How To Make A Lego Game

I haven’t played the more recent Lego games. I may get around to them eventually, but right now I’m happy replaying Lego Star Wars, and I’ll see how I feel about tackling Lego Batman once I get there. My understanding is that Lego Batman 2 was kind of a sea change for the series, so maybe what I’m about to say here is really more like “how to make a pre-2012 Lego game.”

The heart of those early games (and maybe also the new ones, I dunno, I’ll see when I get there) is exploration and collection. The combat is perfunctory, and while I think it could be improved, it shouldn’t be a focus. Likewise, I think puzzles leading to optional areas could stand to be a bit more difficult (still easy enough to be solved by casual play, but not as idiot-proofed as the main route has to be to allow six year olds to complete the levels), although it’s hard to write a post about that because each puzzle should be at least a little unique, so at that point I’m doing level-by-level design for an entire game. Neither of these should be as major a focus as the exploration and collection, though, which is what Lego games focus on and what they absolutely nail, which is why I like them despite their deficiencies in their secondary attributes.

But it’s definitely possible to do better. I can see why Lego Star Wars in particular didn’t end up going the route I’m going to propose, but only because it was an early game. “Let’s make a silly Lego version of Star Wars” was a perfectly good starting point, but what it should really be ultimately is “let’s make an explorable Lego world based on Star Wars.” I think one level that gets close to this is level 4-2, Through The Jundland Wastes. This level starts you out in Tusken territory, takes you through a Jawa sandcrawler, and ends you back at the moisture farms. It’s a tour of about half the cool places in Tattooine that starts you off with Luke Skywalker and Ben Kenobi and lets you pick up C3PO and R2D2 along the way. You’re exploring a cool place and collecting cool Lego minifigs with abilities that let you unlock new side areas for additional studs. It’s one of my favorite levels.

To the extent that the exploration in Lego Star Wars: The Complete* Saga isn’t flawless, it’s mainly in that not enough levels are like Through The Jundland Wastes, and even the one that are aren’t as open as I’d like them to be. I don’t think an open world approach is a good fit for every franchise that gets Lego-fied, but I think making the hub-and-levels transition more seamless is a good idea. Later Lego games actually did have a full open world, and I’m not sure that’ll accomplish what I’m getting at here, but I’ll see when I get there. I bought a couple of them on sale about a week ago, so I’ll get around to them.

Enough beating around the bush: How would I do it? I’d have a level that was just Tattooine. You would start at a spaceport of some kind, so in this case, Mos Eisley. I might have Mos Eisley and Mos Espa be separate locations, but more likely I’d combine them into some kind of Lego pun-name like Mos Brickley. It doesn’t have to be a particularly clever pun (although someone better at puns than me might be able to come up with one anyway), but it establishes that this is, in the spirit of Lego, a location built from the components of Tattooine but isn’t necessarily arranged the same way we see in the movies.

This town would contain the cantina, Watto’s shop (he’d probably sell vehicles or let you customize them or something), a place to initiate the pod race mini-game, and basically all the contents of level IV-3, which takes place in Mos Eisley in the game as-is. Leaving town through various paths, you could get to the locations in the Jundland Wastes, and you can also find Jabba’s Palace and the Great Pit of Carkoon, which are also already present in the game. Maybe also have the pod race track go through the Jundland Wastes and let you explore the locations both at mach speed in a pod race and at a slower pace on foot, where your path criss-crosses the track as you find secrets and discover shortcuts.

You’d have a party of characters you could recruit here, who would collectively cover every ability needed to progress through any part of the whole of Tattooine. For example, the local bounty hunter might be Princess Leia in the Boussh outfit. At the spaceport, you can go into your spaceship and swap in any character with capabilities that your local party already has. For example, IG-88 is a ranged fighter, a bounty hunter, and can operate both protocol droid and astromech panels. In order to bring IG-88 to Tattooine, you would need Princess Leia (Boussh), who is a bounty hunter and a ranged character (you could also have Boba Fett be the local bounty hunter, but I’d save him for Bespin), C3PO, and R2-D2, who are of course a protocol and astromech droid respectively. The local Jedi is Ben Kenobi, and the local Sith might be…well, we need Darth Maul for Naboo and we need Emperor Palpatine for Coruscant, so let’s say Savage Opress, so if you unlock Ben Kenobi (who may be available from the start) you can bring in Ki Adi Mundi or Qui-Gon Jinn episode VI Luke or whoever, and if you unlock Savage Opress you can bring in Darth Vader or Count Dooku or whoever.

