Not so dead yet? – LEGO strikes back on LEGO VIDIYO

After I kind of panic-posted yesterday, things have rapidly developed within the last 24 hours. LEGO have published an official statement which you can read e.g. here on Brickset.

Of course it’s the usual corporate bullshit bingo of a PR department caught flat-footed on a Friday afternoon only a few hours away from everyone being out of office and I wouldn’t put too much stock in that they actually know anything about the future of the products, but at least indirectly it sheds some light on what a debacle VIDIYO must be behind the scenes. If they need  one and a half or two years to re-evaluate it, then you know how they screwed up.

The statement is insofar also questionable as they insist that they tested it thoroughly and feedback was good. RLY? Tested with high-income families that buy their kids new iPhones every year and wouldn’t mind the exorbitant cost and performance issues of the app? Sure, I won’t pretend that getting free review samples and early access to unreleased products always has an influence, if only subconsciously, but did really nobody see how defective the app was and how ill-conceived e.g. the proposed pricing was?

I mean I’ve worked as a Beta tester in the software world for many years and never was never shy about calling out nonsense. Not that my message always was heard, but if I had been involved in VIDIYO‘s early development and testing I sure would have slapped a few things in their face. Not to sound too pompous, but it’s clearly a case of “You should have asked me!” *lol* or to put it more academically, they should have a broader testing base. You know, even poor guys like me who don’t even have a suitable smartphone, are single and have no kids buy this stuff. It’s funny how companies always get themselves into trouble by restricting their testing just because you don’t fit certain criteria. But I digress…

So what does all this mean? Personally I think they should just leave it be. As a brand VIDIYO is burnt. After this debacle, retailers will be extremely skeptical to even touch it if an when new products come out two years down the line. Who knows, even then they may still have stuff in their warehouses from the first wave that still hasn’t sold despite clearance discounts. Any serious brand consultant would tell them that.

And there are of course similar issues with the end customers just as well. I would love to see series 2 of the minifigures to still come out, but after that would I actually wait for more than a year for something else? I consider that unlikely, given how much stuff LEGO fire out and how limited my budget is. It’s not like I would need VIDIYO to part with my cash and couldn’t find something from Ninjago, Friends, Creator and so on to be just as relevant. Many people will find themselves in a similar situation and will simply have moved on…

VIDIYO – Vidi-*duh*?! – The sudden Death of LEGO VIDIYO

Contrary to what some people may believe simply because my occasionally overcritical or even cynical view of some things I do not like writing those swan song posts about failed LEGO products, but sadly I can’t always avoid them, especially when it concerns a series that I actually kind of like. I got burned with Hidden Side and now it seems history is repeating itself with VIDIYO.

None of this is official yet, so it should be taken with a grain of salt, but Promobricks apparently got wind of the series’ more or less immediate cancellation (German, so use the translation functions in your browser if needed) via their connection to some dealers. Even the second series of the Bandmates minifigures is in limbo, as apparently retailers have not been swarming to new orders and even cancelled existing ones. This could in effect mean that the series will only be available in LEGO stores and via a handful of select sellers, potentially making it very difficult to get a complete line-up. That is of course if it does come out at all.

What definitely won’t be appearing as per Promobricks‘ scoop are new sets such as the K-Pawp Concert (43113) that I just reviewed. I was planning to do reviews of the other sets as well now that I have them, but I’m not sure if that is still worthwhile. It’s a consolation, however, that at least I managed to get a complete set of figures from the first wave and I’m only three or four BeatBits short of having a complete deck of them as well.

Now of course the big one: The “I told you so!” moment. As you can glean from my introductory article only a few weeks ago it was rife with skepticism. Despite me liking the artistic qualities, I had serious doubts about the commercial viability and long-term success. The prices for those BeatBoxes were simply too crazy and a lot of other things just felt wrong from the outset. Combined with visibly slow sales in the physical retail locations I regularly roam on the hunt for LEGO it didn’t take much to conclude that this was anything but a success. Sure, the ongoing pandemic-related issues may play a part, but it’s not like other LEGO themes didn’t sell like crazy under the same conditions.

So to cut my ramblings short and get to a point: In my mind it was clear that we’d be lucky if this got to live out its regular two-year cycle and then it would be phased out one way or another, no matter what. Never could I have guessed that things were so dire that LEGO would pull the plug so quickly and radically. Remember: The collectible minifigures came out only in February and the sets in April (here in Germany). Sales must have been completely disastrous with retailers not even ordering the minimum numbers to re-stock their shelves. In the end LEGO may not have had a choice because nobody wanted their product.

This to me is shocking news, on a Friday no less and I’ll still need to let it process and sink in, even if it is only preliminary and unverified and things may still turn out differently. Still, I’m quite sad. VIDIYO may not have been for everyone and certainly it had a ton of flaws, conceptually and in execution, but I really liked many aspects of it and I’m going to miss it…

Audio, VIDIYO, Disco? – A closer Look at LEGO VIDIYO

I more or less wanted to let this slip under the radar quietly, but now that I have bought more of the LEGO VIDIYO stuff than the initially planned “handful of minifigures”, I figured it would not be a bad idea to pour this into some sort of mix between a review and opinion piece.

Crazy is Beautiful!

As you well know from reading my blog, I’m not big on minifigures. I like the occasional specimen I get with one of the sets and I even have been known to buy one or two examples from collectible minifigure series if I really like them, but I certainly don’t go out of my way to get complete sets. This is slightly different with VIDIYO as it really tingled my nerves as soon as I saw first pictures of the figures. This is my kind of crazy done the right way. I immediately loved the flamboyant colors and exuberant designs.

This is such a nice deviation from LEGO‘s usual often uninspired, way too conservative and boring stuff. And I’m saying this buying Friends all the time and having had my share of Hidden Side and Elves. Point in case: At the end of the day some Chinese knock-off sets often look more extravagant and daring, as it’s all too obvious that LEGO‘s sets have reached a point where they get smoothed over way too much in order to not offend potential customers and thereby negatively impacting sales. It’s really great to see them taking some risks here. Unfortunately, though, they don’t seem to pay off, so let’s delve into the many reasons why VIDIYO may still not be as great as I had hoped.

Somebody told me…

…there’s an app and from what I hear (and found on ze Internet) it’s not particularly good. It’s functions are similar to the Hidden Side app where you scan a bunch of sets and in this case also individual figures and your device will bring up virtual scenes on its screen that line up with the physical world thanks to Augmented Reality (AR) technology. In addition, the app also analyses the BeatBits, a selection of printed tiles that come with each set and trigger specific actions or grant you bonus content.

Now obviously I don’t have a suitable mobile device and never used it myself, so definitely I’m talking out of my ass on some points and rely on other people’s opinions, biased as those already may be, but there are at least some facts that can objectively not be denied.

