Looking back in…?

…Frustration? Anger? Bliss? All of them? End-of-Year summaries are a difficult thing and where LEGO is concerned, I sure have a bag of mixed feelings. So how was this year? Good? Bad? Terrible? Awesome? The answer is likely: “All of the above.”, so let me explain.

Personally I’m not that unhappy within the restrictions that I have to work within, anyway, meaning smaller, not too expensive sets. There indeed have been a number of good sets like my favorite Deep Sea Creatures (31088), a couple of excellent LEGO Friends sets that for once forewent the kitsch in favor of more palatable realism, a few surprising Star Wars models and even some of the The LEGO Movie 2 stuff was quite good. I also got a bit into Harry Potter and the new Hidden Side series also was surprisingly good.

On the other hand there has been a lot of frustratingly bad stuff in the same series I mentioned just as well. On top of that LEGO keep screwing around with Ideas by “improving” the sets in the opposite direction and over-optimizing them and this year has ruined Technic for me for good. Aside from the big and expensive showy models there is not much left there that would pique my interest. The smaller models are often just an embarrassment with their flimsy engineering. If that wasn’t enough, there’s that thing with a still barely functioning Control+/ PoweredUp system that gets stuffed into boxes with no rhyme or reason and makes models unnecessarily expensive for very limited return value.

On that note and on a more generic level I feel that the rift between relatively costly sets and the lower end is also growing. There’s definitely a dichotomy between pretty well-executed, large but expensive sets and many relatively lackluster packages in other price ranges. In addition it seems that LEGO are just trying too hard too see what they can get away with. There’s no way around it: Many sets feel unjustly overpriced and if it wasn’t for the magic powers of a free market regulating itself, i.e. discounts being available, this would be one heck of an expensive hobby/ special interest.

Unfortunately it doesn’t seem LEGO haven’t learned that lesson yet and as the first previews for 2020 indicate, we’re in for another round of sets where you wonder how they even arrived at some of the rather ridiculous prices. That in itself could be considered a statement and what bugs me about the whole matter that they just don’t seem to care. In fact a lot of this customer squeezing has a somewhat desperate undertone and one can’t help but feel that things aren’t as rosy as the company will have you believe. Now it’s of course pure speculation, but there are some signs that things didn’t go their way this year.

First, of course The LEGO Movie 2 was an epic fail. In Hollywood movie terms it was a bomb and didn’t break even, which in turn of course affected sales of the sets associated with the film. A second wave was only rolled out reluctantly in August and just before Christmas all the remaining sets were shoved out in a sale with crazy discounts. That and just at the same time Warner Bros. not extending their deal and the development shifting over to Universal. Cynically one could say that a tainted property was dumped at a different outlet in the hopes of producing tons of cheap movies.

Another big bummer also right in time for the end of the year is of course the acquisition of Bricklink. This also fits the pattern of a company perhaps not doing so great trying to control the market. No matter what, it’s just bad for the AFOL community at large and repercussions are already felt only a few weeks after the announcements with major changes to sales policies affecting what can be found on there.

All things considered this may not have been an outright terrible year, but some of what has happened just feels unsavory and a few things have been set in motion that just don’t feel right. So far it also doesn’t seem that we will be off to a good start in 2020 and that is just as much reason for concern. There will still be plenty to buy and to cover on this very blog and I’m more than certain that just like this year we will get some more announcements every now and then, but overall excitement on my end is limited for the time being…

Not so hyper-active, but still…

As the year quickly nears its end, I figured I better start summing up my activities that so far have slipped under the radar and not been mentioned here for reasons such as obeying deadlines, working out details behind the scenes and not prematurely publishing stuff. All of that is now out of the way and I can share what little activities I have done.

Of course my output pales in comparison to others. I have no issues admitting that. Too many other things going on like making myself unpopular with posting way too much on blogs and forums (not just LEGO-related), dealing with my health issues and way too many other hobbies/ interests. However, occasionally I find myself particularly enticed and highly motivated to get my lazy ass up when there is stuff to win, not least because when there is sets to be had that under regular circumstances would be hard for me to buy due to limited finances. My Ornithoraptor entry for the respective LEGO Ideas contest didn’t go anywhere, but I don’t give up that quickly, so let’s see how I fared elsewhere.

