Few experiences in life compare with the breathless excitement of your eighth birthday and unwrapping a LEGO AT-AT Walker kit. Still, 15 years or so after the event, being paid to relive the memory isn't bad recompense for the transition to full-time employment.
"At the start of a project, we'll get the new LEGO sets in and someone will stand up and say, 'I know this is a hassle but can you stop what you're doing and build these please?'" laughs Neil Crofts, a lead character artist at game developer Traveller's Tales. "What can I say? It's a fun environment to work in. It's LEGO! Everyone's sat around like little children quietly building stuff. Actually, I'm pretty rubbish at it," he reveals. "Even though the kits are designed for kids aged nine to 11, after a while I always start to think that there must be some bits missing."
Having worked on three LEGO-based games, you would think Crofts would have got into the swing of following those instructions by now. However, there appears to be plenty of expertise elsewhere in the 150-strong studio, with almost every surface dotted with examples of the multi-use play bricks. Based in the quiet, upmarket Cheshire town of Knutsford, Traveller's Tales has made its mark in the global world of videogames thanks to its five LEGO game releases - three based on the Star Wars films, plus LEGO Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures and most recently LEGO Batman: The Videogame. The team also works on non-LEGO games, but it's the combination of the visual style and playful interactivity of the little bricks, combined with some of the biggest movie licenses, that's propelled its status as one of Europe's most successful codehouses.
Indeed, the games, combined with the exclusive license for LEGO games negotiated by Traveller's Tales' parent, TT Games, were so profitable that in 2007, Warner Bros. snapped up the group in a deal rumoured at $200 million. The lucre aside, a mark of the franchise's critical acclaim is the BATFAs awarded to LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy and LEGO Batman.
Despite the company's experience and the richness of the source material, the process of making a LEGO game is complex. In fact, many of the processes are deeply interlinked, involving collaboration between artists, designers and programmers.
Even the seemingly straightforward role of Tim Hill, a game concept artist, demonstrates the to and fro inherent in game development. Working quickly in 2D, mainly in Photoshop or using old-fashioned paper and pen, he provides a surprisingly high level of input into the artistic look of the game, as well as the interactivity. "Often the designers will have ideas about the gameplay, but not necessarily how it will work in terms of the actual level of design," he explains. "Working in 2D, people can look at my designs and get an idea of the flow. It sorts out a lot of the problems before we spend time building in 3D, and obviously I can knock out 2D versions much more quickly."
This was especially the case in LEGO Indiana Jones, which lets you play through LEGO versions of the Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Temple of Doom and the Last Crusade films. "Wherever possible we tried to tie our levels into locations from the films, but the needs of the films' plotting can be quite different from the game requirements. Typically, we'll find some of the film locations won't be shown in enough detail so we have to expand them," says Robert Dickerson, head of the 3D environment team.
This conceptual filling-in is vital because of the way the LEGO game levels are constructed. First, the technical artists create a rough 3D mesh based on the game design, the characters' movesets and the puzzles and challenges they'll need to overcome. Once functionally is complete, the environment artists then move in to make the level look beautiful. "Because the technical artists focus on the interactivity between levels and the characters, everything apart from the terrain will be modelled very primitively," Dickerson explains.
At this stage, the level will be untextured, so Hill also works to provide an overall look. "I can work quickly, provide mood and colour palettes and sketch out the lighting conditions," he says. "It's a case of taking the level design and producing something that works well as a game and is visually interesting."
Still, as the result of this approach, the majority of Hill's work isn't seen outside the production environment. Occasionally, though, he'll get the chance to create textures or artwork that's used in-game. "I did some 'LEGO-ised' versions of classic paintings, such as some Rembrandts, Munch's 'Scream' and [David's] 'Napoleon' for Castle Brunwald in Indiana Jones," he reveals. "It was a bit of fun and also helped us get around potential licensing issues in terms of copyright over the paintings. It's a small touch that brings out the humour of the games," adds Dickerson.
In contrast to the iteration involved in the level creation, the character creation process appears much more straightforward. "As a character artist, we don't animate the figures," says Crofts. "The simplest task is creating a generic mini-figure, which involves working with the basic library mesh, modelling any custom elements, such as specific heads or props, and then texturing. That should only take about a day." With five LEGO games already under their belts, the process has become fairly routine.
The situation changes with non-standard characters, however. "In Indiana Jones, we needed a camel, and there aren't any LEGO camel figures to use as reference," says Crofts. "In such cases, you have to work closely with the animator. You have artistic license to create something as much in the LEGO style as you can, but it's about trying to simplify the end result as much as possible so it works in-engine."
Dealing with such real-time restrictions in terms of the overall polygon and texture limits that underpin every game is, of course, always an issue. It's particularly a problem for the LEGO games, because in keeping with their popular appeal, they're released on a wide range of games consoles, from the high-powered PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 to the more graphically limited handheld PlayStation Portable.
"Getting certain functionalities to work across platforms can be difficult," says Crofts. "In LEGO Batman, for example, the characters have lots of suits for their 'power-up' abilities, so every time you load in a character, you're also loading all their suits into the memory. That was hard to manage on the PSP and meant differences in the characters' polygon count, depending on the platform."
But aside from these limits on creativity, Crofts reckons the hardest things for artists to deal with are the seemingly intractable bugs that sometimes arise. "With LEGO Indiana, I was working on these little red spiders, which for some reason weren't red in the Wii version of the game. It should have been such a simple thing to fix, but I ended up spending days trying to work out why. I had nightmares about them!" he says. "When I finally fixed the bug there was a big cheer around the office, because everyone knows how ridiculous those situations become. Fundamentally, the spiders not being red on one platform wasn't that important, but if you have the time to make something right, you do it. That's one of the things about working on LEGO games. You really care about the finished product."
It's these examples of hair-pulling frustration that demonstrate how, LEGO-building sessions aside, developing a series of multi-million selling LEGO games isn't child's play. This is most apparent at the end of a project when everything comes together during the crunch period, and the company's standard flexi-time system of 42 hours per week goes out the window. They work until the job's done, the bug count's zero and all the spiders on all the consoles are red.
"It's a reality at the end of any game project," says Dickerson, who has worked on five games at Traveller's Tales. Despite his workaholic tendencies, he admits it can get a little too much. "You have to be careful not to burn yourself out because no matter how hard you've worked at the start, there will be a crunch," he says. But despite the dark shadows under the eyes and pizza-induced weight gain, it seems no-one would have it any other way. "It's a dream job. You're being paid to be creative, which is what I would do in my spare time anyway," says Hill.
Crofts agrees: "It's great to see something you've slaved over sitting on a shop shelf, but it's another thing when you meet kids and tell them what you've worked on. They think it's god-like. The LEGO games are so massive. It's a huge buzz, and that definitely keeps you going."