  • The initial launch was a complete debacle with many people not being able to download or launch the app at all or the app refusing to launch again after a number of previous uses. This apparently boiled down to data corruption damaging the application packages and/ or their signatures as used by mobile operating systems to validate their genuine status. This was fixed a few days after launch in an update.
  • The app as a whole is slow and unwieldy even on relatively beefy devices. You can verify that yourself to a degree by watching captured videos of the gameplay mechanics. This seems to be a two-fold issue: For one, not much care appears to have been spent on actual performance optimization because the app likely was released in an unfinished state too shortly before the deadline, and two, due to the inclusion of a massive amount of assets (3D models for the sets and figures, extra contents, moves, music, sound effects and so on) the packages are huge and looking up stuff and loading takes a while.

The consensus from most commenters/ reviewers is that it’s just not fun enough and they quickly moved on. That of course most definitely affects one of the core functionalities as well – creating and sharing clips, which simply doesn’t seem to be a thing people are interested in because it is way to convoluted and only works from inside the app. That’s because LEGO want to ensure everything stays kid-friendly and submissions are reviewed before being released for sharing, but naturally this does make very little sense to users who are used to sharing everything they want to at whim – including young kids. Arguably this is probably dead in the water and can only be considered a failure.

Another point is that the app goes way over the top uses LEGO elements that do not exist in this shape and form in the real world. Yes, we’re of course talking about that old thing where even some thirty year old molds haven’t been done in a given color to date yet. Now my nerdy obsessions are arguably my own business, but it’s a major disappointment and I’m sure there are some other people out there that might feel the same way.

Point in case: In a modular building system any new piece can open up new creative avenues in unexpected ways the original designers haven’t even thought of. You know, it’s that old gag where you have waited for a simple slope to come out in a specific color that suddenly makes it feasible to build a project you had on your mind for years. Therefore at least some of those elements should have counterparts in the real world and not just exist virtually.

Another Packaging Disaster

One of the biggest obstacles for physical retail with Hidden Side was the poor packaging design that did not clearly communicate what it was about. I laid out some of the many reasons in my Post Mortem then and sadly LEGO seemingly haven’t learned anything from that debacle. Let’s begin with the collectible minifigures.

Those are sold in small cardboard boxes and not in foil bags like other minifigure series. People have moaned and groaned about this a lot, as apparently it makes it a lot more difficult to figure out which figure is inside if you can’t mangle and scrunch those bags to feel with your fingers, but hey, that’s life. It adds a bit of thrill to the experience as you may get duplicates unless you happen to have a mobile x-ray at hand. Some people also have claimed that in a freshly opened carton with 24 of these small boxes you get all characters twice neatly sorted, but I have no way of verifying this.

You would think that LEGO at least would have put the available real estate to good use and printed something nice on the box, but no, it’s a boring mess of black, magenta and dark cyan where ironically the minifigures are barely even recognizable since they blend in with the background. The cardinal sin, however is – you guessed it – that a good chunk of the available area is occupied by a fake mobile phone screen that itself is completely overloaded with details and nonsensical garnishes.

LEGO VIDIYO, Collectible Minifigures, Packaging

If all that wasn’t bad enough, the boiler plate text doesn’t help, either. I don’t expect anyone buying any of this stuff without having informed himself/ herself about what VIDIYO actually is, but let’s assume you haven’t done your due diligence. Wouldn’t you wonder what a BeatBit is actually supposed to be? This is just marketing gobbledygook that tells you nothing.

The BeatBoxes don’t fare much better and repeat the same mistakes. Personally I find it amazing how you can manage to plaster multiple 12 x 12 cm squares with so many details that it all ends up being visual noise while at the same time not providing any real info about the product inside.

LEGO VIDIYO, Various BeatBoxes, Packaging

This tragedy is revealed when you inspect the box from all sides. Again the mobile device aspect is put front and center with hardly any actual product shots. If you didn’t know it, you would think LEGO are trying to sell you mobile phone accessories rather than a buildable toys. This is not helped by the muted colors and images generally appearing too small, contributing further to the overall noisiness. The design would need to be much more clear cut and vibrant to really look attractive on a retail shelf.

Little Value, High Price – The BeatBoxes

The BeatBoxes are a new product idea for VIDIYO and apparently are meant to appeal to kids who want to take their favorite toys with them everywhere they go. Whether this has any real merit I cannot tell, as I haven’t seen any children running around with this yet, but conceptually that’s sound. At the time of writing there are eight of these boxes, six from the first wave and two from the second wave in summer. Whether there will be any more in the future remains to be seen, but I’m not too optimistic for various reasons.

LEGO VIDIYO, Various BeatBoxes, Front End View

One of those reasons is that I’m in fact only able to show you some of the boxes because I got them cheaply from Amazon Marketplace and only paid around 8 to 10 Euro for each as opposed to the 20 Euro official suggested retail price here in Germany. Yes, if it wasn’t for the possibility of importing discounted stuff conveniently from the UK and other countries via Amazon, you’d be stuck with pretty insane local pricing. This is a grim realization, though just as luck would have it as I’m writing this I just ordered the remaining four boxes from a German web site for 10 Euro each as well.

Generally, though, and there is no way to put it nicely, LEGO are completely out of their fucking minds! This is utterly bonkers and those original prices are in no way justifiable. This becomes even more clear when you consider that ever since prices have occasionally dropped down to under 7 Euro for some of these boxes, which makes them only 2 Euro more expensive than a collectible minifigure pack. I have no idea how Amazon UK or other retailers even make revenue off those low prices, but the whole affair may simply prove that the prices for VIDIYO are indeed artificially inflated beyond all reason.

LEGO VIDIYO, Various BeatBoxes, Back Side View

The real point in all this is that you are basically asked to pay for a custom packaging, which is a big “No-No!” in my world. You see, there are other toy lines out there where you would get such a small suitcase more or less “free” (on a strict ideological level; of course you still pay them, just not that much), but somehow when it comes to LEGO they always ask you as a customer to pay for their crazy ideas that you didn’t even ask for.

LEGO VIDIYO, Unicorn DJ BeatBox (43106), Size Comparison with LEGO Friends Box

This is what rubbed me the wrong way with the Friends cubes, and it’s even more upsetting here, given how they went overboard. You should not have to pay this much for non-functional elements. If they feel they need to have a trés chique custom container the investment in the molds and production logistics first and foremost has to be on their own dime.

That said, there is nothing wrong with the way it turned out. The container looks nice enough from the outside with the rounded corners, the transparent top section with the slightly frosted sides, the silicone band and the fake headphone ear muffs. The level of elegance varies with the color combinations, as some look a bit more pleasant than others, but of course you can always re-combine elements if you have multiple of these boxes.

The whole thing falls apart into three main sub-assemblies with one being the transparent cap with the handle, the second one being the lower container and the third the minifigure stand. The container is two rows of bricks high and has slots for holding up to 16 BeatBits, i.e. 2 x 2 tiles plus there is some room left to throw in some other accessories and a few building pieces or even a second minifigure, but you have to decide your priorities. There’s not enough space to throw in everything.

