17 August 2020

LEGO® Super Mario interview: Jonathan Bennink & Christian Munk

Back in May, Tim Johnson and Francesco Spreafico from New Elementary interviewed 2 LEGO® employees about the new Super Mario theme: Jonathan Bennink (Design Manager - Creative Play Lab) and Christian Munk (Marketing Director Lead - Reality & Games) including some questions from our patrons. Their answers give great insight and understanding as to why these sets were designed the way they have been! 

©2020 The LEGO Group
First, could you tell us a bit about yourselves?

Jonathan:
I'm Jonathan Bennink, I've worked at LEGO for 6 years now. I started at LEGO Dimensions but 4 years ago, I got the Creative Lead on the Nintendo collaboration. And that was just, yeah, gig of a lifetime! This is a dream I didn't even know I had – to work for LEGO, and then also for Nintendo? Super cool.

Christian:
My name is Christian Munk and I'm in marketing on LEGO Super Mario, so a part of the Product and Marketing Development team on it. I've been with LEGO for a little more than 11 years now, in various sales and marketing roles; now mainly working on gaming IPs and product lines that have technology in them, so for instance LEGO Boost and Minecraft and so on. I'm so lucky to have been working on LEGO Super Mario for the last couple of years.


What was the initial brief?

Jonathan:
From the start we decided we wanted to do something that only LEGO and Nintendo could do together, meaning that we didn't just want to make a traditional play theme; we wanted to also create digital experiences and never-seen-before play.


Did that drive come from Nintendo or from LEGO?

Jonathan:
It came from the managements meeting up; they realised that they had a lot of similarities like the safety, the quality and the originality of products. And so they said that when these brands come together, we should do something that people don't expect, and that only LEGO and Nintendo can do together. Yeah, that was my brief back then.

Christian:
This is the result of a long co-creation process between us and the partner, so we have the lead on it but our partner is really leaning in and helping us with the gameplay with the models, and how we ensure that it's a fun experience for the kids, and have the right quality and so on. So it is a special partnership.

Jonathan:
It's really cool to be challenged on quality by by a partner. We've met our match in terms of quality and safety! Every time we shipped a Mario [to them] they dropped it 6000 times!

Set 71360. ©2020 The LEGO Group

Yeah, I see LEGO as the kings of quality.

Jonathan:
You would say so! But Nintendo are as concerned about it as we are, which is cool to see.Their ultimate care is [to ensure] that what the consumer gets in their hands is a good product, and that it's something new and fresh.


What other advantages did working with a partner like Nintendo bring?

Jonathan:
Technology. You know, at LEGO we don't do a lot of [electronic] displays, for example. But, Nintendo they have people whose sole job is to pick out displays from manufacturers. So they helped us with the essential technology. From the start we wanted Mario to recognise unique bricks. Our first prototype had RFID in it…

RFID?

Jonathan:
Radio frequency identification. That's like what you have in your passkey for your workplace. But then if you put RFID in the bricks, first of all it's a little bit expensive, but it's also very power-hungry and a little bit slow. So we used stickers; they're quite a bit cheaper so that means that we can put many more of them in sets which gives us many more interactive points in the level. The starter set already has seven of them. The stickers come pre applied; the first time that we do that, so we had to make a machine at LEGO to take stickers off the sticker sheet and then put them on the bricks.


Oooh! So can stickers please come pre-applied now?

Jonathan:
Ha ha ha! Yeah, AFOLs are really precise at putting stickers on but kids, not so much, and this is actually the reason why we're putting pre-applied stickers: normally, a sticker doesn't break the model if you put it on wrong. But here, you can't play the levels so it actually it destroys the experience, it breaks the play.


Why not print them?

Jonathan:
No, it didn't work. We have quality robots that just do this all day. [Hits Mario repeatedly onto a colour barcode.] In the end it turned out that the sticker quality was actually more resistant to the scratching then if you printed directly.


How many new elements are there for this theme?

Jonathan:
Including like the colour-changes and stuff, I think it's over 200.


Wow. How did you decide which aspects of the game were going to get new elements, and how did the design ethic develop?

Jonathan:
The whole design started around Mario of course. Mario has his tech components and those tend to be square, you know, the batteries and the display. We also felt that the most iconic LEGO bricks are square, like a humble 2x2 brick. So, Mario coming to the LEGO world? Being square kind of was a good fit, we felt.


We also toyed with different or more organically shaped Marios but it just didn't feel as natural. But then, Nintendo did want certain iconic items to be more organically shaped, such as his cap. Mostly, Mario looks like he's kind of built out of bricks, fused together. For instance his tummy, that's like the piece used for the front of a car, can you recognise it? And the same goes for his hair on the top, that's like 1x1 round plates.


So after Mario, what was the next step?