2019 Contest Entry "Beyond the Brick Merchandise Graphic Design"

Early in the summer I participated in the Beyond the Brick merchandise design contest. Since they didn’t stipulate any specific rules of course this could be interpreted in a million ways and as someone who built plastic model planes in his youth and always admired the box art I thought I’d try to do something that might evoke a similar vibe with a “plane” zooming by a brick “mountain” peeking out of the clouds. I spent a few afternoons on this in Adobe Illustrator, but of course it’s merely a first draft. Looking at it now even I realize what’s wrong with it and definitely would approach it differently for a final design.

2019 Contest Entry "Star Wars"

Oddly enough somehow people seem to think that everybody has time during summer and so quickly after that design challenge the publishers of the LEGO Star Wars magazine, Blue Ocean, which of course you are familiar with when reading this blog regularly, launched a celebratory competition to honor their 50th issue. The only requirement was to build your favorite Star Wars scene with the grand prize being an UCS Millenium Falcon (75192). That sounds cool on paper, but the result was a major kick in the balls, to be honest.

To say that the contest was an utter debacle would be putting it mildly. After pre-selecting ten entries user were supposed to rate the ultimate winner on Facebook and that caused an uproar of outrage. The reason why is pretty straightforward: The people in charge seemed too busy to keep up the pretense that their magazine would only be read by kids of a certain age and so they picked a bunch of builds that matched that demographic. I have no problem with that, but this was an open contest and by all means the best model should have won, regardless of age. Worse still, many users commenting reported from their own kids, nices, grand children etc. that they had seen way better builds from them.

The end of the story? After all the negative backlash nobody ever since  heard again of the contest. I’m sure they were planning on drumming this up big in the magazine itself as well as other channels, but it really turned into a PR disaster that I’m sure everyone just wants to forget this embarrassment. I’m not even sure if any of the group of ten actually ever were picked as a winner and received their prize. I can only hope they learned their lesson and next time come up with clearer rules or multiple tiers/ categories to avoid such a mess.

2019 Contest Entry "(E)Island Holiday"

Finally, and to end this on a positive note, I did succeed in a contest and even made it to the number one spot with my “(E)Island Holiday”. That’s of course a bit of German/ English word play and would translate to “Ice- (Is-)land Holiday” in a very crude fashion. Again this was once more in the midst of the summer and there were no restrictions, so for me at least it was quite a challenge to even get it finished while struggling with the heat wave and sweating like an ox.

I didn’t particularly expect to win, but the idea of a toppled-over ice cone had been in my head for a while and this was the perfect opportunity to turn it into a model. Only after the first reactions began to praise it for it’s originality, I got a little nervous and began to hope for more. In the end it’s of course just another summer-y beach scene like so many other submissions, but I suppose that little twist makes all the difference. In any case, I’m glad it worked out…

 

Green Book Sexism

LEGO, we need to talk! Yes, I’m talking about that male-oriented marketing campaign on Facebook and Instagram that is causing quite a fracas here in Germany. Apparently it was a botched attempt at promoting a specific landing page on the LEGO.com website that already has existed for a while.

Now here’s the thing: I’m apparently a male and I like myself a bit of subtle, subversive, intellectual humor just as I like the occasional lewd, offensive, sexually infused joke when the situation just feels like it. However, referencing the Rough Terrain Crane (42082) and using phrases like “As complicated as women, just with instructions” and “4057 parts – that’s what we call well-endowed” is perhaps not really appropriate.

As a gay man I don’t even need to defend women by proxy even though this is apparently as misogynistic as it gets, but to a degree I’m taking it personal. A certain line has been overstepped here. I could accept those stereotypes (though they’d still be offensive) if LEGO was a home improvement store chain or sell shaving stuff, but clearly they are neither. Just the opposite – they usually go out of their way to present themselves as gender neutral toy company (though we could of course debate if that’s truly the case with series like Friends).