LEGO VIDIYO, Various BeatBoxes, Figure Stands

The minifigure stand and the window shutter plates on the sides are new elements in the LEGO portfolio and no doubt also contribute to their misguided attempts at recouping the cost by cashing in at the back of their customers. Yupp, to me this is yet another case of “Nobody asked them for this.” where you pay solely for the presentation when the functionality could have been achieved with existing parts. It may just not have looked as sleek and might have required to be built from more pieces.

The central stand in the end is going to end up as useless fluff in your LEGO collection. It’s essentially an oversized old style “pilot chair” bracket (which they only use very rarely these days) and shares the same limitations like needing extra space to even attach to other elements, multiplied by four times the size. Another limitation is that the hinge attachment points only have notches for ninety degree increments. This makes sense for how this setup is used for stowage in the box, but would prevent using other angles in a custom build.

The hinge plates’ primary function is apparently to hold the BeatBits, but they fit standard measurements and can be integrated into your MOCs without problems. More on the tiles in a different section further down.

The figures in these BeatBoxes are nice, and top off the already elaborate regular minifigures from this series. Aside from some of the molds for the heads being exclusive, they also distinguish themselves with extra prints on the arms and dual molded leg pieces in some cases. My personal favorite is the alien DJ with his waterdrop like transparent helmet and the overall friendly feel.

LEGO VIDIYO, Various BeatBoxes, Figures

The Collectible Minifigures

The more affordable part of VIDIYO are the collectible minifigures, though even that is a relative term. After having ramped up the price to 4 Euro from the original 3 Euro two years ago, this one adds yet one more on top and can cost you 5 Euro per pack. A few online retailers offer bulk buying where this can cost around 3.50 Euro, but that’s still expensive enough. For me, anyway. The “fault” is of course with the extra pieces for the stand and the BeatBits, for which LEGO siphon your wallet. I wish I could say this was justified, but when you consider what extras, custom prints and even new molds for hair, heads and accessories other minifigure series include at no extra cost, this hypothesis doesn’t hold up. Again one can only state that LEGO are milking the cow.

LEGO VIDIYO, Collectible Minifigures, Various Figures with Stands

That doesn’t take away from the gorgeous figures and the love and effort that went into creating them. The prints are finely detailed and elaborate and for the most part also produced in good quality. There are a few smaller issues where sometimes the opacity/ density is a bit lacking, but given the fictional nature of the characters I never found this as annoying as e.g. white prints on Star Wars figures not being thick enough. If you will, even a technically incorrect faded print will look alright in the context of the figure and just appear as yet another color or print detail.

Another benefit of this series having come out is the plethora of new color combinations and recolors for some elements that should provide plenty of opportunities for mixing and matching them to create custom minifigures. In addition you will likely also see a lot of these pieces in other sets in accordance with the old rule that once LEGO have introduced a certain color for an item, it tends to appear more often, be that just to deplete their surplus stock bit by bit.

LEGO VIDIYO, Collectible Minifigures, Various Figures

On the other hand I find the extras a bit lacking. Every other character only has the standard microphone and it would have been lovely to get the boombox in a different color instead of just the ones that were used in other minifigure series already. On the bright side, some characters come with vinyl disks and each of them has a different print and color combination, so if you want to fancy up e.g. your recording studio/ radio station in the Downtown Diner (10260) then here’s a good opportunity. One of the characters (of the ones I don’t have yet) also has a saxophone and another one a Keytar, but overall nothing too crazy.

Tiled Logic – BeatBits

The BeatBits are meant to expand the functionality of the AR app, but for most people not interested, not able or downright refusing to use it they will simply be welcome additions as colorful decorations. At this point there are allegedly 102 of them and with every new set and minifigure this number will grow, as each one contains at least one unique and exclusive tile. The graphical style is overall pretty consistent and based on contemporary graffiti styles, mangas/ comics and video games with heavy text stylings, abstract art and characters displayed in exaggerated poses. Some are more fancy, others just bits of text on a background pattern.

LEGO VIDIYO, Various BeatBits

Despite not having used the app myself, I think a pattern to the specific functions of each tile type can be deduced easily. The largest group is represented by the Dark Turquoise BeatBits and they appear to be sound effects and sound-driven graphical effects such as a VU meter/ equalizer spectrum. The Yellow tiles indicate specific additional dance animations for characters. The Black items are technical effects such as transitions and wipes, counters and clocks or even test and calibration patterns. The Lime Green tiles hint at backgrounds and environmental effects, whereas the Magenta ones look like ones that transform the characters and place them in a different environment similar to costumes and scenes. Finally, the Orange pieces look like another set of technical effects such as adding shake/ vibrations (or removing it), slow motion and a few others.

From a technical point of view it is worth noting that you do not really need the actual tiles. It seems that the whole thing also works with photos/ scanned images of the tiles and other web sites have already provided long lists and suitable materials. My own photos are probably too low resolution and too heavily compressed already, but even they may work, at least intermittently and unreliably if only you get close enough to the screen. I’m stunned that LEGO didn’t add extra measures to prevent this since one of the core arguments of actually buying the sets and minifigures is circumvented this way, but I guess having a personalized QR code in every package to prove ownership would also be a bit weird and not kids friendly.

How the detection of the images works is an open question, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the app actually only tries to match a specific set of pixels in each tile. A full pattern detection is of course also possible and these days nothing particularly challenging as long as you keep updating the app with references for every new tile set. It would be interesting if someone found out how it actually works.

Concluding Thoughts

Sadly I feel that the whole VIDIYO story is going to end up like Hidden Side. LEGO could easily have a potential hit at their hands, but more or less already screwed it up by once again having wrong priorities about the content and in addition simply being greedy.

Especially the latter needs some major course correction. I’m not going to bore you with my anecdotal observations, but around these parts the sets and minifigures aren’t really flying off the shelves and that’s never a good sign. You know, in order to sustain a series like this you have to sell a minimum every month to justify investing in more future stuff. I just don’t see that happening here and so the series may go “Byebye!” pretty quickly after only two years if it even lasts that long.

The technical issues with the app and the lame concept of a TikTok-knock-off are another major problem. Until they drastically improve on that front and re-invent the gameplay loop I cannot see how half a year down the road there is even anyone using the app, let alone contribute to the video community they are trying to build. This seems so ill-conceived on so many levels and LEGO are simply moving too slowly in these markets that change every day.

So there you have it – I wanted to love VIDIYO and for some parts of it I certainly do, but overall I see just a lot of bad things ruining the whole thing. What are your thoughts on the matter? Feel free to comment below.

The predictable Failure of Hidden Side – A Post Mortem Analysis

As you may have heard by now, LEGO Hidden Side is coming to a close at the end of the year. If you haven’t, then now you know. There won’t be any new sets in January when the next wave of releases is due and the ones on the market will be EOL’d (end-of-line‘d), meaning only the leftovers will be sold off and no new stock will be produced. Also the companion magazine I regularly bought and reviewed has already seen its last issue.

