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Castle ’07 Designer Feedback

Matthew Ashton
Creative Director
LEGO Playthemes / Playthemes IPs. (Licensed Properties)

Firstly I’d like to thank you all for posting your questions to us regarding our Castle ’07 launch. I have read through all the questions and will attempt to answer the ones I can, to give you an insight into how and why we came up with the products we did for this launch. Unfortunately there are of course limitations on the information I can divulge regarding certain topics, due to confidentiality. These especially focus around pricing, testing techniques, manufacturing/production processes etc all of which of course affect the way we must design products.

Rather than answering each question individually, as several of them overlap on certain themes, I will headline different topics and give a general explanation to each. I hope this gives you a bit of an insight behind the scenes of this launch and that you can gain an appreciation of the process that has gone into making these products.

I know some of you are extremely pleased with the products we have launched. It has been fantastic and highly motivating to receive such positive comments for both me and my design team. I also know that some of you are also less than satisfied, which we also realize and respect. I really hope in this case you, can understand it is a very difficult task to completely satisfy everyone within one product launch, and hopefully we can deliver on some of those needs within subsequent Castle products.

Why a New Castle line for ’07?

The decision was made to launch a new Castle Range in 2007 for several reasons; Knights Kingdom was coming to the end of its life span, it had seen several successes but also had its limitations. Initially K.K was developed to introduce a range of ConstrAction figures, and was heavily reliant on being quite story driven, with a lot of focus on a specific group of characters. This however caused several restrictions when it came to the development of the Lego System based products, which had to fit under the same communication umbrella. Also the change in the Companies strategy was to go back to our roots, so the System Playtheme products needed to be in focus with a new Castle launch rather than a series of action figures.

We wanted to wipe the slate clean, go back to basics and come up with a range of new Castle Products that would suit and excite our core consumers (boys that like to build, from 5+) and hopefully cater for our shadow consumers of adult fan/Castle enthusiasts at the same time.

From what we learnt from Knights Kingdom, it was vitally important that we didn’t restrict ourselves too early on by developing complex story lines. Every product we made in ‘07 range needed to be completely self explanatory, and visually tell its own little story to the kids, to spark their imagination. Through collecting and combining they would be able create their own epic adventures.

Goodies and Baddies!

A lot of you have asked or commented on the different factions and why we chose Skeletons over two human factions. This decision was made for several reasons; Firstly we did a large amount of character testing with different kids, where we compared different scenarios, products with different characters, including very classic Knight against Knight factions and more fantasy based opponents. Practically all of the kids found the fantasy based bad guys much more exciting, magical and compelling. When presented two human factions, the response was very much ‘It’s just Knights in two different colours!’ and they found the entire theme and the products a lot less appealing and inspiring.

I personally feel this is just a true reflection of our times, if you look at the movies, TV shows, computer games, books, comics and other toys that kids are surrounded by now, it is just different to when we were little. Kids’ perception of a theme like castle is just much more based around fantasy stories and characters now.

One of the other reasons we chose to push the more fantasy driven angle with the new theme was to get the retailers excited about Castle too! This may sound silly, but we needed to have something that was visibly very different from Knights Kingdom…. retailers have been selling Lego Castle for years now with varying degrees of success, they needed a new angle on this too…. What will make consumers buy this line more than any of the other Castle lines in the past? What makes this different?

So that’s where this all stemmed from ; Classic Knights, with Classic Castles, Classic Weapons, Classic Shields, Classic Horses to keep you guys happy :) and some nasty fantasy bad guys to spice things up for the kids and retailers!

We chose Skeletons first as they are the most iconic and the easiest to set the foundations for the new theme. There is no question they are the baddies, whereas some other fantasy characters could go either way in the kids’ minds. Using Skellies also meant that we could really differentiate between the good and bad settings and vehicles much more easily. Designing all of the bad stuff to look boney and skeletal, made the range look much more varied overall. Please note, that this doesn’t mean we will never do two human factions again, it’s just the time and present trends lean much more in a fantasy direction right now.

Product Assortment

The ’07 Castle assortment is pretty much a standard playtheme assortment from a price point and product mix point of view. Our main aim was to ensure that we delivered a range of really differentiated products, from pocket money price points through to big Christmas items. It’s also important that we don’t over do the number of products we have in a range like this, so they can all perform well.

We wanted a fairly equal split between good guy focused products and bad guy focused products, but ensuring that each set contained mixed opponents, to add drama and excitement on the box front, as well as instant play value once the product is built.

