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.
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):
- 70418 J.B.’s Ghost Lab
- 70419 Wrecked Shrimp Boat
- 70420 Graveyard Mystery
- 70421 El Fuego’s Stunt Truck
- 70422 Shrimp Shack Attack
- 70423 Paranormal Intercept Bus 3000
- 70427 Portal
- 70428 Jack’s Beach Buggy
- 70429 El Fuego’s Stunt Airplane
- 70430 Newbury Subway Station
- 70431 The Lighthouse of Darkness
- 70433 J.B.’s Submarine
- 70434 Supernatural Race Car
- 70435 Abandoned Prison of Newbury
- 70436 Ghost Firetruck 3000
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!