Many may wonder: What happened? Considering that LEGO clearly aimed at this as their “next big thing”, this sure is a surprise to many, even more so since the sets effectively haven’t even been on the market for two years. On that latter point we may need to get used to new times, as even some sets only released in January are now being culled (Heartlake City Hair Salon (41391), some Dots stuff, some Disney Princess sets such as these), but Hidden Side? Something must definitely have gone wrong, so let’s try to figure out what the potential reasons could be

Warning: Lots of reading ahead! I tried to keep my thoughts focused, but forgive me if it still sounds rant-y and ponderous at times. It’s just difficult to get in everything I wanted to say elegantly and concisely with so much stuff running around in my head.

The List

In order to understand my viewpoints it will of course help to tell you which sets I actually got my hands on. Interestingly there are quite a lot of them, though I did not post a review of each and every set on my blog. Funny enough my ability to get so many of course shares a direct relation to the fact that the series was stumbling and faltering right out of the gate, meaning I was profiting from massive discounts every now and then, but more on that later. Here’s the listing of the Hidden Side sets that I built (sorted by set number, linked to article where appropriate):

In addition I was also able to snatch up the 40366 Newbury Juice Bar during a promo at the LEGO store and just a few days ago I also got the 30464 El Fuego’s Stunt Cannon this way.

Opinion Primer

First let me give you a rough overall impression on how some of my opinions may have formed, how they were influenced by what I observed and what led me to certain conclusions.

For me the core appeal of Hidden Side is the overall other-worldly concept of it and doing so in a reasonably modern way without looking like an overstuffed, kitschy fantasy series.  While I wasn’t always one-hundred percent convinced that everything in the series is great and some sets have serious shortcomings, you can say what you will, but at the very least the sets always stood out, regardless of whether you see this as a positive or negative.

As a graphics artist I also liked the design work behind it which in particular became apparent in the comics. It always showed that someone had put some thought and effort behind it. In addition – and I don’t know if that is even the best of arguments – it had a level of realism that made some of the models appear useful at least. You could always imagine just leaving a few pieces off, modifying the build or substituting parts and the buildings and vehicles might fit in a mundane city scenario. This also appealed to my more technical inclinations in the sense that some of the stuff could work for real.

Still, evidently others were a lot less enthusiastic and it became more and more clear that the writing was on the wall for this. You know, the series was barely even reviewed on the typical big news outlets or YouTube and that alone can be taken as an indicator that interest was waning or never existed to begin with. It literally felt like I was the only one even appreciating the existence of some sets.

A Sales Debacle

The main reason for the cancellation of a product or series such as Hidden Side is of course poor sales. When is it ever not? After all, we’re still living in a capitalist system and nobody wants to produce stuff that doesn’t recoup his investment at least and ideally makes him a bit of extra revenue on top. Love it or hate it, that’s just how it is.

Where Hidden Side was concerned, the slow sales were very recognizable. It may not be scientific, but one of my proven theories in the LEGO world is that sets definitely do not sell that great when they are on permanent massive discounts at large retailers. This is what has been happening with many Friends sets for years, has been a clear problem with The LEGO Movie 2, and Hidden Side then joined that group pretty quickly where on average you can get twenty percent off easily without having to rely on special promos, vouchers and other extra rebates. Retailers certainly weren’t making a big revenue cut on these sets.

This was even visible on store shelves, though in an unexpected two-fold way: Some of the sets were just sitting there week after week and others weren’t even available in physical stores after the retailers decided to only distribute them via their online shops because it wouldn’t be worth the trouble to clog up valuable storage space in expensive high-street rental locations. As a result I never once actually have seen a complete deck of all sets anywhere except the official LEGO stores, which also speaks volumes.

Interestingly, Hidden Side also never got mentioned as a best-seller in LEGO’s annual reports. One would think that if it really was meant to be that important, it would visibly show up on the sales charts, but no. This point is not utterly conclusive, though, as typically this stuff is listed by how much revenue it makes the company and not how many units are sold, meaning that in years like 2019 and 2020 where a lot of super expensive sets have been released the statistics easily skew in favor of premium sets, not necessarily representing how well the more mundane bred & butter sets have sold.

Too much Noise, no Signal

A huge contributing factor to the sales misery may have been the poor package design or for that matter any of the corollary marketing materials.

LEGO Hidden Side, Abandoned Prison of Newbury (70435), Box

As you can see in the image I inserted from one of my reviews, the basic concept here was to show the alternate world behind the normal reality as some sort of split poster/ graphic with the smartphone screen of one of the protagonists sweeping across the scene like a spotlight and revealing the relevant parts.

The problem with that is of course that neither the regular version nor the ghostly world are ever fully visible, which depending on the subject of a set and the size of the model could have the effect of effectively showing very little to almost nothing. If you were a customer picking such a box off the shelf, wouldn’t you be confused as to what it actually contained? Things weren’t helped by the back side being equally non-telling with again too much emphasis on promoting the smartphone usage and only small images of the models that didn’t even always show the actual functions.

This deficiency in the marketing continued throughout other materials as well, most notably the additional images and photographs used in catalogs and online stores. The smartphone usage was front and center to the point of large screens obscuring big chunks while on the other hand very little was shown of the actual physical design and functions of a set.

Missing your Audience

One of the fundamental failures with Hidden Side to me is the attempt to pander to a specific crowd and trying to be “hip” and “cool”. This was inevitably bound to fail, as this stuff simply doesn’t age gracefully. What’s hot today could be long forgotten half a year down the road.

The toy industry always has had this pig cycle driven by holiday seasons, fashion trends, people’s vacation needs, TV series and films among other things, but in the age of the Internet and social media this has switched into turbo mode, barely leaving any room for not getting it right on the first try. If it works, you sell your stuff like sliced bread; if it doesn’t you sit on a huge pile of product you can only sell with discounts, if at all. I think exactly that has happened to Hidden Side – it simply completely missed its potential intended target audiences by a mile, regardless of what age tiers you look at.

Some of the stuff like the Ghost Train Express (70424) might have piqued my interest as a kid, because my father and grandfather being model railroad aficionados of course I inherited this trait, but at the same time the odd “monsterfication” would probably have turned me off. As far as I can tell from the neighbors’ kids around me (who are now also slowly outgrowing that age range) and what I have observed in stores they’re not much into it, either. Hidden Side is simply not interesting when next to it there’s a better Ninjago or City set on the shelf.

The 10 to 16 year generation are the most likely to have decent smartphones and use the AR app on them. In theory they are what I would consider the core demographic. However, they are probably also the ones who ignored Hidden Side the most. You know, kids at that certain age have other things to do between stressful school days, family life, sports activities and other hobbies and on top of it making it through puberty eventually with all that comes with that. They probably couldn’t have cared less for the app, given that there are so many better games out there, many of which they could actually play as a group with their friends. You can add a plethora of social media platforms on top of that that would also occupy their time.