Heraldry, Colours and Graphics

Good guys – We wanted them to be nice and classic but at the same time not too naďve in design expression, so using Dark Blue brought them up in age so they didn’t look to juniorized ( this was something we were very conscious about shaking off the whole Jelly Bean feel of K.K). We wanted to add in metallics to really push the level of authenticity, so it seemed like the figs were wearing real metal armor which the kids really like. Gold highlights and emblems were used to add a really regal feel to the theme and promote the goodness of the King and his Knights. We chose to use the crown for the good guys Heraldry as we felt it really symbolized Goodness, Royalty, Honour etc etc… it’s very iconic, we hadn’t done it in a while (and I also had the yellow castle when I was little so I wanted to pay a bit of homage to that!)

Baddies- Black and Red….can’t get badder than that!!! White to highlight bones, teeth, rib cages and spines in models! Skull Symbol for the shields etc…kids liked it best, it was very iconic!

Bricks versus Pre-fabs!

With this range of Castle we felt it should be one of our most brick rich playthemes, it lends itself naturally towards that due to the theme and models themselves. We aimed to get as many standard bricks in as possible, and minimize the number of large premolded parts. Due to pricing, kids handling abilities in the age group, building instructions and the sheer size of some of the models, it did mean that they had to be used in some instances, but we tried to keep them to a minimum. I’m very pleased to say that I think we achieved the highest piece count ever in our new big Castle!!!

Build up of the Kings Castle

We were aware that many of the recent castles we had launched had been built as façades or on base plates and we wanted to make the new Castle different. We knew that you guys really prefer to have an entirely walled castle, so our first objective to achieve that.

We needed to build the Castle in modules to ease the building experience for younger kids, -building the castle in chunks makes us able to pre-pack it into separate bags, to make it easier for the kids to identify bricks and reduce the time they need to look for elements. We know that if it takes too long to find pieces it causes frustration. Kids may give up looking and substitute bricks for another similar one, or they just presume the part is missing…this will lead to models being build incorrectly, and kids being disappointed with the end result, which needs to be avoided at all costs.

The airy builds of the back towers are generally due to pricing, obviously for each model we have to achieve the target price that is set for us. We need to do our utmost to create a compelling model that has an impressive size impression and that will also photograph well on the front of the box. Originally the back towers were more condensed and lower, but they were impossible to see in the photos, as they were hidden behind the front towers. This meant we had to reduce the front towers and heighten the back ones so that as many details are as visible as possible. We wanted to make sure that the king’s throne, the treasure chest, sword and prison could all be easily seen on the front of the box as these are the main play triggers for the kids. This is one issue we face when designing an entirely walled castle, a lot of what we are spending our money on gets hidden behind the front wall. Castle facades are much easier to create a strong packaging image with, as all the money is practically put into making the front wall as impressive as possible. Also airy built towers make the rooms much more accessible for kids to get their hands in, we need to remember that these models are designed to be played with and not just displayed.

Classic-Castle.com and AFOL involvement

We have used Classic-Castle.com as one of our sources of information from Adult Fans which has been valuable in the development of the new products. We have also been lucky enough to enlist the assistance from a group of AFOLs, namely Ben Ellermann, Nathan Wells, Paul Janssen, Robin Sather, Johannes Koehler, Luis Baixinho, David Tabner, Lenny Hoffman, and Andrzej Szlaga. Who all contributed to our design process, inspiring us with their ideas, visuals of models they made for us, recommendations of which elements fans would prefer etc etc.

Ben Ellermann also took part in a Design Boost workshop here in Billund, when we were kicking off the Castle project, as a fan representative. He came to work with the design team for several days building and working with us to advise us on the things we could do to insure we could get Adult Fan support for the new Castle line. This was highly valuable, just highlighting the importance of the old weapons for example; lead us to digging out and repairing whichever old molds we could find. Some have been completely scrapped but others were unearthed and we were able to bring back into production.

I would personally like to thank all these fans for their involvement, as they have all helped contribute to the development of this range in one form or another.

Thank you!!!!

KK. Style Action Figures

There will be no ConstrAction figures launched as part of the new Castle line; the assortment will focus entirely on mini-figures with the addition of Fantasy Creatures in certain sets.

