding cars that wouldn’t exist if you had everything you planned.

And thus I learned that scarcity encourages creativity, rather then inhibiting it.

Plus, Creator didn’t have any of those awesomely cheesy 80s sci-fi Lego sets.


One Comment

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  1. Sean / Dec 4 2011 9:14 PM

    SO TRUE. The only redeeming value of this game was blowing everything up with dynamite bricks.

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