As you may have seen from our LEGO City: Undercover first impressions, we recently visited TT Fusion to go hands-on with the upcoming Wii U title and to learn more about its development. We also had the opportunity to talk in detail with four members of the development team: executive producer Loz Doyle, script writer Graham Goring, lead designer Lee Barber and LEGO lead Stephen Bate.
Due to the size of LEGO City: Undercover there was a lot to cover, but the developers were more than happy to tell us all about it and share their enthusiasm for the project.
NL: You’re best known as a studio for the LEGO movie spin-off franchises, so at what point was the decision made to go with the LEGO City branding and new storyline?
Loz Doyle: We’ve been wanting to do a LEGO City game for a while, before we started it, and the opportunity had never really come up; we’d been doing the other IP games so we didn’t have enough staff, and the technology wasn’t there to support a whole city. So, in 2010 we started doing a prototype for the City game, though we weren’t 100% sure what it was going to be at that point; there was a lot of talk about how much building there’d be in it, would it be more about the construction side, and so on.
So we started to just block-out the city, get some cars in and see how it felt to drive around, and we changed the camera and so on. It started to feel like the right sort of game, and we were finding our way with it, and then that was when Nintendo came to see us in 2011 and showed us the Wii U. They said “look, come and work on this new console, it’s got a cool new controller and you can do this and that with it”. They gave us the specs of the machine and we could just see straight away that it was going to be the perfect fit for this game; we’ve always had a good relationship with Nintendo because we’ve done a lot of games that have been really successful on their platforms. So I think we’d always wanted to work together but the right game had never come along, until LEGO City.
We’ve always had a good relationship with Nintendo because we’ve done a lot of games that have been really successful on their platforms.
NL: With the new concept, how long did it take to come up with a basic outline of the overall plot?
Graham Goring: The plot was kind of already decided on by the time I got on there, because it was very much decided what order in which the abilities came. So the backbone was already laid out, as in “meet this criminal and go undercover with this gang etc”, so that was already laid down. I was just fleshing it out, I knew I had to get from A to B in this scene – a lot of the locations had already been decided on for the standalone levels, with the cutscenes at the start, end and possibly the middle – so really it was the case of “set up the scene and stuff as many jokes in there as you can”; that was pretty much my brief.
I can do that! I’m wouldn’t say I’m the kind of person that can come up with the original plot, particularly, but that had been done so I just put in as many stupid jokes as I could [laughs].
NL: Did you have pretty much free rein in terms of the various parodies and so on?
Graham Goring: Yeah. The one thing was that we wanted as much parody in there as possible, it’s a weird thing with parodies where you put lots in there and you’re sort of, um…
Loz Doyle: Spreading the risk…
Graham Goring: Yeah, spreading the risk is kind of it. In terms of writing I had very little oversight, it had to be approved by LEGO and legal, and a script editor was giving me feedback which was tremendously useful. I had an incredible amount of lee-way, so I was very lucky on this project.
NL: This was primarily shown at E3 2012 as a big upcoming game. Do you think your studio had particularly early access to Wii U, in comparison to what we sometimes hear about early games being turned around very quickly? Was that part of the relationship with Nintendo?
Loz Doyle: Yeah I think so, because they could see the potential in the game from the concept we’d developed, and they were obviously very keen to get it on Wii U. Yeah, we had a lot of dev kits from early on.
NL: Can we clarify the role of Nintendo as publisher. Did it have any oversight in terms of quality checks, scripts etc?
Loz Doyle: We were sharing information with them, the script and everything went to them to look at, and they were always keen to have a look at the game and let us know what they thought. They pretty much left us to it to develop the game, and only flagged things up if they thought there was a major problem, but on the whole they acknowledged the fact that we know how to make a LEGO game better than they do. So they were quite happy for us to make it. Nintendo cameo ideas came from them, as they suggested getting some of those references in there; which we obviously lapped up. Overall they were not that intrusive, but hands on in terms of getting the game to its finished state.
NL: Still on the early days. Earlier on you showed us various ideas for the GamePad that weren't adopted, so what made you opt for the approach you’ve taken? Were you trying to minimalize the reliance on it, or were you aiming to make it intuitive? What made some ideas more suitable for the final game?
Graham Goring: When your character Chase gets what essentially looks like a GamePad in the game, that clarified what you'd do with it; it’s a police tool.
Loz Doyle: We had so many ideas and uses for it, it was confusing in terms of “what is it in the game”, how do you come to use it in the game? That’s why it made sense to make it a police device, so you wouldn’t use it for activities that weren’t police based; so you wouldn’t use it crack safes, put out fires etc. That made it more focused, and we could really polish those features better than if we’d used it for everything.
NL: Do you think that’s a distinction from GamePad to Wii Remote? A lot of games tried to make the Wii Remote do everything, does the GamePad feel more focused, or is it easier to work with in that sense?
Lee Barber: I don’t think for LEGO City we could do it without the GamePad, it’s pretty much central and a core element of the game. This is for both the character in the game and the player; what you see the character doing, the player can do as well, so they’re linked by the same device. As the character in the game upgrades, so do the player’s abilities to do the same. It’s not just limited to a map of a city, the player can feel like a detective or like they’re locating a robber, or locating a hidden item. We feel that’s pretty unique.
