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Hacking's a snap in Legoland

Toy-brick fanatics decided to modify Lego's Digital Designer product. The company's response? "It's great." Photos: Designer Legos

When Lego executives recently discovered that adult fans of the iconic plastic bricks had hacked one of the company's new development tools for digital designers, they did a surprising thing: They cheered.

Unlike executives at so many corporations, who would be loath to let their customers anywhere near the inner workings of their software tools, the Lego honchos saw an opportunity to lean on the collective thinking of an Internet community to improve their own product while bolstering relations with committed customers.

All it took was being open-minded enough to see that their biggest fans weren't trying to rip them off; they were trying to improve Lego's products in a way that, just maybe, the company's own designers hadn't thought of.

Lego creations

"I was a little concerned at the beginning because I know there are companies that don't respond favorably to this kind of thing," said Dan Malec, a software engineer from Stow, Mass. Malec is an active member of the adult Lego community, a group of passionate Lego aficionados who build models far more elaborate and sophisticated than the kids' versions most people are used to seeing.

To one toy-industry observer, Lego's positive reaction to the hack is more than unusual.

"I can't think of another instance in toys where it's been basically 'Do whatever you want,'" said Anita Frazier, an entertainment industry analyst at The NPD Group. "If it doesn't ultimately hurt the intellectual property, and (the users) aren't modifying the trademark or the core property at all, (Lego is) looking at it as it doesn't hurt."

Last month, Lego launched Lego Factory, a service through which users can create their own unique and customized Lego models--a cat, the Statue of Liberty, a tree or whatever else users choose.

Once the designs are created and uploaded through Lego Factory, the company manufactures the bricks necessary for the model and ships them to users so they can assemble their models. Customers can also buy the bricks necessary to build from other people's designs, which are posted on the site.

Lego without limits
At its core, Lego Factory is powered by Lego Digital Designer, a free, downloadable, 3D modeling program that lets users choose from digital collections of bricks to compose their own unique models. The software lets users build whatever they can imagine, so long as they have the 3D modeling skills to design their creation.

But initially, Lego Factory didn't exactly curl the toes of some of Lego's more hard-core and tech-savvy fans.

The problem, according to several members of the Lego modeling community, is that the digital collections--or palettes, as they're called--of bricks users had to choose from in Lego Digital Designer often contained far more pieces than buyers really needed. At the same time, they were missing a few others that were integral to the creations. Thus, users would frequently and wastefully have to buy several palettes in order to gather all the specific bricks they needed. And that, they say, made designing and buying models too costly.

"Several hundred bricks are associated with" certain palettes, said Malec. "If you want just to use only two of those bricks, you're still going to have to (buy all of them), and you don't know how many of those extra bricks are coming."

So not only could it be inefficient, it could be downright untidy.

However, the adult Lego community knew that each palette--when delivered--was actually made up of several physical bags of bricks. With that in mind, Malec and a few other Lego users wondered if they could find a way to cut down on the size of the palettes they could choose from. The idea, he said, was that by reducing the number of bricks in a palette, builders would be able to purchase smaller numbers and thus cut their overall costs.

According to Larry Pieniazek, an IBM software architect and an avid Lego user, Malec and others realized that by coordinating their efforts, community members could keep track of the actual bags of bricks Lego provides in its stock sets--and the specific pieces contained in each bag. With that, they could compile a database that lists which bags must be purchased in order to collect specific bricks.

Malec explained that he and a few others were able to modify the actual digital files that list the palettes users would see in Lego Digital Designer so that they were broken down bag by bag rather than being listed by palette. Thus, he said, users can now see and work with the smaller bags in Lego Digital Designer and cut down on the cost of their models.

"You'd see a lot of fan creations" on Lego Factory, Malec said, "costing $400 or $500 because fans are not using the bags efficiently. If you could see it at the bag level (instead of the larger digital palettes offered by Lego), maybe you might make a different decision. Maybe (instead of buying) that one piece which takes a whole bag that you're not going to use, you might choose a different bag."

Despite the fact that the efforts of Malec and others in the Lego community were likely to result in smaller price tags for the custom models, Lego's reaction has been largely positive, even though the company was caught off guard.

A mixed bag of bricks
"The adult community found out within a few days (of the Lego Factory launch) how these bags were mixed together," said Ronny Scherer, a senior producer in Lego's interactive experiences group. "It was a puzzle to us. They took us completely by surprise. We think it's great."

Scherer explained that Lego has to walk a fine line when it comes to allowing access to its systems but that the company recognized the value of letting users adapt the tools to their needs.

"We really encourage and embrace" some modifications of our software, he said. "We have a huge adult community, so if we can make our software in a way that will allow our fans to adapt it to their needs," we'll support that.

Meanwhile, though Lego's policy has been to get behind the software modifications done by the adult community, the company oddly hasn't communicated that position explicitly to the users, Malec and others said. But they are fairly sure they haven't upset the powers that be at the company.

"I haven't seen anything from them," Malec said, "which I am perhaps incorrectly taking as turning a blind eye (since) I haven't seen anything negative from them."

But Lego said that though it wasn't expecting the user community to act so quickly, the software adaptation done by Malec and others fits into the company's larger plan.

"It's not surprising to us that they're doing the hacking, because that was the hope, that they would take the core of what we're doing and own the system" for themselves, said Jacob McKee, Lego's global community relations specialist. We want to "release more and more content and development tools to help that process along. The hope is that they really start to take this on and start to do things we haven't even thought of yet."