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…

 

Ornithoraptor vs. T. Rex

Already being caught up in a million projects and never getting much done for a million reasons, I rarely take part in LEGO Ideas“Activities” as they are called as of late, in particular the building contests. I admire how people are able to whip up those creations as if they had never anything else to do all day, but I’m just not that kind of person and somehow I always seem to have too much else to do.

On the rare occasions when I choose to participate and can actually manage to get my butt to sit down for a few hours just dabbling with my LEGO bricks there usually has to be a good reason, i.e. some incentive to rush through those four or five weeks and cook something up. That of course has been/ is the case in the Unleash your own genetically modified hybrid Dinosaur contest (What a title!). I really, really would have loved to win one of them Jurassic Park T. Rex Rampage (75936) sets they gave out as prizes, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. There are a lot of other great creations, so competition was stiff. You should really check them out!

Ornithoraptor mylenii - Side View

Anyway, my humble contribution to the whole affair was what I called Ornithoraptor mylenii, a small, bird-like raptor. I find that those smaller species are often overlooked in favor of the bigger, more awe-inspiring dinosaurs, yet I’m pretty sure if you only do your research you will find that for every Tyrannosaurus Rex there are a hundred other species that are just as important to the overall eco system. My rationale here is that this would have been a relatively harmless, docile creature living near lake shores, small rivers and swampy meadows, feeding off fish, insects, mussels, algae, grass and similar stuff. Pretty much the goose/ duck of its day taking care to keep the waters clean and preventing harmful smaller species from spreading too much while at the same time being a potential prey for other carnivorous dinosaurs, naturally.

Ornithoraptor mylenii - Lateral Front Views

Ornithoraptor mylenii - Front and Rear Views

In order to replicate this and because I just knew I wouldn’t have enough pieces to build a full model in the first place I limited my efforts to a head bust with a piece of neck. I mainly focused on getting the head shape right and make it anatomically believable, that is seeing to it that the mechanics eventually could work, the eyes were in the right position, the teeth overlapped correctly and so on. The tip of the beak is the typical horn “tooth” you also find on many birds and that would be used to e.g. scrape mosses off rocks or dig in the ground whereas the small teeth would function like the serrated edges of a fine saw to bite larger chunks or for instance clip reed grass for building nests.

Ornithoraptor mylenii - Beak Interior

Ornithoraptor mylenii - Head with closed and open Beak

The model is more or less a 2 : 1 or even 1 : 1 scale representation of the real thing and inevitably my biggest struggle was the limited selection of parts I had at hand. This sure would benefit from having more slopes and nice wedges here and there, but I hope my approximations with stacked plates and a few standard curved slopes does the trick. Building it in full would be a whole different exercise and require many more parts, so I’m not too sure if I’ll ever be able to pull it off. That’s also my one peeve with the contest as a whole, BTW – nice as some concepts may be, I’d consider most of them unbuildable because just like my own creation the parts count and size would end up being like the T. Rex set.

In any case, I hope you like what you see and if you’re feeling very, very generous, I sure wouldn’t mind that Jurassic Park set to drop on my doorstep one of these days. 😉

90 Bucks of Grey

The truth can sometimes be painful and the latest LEGO Ideas set is yet again such an grievous experience. I talked about it a bit in my last opinion piece and it seems my worst fears have been realized now that the Steamboat Willie (21317) set has been released (pictures as usual for instance here or on your favorite LEGO news page).

Okay, I was skeptical from the beginning and this set never particularly interested me in the first place because, you know, reasons. However, the asking price of 90 Euro/ 90 Dollars, respectively, has now taken care of letting it drop of any wishlist I could draw up. It’s really not even a matter of dropping down to the last place “in case there’s a few pennies left”, it’s more like “I couldn’t be bothered at all.”. One can’t help but feel that LEGO and Disney have gone completely lost their marbles. I’m already waiting for the day when the digital building instructions become available and the screaming starts when everyone storms Bricklink and realizes that the set (minus the figures and other exclusive items) could be build from standard pieces for something like 25 bucks. It would probably be okay if they sold the box for around 50 to 60 Euro therefore.

The sad part is that for a much lower price I totally could see this working. I myself just would love to get my hands on that penguin-colored Friends bird. I’m also sure I could find uses for the other parts as well and perhaps even recoup some cost by selling off the minifigures to some collector. As it is, though, none of that is going to happen in my little universe and I have some doubt that people other than the most serious Ideas collectors and Disney fans will spring the cash. This is most definitely not a set you pick up on a whim…

Ideas out of Steam?

After last week’s disappointment with the botched LEGO Ideas The Flintstones (21316) set, it seems we’re in for even more frustrations with the latest choices. The results from the first 2019 review are far from encouraging due to licensed products once more having taken the crown.

