08 September 2018

LEGO® BrickHeadz: Marcos Bessa interview part 2

Posted by Admin
In the first part of this interview with LEGO® BrickHeadz design lead Marcos Bessa, Are J. Heiseldal asked him about the advantages and the complexities of working with multiple intellectual properties (IPs), and the inherent limitations of the BrickHeadz concept itself. Today he asks about the new and recoloured parts as well as the production process... and which character is Marcos' favourite!

At New Elementary, we love new parts so the two new types of glasses that we got in the Go Brick Me set are particularly interesting for us. What can you tell us about the development process of those?
Marcos: The brief for the BrickHeadz line actually came with a request to do something like this. The idea for the Go Brick Me set came very early, in early 2017, so the brand was just about to come out officially on the market. We were already planning what to do for 2018 and so the importance of customisation, allowing people to represent their features was of key importance for this. So we immediately started looking into what that would mean in terms of new elements –  how to make glasses, do we need something new? I started exploring and came up with a whole lot of variations of new elements that we could make, trying to come up with something that would work and fulfil the brief for this purpose, but become a versatile enough element that it could become interesting for other uses. And I think we ended up finding something that is pretty cool for what we do in the set, but also offers a lot of other opportunities, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes out of it.

Do you have any ideas for using the glasses pieces?
Marcos: Well, I would love to see some fences done, I think that’s the obvious choice, just using some clip tiles underneath, especially the square glasses. The round ones you could still do the same thing with, and it’s actually a really great element; we don’t have many that are rounded that you can use clips on. And if you cover half of it up, it could be a perfect toilet seat with a bigger hole than the life buoy. So I think that there are some interesting possibilities.

Do you foresee any other new parts coming for the BrickHeadz line?
Marcos: I wouldn’t say never but probably not a whole lot, because BrickHeadz is all about core building; getting the most out of what we have as a platform of building bricks. Having said that, we take advantage of any parts that are new. For instance, for Darth Vader, we had already been exploring the character without much success until the new triangular 2x2 tile came out in the Speed Champions line, and suddenly we had a perfect solution. That’s one example where we might have been thinking about the character from the beginning but we didn’t have the right way of executing it until that tile came around.

You also seem to have access to a lot more printed parts then a lot of the other product lines. Why is that?
Marcos: First and foremost, we have no minifigures. Each project has a set number of what are called “frames” that we can use, and in a play theme, minifigures use a lot of the frames that we have – typically decoration on the torso, the legs, the heads, colour changes for the hairpieces and so on. So when it comes to BrickHeadz, we might have a similar number of frames as the play themes, we just don’t have the minifigures to eat them up! And on top of that, it was a decision right from the inception of the product line that we wanted to offer more premium collectible items, and therefore we thought it was key for the product that we would offer decorated parts instead of stickers.

I’m guessing it also has something to do with the fact that because you can’t represent the IP characters as accurately as possible given its square-ness, the graphics help.
Marcos: Yes – and we’ve seen a lot of really great stuff out there, with fans building without any decorations, and they just brick-build the details in. There’s definitely a lot of potential there, and a lot of great stuff out there. The moment you introduce more shapes in order to maybe create a jacket detail, you start diluting this very square body that is so inherent to BrickHeadz. So it is a fine line, and sometimes the decoration really allows us to stay within that clean look, but still have the detail. I’ve been working on the 2018 assortment primarily with Chris Perron, a Canadian designer we have, who is also working on the Super Heroes line. In the beginning when he was being introduced to the form and getting used to the BrickHeadz, he would have this “fan approach” and try to brick-build any detail. And sometimes we kept it, like the scarf for the Harry Potter character. But it is that fine line of what we want to have sticking out, adding texture to the model.

“It’s always great when we realise that this particular part never existed in this particular colour… we know it’s going to be appreciated”

We also love the amazing recolours of parts that we’re getting with BrickHeadz. Especially plates in colour 312, Medium Nougat – do you actively try to fill the gaps in the inventory?
Marcos: I wish I could say yes. Haha!

