Before Lego Ripped Off Minecraft, Minecraft Ripped Off Lego

Mushroom biome, Lego World.

Mushroom biome, Lego World.

Screenshot courtesy Lego

When Warner Interactive’s new video game, Lego Worlds, debuted this week, the tech press spoke of it as if in a single voice. Virtually every article about the game—and there have been hundreds—described it as a potential competitor to Minecraft, the enormously popular game that Microsoft recently purchased for $2.5 billion. Some have gone further, implicitly suggesting that Lego Worlds is a rip-off: “It’s not Lego Minecraft: The Game, but it might as well be,” one reviewer wrote.

Such claims aren’t necessarily wrong, but they don’t tell the whole story. Though the PC version is available through game download site Steam, Lego Worlds is technically still in development, and it’s hard to say what shape it’ll take in its final form. A few hours with it reveal the essentials: Everything in the world is made out of Lego bricks, from the towering pyramids that pepper its deserts to the green turf of its rolling fields. Using in-game tools, players can pull apart these features, reconstructing them one brick at a time or moving them about en masse. In this regard—you disassemble to world to assemble new things—it clearly has a great deal in common with Minecraft.

For all that, it’s worth remembering that Minecraft lifted far more from Lego than Lego does from it. Indeed, as Darrell Etherington rightly observes in TechCrunch, “When Minecraft came out … a lot of people describe[d it] as sort of like virtual Lego.” At the simplest level, the very idea that you can make new things from the pieces of old ones—Minecraft’s core gameplay convention—owes a clear debt to the Lego system. Ultimately, Lego Worlds may have less to do with outdoing Minecraft than it does with building on the history of Lego.

When I was young, I was fascinated with the pictures on the backs of Lego boxes. Where the manuals inside provided step-by-step instructions for building the kit according to plan, the images suggested alternate designs: A menacing castle, for example, could become a pair of towers or a sinister sailing ship. These pictures told me that what I might build would be limited only by my imagination (and the available bricks). To play with Legos was to play with possibility itself.

And to play with possibility was inevitably to tarry with disappointment. When I did try for something personal, my alternate creations came together clumsily at best: log cabins where I had dreamed of skyscrapers, dinghies where I had desired ocean liners. My ambition running aground, I would inevitably rebuild each set according to the official design, the occasional missing brick a mournful marker of my failure.

From the start, Minecraft was designed for people made of sterner stuff than me and the back-of-the-box types. It dumps players into enormous open environments and then effectively leaves them to their own devices. As they become familiar with the blocky virtual worlds around them, players learn to build object, structures, and devices. Many of them have managed formidable feats of digital legerdemain, re-creating scenes from movies, city skylines, and more. One talented artisan even cheekily duplicated the $70 million mansion that Minecraft creator Markus Persson purchased after selling his company and its most successful product. My own Minecraft attempts, by contrast, were little more than literal holes in the ground. I gave up before I dug too deep.

While there are guides available to players of all skill levels, at its core the game itself is like a Lego kit without instructions. You have a reservoir of pieces that fit together in various ways and only the vaguest suggestion about what to do with them. Especially in the game’s creative mode—in which players have unlimited access to resources and few environmental limitations—playing Minecraft well has more to do with ingenious engineering than it does fast reactions, strategic planning, or other traditional gamer skills. In other words, it’s all about what you can build with what you have, a form of play popularized by Lego but perfected by Persson and his collaborators.

But of course, not everyone wants (or is able) to build freely. Parents of young Minecraft fans will tell you that their children—especially the older ones—are often content to watch videos of others playing the game. This, I suspect, is a product of the realization that not everyone is equipped to improvise designs like those on the back of Lego boxes. Lego Worlds works around this frustration by allowing users to assemble castles, cottages, and other classic constructions more or less automatically. While the player watches these elaborate constructions come together, they’re responsible for little more than selecting the model and holding down a button as they erect themselves.

What makes Lego Worlds exciting isn’t that, like Minecraft, it lets you assemble anything from its component parts—though in theory it does. It’s that it lets you assemble recognizable Lego models. Most previous Lego games have been based on existing properties, literally built according to well-known models. The fun of Legos—of those games as surely as the toys themselves—is partly recombinant. They let you take the commonplace apart and put it back together again according to your own inclinations, opening up the horizons of speculative experimentation that are at the heart of childhood play. Even in the early form of the game available now, that delight is very much in evidence. While it may not feature Batman, Gandalf, and C-3PO like The Lego Movie, it revels in familiar shapes, even as it invites you to make them strange.

If Lego Worlds succeeds, it won’t be because it draws on Minecraft. Instead it will be because it pulls on traditional Lego sets and designs. It’s no guarantee that that will be enough: Lego Universe¸ a massively multiplayer game, shut down after less than 18 months, partly because it was really bad at stopping players from making penises out of bricks. Whether or not it triumphs where its predecessor went flaccid, Lego Worlds is no more likely to fully supplant Minecraft than it is to take the place of the real toys on which it’s based. But maybe, just maybe, it’ll keep a few parents from stepping on bricks in the middle of the night. And that, at least, would be a blessing.