Jonathan:
From there we started designing the rest of the characters, and again here we tried very organic shapes but because the whole line is about creativity and about building and rebuilding – and we also felt it would be natural for kids to build the characters themselves – this led to characters that are completely brick-built. Some of them must have new elements; both new prints – such as new decorations on the Bowser mouth and shirt – and then for some items which we just couldn't build ourselves such as the Koopaling shields, those have to be moulded elements. [Jonathan attempts to remove the 'action brick', a 2x2 tile with the barcode, from the Koopaling shield.] Okay, they're actually quite... [Jonathan resorts to using his teeth.]

Christian:
Don't do this at home.


Jonathan:
...so the action brick actually gets inserted into the shield, so Mario recognises him. You can take it out with a LEGO cross axle.

Okay. Don't need teeth then.


Jonathan:
No, unless you're impatient or lazy.


And then the other big thing that we did for this line elements-wise is the modular system; the platforms that basically everything in the line is built up around, like these 4x4 plates that are two plates high. We have a 6x6 as well, and an 8x8. We built a system specifically to enable kids to rebuild the levels quickly. You know, kids love to build these little contraptions, but after they build it they kind of don't want to take it apart again. But of course this line is about rebuilding levels, so how can we find a way where kids can still rebuild the levels, without taking absolutely everything apart? That's how we ended up with this system where you can take any plate two studs wide and just slap them underneath the platform, and then you have a stable connection to the next little platform. With this, you're gonna quickly rearrange the levels plus it gives the whole line a very unique style.

Set 71364. ©2020 The LEGO Group
So when designing these new square elements, did you start with square corners or were they always rounded like this?

Jonathan:
When they were just square it just looked exactly like Minecraft or like lots of other LEGO, which is not like a bad thing per se but it's also good to, you know, to have your own style and bring something new. And it matches all the round shapes that you would recognise from the game.


I also noticed they've got a reduced number of studs on them, was that another thing you had to work through – to find the optimal number of studs, so Mario can be removed quickly?

Jonathan:
Yes. Because, as you know, you play the levels by hitting platforms, it's a very dynamic play experience. And also, just generally, it looks a little bit more polished if they don't have studs everywhere. And then there's a platform that doesn't have any studs on it because it's all about danger. [Jonathan places Mario on a smooth platform attached to a turntable and rotates it until Mario slides off. Mario's eyes change to spinning spirals!]


But there's also platform with studs on, so, some sets you can actually choose your level of difficulty by yourself. The action brick is the same, so you get the same amount of coins, but you can choose if you want an easy ride by putting Mario down on the studs, or if you want to be like a pro and beat the challenge without studs.


Something I don't particularly understand about the gameplay are Mario's different outfits?

Jonathan:
So basically, you can take off his pants. Then he says "Mamma mia!", he doesn't like it, you know... he has no pants. You can still play with him, but he's not so excited anymore. Each pair of pants basically has a different mould, and inside you can see little bumps that basically push against the pins on Mario's tummy. Each one, each power pack, has a different combination of lines. So Mario doesn't just look different, he also gives a new reaction.


Christian:
In terms of bricks, each of those power-up packs as we call them, because they give you a power of ability like in the game, they of course come with the pants, a hat, two 2x4 baseplates and some bricks.


Jonathan:
So, the cat costume in yellow has little ears on his cap but he also makes cat sounds and you can climb walls, like in the game. So you would want to build a level that has like a lot of high towers. The fire Mario costume is of course the white pants, he can shoot fireballs like in the game – digital fireballs, and when you hit the enemy health points are subtracted from the enemy. For instance, you know Bowser Jr here takes five hits to defeat. When you shoot at him you kind of already deplete his health. Then we have the builder costume. It's all about smashing bricks so now you get coins for each brick you hit by jumping down on it. And then we have the propeller costume which is my personal favourite. This is all about taking off and flying around in the room. As you fly you get coins and if you land you get a bonus.


There's been a long and mixed history of hybrid digital physical products within LEGO, from LEGO Dimensions which was a bit of a market disappointment and then Hidden Side seems to be a great success. How would you say that Mario builds on, or or varies from, those previous experiences?

Jonathan:
Good question. So LEGO Dimensions, that was kind of 'toys to life', and this is ‘life to toys’! So it's kind of a spiritual successor in that way. But what's majorly different is: with LEGO Dimensions you built something, put it on the platform and then the rest of the experience was in the game; on the screen. And with Hidden Side already there's much more fusion between the two, but still the game is on the phone itself. So what we're very proud of with LEGO Mario is that here the main game is happening inside the bricks. So there is an app connected; Mario has Bluetooth and when you connect to that you can update him. So in the future, if we launch new sets, you get new reactions. But the app is really there for updating building instructions and getting new ideas for levels. The level play itself, you are using bricks. That's what we're majorly proud of; that the main attraction happens in reality.