Civilian / Medieval Sets

Throughout all the testing we have done for Castle we have included several Civilian style sets for the kids to review with the rest of our proposals. Unfortunately when it comes to the ranking of products they always come at the bottom of the pile, even when we have tried to spice them up by including some sort of battle or attack scenario to the products, they just never rank very highly. Kids really prefer just to have a big Castle to protect and a load of Battle machines and vehicles.

Also if we did a Civilian set at retail, it is more than likely that it would be the last one kids would pick on their collection list and they may never actually get that far. We can’t afford to have products sat on shelves that are very slow to perform as we have limited shelf space in the different stores. A box like that could take the place of a Star Wars or Exo Force item etc which could sell five times the volume very quickly. Generally if products aren’t seen to perform in the first month or two they can be very easily dropped from the assortment.

This doesn’t mean that we will never do things like this again, we have done some fabulous stuff internally that I know you guys would love, we just need to figure out the best way of getting it out to you, that makes good business sense. I’m discussing things with shop@home / direct to see if we can find a solution there…. I can’t promise anything but I’m seeing what I can do, we just have to be so careful we don’t flood the market with too many Castle products.

Army Battle Packs

We are also in discussions over these too, they will not be launched in mass retail, but we are looking into doing some direct / shop@home items (still to be confirmed). In the meantime we are launching some small impulse purchase items which include one minifigure plus accessories (as you have already heard from Eurobricks), one of them at least should help with your Army building… as he is a soldier with a new torso and accessories.

Development and Longevity of the new Castle line

We are looking for this to be a much longer term proposition than Vikings for example. We have purposely made the story very loose and open so we have the freedom to take it into different directions. Vikings is much more narrow as a concept, once you have done a ship, a fort and a few vehicles, the scope for new, very differentiated products dries up quite quickly. Having the new Castle range with a fantasy twist means we have a huge amount of scope to introduce new characters and develop exciting differentiated products.

2008 is going to see the battle grow much bigger, as both sides are being joined by new allies. These reinforcements will bring with them new vehicles, machines and settings to make the theme much more epic. I know you guys have already got your hands on a sneak peek of one of the new products, which kind of sets the scene for the other stuff on the way.

Regarding the longevity of the line, it’s very dependant on the success of this launch, but we want to keep it going as long as we can. Regarding the Trolls in the catalogue image… you will not have to wait too long!

In 2008 we have two Impulse items, six new retail products including account exclusives and a very special item coming at the end of the year too (wait and see!). That’s all I’m telling you, but I’m sure you guys will be able to dig out some information from somewhere.

Element and Component Information:

Kings Torso-Viking Decoration

I would love to tell you that there is a really deep story line that was created behind this, and I may shatter many of your illusions by telling you truth. Here goes…… each product line at LEGO is assigned a certain number of new elements, colour changes, and decorations and we cannot exceed those frames…. so it was purely to stay within our budget we used reused this decoration. As it wouldn’t be seen on the packaging, but we knew that it was better to use a decorated element underneath rather than a plain one. This is purely for production purposes we have to stick to this. If we over complicate things by having to many elements and colour variations, it ultimately leads to supply issues, so we need to keep a focus on this with every product we launch. The same applied to the Evil Wizards torso.

Plumes

Yes I know!!!! We have had several production, packing, and cost issues with the plumes that meant we were not able to add them to the sets. I am trying to solve this for the future as we need to find a new solution to this, but I am afraid to say that the old plumes will not be appearing in any future retail products. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news… :(.

Dragons – Why are they in the two big sets?

We need a dramatic conflict in all our sets for this range, the kids absolutely loved the dragons and by putting them in the big price-points meant that we could use the smaller price-points for catapults and vehicles etc. We didn’t want to end up with an abundance of catapults in every set, like some of the KK products. We also didn’t want to sell the dragons separately, as we need to ensure there is enough core brick content in every box to support them.

Styling of the Dragons

Obviously everyone has a very different opinion of what a LEGO dragon should look like, and I can assure you that it is the same internally, as it is with you guys. We decided to do the Dragons the way we did for several reasons; We had a real mix internally from the Harry Potter Dragon to the Vikings (technic / Bionicle style) dragon. As the theme meant we were going to have to mix dragons with the existing animals, i.e. Horses, Rats, Owls etc we felt that the Vikings style of dragon was just way to robotic and futuristic looking (as well as being very complicated to build for younger kids) and would create a real clash of styles. The Harry Potter dragon was just too static and didn’t have the functionality or poseability that we wanted within this line. We also needed to make sure we avoided our dragons getting to close to Creator Style brick built creatures. We needed the new dragons to be quite authentic, realistic and playable (meaning the kids can really battle with them and fly them around). We also knew that they were going to be animated in TV commercials, so therefore had to exude some kind of personality - which is very hard to achieve with brick built characters within a realistic playtheme setting. I know some of you love them, some of you hate them but I hope this kind of gives you some of the reasoning behind why we made them the way we did and I am quite confident we did the right thing for the theme and the kids.