Not that the pre-selection was that great to begin with. I’m a space and aviation nerd of sorts, but what would I do with an ISS or a jet engine model in my home? That Apache helicopter I saw today doing convoy escort/ scouting duty for US troops being moved to Poland on one of the Autobahns nearby got me more excited than any of that stuff. Conversely I’m far beyond the age to get pumped for m&ms dispensers. The only thing that got me halfway hooked was the Fiat 500 model, but it didn’t make the cut.

So here we are, stuck with a super toyish looking Steamboat Willy set and the Friends TV series café. I couldn’t say that I care much for either and sadly I have this bad feeling that behind the scenes Disney was pulling strings to get those sets made. Steamboat Willy being the birth of Mickey Mouse in my view is completely overrated, as frankly most younger people probably never heard of it until they hit that search bar in their web browser.

Similarly, Friends feels twenty years too late. Despite endless reruns in late night TV, I have yet to manage to sit through a single entire episode. It’s so cringeworthy and out of time like so many of those alleged 1990s “cult” series. I vividly remember that gag in the bloopers of We are the Millers, though, where they play the title song to Jennifer Aniston… Well, whatever, the fact remains: Not the greatest choices, at least not on this side of the pond. May sell well in the US, though.

A Week of Disappointments (and some Hope)

Big corporations are an odd thing. One always tries to be understanding for the many inherent structural issues, quirks and limitations that commonly occur with such large entities, yet, depending on how involved one is with the company or their products, they can get you riled up very quickly with incomprehensible policies and bad decision-making processes. This is no different for LEGO, so here I’m sitting, shaking my head at why so many things feel so terribly wrong this week.

The whole thing started off with the Brickheadz for The LEGO Movie 2. Only announced about two weeks ago, very quickly a disastrous picture began to form with the sets already being available immediately thereafter, but only in limited quantities exclusive to Walmart and Target in the US. Even worse, those limited numbers were 5000 units for each set, so it isn’t hard to imagine that they sold out almost instantaneously. It’s literally just a few drops in the ocean even just on the North American markets alone. Forget about the many people elsewhere who didn’t even get a chance.

Now you may not care much for Brickheadz, but the point here is that LEGO keep citing bad sales as a reason for possibly cancelling the series as a whole, but then they mess up the one time a lot of people would actually have wanted the sets. It’s really unfathomable, considering it should have been an easy enough thing to roll out enough sets and have them benefit from the already existing marketing for the movie. Fail No. 1!

While we’re already on the subject of The LEGO Movie 2, that one seems to turn out as its own failure. The box office figures aren’t that great, both in the US and internationally in the markets where it already launched. Attendance from cinema audiences seems rather low and so far it hasn’t even made its production cost, which no doubt is at least 130 million USD by my estimate plus of course on top of it at least double that money for marketing etc.. It has yet to launch in several markets and I’m pretty sure this movie “has legs”, meaning it will be profitable in the long run, but I’m just as certain it is by no means the big hit LEGO would have hoped for.

A third failure (sort of) are the first images for the latest LEGO Ideas set The Flintstones (21316). You can find some of that for instance here. One isn’t supposed to judge a book by its cover and a LEGO set by its box, respectively, but to be honest, this just looks bland and disappointing. It appears the internal pre-production optimization process has made the set “kaput” and bereft it of the charme the original project had. No dinos, no other animals, no large rib/ meat piece, no additional characters as minifigures, not even a printed plaque.

I’ve always been a bit skeptic about this and considered it at best an optional buy, not being the biggest fan of those old series, but this is indeed a major letdown. Speaking of which: The same could be said about the Duel on Starkiller Base (75263). I genuinely had a “WTF?” moment when I saw the pictures. To say it looks amateurish would be doing favors. It’s just awful and of course at least three years to late. Who at LEGO (and by extension Disney) even comes up with such harebrained stuff and clears it for mass production?

In more positive news, but perhaps also in some way a bit of a panic reaction to the bad reception of the film, the next wave of The LEGO Movie 2 sets have been announced this week, too. Maybe to calm potential buyers’ nerves? In any case, I kinda love the Shimmer & Shine Sparkle Spa (70837) and Queen Watevera’s ‚So-Not-Evil‘ Space Palace (70838). It’s exactly the kind of unconventional (for LEGO) building style and creative use and repurposing of parts that attracts me.

Emmet’s Triple-Decker Couch Mech (70842) on the other hand leaves me relatively cold. It’s stuffed to the brim with Medium Blue tiles and other elements, though, so if the price comes down a bit, it might be a good source for this stuff. Similarly I’m torn with The Rexcelsior (70839). It looks cool and I so want those small dinos, but now that some more pictures are available I can’t help that the faux Nerf gun functionality comes at the cost of sparse interior detailing despite a hefty price tag. Makes me think even harder if I would consider buying it, not just because of my limited finances…

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…