Just as well they might not have dug into the buildable models so much due to the aforementioned time constraints and perhaps feeling a bit awkward about having LEGO models in their room beyond a certain point. One thing that would outright annoy me if I were still a teenager is how the minifigures inaptly play with certain stereotypes and portrays their clothing styles, head gear and so on. It’s that “How old people view the youth.” thing that nobody wants to be reminded of. That analogy would also apply to some of the models or does anyone really think being at the Newbury High School is the coolest thing on Earth?

I also think for that specific age range the scariness factor just isn’t there, making things terribly uninteresting on that front. I really scare easily and I’m not that much into this sort of thing, but I remember all too well how my fear thresholds changed when I started watching certain dark movies like Alien and similar. I would expect this to be even more the case today where those kids get to see all sorts of weird stuff on their social media feeds or games. Compared to that, Hidden Side must feel like a harmless birthday party prank. That’s a feeling I also share as an adult – the series is neither truly scary nor goofily funny and playful about certain horror tropes like e.g. some animated movies successfully do. It all feels a bit dull and yawn-inducing. The same goes for the app again.

Alternate Reality?

Elaborating on some of the previous points, one argument from customers popped up rather quickly after the series was announced and first demonstrations were shown – people despised the Augmented Reality (AR) gimmick and the app that came with it to the point of genuine deep hatred and loathing. This isn’t entirely unexpected, though – a lot of people like me are into LEGO building to actually get away from the digital overload they experience in their daily lives, be that through work, social media, online shopping, streaming services, gaming and what have you. That’s why being faced with yet another app easily feels like an annoyance or intrusion.

Things also became even more an issue when it was clear that the hardware requirements would be rather steep and boil down to mostly latest generation mobile devices with the most recent operating systems. The point here is of course that, while everyone and their dog these days seem to own a smartphone or other mobile device, only a minority would actually be in a position to have the latest tech at their disposal.

Kids would typically snatch their parents’ phone for a limited time, get hand-me-downs from them and older siblings or be gifted older models from a few years ago that can be bought relatively cheaply. Therefore these enormous prerequisites can be considered a major miscalculation, as the impact of limiting the potential user demographic cannot be denied. From a technical point of view this is perfectly understandable, as taking care of compatibility with older hardware can be a pain, it just doesn’t align with the reality of the targeted user base.

Things then further took a turn for the worse when it became clear that the actual game app wouldn’t be particularly good nor offered any genuine immersion and benefits beyond the physical sets. Designed as a simple shooting gallery to take out ghosts or, if you were playing as the ghosts, run away from your pursuers, it became stale very quickly only after a few rounds of playing with any one set and the same tiring game loop repeating with each of them. Adding new sets and having to scan their physical builds to unlock them inside the game merely felt like an artificial, entirely unnecessary extra hurdle at best.

Coupled with technical issues like the sets not being recognized sometimes or the simple fact that the app packages where huge due to containing lots of assets, including the full 3D models of the sets, there was little motivation to even download and install the game, let alone play it. For argument’s sake, you couldn’t even find some decent gameplay clips on YouTube for many of the sets, which I again would take as an indication for lack of popularity.

The actual gameplay looked way too predictable and completely failed to impress me. Everything looked way too toy-ish to be taken seriously, with the gaming loop appearing as repetitive as many users have reported and complained about indeed. I used to be heavily into console gaming in my youth during the 16 bit era of the 1990s and haven’t played a contemporary, technically advanced game on my PC or similar in ages, but even by my low and dated standards this simply looks lame.

Never-ending Story or what?

One of the most critical factors in order to establish a successful, long-running series is to have a wholesome story that glues everything together. You need good world building, interesting locations, sympathetic and relatable hero characters and just the same opponents/ enemies that fit the story and drive it forward. Hidden Side sadly failed in pretty much all of those departments.

As far as the story goes, there is simply none. The only thing we know is that this is playing out in the fictional town of Newbury, with no specific timeframe given, the relations of the characters not explained nor the actual geographical layout. One could probably think of it as a very boring version of a simulation game like The Sims where you just try to figure things out as you go along.

Now the detractors will argue that LEGO is all about using your imagination. My counter-argument to that is: Then why even bother to produce themed sets? If you wanted to take it down to that level, we could just as well talk about generalized minifigures inhabiting generic buildings and using standardized cars as is common in the Creator 3in1 sets or for that matter in City to some extent. This clearly isn’t the case here or the original intention, one would have to presume.

With regards to the geography and locations things are a mixed bag. We know that Newbury must be located by or near the sea thanks to The Lighthouse of Darkness (70431), the Shrimp Shack Attack (70422) and Wrecked Shrimp Boat (70419). We also know that it has a subway, a train station, a school, an abandoned prison, a decrepit fun fair and castle plus we have a few standard tropes like the graveyard filling in some gaps. However, we never know how it all goes together and where it’s situated in relation to each other and how people move around.

Does it matter? For me it does and, which is probably the bigger point, it would in the series’ imaginary ghost hunting scenario. You know, a bunch of school kids/ teenagers hunting down ghosts in their spare time clearly has its limitations in how far they could actually travel and what means of transportation they could use. Even if you disregard these rather real world considerations, simply having a rough map/ plan might have been nice or an explanation within the story.

Character Weakness

I’m going to say it right away: The characters in Hidden Side are terribly boring. Not only that, but their use within the sets, the comic magazine and by extension the app is so repetitive, I’m even struggling to find words to describe the dullness. This in particular extends to the main protagonists Jack and Parker.

The former was featured on the cover of every magazine and I used to poke some fun at it plus of course he also appeared in every set. That in and of itself is of course not necessarily a bad thing, but the way LEGO went about it. He always had one of two sweat shirt/ hoodie designs with the rest of his outfit and his face only showing minor variations every time. Parker fared slightly better, having at least some alternate outfits and occasionally shaking things up with her headphone or beany cap hair piece when used, but ultimately there was just not enough variation and distinction. To put it simply: If you had a mixed pile of these figures in front of you it would be nigh on impossible to sort out which of them came from which source. You really have to look it up on Bricklink or another reference site. That to me is just sad.

The supporting cast, to use a movie-related term, isn’t doing much better. Apart from the occasional character like Vaughn Geist or the fishing boat’s personnel I found them mostly equally uninteresting, be that El Fuego or one of the many “possessed” characters. Sometimes they just didn’t have well-designed prints on their torsos, other times the faces looked too much the same and overall many of them didn’t have that little extra touch (or even a literal extra piece of equipment) that would make them endearing or at least valuable as a unique collector’s item.

A final point that always bugged me massively was the lack of some serious ghosts/ specters/ spirits or other monsters and beasts. There are a few half-baked attempts like the “djinns” in the Portal (70427) or some “Shadow Walkers” in other sets, but to me those appeared as too obvious zero-budget efforts with minimal design work and bits and pieces scraped together from other themes. This isn’t mitigated by the fact that there have indeed been a few unique new pieces as well like the various “ghost goo” elements. Somehow things just don’t gel.

Design Failures

Many would argue that a consistent story, character design and even stuff like the packaging shouldn’t matter if only the content is good enough. After all, many sets in LEGO City and other series do not necessarily have an overarching theme, either. That is a fair point, but by the same token immediately raises another critical question: Do the models hold up on their own then? In case of Hidden Side that is an answer more complicated than you might think.