Princess Wig

We were really lacking some girl wigs within our element portfolio, and felt this was a good time to do a new one. Ideally when we make a new element it should be as generic as possible so it can be used in multiple themes. We decided on this one, which could work for Castle, Hermione in Harry Potter and Marion in Indiana Jones. I was asked to tell you which designer worked on these…. her name is Gitte Thorsen…who previously worked with me on Clikits… she sculpted the Clikits Girl Keyring characters… and has since done many of the new Playtheme wigs for Castle, and Indie, as well as the new Dwarf Helmets, beards, trolls, dragons, skeleton horses etc.

Skeleton horses: Static or Poseable

This was basically a call we had to make due to the cost of the elements. It came down to the fact we could either afford one poseable skeleton horse pulling the carriage, or if we went for the non-poseable type we could afford three, as well as being able to put them into the two smallest price points. I hope you see why this lead us to quite a clear decision. If we didn’t do this we would not have been able to make the joust set for a reasonable price-point… meaning we would not have launched that product at all. From a product point of view the only difference between this horse and the real horse is that it’s head doesn’t move, we chose to accept this compromise so we were able to make the Skeleton Horses affordable for the small sets.

Biggest Disappointments with the line

Generally I’m really happy with the whole line, and I also don’t really wish to highlight or bring attention to things that we do have issues with, because a lot of it is probably things you guys may not have noticed! :)

But generally being a designer also means that you have to make compromises on everything you do, and that is not just at Lego, or just in the toy industry, it’s everywhere in design. At the end of the day every product we make has a business plan behind it, needs to be profitable…and part of being a good designer is managing those compromises and deciding what can be cut or taken away without affecting the overall appeal of the product and it’s play value. I think Castle is one of the lines where we have managed to do this very well, every single product I feel has a good reason for being, a high level of appeal, good play value, good building experience, strong and understandable packaging photos, and good price value…. to achieve all of those things in all of those products is a challenge.

Making compromises and cutting things out of products always hurts, and we don’t necessarily always get it right but it’s all about being professional and thinking about it from a business perspective…. of course we would like to make huge fantastic models, with thousands of bricks, hundreds of figures, multiple functions etc, but this isn’t possible. Parents have a limit on how much they will spend on LEGO, and we also have very tough competition now, that wasn’t around in the early days of LEGO, so we need to be much more competitive. Designing toys for LEGO now is a completely different ball game now to what it was in the 80’s and early 90’s.

Goodbye for now! We’ll be back!

Right, I think that is all the questions answered now, I hope this will satisfy your hunger for Castle information for now. You may be pleased or disappointed with the products we have made, you may not agree with all the decisions we have taken with the line, I just hope this has helped you understand our challenges, our thoughts and a bit about our processes of how we ended up with what we did. It’s been quite healthy for me to also sit back and reflect on what, why and how we did things, as it was over a year and a half ago we developed the new Castle products. In the manic design studios of LEGO we are always moving on to the next thing, and getting the next theme ready to launch and there is little time to reflect on what we have done!

But looking back I am really proud of what my team achieved with this… so Bjarke, Nick, Gitte, Lauge, Chriss, Laurence….if you are reading this! Well done!!!!..... and fingers crossed that it’s gonna sell like hot-cakes!

The range for 2008 is now complete and ready to go! The Castle Team of four designers, one graphic designer, one sculptor and myself have all gone our separate ways for the time being, working on a range of different themes for 2008 and 2009. We will hopefully be reforming the same group, around spring of ’08 to start on the next wave of Castle products for ’09.

Thank you guys, sooooooooo much for your continued support, we will keep our eyes on what goes on at Classic-Castle.com as all the input we read on there is valuable!

Thanks Again!

Best Wishes.
Enjoy the products.

Matt

Editors Note:

Matt and the other Castle designers are very busy and will not be able to answer any follow up questions. They likely will read and see your comments. Please respond to this article in the original forum thread.



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