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.