First off, viewed in isolation some of the sets are pretty good from a mere visual point of view in that they capture typical shapes and details of their real world counterparts. Some of those are the Paranormal Intercept Bus 3000 (70423) representing your typical American school bus, the Ghost Firetruck 3000 (70436) being a good retro-styled fire fighting vehicle, the The Lighthouse of Darkness (70431) being an adequate lighthouse indeed and so on. Other models like the Shrimp Shack Attack (70422) or the Abandoned Prison of Newbury (70435) can be lauded for capturing the spirit and playfully interpreting it in their own way. However, then there’s several sets that to me at least never made sense, be that the Newbury Haunted High School (70425) or El Fuego’s Stunt Truck (70421) for instance. They never really fit the rest design-wise and also somehow never really made sense within the world (see my comments on story and geography).

My specific point here is that I can’t see any clear “design philosophy” here. You can kind of see that different sets were done by different teams and they could never agree on a consistent artistic style and historical era to reference. There also is never that feeling of the world actually being alive and recognizable on its own. Without the stickers and Yellowish Green teeth elements on some sets you would think that they belong to Creator 3in1 or another series, not to Hidden Side specifically.

Another major fail, and I’ve criticized this a bunch of my reviews already, is the all too obvious “triptych design” with a center piece holding two wings at the sides at an angle. This affects anything from small sets to big ones. Of course there is a technical reason for that: The AR app may have dictated a certain openness and arrangement so it is able to recognize the individual models and do its thing. However, it has impacted the design process in a negative way and led to the sets looking repetitive and unimaginative.

Another bad side effect of this approach always has been the shallowness of many of the models and them looking like cut off scenic backdrops in a theater. Most infamous here is the Newbury Subway Station (70430) where neither the train carriage was complete nor the various tunnels and platforms extended deeper than four bricks. I honestly have no idea what drove those decisions, but it seems ridiculous. Many of the sets could have been much better had they been fully fleshed out as three-dimensional full models, which I guess is the point.

Elemental Powers

One of the good things that Hidden Side had going for it was exploring some new styles and color combinations and in doing so contributed to the ever-growing pool of new pieces. The series was the first to make use of some new part designs and recolored elements just as it brought back a few older items that LEGO hadn’t produced in a while.

Of particular note here are the Newbury Haunted High School (70425) and the Castle of Mystery (70437) that got a few people drooling over the many Dark Red parts and castle-like elements, respectively. This stuff is just too useful for MOCs of all kinds or rebuilding older sets. That crude logic could even be applied to the Ghost Train Express (70424) that appealed to starving LEGO train fans to some degree. It isn’t a perfect set and would take some effort to actually motorize and make work, but it’s better than nothing.

I would have expected this trend to continue if more sets would have come out, including additional molds for minifigures and animals. Perhaps we’ll even get to see some of that stuff that was already in pre-production recolored and repurposed in other series. Who’s to say? That also would have allowed to slightly course-correct and play around with colors. You know, after droves of Yellowish Green teeth could totally go for ones in Bright Light Blue and a few other “ghostly/ monster-ish” colors.

Final Thoughts and Conclusions

To me the most obvious reason for the failure was LEGO being too obsessed with the app stuff and nobody digging it. As a result, both sides of the crowd were very likely left feeling unsatisfied. Users interested only in the physical models had to accept too many compromises in terms of complexity, building techniques, color usage and so on while the ones who might have been more interested in the app usage and world building simply got a mediocre, uninteresting game. There may have been some overlap in the middle and there may indeed be a small group of people who enjoy it the way it is, but I doubt there were ever as many users as LEGO may have hoped to mobilize to sustain the series in the long run.

Of course it’s easy to say these things in hindsight and I’m totally aware that any such article can only sound pompous and self-indulgent. Yes, some of it is even pure speculation, supposition and conjecture based on my own biased perception of the whole affair. However, I would still claim many of the issues and problems with Hidden Side could probably have been avoided. The tragedy to me really is that all the good ideas were there, but the project got stuck in “the system” that is a big company like LEGO. Too many good ideas may have been ditched in favor of lesser ones, too many edges that would have made this a distinct product that stood out smoothed over in the strife for maximum mainstream-compatibility with mass audiences. And yeah, that app thing just totally didn’t turn out like everyone seems to have hoped.

Personally I’m going to miss Hidden Side mostly for the wacky colors and some very specific pieces, but sadly even I who regularly bought the sets has no deeper feelings about the world as a whole. It somehow always remained too unremarkable to leave an impression. At the same time, though, I feel that LEGO have given up too early. A lot of the bad impressions hinge on the type and order of sets they released and I can’t shake the feeling that had they e.g. given us the Newbury Zoo things might have turned around for the better. It always felt like just that one thing is missing to make it real fun or at least unique enough to stand out among other series to actually give people a reason to buy the sets in favor of others.

I’m hoping LEGO have something new in the pipeline that fills the gap and they hopefully will avoid all the mistakes. I really would love to have something a bit wacky and off-beat in my life just as well as I seriously need a parts source for funkily-colored elements outside of Friends. And in fact I’m pretty sure there’s enough people out there that feel similarly, despite a lot of others thinking that such projects have no place in the LEGO world and are always bound to fail. So what is your stance on the matter? Fire away in the comments!


Connecting the Dots

It’s that time of the year where there’s all those fancy toy trade shows, first in London, currently in Nuremberg and soon in Tokyo, and of course that’s ample opportunity for LEGO to give some new products a grand roll-out and drip-feed embargoed info to journalists and dealers on others.

LEGO Dots is in the first category and after lots guessing we now finally know what it is. Yes, comparisons to Clikits from fifteen years ago feel appropriate and that’s where I have a problem. Seeing that that other product didn’t last long and barely made an impression on anyone, I’m willing to bet that this will be history repeating itself and two years down the line it will more or less quietly disappear again. There are a few things that rub me the wrong way.

First, with this stuff LEGO more or less are competing with hundreds of similar products in what I like to call “trashy kids craft”. You know, things like Aquabeads, whatever is the latest variation on self-adhesive rhinestones or the long-forgotten loom silicone rings. There’s a new hot thing every half year and the shortness of the hype cycles is only outdone by songs on the radio. To me it just doesn’t feel like that this is a market they should even be in. It just isn’t very exclusive or high-profile, things which LEGO otherwise keeps touting.

Second, and perhaps an even bigger problem, is that the concept will likely wear out quickly. The number of patterns you can produce with a given number of pieces is ultimately finite. Well, technically it isn’t, but I don’t imagine the kids this is targeted at to go out of their way to go too crazy on this and change their bracelets, pen holders and so on every day, especially with something as finicky as those tiny 1×1 tiles. It gets tedious rather quickly.