I’d handle custom characters somewhat differently: You can bring them anywhere, but any abilities that haven’t been unlocked locally are unavailable. If your custom character is a bounty hunter but you haven’t found Princess Leia (Boussh) on Tattooine yet, they can’t use their thermal detonators or open bounty hunter doors.

You could fly to different planets from the space port, and then take different routes to unlock different characters. Each planet would have some kind of main villain whose defeat would be sold as the “primary quest” (possibly requiring all of the other characters available on the planet to reach) and one of the challenge modes would involve speedrunning a reset version of the map to defeat the villain, or defeating the villain without dying, or whatever. True Jedi would be split up by location (so Tattooine would have separate True Jedi tracks for Mos Brickley, the Jundland Wastes, the Great Pit of Carkoon, and Jabba’s Palace) and the studs would reset any time you changed maps. You could have minigames like pod races or bounty hunts scattered around, but there wouldn’t necessarily have to be one on every planet (or just one on any specific planet).

Some other planets you could feature:

-Naboo (main villain: Darth Maul) has a lot of content from episode I you could recycle, but you’d definitely also want to add content for the underwater gungan city, which is too cool not to be an explorable location (hot take: gungans in general are reasonably cool, they just get disliked by association with Jar Jar), and you could condense levels I-3, I-5, and I-6 (which take place in the streets of Theed, the Theed Palace, and the generator room inside the Theed Palace, respectively) to make room. Likewise, the gungan ruins hideout and the plain outside Theed where they fight the battle droids should probably feature, although neither would have to be very big (and the latter is basically just a flat-ish field with gungans and battle droids running around fighting each other, with probably some tanks to destroy or something).

-Geonosis (main villain: Count Dooku) is featured in levels 3-6 of Episode II, which should be plenty enough to make a full planet out of.

-Levels IV-4, IV-5, and VI-5 take place inside one Death Star (main villain: Darth Vader) or another, and levels IV-6 and VI-6 take place in ships outside of them (or inside of them but in a tunnel, in VI-6’s case). Like with Mos Eisley and Mos Espa, I think combining the Death Star is fine, and you can have hangars like the Falcon lands in during episode IV be transition points between the inside walk-around-y bits and the outside fly-around-y bits.

-Hoth (main villain: ???), Endor (”), and Bespin (main villain: Boba Fett) each get two levels. In all cases, I think this is sufficient to make an explorable planet out of and a cool enough location to definitely keep. Likewise, I don’t think any of them particularly need to be expanded, although the interior guts of Cloud City should be a general exploratory level and not a confrontation with Darth Vader (because you want to put Darth Vader on the Death Star instead). I don’t know what you’d use for Hoth or Endor’s main villain, but you can fish some Clone Wars characters like Savage Opress out.

-Coruscant (main villain: The Emperor) is technically a two-level planet, with II-1 being a vehicle level in the “streets” and III-5 taking place in the Jedi Temple. I think it’d be a good idea to keep Coruscant, but it needs to be expanded. There needs to be routes into the scummy underworld like we see at the start of the Episode II movie, some high-class floaty penthouse stuff like we saw Padme hanging out in during the Episode III movie, and we need to be able to visit the Galactic Senate building. Cut whichever of the planets listed below as are necessary to make this happen.

-Dagobah and Kashyyyk both get just one level. They’re both somewhat like Through The Jundland Wastes in that they take you through a bunch of different locations in their respective planets, but they don’t have as much variety. In both cases, I think this is mainly because the planets as depicted in the movies have less stuff in them compared to the Jundland Wastes, and both of them could potentially be improved just by asking the level designers to add some more stuff with the time and effort freed up by cutting some of the levels listed further down (or alternatively, cutting one of Kashyyyk or Dagobah to focus on the other). Since (as we’ll get into in a bit) we’re probably cutting Utapau, Kashyyyk is a good planet with lots of droids to make General Grievous the main villain.

-Kamino (main villain: Jango Fett) is also a one-level planet that I feel could be expanded, although its one level is mainly an extended battle with Jango Fett and doesn’t do as good a job being a scaled down (and more linear) version of the kind of exploration-focused level I’d like to see in a Lego game. The whole Jango Fett battle sequence would be a perfectly good route to have branching off from the main Kamino hub, though. Either way, Kamino would require more expansion than Dagobah or Kashyyyk and isn’t any more iconic than either of them, so it’s a low priority.

-Mustafar (main villain: Anakin Skywalker) is a one-level planet and also its one level revolves around a gameplay mechanic that necessitates linearity, so we probably just need to leave it on the cutting room floor.

