Lego, you are dead to me
Give Lego credit for innovating after losing patent protection on its bricks. It's now a $4 billion company built on brilliant licensing deals and increasingly expensive, specialized sets. Which is exactly why I'm starting to hate it so, so much.
I am done with Lego. And no, it's not because I stepped on a brick in the middle of the night last night, suffering what can only be described as the worst pain in the world, although yes, that's a permanent source of rage for every parent, really. No, I'm done with Lego because that sacred cow of millions of geeks who grew up happily constructing elaborate vehicles, castles, cities, and imaginary lands, is no longer the Lego of our childhood. It's time to face the hard truth: Lego is evil now.
On the one hand, the story of Lego's resurgence in the past few years is a remarkable tale of innovation and canny survivalism. The patents on Lego's brick design began expiring in the early 2000s; the original patent expired in 2011, and despite many attempts by Lego to get its patents extended indefinitely and then to trademark the design, the company was eventually forced to admit that innovation was its only road to continued success.
Enter the new saga. Lego 2: The Licensing. It started with "Lego: Star Wars," of course, and the library of licensed Lego goodness now includes, to name just a few, Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Harry Potter, Spider-Man, Batman, Speed Racer, Indiana Jones, Toy Story, Cars, The Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, Super Heroes (including figures from Marvel and DC Universe), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and even, heaven help us, a set based on the new "Lone Ranger" movie. Here's a list, if you're in the mood.
Things really got genius in 2011, when Lego went ahead and created its own original series, Lego Ninjago. The premise is brilliant, from a merchandising and sales perspective. There are six main characters, five of them ninjas who have to go through various stages of training and ninja accomplishments -- meaning multiple permutations of minifigures from just the primary cast. Then there's a different set of villains for each season, each set of villains has its own vehicles, weaponry, and mechs, as do the ninjas, and virtually no single minifigure is available for sale all by its little lonesome -- only as part of a set that ranges from $10 if you're lucky to $100 and up if you're the parent of a fanatical 3-, 4-, 5-, or 6-year-old child. Now there's "Chima," a show that aired once, near as I can tell, but which has still spawned a million minifigs.
Plus, many of the themes also now have companion character encyclopedias, which are little more than catalogs for greedy, brand-obsessed children. The hype around the must-have toys is so intense it's even led to full-on Lego fraud rings, and I myself bought a sketchy standalone minifigure on eBay that arrived wrapped in tissue in a Ziploc bag, just to avoid spending $30 or $40 on yet another ridiculous "set."
My biggest complaint about the licensed sets, other than their always increasing cost, is that they're basically the antithesis of the Lego model: where I remember building and learning to build with the Lego blocks of my youth, these new sets simply require children to follow somewhere between 100 and 300 steps to build a very specific, one-time use vehicle or environs. Then, 2 to 7 hours later, they're done, moved on to the next shiny branded toy.
Yes, of course, you can deconstruct the sets and build something else out of the blocks, but many of these new pieces are specialty parts that hardly fit anywhere else: wings, bolts, circular attachments, pointy triangle blocks. They're less interchangeable than they've ever been. Plus, with all the emphasis on characters, the minifigures are the focus of most of the attention: kids will beg their parents to buy a $40 set, mine the minifigures, and toss the rest into a separately sold, branded storage bin.
And do not get me started on the Lego for girls sets that have started to spring up in the last year or so. After all, once Lego is no longer even remotely about creativity, problem solving, or imaginative thought, why not go all the way toward pandering to ludicrous gender stereotypes and producing a bunch of pink crap.
I'm hardly the first to complain about Lego moving to a licensing model that costs a lot, turns our kids into brand slaves, and dampens their creativity -- but what really gets my goat is that the company is simultaneously trying to cling to its creative roots by releasing imagination-oriented sets and products for adults. Take the newest release from the Lego Architecture Studio line, which, wonder of wonders, consists of a box of bricks, no instructions, and "a world of endless creative possibilities." Cost: $150.
Bite me, Lego. As a parent and a consumer, I am exercising my right not to fill my child's life with Yet Another Piece of Plastic, and I'm sorry to report that Lego is included in the "your grandparents can get that for you" list. I bought him a good old-fashioned box of bricks for $30, and someday soon I am going to get a 3D printer and some decent CAD software and you are going down!