Aside from trivial things like kids possible getting to see the campaign and its distasteful bad jokes, it’s a marketing disaster for another reason: In times of financial struggle and dropping sales LEGO can’t possibly afford bad publicity. Now the old trope of “any publicity is good publicity” may apply, as without the uproar some people might not even have been aware of these things, but regardless, the damage is done.

Speaking of publicity – the LEGO world is abuzz with excitement about the latest Ideas set, the Pop-Up Book (21315), but I don’t quite feel like joining the chorus. Don’t get me wrong, I like the overall concept, but its execution in my view leaves a lot to be desired. Back then when the first news of this came out I made a remark on a forum or blog that it would all depend on how much “story” stuff comes with it for people to create their own little scenes and as far as that’s concerned, I think LEGO just got it wrong.

There’s only two tales – Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood – and while the scenes and minifigures look nice, I simply don’t consider it enough. It reminds me of the many overpriced Elves sets that mostly consist of simplistic, small medieval-looking tree houses that are just facades and then the rest of the set’s “value” is generated by the umpteenth big dragon in yet a different color and a ton of useless minifig accessories.

I feel it’s quite similar here – two-thirds of the parts go into the book/ box, and the rest seems like cheap dressing or an afterthought. If I had my way instead it would be the other way around. I might have settled for a simpler way to build the book and instead would have thrown in a huge “build your own story” bag with tons of parts. In fact I made a similar point already with the Creative Storybook (40291). They could just have re-used that idea. I could perfectly live without the pop-up mechanism.

Instead we now have two quite similar sets that both feel somehow incomplete and unfinished. In the end this could be an expensive proposition if you really plan on pimping this stuff as you might need to buy extra sets or do quite a bit of shopping for parts on Bricklink. I’m decidedly undecided whether I should even consider getting it eventually…

LEGO does something right with Ideas for a Change?

As I’ve said a couple of times I’m not the biggest fan of LEGO Ideas. It’s simply way too inefficient and the number of sets it produces is laughable, least of all ones that would interest me/ be relevant to me. That’s why I usually approach those official LEGO Ideas Review announcement days with more than just a bit of skepticism. Surprisingly enough, this time it seems this was unwarranted, at least on some level. Equally surprising this time two sets made the cut, so this is even better.

The first is the gianormous Treehouse. There hasn’t been any decent treetop-themed set ever since the Ewok Village (10236) if you don’t count smaller stuff like Mia’s Tree House, so this will be more than welcome. Personally I would just love to spend my weekends relaxing in such an abode, falling asleep with the wind gently rocking the tree and rustling the leaves, watching animals on the ground gather at sundown and all that good stuff, but here in Germany there are apparently not that many big forests to begin with, let alone enough hunky trees that could hold up such a contraption plus there would be all kinds of legal red tape, too. Therefore building such a set is the next best thing. Other interpretations are of course just as valid, as the design is more than just a tiny bit reminiscent of the Elves stuff seen in the Lord of the Rings movies. Lets just hope that the final polish and conversion to a producible set doesn’t kill off that magic by downsizing things too much.

The second set elected are The Flintstones. While the set overall is designed nicely, I’m a lot less enthusiastic here. It just feels like out of its place in time with even the last, rather bad live action movie (Viva Rock Vegas) being so far in the past. I also barely have any recollection of even a single actual episode beyond all those awful 60’s stereotypes and clichés and mostly remember it from the opening sequence. Strictly speaking from the LEGO side of course it comes with a ton of minifigures, which I don’t have much interest in, either, meaning half the set would be kinda wasted on me. Mind you, I like the stylized nature overall and it really has lots of lovely detail, I’m just not sure I can get behind the theme as a whole. If at all this will probably have to be a case of finding yourself “Aww, that’s cute” when seeing the actual built set in a LEGO store or so…

All things considered, however, this is quite a good turnout this time. The sets are significant and appealing enough to a larger crowd which means they should sell well and in turn perhaps not be super expensive. Should be interesting to find out when they hit the shelves!