The Ludicrously Lucrative Licensing Deals Behind 'Lego Dimensions'

The Ludicrously Lucrative Licensing Deals Behind 'Lego Dimensions'

'Lego Dimensions' is adding expansion packs specifically tailored for children of the Eighties Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Why is the kiddie franchise 'Lego Dimensions' releasing expansion packs based on 1980s pop culture? Because it's not really for kids

Why is the kiddie franchise 'Lego Dimensions' releasing expansion packs based on 1980s pop culture? Because it's not really for kids

I am gazing upon the classic Green Hills level from the 1991 classic Sonic the Hedgehog, with its unforgettable loop de loops and springs and treacherous spikes. As I drink it all in, the titular hedgehog gazes out of the screen at me and taps his foot impatiently. He's eager to begin tearing through this timeless obstacle course one more time.

The scene is instantly familiar to gamers of a certain age. But look a little closer, and you can tell that it's a simulacrum, a game-within-a-game. Sonic is squat and deformed, with a squared-off torso and fingerless hands that are locked in a C-shape, as if they are solely designed to grip cylindrical objects. Also, the lush grassy environment around him isn't constructed from low-res Sega Genesis pixels – it seems to have been built from chunky Lego bricks.

What I'm actually looking at is the new Sonic the Hedgehog Level Pack for the Lego Dimensions franchise. The $30 pack contains all of the plastic bricks I need to build a physical version of Sonic, as well as a sports car and a biplane that the hedgehog can pilot. Once the toys are completed, I can place them on a special peripheral that came with the $60 Lego Dimensions Starter Pack, and the character suddenly pops into existence inside of the game on my TV screen.

Traveler's Tales, the British developer that created Lego Dimensions, has taken great pains to make sure that its version of Sonicland faithfully recreates the frenetic platforming gameplay of the original. But to truly get a sense of the delirious brand mashup that the developer has created with the Dimensions franchise, you have to ditch Sonic and scan in Lego-fied characters from the other intellectual properties that have their own licensed Lego Dimension packs – Homer Simpson, or Scooby Doo, or Wonder Woman, or Chell from Portal, or Marty McFly from Back to the Future.

Each minifig displays characteristic body language and shouts out memorable lines that fans of their respective franchises would expect. But once they're in the Sonic level, they are sufficiently brand agnostic to race around Green Hills collecting gleaming gold rings, hedgehog style. "It's so cool to run that course as E.T. from the Spielberg movie," says James McLoughlin, game director of Lego Dimensions.

The same goes for other locales from other licensed tie-ins. Doc Brown can explore Middle Earth, Bart Simpson can match wits with GLaDOS in the Aperture Science lab, and Gollum can tangle with the Stay Puft marshmallow man in the Ghostbusters universe. "In our game, any character can be in any situation at any time," says McLoughlin.

Lego Dimensions seems bizarre and niche even by the standards of the toys-to-life genre, which became a massive phenomenon six years ago while largely staying under the radar of the gaming cognoscenti. Toys-to-life mixes a gameplay experience with a line of physical figurines that each have their own powers and abilities when they are scanned into the game. To truly explore every nook and cranny of the game world, you need to purchase a lot of different toys. Like a "free to play" game, it gets more and more fun the more you spend on it.

The Skylanders franchise, based on a PlayStation platformer that had fallen into obscurity, touched off the trend in 2011. The core game wasn't a chart topper, but kids eagerly assembled vast menageries of the tie-in toys – the total cost for a Skylander completist is estimated to be well over a thousand dollars.

Lego Dimensions is clearly targeting actual children of the 1980s, known in the plastic brick community as AFOLs – adult fans of Lego

The endlessly lucrative brand extensions of the toys-to-life genre burned brightly a few years ago. Nintendo's popular line of Amiibo toys, based on characters from their beloved games, was one of the few commercial bright spots of the underperforming and recently discontinued Wii U console. And the 2013 Disney Infinity franchise, which featured characters from a variety of IPs owned by the house of mouse, grossed over a half billion dollars in its first ten months.

