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How Traveller’s Tales went from working in a cold barn to making Lego Star Wars

LEGO Star Wars

I encouraged my eldest child to try videogames from the minute he could hold a controller. He tried everything from pre-loaded games on a children’s console, to Minecraft, and even an old Toy Story 2 game. But none of them gripped him. I thought games would pass him by. Then he played Lego Batman.

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The magic of the Lego games is found in their simplicity – action-platformers that recreate famous scenes, with you collecting, smashing, and stacking Lego bricks along the way. The fact that you can play them in co-op makes them among the most family friendly games out there. It is why my son and I have played the entire Lego Batman trilogy through together.

One of the best moments we shared was in Lego Batman 2, when my boy – a huge Batman fan at the time – was screeching through Gotham in the Batmobile as I soared through the skies above as Superman. It is a moment you cannot recreate in any other series; the screen sliced in two, each of us with a controller in our hands, using our imaginations to make our own stories in this blocky sandbox.

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“We always think of it like this: if you were a kid, and you dropped a bucket of bricks on the floor, you’re playing out scenarios,” Traveller’s Tales head of design Arthur Parsons explains. “So if you have a bucket of Marvel bricks, you’re playing out scenarios, having your Iron Man figure fight your Vulture figure, or whatever. You’re just thinking about fun. Everything has to be fun, exciting, and rewarding.”

Parsons has been at Traveller’s Tales since the start, back when it was just 20 people working in a room in a barn. The barn had no heating, and the room’s centrepiece was a toilet cubicle – the developers huddled around it, coding away. “Oh my days, that was not fun or exciting,” Parsons remembers. “But we were making videogames – that was all we cared about.”

These days, Traveller’s Tales houses 600 developers across four studios. Actual studios. The toilets are in a different room to the staff and everything. Their success has been made possible by the Lego license, which allows them to adapt a host of different intellectual properties, and give them that signature Lego humour. But even before the Lego license, the studio’s values were in line with what they are now: family-friendly fun.

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“It was about huddling around the console. It’s about bringing people together,” Parsons says. “Being able to play a Marvel game and being able to pass knowledge down to your kids. This could be little Billie playing. They don’t know control schemes, they are not pre-programmed to know X is jump. That accessibility helps non-hardened gamers play our games. We’ve always tried to make good IP-based games for kids. I regularly bump into people who have grown up on Lego Star Wars and they’ve got kids of their own now.”

Traveller’s Tales approach Lego games with a real reverence for the source material. Developers are regularly given a week off to study comics, movies, and games from a particular universe, coming back to the project in the right mindset to make magic. Parsons himself even attends business meetings with potential partners wearing Marvel clothing or carrying a Harry Potter notebook, if only to let those partners know that he and his team truly love what they are working on.

While the series that Traveller’s Tales turn into Lego games are made for children, they do sometimes touch on darker topics. It is these moments that the studio sets aside the authenticity they otherwise uphold rigorously in order to provide some Lego-themed levity.

“There are different ways of writing it, but where you’ve got a scenario where Voldemort gets killed, it’s one of those – do you go dark with it?” Parsons muses. “At the end of the day, your audience doesn’t want dark in their lives. You have to clearly show that this happens, but do it in a lighthearted way. Things that are a bit dark, counterbalance it with humour. The first thing you do in Star Wars, you do negotiations, you walk down a corridor, open a door and there are two stormtroopers in a jacuzzi. Lego gives you that freedom to do funny and quirky stuff.”

Usually, when a studio gets work with a series as established as Star Wars, studio representatives are on site to make sure everything is kept in line. But Traveller’s Tales are afforded a little more freedom than others. Lego is a household name with its own distinct personality, and every partner Traveller’s Tales work with understands it – including LucasArts and their obsessive Star Wars team. They all get the need to alter the source material in the Lego games for laughs. In fact, they welcome the added humour.

It is all thanks to the legacy Traveller’s Tales have created with their previous Lego-based works, even though the games have come a long way from 2005’s Lego Star Wars. What began as mute, slapstick takes on an established series have grown into more complex, fully-voiced productions with their own lines and delivery, even featuring some of the big name actors from the movies they are parodying.

“I had a moment [in Lego Lord of the Rings] where all of Hobbiton was under disco lights, with Christopher Lee headbanging and singing a heavy metal song,” Parsons recalls. “It’s those moments of, ‘Wow, that’s just bizarre’. I don’t think people will get upset [about breaking canon]. Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 has got a story that has been co-written by a comic book writer. That story is authentic. It could be a comic, it could be a movie. But that doesn’t mean we can’t play with that, have fun with that.

“It’s how you marry it together. Being able to use Lego does give us a brilliant way of being able to do that. The Marvel team are amazing and a lot of them love the Lego series. Sometimes it’s them that kind of push us to go funny with stuff. Because I’m like, ‘This character probably wants to be a little more noble and heroic,’ and they’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, but make them fall over something’.”

No matter how many beloved characters they make tumble over a Lego brick, it does not look like Traveller’s Tales have any worries about tripping up any time soon. It is all thanks to their solid ethos – their commitment to making accessible, funny, co-op-capable games that are so rare in this day and age. Whatever comes from the studio in the future, you can be sure it will share these values, and no doubt it will be something instantly recognisable. The door on Traveller’s Tales is always open for more collaborations. After all, they were born in a barn.

This article was based on an interview conducted by Jeremy Peel.

This feature was originally published on November 15, 2017. Read more about Lego Star Wars.