Third, for me as a MOC builder having some of those elements in new colors is a nice thing and I’ll definitely buy a couple of sets for my parts stock, but how far can you take that? After a short while you’ll have so much of this stuff floating around, you just don’t know what to do with those buckets of pizza-corner tiles in colors you’ll never use. You may not even be able to sell them with profit because everyone will suffer the same issue. On the bright side of course this means that we likely won’t have to worry about supplies for the next decade.

As it stands, to me this seems a weird move, after all. I had a gut feeling right from the start that LEGO Dots might be a product of limited relevance to me, but somehow they managed to disappoint even my low expectations. I’ll take the pieces for what they are worth, yes, but overall my feeling remains that LEGO should better invest in other things than trying to come up with such ephemeral products just to cash in on an artificially created short-lived hype bubble…

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…

Risen or Fallen?

Since it’s kinda relevant to LEGO, even if only tangentially, I figured I’ll sneak in my review of the latest Star Wars – The Rise of Skywalker here. I won’t obsess about the sets too much, as the involvement of the various vehicles is rather minor, after all, but more on that later.

Going into the movie I did not have a particularly predetermined opinion. Of course I already had read and watched some written and video reviews and knew how potentially unsatisfying it could be, but suffice it to say the movie is not nearly as bad as those negative reviews make it sound in my opinion. Sure, it’s not without issues and has a lot of lapses in logic even by Star Wars standards with all its canon-vs. non-canon mess created when Disney took over and declared a lot of the old lore no longer valid, but it’s still enjoyable and, which I guess is important, structured well enough so even a casual fan like me can follow the story.

There’s no denying that the film is overstuffed, which contributes a lot to the inconsistencies and jumps. Now it would be unfair to totally bash Rian Johnson for The Last Jedi, as it sure has a few good moments, but the fact of the matter remains that it didn’t do much to progress the overall story arc and was to busy turning everything on its head when it didn’t need to. Had it not squandered so much valuable time with pointless story points, it most definitely would have been easier to tie up everything in episode IX without it feeling rushed.

Personally I was a bit miffed by the many, many unnecessary small cameos and guest appearances, too. It seemed everybody & their mum wanted to get one last moment on screen for bragging rights or was brought in as fan service, yet very few of those moments carried much meaning, either. It didn’t help that they also introduced several new characters that had to get their due as well. Arguably some of them were planted as seeds for spin-off movies to explore their past or send them on their own adventures, but still… It felt unnecessary.

The overall story isn’t anywhere as dramatic as the trailers made everyone think and Disney once more have proven that they are the masters of deceptive trailers, with many of the shots used in the trailers not being what you may have thought or more or less being pretty unimportant in the film itself. That goes for instance for the Knights of Ren who ultimately act as just another hunting party chasing the heroes, the much touted Sith Troopers, who are barely actually seen in the film but just as well applies to the secret fleet. The final battle is not even close as impressive or innovative as e.g. some stuff in Rogue One.

Probably owing to the overall forced nature of the script, the acting is quite terrible at times. Much was made of Palpatine‘s return, but to be honest, his appearances feel like extracts from some cheap B-movie. It’s just so over the top, at least I could never take it seriously. Similarly, a lot of dialog felt like it had been ripped from a textbook on what not to do in writing school. Some of it was extremely cheesy and the less Poe Dameron we get, the better. I’m sure it’s not Oscar Isaac‘s fault, but this is as one-dimensional as it gets. At least the interactions between Kylo Ren and Rey were pretty good. I even liked the idea of them actually physically sharing the world when communicating through the force.

The comedic elements felt a bit out of place. I didn’t mind Babu Frik, but the “hairdryer on a wheel”, D-O, really didn’t have to fill the “yet another cutesy robot” niche. Him having of course important info on where to find Palpatine‘s secret hideout was a bit too convenient. Likewise, the whole plot with C3-PO built around the same premise of deciphering Sith glyphs didn’t make too much sense. It also seemed to me they didn’t quite know what to do with BB-8 as well this time.

Visually the movie is of course pretty impressive, but these days with even Open Source 3D programs like Blender offering an unprecedented level of realism one can take that pretty much for granted, even more so on a 200 million dollar budget.My favorites include the ocean simulation on the planet where the Death Star crashed, which made me almost seasick, as well as some other environmental stuff. The space battles left me pretty underwhelmed and just felt too static. You know, those Star Destroyers lined up like ducks in a shooting gallery was perhaps not that believable, after all.

On that note: Of the vehicles you can buy as LEGO sets only a handful get notable screen time those being Kylo Ren‘s TIE Fighter, Poe Dameron‘s X-Wing and of course the Millennium Falcon. Most others have “blink and you’ll miss it” moments, are disguised and/ or can only be partially seen for the majority of the time or like the new Sith TIE Fighter with the triangular panels only appear as background filler. That makes it at times nearly impossible to judge the validity of LEGO‘s representation of these items and you’ll likely have to wait for one of those tie-in art books to come out.

So what’s the verdict? As much as the movie is riddled with flaws and shortcomings I still enjoyed it. However, there can be no denying that it could have been so much better. My biggest gripe is that JJ Abrams seems to indeed have been focused too much on pleasing a certain type of fans and it shows how things have been bent into place. It’s just too obvious that many characters didn’t need to be there and it’s equally apparent how some of the new characters along with open-ended story threads for existing ones were planted for future movies.

After all, most of the actors are quite young and there’s nothing speaking against another Rey-centered trilogy ten years down the line, as much as Disney may proclaim they have no plans for it currently. Mark my words – they’ll do it because passing up such an opportunity to make more cash would be stupid. Who knows, by that time we probably all have dissected The Rise of Skywalker and watched it a million times and the speculation game will start all over again…

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…


Bricklink gets busted, or does it?

After that robbery in the Dresden Green Vault was all the news yesterday (I do live in beautiful Saxony, after all), today another kind of shockwave ripples through LEGO communities all over the world. Yepp, LEGO just officially acquired Bricklink. First reactions are mostly negative, as this could have far-reaching repercussions for the secondary/ second-hand LEGO sets and pieces market. Of course it’s hard to predict how this will pan out, but here are some thoughts on this.

First let’s begin with the positive side – Bricklink could become LEGO‘s new Bricks & Pieces outlet. Anyone who has ever tried to order separate pieces from the online shop will no doubt have mixed feelings about it. My personal experiences are just bad. I basically gave up on it because it never seems to work and is overall just not worth the trouble. The basic drill usually goes something like that:

You spend forever sifting through seemingly random lists of parts since of course, unlike LEGO seem to think, nobody knows the design numbers by heart to be able to use the search function. This gets even worse if you jump across parts from different sets. In such a case the software may just go belly up if you are trying to order unavailable parts, sends you back to the shop’s start page and resets the entire shopping cart, so it’s empty and you have to start over from scratch. Even if you are lucky and none of this happens you could still be thwarted when the hand-over from the separate sub-shop to the big parent shop where your payment is actually handled doesn’t work. See the problem?