And what are you most proud of, Christian?

Christian:
For me what what I'm really proud of with this line is that, for me, this is a unique experience in the way that it's an interactive experience but it's a handheld interactive experience so you can actually build this world of interactive play around Mario that you can actually play out and he reacts, both to the way you play but also to the level that you have built. So you get a dynamic experience without having any screen time.


Mario has come to LEGO; might we see LEGO come to Mario? You can play Mario Kart with three Mercedes at the moment, it would be great to see LEGO vehicles in there! Are there ongoing discussions with Nintendo for future projects... that you probably can't tell us about?

Christian:
I can say: stay tuned. I mean it's a good partnership and we of course hope that it will be that together we can keep creating experiences that that kids and adults love. That's our main goal with this.

Ben Davies from New Elementary also took part in a special online session with Jonathan where he and other fan media were able to ask some more questions. Here are some of the most interesting, posed by Ben and other fan sites present.

©2020 The LEGO Group
The building instructions are digital rather than the traditional printed instructions. Was there much debate about this?

Jonathan:
Thank you for that question, as I would really love to explain to everybody why they are not there. We simply couldn't explain this new way to play on paper. We tried to prototype that a lot, believe me, with arrows kind of showing how to jump with Mario... on paper, it's just too difficult to explain. Kids just skip it. Basically, anything that's not a building instruction they skip because they think it's optional. So by putting the building instructions in the app, it also allows us to put videos in the app, and a 2 or 3 second video tells so much more than a page with say 15 arrows kind of flying around trying to explain a movement. And we know from other projects that kids really appreciate the 3D building instructions because they can get a good 3D view of the of the build and see exactly where the brick is being placed.


These sets are very different than anything we've gotten before; in a normal LEGO set you're building the models and using your imagination from there, whereas this is more about building the levels?

Jonathan:
If I can just do a little bit of 'marketing talk’: you get both. You get to build that awesome set that's on front of the box but then you also get to take it apart and rebuild it in the levels, and use your imagination. I think that's what we really tried to achieve with this line. At one point we had the slogan 'From display to play': even though we love that fans display our models, in the end it is of course all about creativity and rebuilding. And to just grab out of the cupboard when you have friends over and you want to see if they can do any better!


Jonathan, which is your favourite set from the whole lineup?

Jonathan:
My favourite set is the piranha slider [71365 Piranha Plant Power Slide Expansion Set] simply because: bringing game mechanics to physical LEGO play? Three or 4 years ago that didn't make any sense to people. And then, when we built this little slider, then people got it. Like, "yes! Mario is moving and you have to stay between the obstacles, and I built the set myself!" You know, the concept fell into place by building that slider. I think it's a really good example of of the play. I love that you can cheat on it! – you can just kind of hold it and slide it back and forth. We really did not try to prevent that because that's not the spirit of this line. This spirit of this line is giving you the tools and having fun with it.

© 2020 The LEGO Group




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13 comments:

  1. Minor correction: 71366 (and the image above) is *not* the Piranha Plant Power Slide (which is 71365) but Boomer Bill Barrage.

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    1. thanks! i was wondering why it looked weird

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  2. Despite the myriad of new elements, I thought that having very little Nintendo in my childhood might mean this was one theme I could resist. That is more difficult after reading how excited Jonathan and Christian are about it!

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  3. Oh to be a quality robot that just does this all day. [Hits Mario repeatedly onto a colour barcode.]

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  4. "I started at LEGO Dimensions but 4 years ago, I got the Creative Lead on the Nintendo collaboration."

    So the last waves of Dimensions came out in 2017, and it sounds like this project got started in 2016. I wonder if the Nintendo deal had anything to do with the death of Dimensions Year 3.

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  6. Great interview! If you ever get the chance again, could you ask why there's no Princess Peach?

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    1. There's no _lots_ of characters. It's just the first wave, so if it takes off they'll probably work through more of the roster. Luigi should be as simple as just making a green version of Mario's outfit, but then I'm not sure how that will work with all of the other outfits they've created. Each one is coded so the Mario device recognizes what it's wearing, which means as soon as you strip Luigi's clothes off, he's Mario again.

      Peach would probably be a brick-built character like Yoshi. To work her into this game, they'd need to come up with some way to incorporate her into the gameplay, or she'd just be dead weight.

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    2. For Luigi I'd sooner expect him, rather than being a green version of Mario's outfit, to be either a discrete "digi-fig" (with a unique mold for the moustache and unique voice clips but the same general capabilities, including the ability to change outfits), or to just be a brick-built figure (though probably still using the same hat mold as Mario). I'd probably lean toward the latter because the former would require unique sets of power-ups to properly resemble Luigi.

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