Loz Doyle: The GamePad is a very versatile thing, it can do a lot, but we didn’t necessarily want to use it for everything. We could have used it for steering the car, but it didn’t seem like the right thing to do, and it wouldn’t be any better than using the left stick.
Steve Bate: I think, while you’re playing the game, as the character is looking at the GamePad it gives you the opportunity to look down. To be always playing while looking down, it’s really hard work, whereas we’re pausing it and “oh, Chase is looking down”, so you look down, and when you’re finished with the GamePad you’re back to playing. It’s much easier to play a game like that rather than constantly bobbing up and down.
Lee Barber: It’s important to know that looking up and down, while it might be needed now and again, once the player gets to grips with the map and where everything is, they won’t need to do it as much. I know there’s a concern for all Wii U games, in terms of the amount of looking down that’s needed, in LEGO City it’s not essential. Even if someone’s communicating with you, such as police HQ, you can hear the device speaking back to you. You can answer a call or ignore it, you don’t have to look down at the GamePad; if you do want to you can see the character speaking to you.
We appreciated having so much memory, way more than we’re used to having on a console, and we couldn’t have done a city game without that, in the same way.
NL: Is that why you have the green studs to guide players on the road towards their next objective, for example?
Loz Doyle: Yeah, it can be a nightmare if you’re looking at the map to try and see where to go next. With the green studs you can just follow it.
NL: In terms of Wii U as hardware, was its structure and architecture quite intuitive to use in the early days, or was it something that took time?
Graham Goring: We got up and running really fast, didn’t we? It was a joy to work with; obviously there are challenges within the new hardware, but we had stuff up and running really fast.
Loz Doyle: We have a tech team over at the other office, and they’re just whizzes with new hardware, they were all over it and loved doing it, such as writing a new engine for how a new system is setup. We appreciated having so much memory, way more than we’re used to having on a console, and we couldn’t have done a city game without that, in the same way.
Graham Goring: Not as densely populated as this one is. In terms of peripheral gameplay, there’s not a street you can go down where there isn’t something new to do. Which isn’t true of other open-world games, I’d say, quite often they have a city block that may as well be an empty shell. We generally sprinkle gameplay all over.
Lee Barber: There is a balance, though, with the amount of stuff that we did put in on every street corner, with LEGO City there really is something to do around every street corner. The balance came from the amount of content versus questions of whether it was too much – as the Wii U could handle it – and I think we got the balance right.
NL: One description we’ve used is LEGO GTA, is that accurate – in terms of side-quests and so on – or is that a bit off?
Graham Goring: I think it’s just because they (Rockstar) got there first, so a lot of people go to that. The feel of the game, the moral tone etc is completely opposite. It might be a handy reference to get people up to speed with this, but when they actually play it they’ll appreciate the differences. As I said, in a lot of open world games you don’t tend to go on top of buildings because there’s nothing there, whereas with this there’s platforming all over the game. It’s very different.
Lee Barber: With all of the previews we’ve had of LEGO City, everyone tends to say that it’s evidently very far away from GTA, but it doesn’t need to be. It has its own style.
NL: Are there side-quests, in the typical sense, or is it more about collectables and locked areas?
Loz Doyle: Probably not in the same way.
Graham Goring: There won’t be story side-quests, in that sense, but sometimes there’ll be something like an extended parkour trail which gets you to a point where you can listen in and find where a gang’s operating so you can go and arrest them. But there won’t be a dude saying “oh, my cat is up here” for you to rescue them. We do have a rescue cat “thing”, where when you’re dressed as a fireman you can do just that, but it’s more defined by the abilities of the character classes rather than prompts from NPCs.
Loz Doyle: Once you’ve unlocked some character classes and decide to go off the story and look around, you’ll find a lot to do. I’m still finding stuff I hadn’t seen before, even last week.
Lee Barber: We hear the same thing from the QA department, when they’re testing the game.
NL: Would you say you’re trying to hit both adult and young audiences with this game? There seem to be a lot of “in-jokes”, while those features you’re mentioning seem to target the obsessive-compulsive collector in anyone.
Loz Doyle: It is for everyone, because LEGO’s for everyone. We want to make a game that we want to play, we want everybody to enjoy it. That’s where we started with LEGO Star Wars; we were making a children’s game but it was for young gamers in general, and we were enjoying playing it. That’s the formula we’ve stuck with.
NL: In terms of the GamePad, are there features that could conceivably be adapted for a standard controller?
Graham Goring: It’s one of the weird things. We’re developing on PC and there’d be things you’d do if you didn’t have a dev kit, but it wouldn’t have the life. For example with the audio scanning you’d just be using a thumbstick, but you’d do it on the GamePad and it’d feel great, like a revelation. That complete feedback, a window into the world, feels different and fresh. You could do some of the features on a standard controller, but it’d be a shadow of itself.
It’s just the fact that you’ve got a screen in your hand that responds to your positioning, it’s wonderful.
Move over to the next page to read more about the story-telling in the game, why it's single-player only, the size of the map, the wide-variety of features and collectibles as well as the developer's favourite moments.