I should really be summarizing Asamera Oil Corp. Ltd. v. Sea Oil and General Corp. right now (it’s as fascinating as you think it is), but…
Mark Kleiman has a point about the imagination requirement for toys steadily dropping, although I’m not sure how grounded it is; after all, interactive talking toys have been practically de-facto for girls and boys alike at least since I was little. (Well do I remember horrific advertisements for various baby dolls which would whine on cue, or piss themselves, or be incredibly annoying until you cuddled them – presumably this was valuable training for the mommies of tomorrow.) Likewise, art supplies with strict guidelines have been around at least since I was a littl’un – and before, considering that really, all that these things really are, are more advanced versions of colouring books.)
But he’s definitely right on one serious point. Lego just sucks now. When I was a kid, Lego was goddamned awesome in every way it was possible for little plastic things that were potential choking hazards could be. I remember that every box, every little kit, would have the image of the finished product on the front of the box – and then the back of the box would have at least half a dozen alternate ideas. It was like the Lego people were daring you.
“Any kid can build Lego from the plans. The plans are nothing. Do you see this awesome space interceptor? How did we make that happen with only the bricks in this box? Can you figure out? Can you surpass our creations?”
I’m not even slightly joking – those illustrations on the back of the box were a goldmine. They were imagination triggers, hardwired to the frontal cortex of every little kid who got Lego for their birthday. And they were only the start, of course, because once you started fooling around with the bricks from one set, you inevitably made the leap of logic, the one where you realized that not only could you mess around with the bricks from one set, you could mess around with the bricks from all the sets. Lego was interchangeable in every way that mattered.
And then they started making Lego sets for Star Wars.
Yes, I blame Star Wars for ruining Lego. There are other licensed product lines for Lego, of course, but Star Wars started it all. Take a look at this Lego version of Slave One. It is certainly quite badass in its own way, but it comes with special-use bricks, like most of the Lego licensed product lines do.
The thing about special-use bricks, specifically designed for a given product, is that they’re, well, special – the more specific the use for a given Lego brick, the less universally useful it is. Sometimes this can be economical – I’m thinking here of the early Lego Castle products, where the castle wall segments on their own were much more useful for speedy castle-building than the requisite number of individual grey bricks necessary to build up a big castle would have been, and furthermore reduced the cost of the product. But the castle wall pieces were, still, the basic building block of a big-ass Lego castle. The equivalent to what has happened with Lego nowadays would be entire pre-built walls. Which, sadly, is exemplified here with Hogwarts Castle.
And this is the norm, you see. Check out the Lego B-wing, which has so many custom bricks I’m amazed anybody still calls it Lego. It’s not just Star Wars, either – look at this Batmobile or this really horrific Lego Spongebob Squarepants. It’s crossed over into the non-licensed product as well: look at this Lego shark or this space-tank.
And of course, there aren’t any alternate construction ideas on the back of any of these boxes, which now more than ever are most likely to be the first non-Duplo Lego a child receives (because it’s Batman and Star Wars – I am not so jaded as to pretend that were I a kid, I would not want Batman and Star Wars in my Lego). Why would there be? Suggesting that there’s a different way to build the Batmobile – that ruins your licensing partner’s potential branding. (Up next: Indiana Jones Lego.)
The net effect of all of this is to take Lego from what it was and should be, and just turn it into another crappy line of action figures. Except that this particular line of action figures tends to fall apart when you play with them, so they’re not even particularly good in that regard.
In short: why couldn’t George Lucas just be satisfied with ruining his own products?
UPDATE: I want to make something clear here, because I don’t think I spelled it out properly: Lego for adults is different from Lego for kids. Of course it’s not impossible to build originally with more specialized bricks, but more specialized bricks discourage innovation simply by their very nature – if you implement a higher learning curve to use fancier bricks, less children are going to bother to use them except as directed, and thus the Legos are going to be less imagination-provoking. Yes, it’s wonderful that sites like Brickshelf and other Lego-enthusiast centres are around, and it’s great that there are Lego specialty stores where the staff primarily want to teach kids to “build outside the box,” but the vast majority of kids won’t access those, either because of lack of chance or lack of ability (Brickshelf isn’t kid-oriented, after all).
I mean, let’s be serious: Bionicle, one of the best-selling Lego products ever, is not popular because it offers awesome new ways to build with Lego. It’s popular because they’re action figures. The Bionicle pieces just aren’t designed to do much else other than be Bionicle parts, and while they might not be completely useless in conjunction with regular Lego (“reguLego”?), your average six-to-eight-year-old isn’t gonna grab a Bionicle and think “wow, this leg provides a fantastic cross-brace for that model I’ve been working on.”