So with all that in mind, a new shop would be a godsend even if Bricklink itself is more or less pretty crooked and atrocious not just from a web design standpoint. It could be cool if LEGO officially supplied dealers on there with bulk shipments of parts, leading to better overall availability and perhaps better prices. The pertinent question, though, is “Will they or won’t they?” and that’s where things get dicy.

Just like some large sellers could benefit from such a move, others that have been chugging along with small shops or specialized in specific items might fall between the cracks and just give up. They may not be able to have competitive pricing, they may have to take down not officially endorsed stuff like custom parts that collides with LEGO‘s overarching policies, they may simply run out of supplies when LEGO has too much control over everything and their sometimes a bit shady supply chains collapse. Which is getting me to a point.

The thing that really gives me a tummy ache is the level of control this move give’s LEGO on the whole. While so far it seems they have no concrete plans to change too much on Bricklink right away, they could always do so at a whim and at a moments notice. They could enforce whatever rules they see fit and by sheer power of numbers dictate prices, product availability and a few other things. Again, at this point it’s all speculation and maybe because I got burned by some big corporations in my life I’m all to wary and paranoid about such matters, but it is a point of concern…

“Weep for the future, Na’Toth!”

I’m always one to sneak in a quote from my favorite sci-fi series of all time, Babylon 5, but sadly the melancholic undertones and the literal meaning of that particular one ring all too true for LEGO‘s first half year line-up for 2020, it seems.

I shared a few thoughts on Hidden Side and Speed Champions already a few days ago and now that images of the sets for City, Creator 3in1, Friends, Ninjago, Star Wars and Technic have been released, I feel like I’m stuck in a “WTF?” loop. The blunt and short version would be that about 70% of the sets are garbage, 20% are kinda okay and there’s only about 10% of sets that I would consider reasonably good. As if that weren’t enough, the ratings aren’t even consistent with what you would likely think, knowing my preferences and tastes.

Personally I’m most disappointed by the Friends sets. Why? To me they feel like a definite step back. This year was quite good with the water rescue theme and an equally sea life inspired fun fair theme, including the occasional interesting crossover of both worlds. Most notably everything was a bit toned down to the point of being almost realistic in terms of colors used. There were sets like the Heartlake City Restaurant (41379) that took this so far they would almost qualify as Creator 3in1 or Expert Modular Buildings with only hints of the typical Friends-related colors giving them away.

Unfortunately it seems this will be no longer the case and it’s back to wacky color combinations, overall flamboyancy and gaudiness plus non-realistic construction of e.g. vehicles. Aside from a few new pieces and recolors there is little to find there that would attract me. I even almost broke into loud laughter at the ridiculousness of the new hair salon looking way too familiar for comfort. To say it would be a rip-off of the one from three years ago would be stretching the truth a bit too hard, but the similarities are to apparent to dismiss.

Ninjago this time around doesn’t do much for me. The new cyber space theme with all the neon transparent colors and overall sharp-edged, aggressive design looks a tad too much like Nexo Knights reloaded. That doesn’t mean I might not buy one or two of the smaller sets just to check them out and get a few extra parts, but I think I’ll mostly pass. The last two years I bought a few sets and I guess that will have to do for now until another Shuricopter or similar comes along to tingle my taste buds.

The same is no doubt going to happen to City – I will try to get the animals in some form, but overall it’s probably fair to say that I don’t care much for the umpteenth re-tread of the police and fire patrol topics. They may be unavoidable standards for every new generation of four-year-olds every year, but on the whole it’s getting a bit stale. I’m also flabbergasted by the insane pricing. I would have loved to have children in my life, but seeing this I’m almost glad I don’t have to put up with my little tykes pestering me over those expensive toys.

Star Wars in a weird and wonderful way this time around isn’t the worst of the lot. Okay, it’s still all very much “been there, done that” and “more of the same”, but I find it oddly palatable. The new Poe Dameron X-Wing in its orange/ white livery with the huge rounded intakes looks pretty imposing and attractive to my eyes. If you already have the current one and the black one before it than this will make a nice third one to add to your line-up.

The smaller, figure-centric sets look okay, too, and, which I find pretty important, are not priced outrageously like e.g. the notorious Snoke’s Throne Room (75216). My favorite set of them all, though, has to be the Microfighter one with the Bantha. Similar to this year’s one with the Dewback it ticks all the boxes with me and I can’t help it. I just have to have it. In fact chances are this is one of the few sets I might buy more than once. It’s just too cute!

In the Creator 3in1 series of course the new building stands out. It’s nice to see LEGO having revived this tradition and the new toy store looks tasteful enough. It just looks awfully small even compared to the pet shop from earlier this year, so I’m not sure if it’s actually worth 50 Euro. This may be a case for waiting for the right discount to come along. Other than that I have set my sights on the set with the Dark Red dragon, though in actuality somehow the alternate scorpion build is what fascinates me most. Beyond that what I said earlier applies – I may pick up some of the other packages if I feel like it, but have no immediate urgent plans.

finally let’s talk about the debacle that is Technic. Yupp, you heard me right. Once again I think they are totally ruining the series. Once you subtract the “big” models like the Liebherr excavator or the Land Rover, you are pretty much left with what can only qualify weak shadows of great sets like the Claas Xerion and similar from only three years ago. In this short time the series has really been run into the ground and now only exists down in the dumps. Even their lame attempt at being funny by creating a super mini version of the aforementioned Xerion somehow misfires. At least I didn’t get that satisfied grin when you hit the punch line in a joke…

Here’s the thing: If you are a complete newbie to the series you are going to love the smaller models. The beach buggy isn’t half bad and neither are the pull-back drag racer and racing truck. Even the stunt show combo thing will go down well with kids. I also like the idea of actually floating boat parts. Sure, they’re too large for your bathtub swim, but will be fun during the summer in the pool. However, after all those sets clearly aimed at the younger audiences there is this terrible, terrible gap of nothing.

Some would call it “Models that define what Technic is supposed to represent.”, but that is perhaps a bit too grandiose. Still, one can’t deny that something is missing and this feeling will not be alleviated by the yellow crane, which itself might leave some unsatisfied due to it’s somewhat simple construction. On the bright side at least it brings back the yellow no. 5/ 6 panels (among other parts) and I’m sure people will buy this set in masses just to repair/ rebuild/ rebrick older sets where this was used.

Still, none of that can cover up the fact that the set itself is not the most attractive. Given the circumstances, this sure wouldn’t lure me into LEGO these days. In fact most of these Technic sets represent what has deterred me from even picking up the hobby for ages – crude, unsophisticated and toy-ish looking models. I know I sound like an old grandpa harping on about the better days, but that’s just how I feel.

So where does all of that leave us? If I were to make it sound positive in a very sarcastic way I would say that I can save lots of money, at least in the price ranges that are attainable for me. That’s good because of course I’m always on a tight budget, but at the same time also just sad. You know, at the end of the day I sometimes don’t know what’s more frustrating about being into LEGO: Not having enough money to buy the sets you actually want or standing in the aisles and wondering what to buy because the available choices are bad. With this cycle I’m definitely going to experience the latter a lot once I have exhausted the “good” options…