LEGO, as we all know, is for everyone. And so are the LEGO games. The secret to their success is the wonderful co-op play: father and son, brother and sister, anyone and anyone together, smashing, building, puzzle-solving and laughing at those cutscenes.
Now, with Star Wars, Batman, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter under its belt, developer Traveller's Tales turns its attention to Disney movie universe Pirates of the Caribbean. LEGO Pirates will tell the story of all four films – yes, four – it's due out alongside movie On Stranger Tides in May - and features over 70 characters – yes, 70. There are enough, apparently, to go around.
But, what can Traveller's Tales possibly do that's new this time? With LEGO Harry Potter something of a return to form, is there room for the adorable LEGO series to significantly evolve? And how will the Nintendo 3DS version make use of the handheld's interesting new features? Here, in an interview with Eurogamer, boss Jonathan Smith explains where LEGO is at and where it's going.
Eurogamer: How do you decide a license is right for the LEGO treatment?
Jonathan Smith: Whenever we meet anyone we say, 'What LEGO games would you like to see?' And they often give us the same answers. We talk to everybody who makes interesting stuff that's relevant particularly for our audience.
We are led a lot as well by the choices LEGO Company chooses to make about the worlds they go into with their play materials and toys, and the characters they feel comfortable with.
We're always looking to do new things. Pirates of the Caribbean is completely new for us. We're excited by that. We're always looking to move on from the gameplay we've done in the past. With each new title you've seen that - the free-roaming of LEGO Harry Potter. With each new game there are new innovations, gameplay systems, new twists and completely new atmosphere as well.
When we think about where to go with LEGO games, are worlds that have got powerful stories that emotionally engage people, that are colourful and full of different characters that are clearly varied - the idea of dressing up as different characters is meaningful for us – and that takes place in worlds with cool action – cool action is any easy thing to say, but action where you can undertake surprising moves one doesn't normally do in daily life, in a variety of locations.
Eurogamer: So Pirates fits the bill?
Jonathan Smith: Pirates has got so much more as well, with the supernatural abilities of some of the characters, which gives us cool affects. There's so much drama in the story set-ups. When you've got the maelstrom swirling, the sea, these pirates attacking villages – the locations are so intrinsically dramatic. So it's very well suited.
Eurogamer: Once you've decided you're making a LEGO Pirates game, what's the next step?
Jonathan Smith: It's entirely as you'd expect: the whole team has to immerse themselves in that world so you know what you're talking about and you get a sense of the atmosphere. That then influences every choice you make in the gameplay. You're deciding what gameplay features are going to be important, what to emphasise, what to build out, what needs to be developed new. And to make those choices correctly the starting point is, what's in, in this case, the movies?
Eurogamer: How did you ensure that?
Jonathan Smith: We have done pub quizzes to make sure they really know their stuff about all the individual characters and where they come from in the fiction. If you're not making something you love you won't do your best work. We're privileged to be working with great story universes that are loveable. So getting into them and filling your head with them is the first thing, because then the ideas flow naturally.
Everyone who works at TT Games and Traveller's Tales has a sense now of the LEGO game world, what works, what's fun, how to be funny in the LEGO game world, what sort of humour, our tone there we understand that. So coming to each new story universe and applying that is how they generate the ideas.
Eurogamer: The walking animation for LEGO Captain Jack Sparrow is fantastic.
Jonathan Smith: It is. But you're going to be controlling Jack quite a lot, so to get that right is so important. It's also incredibly hard. That is art. You can't instruct someone how to do that and to pull that off. That's where we're lucky to have talented people who are so experienced now in what they do.
Eurogamer: The game includes content based on the fourth film, which isn't out yet.
Jonathan Smith: Which we've done before.
Eurogamer: How do you manage that situation? Do they want to keep many of their cards close to their chest?
Jonathan Smith: They know we're making a game which is telling the whole story of the movie, which will be released at the same time as the movie. Disney Company is well set up as an organisation to help partners work through that kind of process, and share and support everything we do.
Everything that's being produced the team are getting to see, and that's a process they love. They were excited to have read the script and to see where the work is going on in the movie, and see the rushes come through. We're privileged to be in that position.
Eurogamer: Do any of the cast have any involvement?
Jonathan Smith: Certainly Jerry Bruckheimer sees the game on a regular basis, and we know he's very happy with it, which is great news. I was lucky enough to play the game with Ian McShane a few weeks ago. That was a moment of some privilege.
