Exclusive: The inside story of LEGO Super Mario – Level 3

In the final part of this exclusive interview, the LEGO Group’s Jonathan Bennink and Christian Munk reveal why Super Mario took four years to develop and what they learned from Dimensions

It’s almost LEGO Super Mario time! On August 1, the new theme will launch around the world and fans will be playing a video game in real life. Using the brand new interactive Super Mario figure, the digital world comes to life as players take him across ravines, through castles and to dangerous boss battles.

In the previous part of this exclusive interview with Brick Fanatics, LEGO Design Manager Jonathan Bennink and Marketing Director Christian Munk explained why minifigures were not the way to go and how they developed a lovable Mario figure. In this third and final part, they talk about the long development time and learning from LEGO Dimensions.

Did the depth of development and collaboration contribute to the extended four year development period?

Jonathan: Yes it did, our bosses are not too happy with it but we made something in the end, so that’s good [laughs]. It’s definitely about finding the play recipe, that took one and a half years, from that initial idea of an interactive character, then what do you do with him? Because a lot of tech toys out there, they are fun for maybe a day, and then they drop off and here we hope there is a longevity in building levels, just coming up with your own ideas and putting your own creativity into it, and then sharing that with people around you. That just took a little while, then we had to make everything, and then Nintendo was also very concerned about quality and safety so everything that we shipped to them, they dropped five thousand times as well  to make sure that it is strong

Christian: After we had dropped it five thousand times.

Jonathan: And also the design of Mario himself, has gone through quite a few iterations as you can imagine, so that has also taken about a year to develop to a point that we are happy with it. Then we had to develop all of the sets, we have announced about seven but there are also many more to come. It is also a new way of approaching a market for us, when you have a starter set and then expansion sets.

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Christian: Basically you need the starter set, that’s where you get your LEGO Super Mario figure but you also get the start and the finish. So without the starter set, you can’t have a level, that’s what you build in between. Then of course you need the Mario to play it out.

As Jonathan said we have touched upon this model earlier with Dimensions but besides that it’s actually new territory for us – but it’s not a model we are worried about. Kids and shoppers are used to it in this category we are entering into, with tech products, or even an espresso machine is basically the same model. I think we need to give the kids and the shoppers the credit that they deserve, they know this model so it’s not one we are concerned about.

Jonathan: Finally there’s the technology on the sensor and the display. Nintendo’s got a lot of experience with picking out displays, at LEGO we don’t do it a lot, we maybe have one Mindstorms hub with a small display in it but that’s about it. They have people employed whose sole job it is to pick out displays.

Also the sensor technology, the colour sensor – we switched from RFID back to an optical solution because RFID is slow, it’s also very power hungry so you run out of batteries really quick and it’s a little bit expensive on the brick side so we could only put two of these action bricks in the starter set and now we can put seven of them in. That technology had to be developed.

We also had to build a machine that pre-applies the stickers, so these are stickers because that turned out to be the most durable solution. We had to develop a machine to take a sticker from a sheet and put it on a brick, we wanted to do this because you guys [adult fans] are very precise with placing stickers but a five or six year old, they just chuck them on there and then they miss and tear it off again – and if you don’t have the start sticker placed there then you can’t play the level. It’s game breaking if the stickers are not there in the right way, so that’s why we need to do that.

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What did you learn from LEGO Dimensions that you applied to this?

Jonathan: The main thing is with LEGO Dimensions is that you build a little bit and then you place it on the portal and it goes into the game, but the main experience is then on the screen and that is something that we wanted to do differently with this line. The main play loop, the main experience, is actually happening within the bricks.

There is a companion app that you can connect to and you can update Mario, you can get the building instructions, you can get new ideas for levels, it is a platform for sharing your levels, adding your coin score to it and then sharing it with somebody else – but the main interaction is with the bricks. You have both hands free, you play a level, build a level, so that’s probably the main difference.

Also it matters what you build here, with Dimensions you could have chucked the RFID on it and it didn’t really know, while here you have to build all of the challenges to get the coins.

Christian: Just to build on that, what also makes me really proud is we have probably one of the first truly interactive play experiences from the LEGO Group. But also what makes it truly unique is it is a hand held interactive play experience where you have the LEGO Super Mario figure in the middle but then you can build this whole world of interactive play around, so you actually build the world yourself.

Of course you can follow instructions but you can creatively free build your own level, it’s not special bricks, he reacts to the colour of the bricks, so you can also use the bricks you already have to build a cool world, and then he reacts both to the way you play out the world but also how you have built it, and that’s what I am particularly proud of in this line.

Read more from Brick Fanatics at Fan Media Days 2020

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Graham was the BrickFanatics.com Editor up until November 2020. He has plenty of experience working on LEGO related projects. He has contributed to various websites and publications on topics including niche hobbies, the toy industry and education. Follw Graham on Twitter @grahamh100.

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