But the trend seems to have crested. The makers of Disney Infinity misjudged demand, and began shipping far too many toys to stores. Despite the fact that they were crafting tie-ins for the hottest franchises around – Pixar! Star Wars! Marvel! – Disney Interactive pulled the plug on the franchise in May. Meanwhile, Skylanders is scaling back; the latest game is releasing on fewer platforms than before.

But a year after its initial release, Lego Dimensions continues to flourish. This summer, Traveler's Tales announced 16 new expansions featuring a dizzying variety of new licenses. On November 18th, kids can purchase packs based on prominent properties like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Adventure Time, as well as packs based on lesser-known old 1980s franchises like Gremlins and the A-Team. (Packs based on Beetlejuice, Knightrider and Goonies have also been teased for future release.)

Does Warner Bros. really think that kids will be interested in franchises created two decades before their birth? Probably not. Lego Dimensions is clearly targeting actual children of the 1980s, known in the plastic brick community as AFOLs – adult fans of Lego. (While lurking on Lego forums where AFOLs congregate, I saw several posts from people who were buying Lego Dimensions packs despite the fact that they didn't play the game – they just desperately wanted a cool cubicle tchotchke.)

Traveler's Tales also has older fans of their Lego games, and parents who play alongside their kids. The developer has always aimed their brick recreations of popular franchises at a bifurcated audience. The core of the game is easy enough for youngsters, but there's also a metagame of hidden collectables and unlockable characters that keep more experienced players happy. There's witty self-aware dialogue and subtle references sure to please grownup superfans. (For instance, the unlockable characters in Lego Marvel's Avenger's doesn't just include 15 distinct iterations of Iron Man from various films and comics – it also includes playable versions of Stan Lee and Lou Ferrigno.)

McLoughlin says that some of the older licenses are the biggest selling expansion packs in Lego Dimensions. "We always knew that the Back to the Future pack was going to sell well," he says. "What surprised me was how much the Wicked Witch of the West pack sold." The latter does actually make sense – the character has magical abilities and the power of flight, and she gives players entree to the world of Oz, complete with a hidden black and white Kansas level.

One of the real delights in this franchise is the strange interactions between brands that were never intended to intersect. Whenever Krusty from the Simpsons bumps into Batman's rival the Joker, he asks if he can hire him to work a kid's party. "It makes sense that those two would have a special interaction," says McLoughlin. "Oh, and also, whenever Gizmo the Mogwai eats a Scooby Snack, he turns into a gremlin. I love that."

The licensing deals necessary to make this sort of mashup seem daunting – you often hear horror stories about licensees placing constraints and restrictions on game developers. McLoughlin says that some of the deals are relatively straightforward due to the fact that the game is published by the interactive arm of Warner Bros. "We're lucky, as the list of intellectual properties they control is massive."

Other deals are initiated by people at Lego keen on making a toy line out of the IP. "We get feedback from them on brands they're interested in," he says. "Every time they come by our office, they have prototypes of new minifigs. We get our first glimpse of Lego Sonic, or Lego Beetlejuice."

Other times, the team at Traveler's Tales are pursuing their personal favorites. "Goonies is my favorite movie," says Arthur Parsons, game director and head of design on Lego Dimensions.

Once they nailed down the rights for Goonies, the team could brainstorm about which character to make a physical toy out of, and build a gameworld around. "Should we pick Chunk as a Character? Or Data? We picked Sloth, because he'd make an awesome minifig, and he'd allow us to retell the events of the movie from his point of view."

Parsons says that rights holders are easily convinced to participate in Lego Dimensions when they see the deep love that Traveler's Tales evinces for a franchise, and get a sense of how funny and bizarre the mixed-up universe of the game can be. "The people who control the Harry Potter franchise have strict rules on protecting their brand, and rightfully so," he says. "We assure them that we'll treat their IP with absolute respect, and make sure it does everything it should do. Harry Potter will be able to cast spells... but he will also be able to drive around in the Mystery Machine from Scooby Doo. They instantly get it."