Why LEGO Universe is shutting down in January, and why it deserves a second chance
There haven't been enough genuinely unique MMOs released after World of Warcraft saw its huge success and publishers started chasing its profit margin, but LEGO Universe is one of the rare exceptions that offered something truly different. That's why I'm so sad to see the LEGO Group announce that, just barely one year after the launch of LEGO Universe, they'll be shutting down the imaginative, kid-friendly MMORPG on January 31st of next year.
The announcement is not entirely unexpected. LEGO Universe is a subscription-based game and, like so many others before it, had a very tough time convincing people to adopt another monthly fee on top of whatever game subscriptions they were already paying. Update:The original publishers, Gazillion Entertainment, dropped the game pretty quickly after launch, handing it off to the LEGO Group and making major cuts to the original dev team at NetDevil (many of whom were picked up by the LEGO group to continue development on the game).
The trouble is that LEGO Universe didn't really go free-to-play. Sure, they said they did, and had the fanfare and big announcement right around the time that everybody and their mothers were going free-to-play. But the beauty of the free-to-play business model is that it gives the gamer options for what they want to buy, and how much they want to pay for it—and LEGO Universe didn't do that.
It's especially frustrating, because LEGO Universe is probably the best candidate for a free-to-play MMO that I've ever seen. People are already accustomed to buying real-world LEGO bricks in microtransaction packs to build specific vehicles or space forts or islands with buried treasure. The existing business model translates almost perfectly into LEGO Universe, where players can build anything on their properties, and breathe life into whatever they build with interactivity via animation and functionality scripting.
Instead, LEGO Universe let free players stagnate in the first zone, burdened with debilitating restrictions (like being unable to chat with anyone they group with) and demanding that they pay the developers $15/month or nothing at all.
For free-to-play to work, you have to give players options. Let free players enjoy the game for free, and they'll spend a buck here or there on specific brick packs or tools for building cool creations on their property. Let those players who aren't interested in building delve deep into the game's pet system, and then give them the option to pay a few dollars and finally own that rare dragon pet that's been eluding them for weeks. Let combat-craving players really enjoy the game's Last Stand-style minigames by allowing them to talk with whoever they're grouped with to discuss strategy—and then ask them to throw in a few bucks for alternate maps.
LEGO Universe is a wonderful MMO, whose supremely high production qualities and lovable charm make it alluring to gamers of all age brackets. Its deep achievements and collections systems have had me hooked on and off since launch, and its diverse minigames always surprise me. But the main story is short, and there isn't enough here to make it the go-to game for any hardcore gaming adult. This is a game, much like DCUO, whose fun-first, content-light design requires a free-to-play business model to succeed in a world filled to the brim with compelling MMOs. DCUO acknowledged that and made the jump to a full free-to-play model this week, which has seen them inundated with so many players that the servers can't keep up with the demand.
It's truly a shame that the LEGO Group wasn't bold enough to take the full leap into a real free-to-play business model. There's nothing in the game's design or content that rationalizes why this game is being shut down so soon. I hope someone sees the potential here and picks it up for a re-launch, a la APB: Reloaded. Until then, I'll keep building up my LEGO tower in a tribute to one of my favorite MMOs.