LEGO Media // November 1997 – October 1998
After seven years working in games magazines, it was time for a change. In a classic ‘poacher turned gameskeeper’ manoeuvre I joined the newly-formed LEGO Media as a Games Producer.
It was, perhaps, an inevitable move. In my teens I’d been something of a bedroom coder, writing games and routines for my ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Atari ST (and all in 100% machine code, as the ads used to brag), while on the mags I’d always found talking to coders about the game development process the most fascinating part of the job.
My first major project was LEGO Chess, and the brief was simple: to create a fun chess game that not only helped kids learn the game but also offered challenge to more advanced players. Development duties were handled by now-defunct Krisalis Software in Rotherham, although the core chess engine was licensed from Oxford Softworks.
As well as managing production from LEGO Media’s side, I also created the design documentation. The game featured three fully-3D chess sets for players to choose between: a ‘classic’ set created specially for the game by the toy’s Danish designers at LEGO’s Billund HQ; a Western minifig set; and a Pirates minifig set (a third Castle minifig set was originally planned but got dropped due to time constraints).
Apart from the all-important ‘LEGO cuteness’ factor, LEGO Chess offered several features that set it apart from other chess games. For a start, there were two Story Modes each based around the Western and Pirates chess sets, in which the player battled the CPU in three increasingly-tough chess matches. Before each match a short FMV clip set the scene, and after the match a good/bad FMV clip played depending on whether the player won/lost the match. If the player won all three matches and saw the whole story, they could print out a certificate as proof of their achievement. Data Design Interactive handled the animation duties on these clips and did a totally amazing job, bringing my script to dazzling life (check them out here and here.)
Then there were the in-engine animations when one piece took another. These created a huge amount of work and a lot of headaches. Do the maths and you’ll work out that there are 36 possible ‘X takes Y’ permutations, which was bad enough. However, unlike, say, Battlechess we couldn’t simply have the mini-figs shoot or stab each other; at the time, LEGO’s top brass were extremely squeamish about minifig-on-minifig violence – they wouldn’t even let the minifigs point their weapons at each other (makes you wonder why they gave them to the minifigs in the first place, but there you go). So we had to come up with creative comedy scenes – Pirate A sending a monkey up a tree to drop a coconut onto Pirate B’s head, that sort of thing. All this had to be approved at every stage too, which took forever. All in all, it’s amazing they worked as well as they did.
Finally there was a comprehensive tutorial hosted by ‘The King’, a medieval royal minifig with the voice of Elvis (‘The King’ – geddit?). The whole tutorial was spoken and fully interactive, making it a relatively painless and entertaining way to learn the game. The King was also given away in plastic form with the first runs of the game.
LEGO Chess was a fun game to work on and in many ways made for a good ‘first project’ – at least there were no heated debates about esoteric, unproven game mechanics! As always, more time would’ve been nice; LEGO Media’s boss dictated that LEGO Chess (amongst others) was going to launch in November 1998 come hell or high water, so there was intense pressure to get the game ready and out on time. I fondly recall many long nights camped in Krisalis’ office, testing the latest builds as I listened to boy racers handbrake-turning around the town square outside. Ah, the glamour of game development.