And I would expect you to say yes!
Marcos: Not intentionally. Well, particularly for the Go Brick Me set, we had a lot of parts introduced in 312 and a couple of other colours, because of the nature of the set. It was important for us to try to cover as many possibilities as we could, to offer as many varieties of hairstyles or skin and hair colours as possible. With that in mind we needed to secure that you could build any of the versions you wanted to try, in any of those colours. Which meant that the assortment of primary shapes that we decided we needed, all needed to be available in all those colours. Which meant that, specifically for colour 312, there were a lot of elements that we’d never had in that colour and we had to introduce them.
I haven’t been paying so much attention to BrickLink lately, but back when I joined the company we would look at the most wanted parts and, if it made sense in a set… say, if it sat between two shades of blue and we knew that one particular shade was a much-wanted part, we would take that into consideration. I know that some other designers that are more connected to the fan community still keep an eye on that and try to have that in mind. But, you know, we already have so much to deal with: IP partners, the “frames” and so on, so there’s only so much we can pay attention to. That said, it’s always great when we realise that this particular part never existed in this particular colour, and we have an opportunity to do something about that. We know it’s going to be appreciated.

Do you have a certain allowance on how many recolours you can include in any given set, or is that just down to the price point?
Marcos: I do, we all do. It’s usually down to the project, so it’s split between all the different products across the whole project. So I get a whole number of “frames” for the whole product line; X amount of colour changes or new decorations that I can make across the whole BrickHeadz year. Sometimes you have a character that requires six new colour changes plus four decorations, so 10 of my “frames” are gone, with one character! And another that only took maybe two decorations and no colour changes. As long as I balance them out, at the end of the year we’re good. That’s more or less how it works.

Have sales been better than expected?
Marcos: It depends. The Go Brick Me set is killing it. It’s doing much, much better than anticipated, which is great, and I’m very happy with that. When it comes to the other characters, we have some that are out-performing expectations and some that are maybe a little bit below expectations, so all in all I think we are on plan. But we’ve had some less positive surprises, especially in the beginning of the year with Finn and Kylo from Star Wars and the Justice League ones. That’s the danger when we tap into a movie: If the movie doesn’t perform as expected, the sales of the products associated with it also see some sort of ripple effect, so I think there were slightly higher expectations for those than what we ended up with. But on the other hand, when Avengers came out, our sets did really great, and the movie is doing great, which then helps. So it’s going to be fun to see the next few launches and how it pans out.

“The team retrieved a lot of information from the collectables market – what are the key things that are appreciated, what are the strongest IPs...”
As it’s a concept that comes from within the company, it must be difficult to know what the response will be. What kind of product testing you do for a line like this?
Marcos: In the beginning, what we were doing was investigating the collectables market. A lot of research. We have a whole team, LEGO Global Insights, and basically all they do is run a whole bunch of different research studies and foundational studies that back up a lot of the decisions that we make ahead of time, in terms of planning our assortment and the product lines we introduce. So back when this was turning into a product line, the team reached out to them and retrieved a lot of information from the collectables market – what are the key things that are appreciated from the collectors’ perspective, what are the strongest IPs at the time. We started with some safer bets, to kind of test the waters. The product line started up with four super heroes from Marvel, four from DC, and four characters from classic properties within Disney. Those were the clear favourites from the IPs that we were already working with.

The initial wave of BrickHeadz sets from March 2017. Another two Disney characters, from Pirates of the Caribbean, were released a few weeks later.

It’s easy to imagine that you then release 12 of them, and then you sit back to see how they actually perform. But by the time you release those, you’re obviously already working on the third or fourth wave. It must be difficult to know how far ahead you can actually allow yourself to plan?
 Marcos: Yes, and there’s a lot of risk involved in a product line like this, which is new to us. It has been posing a lot of new challenges, and exciting challenges, on all levels of the organisation, to figure out how to best tackle a product line where we don’t have that play theme formula or play type that we are so experienced with, where we know what to deliver. And we can’t just go to a test and validate it with kids. This is a whole different experience, and it’s been keeping us on our toes and forcing us to literally think out of the box and do things differently; experiment a little more, which has been also really cool.