-Utapau just needs to be cut. Its one level is purely a fight with General Grievous. It’s a cool environment, but it’s just not as important a location as some of the other planets and there’s almost nothing to build on here. Unless it turns out that making new levels is actually super easy and we can just have more content than the Complete Saga (which combined the efforts of two different games’ worth of development, mind you), Utapau is probably not making it.

-Levels I-1, III-2, and IV-1 take place on space ships, and level III-1 takes place in a space battle between space ships. Level V-3 also sort of takes place in a space battle (more unambiguously so at the beginning). You could combine these into one big space battle, but I think letting ships just be kinda small would also be fine. All of these spaceships are kinda same-y, though, and also similar to the Death Star, so I think they’re good options to cut in favor of expanding other locations. I think the big space battle can stay, but actually getting into the spaceships to run around, while definitely super cool, is the lowest priority on this list.

My recommendations for cut content at the bottom here transition us smoothly into the concept of DLC. I wouldn’t want this to turn into some EA-style scam where you sell the base game for $60 but only ship it with half the levels and sell the others piecemeal, but certainly there are plenty of other planets you could package with new characters and sell as DLC because they would be expanding upon the amount of content sold in the game as it actually exists. Utapau and Mustafar are obvious places to start, along with any of Dagobah, Kashyyyk, and Kamino that ended up having to get cut. Adding explorable space ships for the space battle would also be cool. You could also add planets that weren’t in the original game at all, like Yavin 4, Dathomir, Mandalore, Rhen Var, Korriban, Ord Mantell, Canto Bight, or Scarif.

Better Lego Star Wars Combat

I’m playing through Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga, a name which has aged poorly, but the game itself has aged pretty well, provided that you go into it with the mindset that this is a charming game intended for ages 6 and up and is not going to be very challenging.

Despite that preamble, my thesis here is that Lego Star Wars’ combat could nevertheless have been better. The thing that keeps the game accessible for kids is first and foremost the True Jedi mechanic, wherein each level has a certain quota of studs (Lego currency) you must gather in order to achieve “True Jedi,” and the penalty for death is that your studs go flying and you may or may not be able to regather them all before they disappear. Coming back from one or two deaths is still pretty easy, but if you’re dying left and right, it’s usually impossible to regather enough of your studs in time to hit True Jedi.

So we have room to make combat more interesting without hurting the game’s accessibility, especially since that is a very low bar to clear. Lego Star Wars has fun platforming, but its combat is easily the least fun part of the game. The game is fun in inverse proportion to how much combat is in it, because the combat boils down to “press the fight button until you win.” As a melee character, the combat button both deflects blaster bolts and attacks the enemy. As a ranged character, it both dodges incoming shots and fires your blaster. The closest thing to a challenge is when you need to fight a melee character, and there the secret is just to use the groundpound attack over and over, because it can’t be countered and melee enemies never think to use it themselves.

You can see how we can make this system more complex without locking out six year olds, particularly when placed alongside the True Jedi system that makes it nearly impossible to actually lose, and instead the actual skill challenge is purely in an optional objective.

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How Chess Pieces Actually Behave

I’ve talked before on this blog about how I’ll play games as a quick break between chunks of work. Chess is really good for this, because 3-minute blitz games take approximately five minutes each, so it’s very easy to slip into my schedule. As a result, I have played a stupid amount of chess over the past two months.

Fantasy worldbuilding will sometimes have cultural chess variants where the pieces work the same but have different names. This makes perfect sense. Chess pieces get translated differently in different languages even in the real world. Bishops and rooks in particular tend to get renamed a lot. The rook is a ship in Russia, an elephant in India, a cannon in Bulgaria, and a chariot in Vietnam. The bishop is an elephant in Russia and Vietnam, a camel in India, an officer in Bulgaria, a jester in France, a standard-bearer in Italy, and a hunter in Slovenia. I’m guessing these names are, at least in some of these languages, giving way to “bishop” and “castle” in modern use because that’s what they look like in the Staunton set used by the International Chess Federation, but traditionally Indian chess kings marched into battle with a full menagerie backing up their front line.

When creating fantasy variants, they’re often plainly derived from the Staunton standard we’re all familiar with. At that point, why not just actually use Staunton pieces? Replacing the bishop in particular may be necessary if the setting you’re making a chess set for just doesn’t have bishops, but beyond that, I say either stick to the familiar in order to enhance legibility for the audience or else do it right by choosing new pieces based on their role in the game, not just making very slightly fantastical equivalents to the Staunton set.

