Funcom haven't had a smooth ride of late. The Secret World performed under expectations (although these were expectations based on their delusionally thinking they could charge a box price and subscription for a new IP MMO), and in January they were briefly suspended from trading as their offices were raided. That cannot have been fun. However, things appear to be back on track now, and last week they were showing off their next MMO, LEGO Minifigures Online. It could well be a much needed cash cow for the milking. I sat down and had a play of the family-friendly brick-me-do.
I don't know if it matters whether Minifigures Online is any good or not, because Funcom and LEGO have done something rather smart. Minifigures, if you're not familiar, are currently quite the thing with the little humans. LEGO estimates that at some point this year there will be more Minifigures in existence than humans. Bought in foil bags, they're like 3D collectable cards, little plastic chaps and chappesses randomly distributed in surprise pouches. And here's the masterstroke: from the game's launch later this year, each of those pouches will come with a code, that when entered into the game makes that Minifigure available to play. It is this, I suspect, that will give the game a mighty bump. In a world of enormously expensive collect-em-ups like Skylanders (£12-£15 per figure) and Disney Infinity (£10 a figure), having something slightly similar at £2 a pop is going to be mighty attractive to cash-strapped parents. Especially when the game itself will be free-to-play.
But how is the game? Honestly, I'm not yet sure.
As a list of selling points, the game does very well. I could PR the hell out of it. First up, you've got a family-friendly MMO that plays on both PC and tablet, with seamless switching between the two. No one's done that before. Play it in the back of the car on the way home from swimming, pick it up straight away on your mum's PC when you get in. And there are probably ways kids will want to approach it too. In the game, the collectable figures (added both by buying bags, and earning them in-game) are used in a solo-co-op that scales from super-simple for the very young, to really quite complex mixing of special abilities for older kids and (they hope) adults. Combine that with an environment familiar from Travellers Tales' massive LEGO series (TT aren't involved in this game, but Funcom have certainly mimicked some of the more distinctive features), and you have something with instant appeal.
There's also the rather enormous factor of familiarity. While they're not touching any of the licenses - Star Wars, Indy, Batman, etc - they are putting in the recognisable Lego areas. There's pirate settings (where pirates are the goodies, clearly), a medieval area, Candyland, and so on. Add to that plans for PvP that include being able to auto-construct Lego turrets and walls to keep out opponents, and PvE will include boss fights, a two-pronged upgrade system, and perhaps most importantly, an enemy called Crikey The Kraken, and there's already a lot more going on here than in the ill-fated Lego Universe.
In fact, that solo-co-op deserves embellishing. At any point you have three characters in your roster, picked from your larger pool. Minifigures split into three types, Defender, Striker and Builder. Each has a slightly different play-style, different skills, and presumably a well-rounded roster has one of each. You can switch between them at any point, either to employ their specific talents in a certain situation, or because one's health is getting low and you don't want to respawn earlier in the area. But more interestingly, switching between characters can access a much more complicated way to play.
Say you're playing as the Bumblebee Girl, she has a right click attack that throws a puddle of honey, in which enemies are slowed. She can also fire clouds of bees, which if there's already honey down will stick to the enemies rather than buzz around them, and do more harm. Neat. But switch characters can offer more advantages. Perhaps you flip to the DJ, whose right click attack literally drops a bass (that joke alone makes this game deserve success), which slows down enemies. Now flip to the Forest Maiden and fire off her rope arrow snare, and then her triple arrow AoE ranged attack. Those three attacks all combine, work harmoniously, and make for more effective combat.
Or you can use these swaps to share buffs. The Fortune Teller's secondary attack creates a spinning vortex of tarot cards around her. Trigger that, then switch to the Viking Woman and summon her Valkyrie ghosts, which fly out from her to nearby enemies. Switch again to the Roman Commander, and he can run into melee battle, but with both the tarot cards and Viking ghosts doing a bunch of extra damage around him.
Which all sounds pretty neat. What I saw of it - I played for about twenty minutes, one quest, no build-up - wasn't a proper sit down with an MMO. But what I experienced was something relatively plain. Oddly, the game looks more authentically Lego than TT's games - far fewer cheats in terms of constructing the world from proper Lego parts. But it was also a linear run down an instanced path, fighting mobs we met along the way. There was a bit of building, which is the same as the TT games here - bouncing piles of blocks are clicked at, and compile themselves into something useful - there are no plans for freeform Lego building in this particular game. There was a lot of attacking. And there were a couple of very simple puzzles. So my concern, at this point, is that it may be over-simplified in delivery. The game goes into beta this Summer so we can get a proper idea, but obviously Funcom have a tricky challenge on their hands. A kid-friendly MMO, that is aiming to appeal to adults too, ideally so they can play together. That's always a tough call.
It of course means they also have to work out what to do about in-game chat. Currently they tell me they're planning to go with a specific bought-in system - they wouldn't say which - that identifies inappropriate communication and blocks it. But they say that they're open to the possibility of ditching chat altogether if they're not satisfied that it's completely safe. My guess is they'll end up with one of those pre-build statement systems, so that it's possible to ask people to team up, help out, etc, but not, you know, in real life.
The other big question is payment models. Rather disappointingly, they weren't willing to talk about that, beyond confirming that it's free-to-play, and there will be ways to spend money. They added that they will be following all the latest directives on such matters, but a disinclination to talk about how they're going to go about making it profitable seems a little bothersome. Clearly they know it's a controversial subject, and presumably they're just trying to avoid the debate for as long as possible. But I'd have preferred to hear, "Oh yes, we have these super-smart ideas to keep it wholesome..." Hopefully that sentence will be completed soon.
The combination of a kid-safe MMO space, and a budget interpretation of the collect-them-all nature of Skylanders, seems like savvy marketing at the very least. Funcom certainly have a lot of MMO experience to build on, no matter your feelings about Conan or TSW, and if they can achieve their aims of making this interesting for adults too, then there's potential. If not, it could find itself fizzling out too quickly. This Summer's beta should reveal more, with a plan to eventually release in the Autumn.