Do you have a favourite among the characters you’ve done?
Marcos: I love Peter Venkman from Ghostbusters. I think he’s really cute. And somehow I really see Bill Murray in there. Maybe Bill Murray’s face is just a BrickHeadz face, I don’t know. But I love them all. I feel like they are my children.

At the Recognised LEGO® Fan Media Days in Billund where this interview was recorded, the attendees built themselves using 41597 Go Brick Me. Our own Are is wearing an azure shirt with a white stripe, and was sporting a tan at the time... 

Final question. BrickHeadz have clearly captured people’s imagination. There’s been somewhat of a rush by fans to create every character imaginable.
Marcos: Yes! You have to be the first one!

Does that affect your design process for new characters, knowing that someone, somewhere, has most likely already built a version of them?
Marcos: Well. Before they did, most likely someone somewhere here in The LEGO Group has already created it. We’ve had a couple of different “boosts” already over the last two years; this is where a whole lot of different designers come on board and create their favourite characters. And we have 250 designers… so you can picture how many characters we have already mapped out. So I would say that the majority of the big bets, the central characters of the big IPs have been looked at to some degree. But yes, I’ve seen some out there that we haven’t done yet. And some that we probably will never do! Certain IPs that still are a bit too far out for what LEGO would go for.

So, sometimes you might see a fan-built one and go “Ooooh!”
Marcos: Yeah. I’m a huge fan of horror movies, so all the classic horror characters that I’ve seen out there, I’d love to see as a product one day. That’s probably not going to happen, at least not any time soon, because it’s a bit too far from what we normally do, but yes, I’ve seen some really, really cool ones. And that’s great! That’s what we want. Personally, I was tired of hearing people saying, “I’m just not creative. I like to collect, I like to build, but I’m not a creator. I can’t think of something myself, can’t come up with something myself.” Well, with the Go Brick Me set, we gave you a piece of paper, we gave you the colours and the crayons and everything. It’s very easy, there’s no reason to be afraid now. It’s so easy to step up now and become that creator yourself. All these other characters we’ve released introduce you to the idea, and it’s really great to see people now starting to get out of their comfort zone.

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  1. Interesting to note the comment about using the glasses parts for things other than BrickHeadz glasses given that the big red roller-coaster uses the square ones for fences.

    1. Marcos might have been being careful... the interview took place after Roller Coaster was announced but before it went on sale. Or maybe he just didn't know if it was released or not :D

  2. The darkest guy in the lot is Norwegian?
    Great interview, and I am not just saying that, the questions touched interesting topics without prodding into confidential stuff or boring universal chit-chat like "what inspires you"

    1. There's one other person three positions to the left with the same skintone, though I can't tell the gender (a limit of the Brickheadz design unless the subject is a character that's immediately recognizable, or you can incorporate clear gender "tells" like beards and skirts into the design...which still isn't a guarantee). And besides the fact that much of AFOLdom tends to skew white, for events like these they usually require you to cover your own travel expenses. It's cheaper for locals to attend than people spread all over the globe, and AFOLdom (especially in Europe and the US) tends to skew pretty white.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Very well, I will delete the contradictory information from the blog and ask my authors not to include such insights in the future.

  4. Its surprising that Go Brick Me out performed expectations. From a builders stand point, I was a ton of SNOT bricks (28 of 22885 Brick, Modified 1 x 2 x 1 2/3 with Studs on 1 Side!) and it was over 700 parts for $30. I found it on sale at my local big box store on sale for $22 so I bought 4. So many great slopes and other parts especially at less than $0.04 a piece.

    1. I was surprised too – sounds like Marcos was also!

  5. Great interview! The potential of the Lego BrickHeadz is impressive. The initiative of being able to configure your own character is a fantastic idea with endless possibilities. And also lower costs was more than necessary :)
    Thank you!