For example, if you’re redesigning all of the pieces of your chess set for a D&D-style fantasy world, then your knights should probably be some kind of rogue. Rogues don’t show up in regular chess because they don’t show up on the battlefield. Whoever heard of bringing thieves to war in the real world? But in D&D-style fantasy, this is much less bizarre. A major use of a knight in chess is to jump over the enemy front line, slipping past an otherwise impenetrable pawn wall to sit in enemy territory, surrounded by enemy pieces, and yet not be threatened by any of them. Knights are sneaky.

On the other hand, knights and pawns are the two pieces that basically never get renamed, except in minor variations on whether they’re called “cavalry,” “horses,” or “riders.”

Bishops are very long ranged. They also tend to end up getting names that make them seem like upgraded pawns. Bishops capture the same way pawns do, just at longer range, and bishops blocked in by their own side’s pawns are referred to as “tall pawns” because they don’t do anything a pawn in the same position wouldn’t, guarding the two pawns diagonally in front of them and nothing else (well, they also have the option to retreat, but you usually don’t want to do that). This is why bishops are sometimes called officers, since an officer is a sort of upgraded level 2 infantry, and being some kind of archer would also make sense. In D&D settings specifically, a sorcerer would also make sense, since sorcerers can pop up anywhere, in any class background, so they kind of make sense as an upgraded peasant, and just like a sorcerer, a good bishop has lots of ranged attack options, but a bad bishop (like a Sorcerer with no spells left) is basically indistinguishable from a peasant/pawn. Bishops are also often some kind of animal like a camel or elephant, to go with the knight/horse, so if you have some weird fantasy animal you want to add, like a manticore or something, a bishop is a good piece to do it with.

Rooks are usually associated with something bulky. Elephants, cannons, ships, or heavily armored chariots. Rooks are really good at cleaning up pawns in the later part of the game, when the board is open and the rooks have had a chance to peel themselves out of the corner and develop, which I’m guessing is why they’re usually associated with something big enough to crush a hapless farmer. Some kind of giant or golem would be appropriate, if you want to stick to playable classes in D&D this is a good place to put a tanky Fighter or Barbarian, and you can also just let them be castles.

Queens are almost always either left as queens or replaced with some kind of vizier or prime minister. If you’re not using the Staunton set, you should probably change this one. It’s got some weird gender role baggage, and while it’s not cut-and-dry misogyny (the queen being the most powerful piece on the board – a development that happened after the piece transitioned from being a vizier to being a queen – is a strong counterargument to the idea that Victorian levels of misogyny were the norm back in the medieval era), that, if anything, makes it more annoying to deal with. Cut-and-dry misogyny is, at least, very easy to get across to an audience. The queen is powerful and maneuverable, so this is a great place to put something that is both strong and fast. A wizard makes sense in a setting where wizards are just better than everyone else, but less so in a D&D-style setting with class balance. A dragon or similar super-monster would also work. You can also use the vizier/prime minister, the lieutenant of the king.

Speaking of the king, for the same reason you shouldn’t use the queen unless you’re just using the Staunton set unaltered, you should probably refer to the king as the gender-neutral “sovereign.”

The Inevitable Extinction Of Humanity Isn’t

In the back half of the 20th century, everyone was worried about nuclear apocalypse. That cooled off for a while at the very end, but as the 21st century has got going, not only is it back on the table, but there are several new apocalypses we have to worry about. There is a minority but not uncommon attitude of inevitable doom.

And it’s really unambiguously wrong.

I don’t want to overstate this case. There are a lot of very bad outcomes on the table and we should work to avoid them. There’s almost no scenario where all of humanity is destroyed, though, let alone a probable one, and let far alone an inevitable one. There’s also plausible scenarios where humanity gets through the whole 21st century largely unscathed, bloodied only by the usual wars and pandemics that have marred every century of history. For that matter, if the last ten years are the worst the 21st century has to throw at us, it’s going to unambiguously be a golden age. Covid is a huge improvement over the Spanish Flu and the cholera pandemics (of which the 19th century had five, each of which individually lasted at least five years and often more than a decade), and Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ukraine combined have nothing on the Great War or Napoleonic Wars. Even without taking population growth into account, the 21st century has been serving some pretty weak tea compared to the first 25 years of the 20th and 19th centuries. People call Francis Fukuyama (the End of History guy) the wrongest man in history, but if these doomer predictions ever get gathered up into a particularly notable book, Francis will have to settle for second behind that book’s author.

Certainly there is no reason to assume our luck in the next 80 years will be as good as it has been in the last 20, 2010 to 2020 have certainly been noticeably worse than 1990-2000 or 2000-2010, and we should not ignore potential dangers, but things are actually going quite well overall.

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