Eurogamer: What did he think?
Jonathan Smith: He loved it. I wish I'd got a LEGO mini figure made of you. Anyone who has a LEGO mini figure of themselves, particularly when it's brought to life with such charm and skill by the animators at Traveller's Tales, immediately feels quite an outpouring of emotion.
Eurogamer: Will this game have the free-roaming experience Harry Potter had with Hogwarts?
Jonathan Smith: There is a hub area from which you will voyage on your adventures. It's a large port filled with secrets that will unlock and unfold through the game as you progress and get new characters.
Eurogamer: So it will have a similar experience?
Jonathan Smith: Hogwarts was the largest single environment we built, and the hub area of Pirates of the Caribbean isn't larger than that, but a sense of persistent progress through the hub will absolutely be there.
Eurogamer: The series has always had superb two-player co-op. Is it impossible to go further than that? Have you tried more than two-player co-op? Does it just break down?
Jonathan Smith: Nothing is impossible. We have consistently found the two-player experience is not only how most people play together – it's unusual for more than two people to be playing a game together – but also what works best with our stories we've been telling as well through LEGO games.
There hasn't been a driving need we felt to push that on, particularly not if it would require sacrifices elsewhere, or compromises elsewhere, to make it happen.
Eurogamer: So there's no need for a big multiplayer battle component?
Jonathan Smith: We're always looking to do new things. LEGO Star Wars 3: Clone Wars has got an interesting arcade mode which plays differently to our story levels from our other games. That's worth a look. So you can see we're always trying new things. It comes up very rarely as a suggestion.
Eurogamer: With Pirates, which new feature will have the most impact?
Jonathan Smith: Jack's compass. It's a funny thing, which suits our LEGO tone. We can hide objects in the levels that are completely surprising. You never know quite what you're going to get with Jack's compass. You have an idea of what's available, because the compass will tell you what's available, but not what it's actually going to turn out to look like or to be or how useful it's going to be. So it plays to our strengths of surprise and humour. Plus, Jack's a great character.
Eurogamer: What makes the Nintendo 3DS version different from the DS version?
Jonathan Smith: We are amazed at what the team's been able to create. It's immersive and rich as an environment to play in. Particularly then, with the 3D effect, everyone who sees it immediately goes wow, which is great.
Eurogamer: The 3DS version has visuals closer to the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions than the DS version.
Jonathan Smith: That's the key point. Technically, the texture resolution, but also, crucially – and these things make such a difference – the lighting and visual effects. Having the processing power in the machine to be able to create them is what makes the difference, visually. And we've got more polygons to throw around.
Eurogamer: It uses Street Pass, as well. How does that work?
Phil, producer at TT Games publishing: You start off with a pirate character and select which attack and defence moves you want it to have. When in Street Pass mode, as you pass someone else who has the game, your pirate with duel their pirate and you'll get a report at the end to say who's won and who's lost.
So when you come back to the console you can see the characters fighting each other. If you win, you gain experience points. If you lose, you gain slightly less experience points, but we still give you some. And then you can unlock new moves.
We also use the Play Coins system. You can earn Play Coins by using the pedometer in the 3DS, and unlock new pirates. You'll start off with a generic pirate, but you'll be able to unlock Black Beard or Davy Jones or Jack Sparrow. You'll be able to mix and match different attack and defence moves to try and figure out what the best combination is to beat people you pass.
Eurogamer: How do you earn Play Coins?
Jonathan Smith: Every time you take a hundred steps you earn a Play Coin. You can use those to purchase characters. But the Play Coin system from Nintendo isn't specific to a single game. Your Play Coin total is held outside of all of the games. You might go to Pirates and spend five of your Play Coins on a character, but then if you've got another game that uses Play Coins you can also spend them there.
Eurogamer: What's next for LEGO games?
Jonathan Smith: We'll definitely be making more brilliant LEGO games!
Eurogamer: What's the most requested LEGO game?
Jonathan Smith: We've been surprised over the years at how many people have asked for LEGO Back to the Future, because in some ways that's not a natural one because it doesn't have the adventure or variety of characters as some of the other ones. But it seems to be something people consistently want us to do.
People love to ask for completely inappropriate games with brands that are totally not suitable for children.
Eurogamer: Like LEGO Mortal Kombat?
Jonathan Smith: For example. LEGO can be anything, as YouTube will show you. That's wonderful. We aim to make games that will appeal to the broadest possible audience and will be suitable for all players as well.