"Yo I gotta put a Lego set together later."
That was a real text message that I, a 29-year-old man, sent to my girlfriend on Monday, shortly after we settled on what to cook for dinner. (Baked chicken.) "It's for work. Wanna help?"
She is an urban planner with a respectable government job. Her response, not a few seconds later, was instructive: "Yaaaaayyy!!!!!! Yes!!!!"
Lego's ability to elicit emotional reactions from adults with day jobs speaks to the nexus of nostalgia and creative possibilities that the brand occupies. While the overall global toy market declined last year, the 65-year-old Denmark-based brand known for its snap-together bricks managed to grow sales in the U.S., U.K., and Northern Europe. In Asia, growth hit double digits. And that movie starring Lego's yellow-headed figures has earned $468 million globally since hitting theaters in February.
The success can be partially attributed to Lego's ongoing mission to push creativity forward, as exemplified by the set we built that night: the Lego Fusion Town Master set, part of a brand new line from the company that is available starting today. Unlike other Lego sets, though, there are no instructions. And you have to download an app to start playing.
In the Town Master game, you, the mayor, are charged with building all of your town's infrastructure—homes, grocery stores, restaurants. Your goal is to keep the townspeople happy. Town Master's premise isn't so different from, say, Sim City, but the difference is that you design each and every building using physical Lego bricks. Then you point your phone's camera at the building you put together, hold steady for a few seconds, and voila! Your creation gets digitized into the game.
You may be asking: Why shoehorn a digital interface into one of the few physical toys that kids already love? "For us it's important to be relevant to kids," Ditte Bruun Pederson, senior design manager at Lego's Future Labs, tells Fast Company over the phone. Last year, Future Labs set up a foundational study to seek feedback from kids and parents. They asked them a basic question: What do you want from your toys?
"What we heard from parents was while they wanted the kids to learn how to do digital stuff, they wanted them to build physical things because they think that’s a big part of their development," says Pederson. "And they want them to use their hands. So we wanted to build something that was both digital and physical."
Other toy brands have already seen success melding physical toys kids can touch with interactive software. Activision, for example, scored a $2 billion hit with its Skylander series, which pairs monster figurines that kids can play with and a corresponding video game. Meanwhile, Lego's build-it-yourself turf is being encroached on by pure digital experiences like Minecraft, a game that became so popular that Lego now sells a physical version of it.
Fusion is Lego's entry into the physical-digital fray. In addition to Town Masters, there is a tower defense game called Battle Towers; a hot-rod themed set called Create & Race; and an interior design title called Resort Designer, which the company says targets girls.
The Town Master box says the Lego set is intended for kids ages seven to 12. So to make things fair, we did what I suspect many responsible adults would do when tasked with putting together a new Lego set.
We decided to drink.
Although the set didn't come with instructions, it did come with a few examples of structures we could build. It all starts with the base plate, the most important piece. Lego's software relies on that to recognize your architectural creations.
After breezing through the intro video, we were appointed our first task: a house. Thankfully, you don't have to build every wall of the building; just the front is good enough. We decided to make it look like our real-life apartment building in Brooklyn—which is to say, sterile and soulless, lacking in any discernible charm or character, especially for the neighborhood.
Once it was built, and after a few tries to get the framing right, we scanned it into the game. Lo and behold, the little Lego builders in the game started working on it.
It was neat! Feeling a (very undeserved) sense of accomplishment, I cracked open my second beer. Next, I was asked by one of the two people living in my now-budding utopia to build a local newspaper. Publishing being an industry I'm quite familiar with, I decided that the dead-tree Master Town Times should look like a late-'80s Taco Bell.
After building not one, but two pizza shops directly across the street from one another, one resident asked Mayor Me to build a bike shop. Not one to let my people down, I figured, Why not go goth?
This is where we hit a hiccup. Unfortunately the game would not let me design a building without a door, which makes sense. So, being the benevolent
overlord elected official that I was, I relented:
IN YOUR FACE, LEGO.
Initially I was worried that switching between a physical Lego set and its companion software would ruin the rhythm of the activity, or worse, feel like a clumsy gimmick. To my surprise, though, jumping back and forth between a screen and the Lego pieces that spilled out in front of us had the opposite effect: It gave playtime a clear ebb and flow. I felt encouraged to explore what was possible. I wanted to keep going.
"What we found was that using a digital device facilitates physical play," Pederson tells me. It's one of the reasons the team decided not to include a step-by-step manual; children, they discovered, just want to dive in. "Whenever kids open up an app they just try it out," adds Pederson. "They hate it when it has instructions. We want for the kids to create stuff themselves."
It was getting late. After three glasses of whiskey and two beers, we found that our little electronic sprawl was far from complete. It was bustling with activity and inhabitants (eight of them, in fact!), each of whom kept adding to a laundry list of exhaustive demands; a real town.
Unfortunately we didn't get to build a flower shop. Or a grocery store. Or a fire station, lest any buildings go up in flames. ("That's one of the later missions," Pederson tells me.) But we had what, at least at the time, mattered to us most: a townhouse, two pizza joints, a goth bike shop, and a crummy local newspaper.
It felt like home. A home we built with our hands.
Lego Fusion Town Master is $34.99. You can buy it and other Fusion sets at Toys "R" Us, Lego retail stores, and Shop.Lego.com.
[Boy Playing with Legos: Anna Jurkovska via Shutterstock]