“Over my dead body will Lego ever introduce Star Wars.”
So said a vice-president at Lego in 1997 when the head of the company’s American arm proposed that the firm should introduce its first licensed toy line. Up to that point, the Danish company had only ever made toys based on its own intellectual property, and there was a certain internal resistance to making licensed products.
But according to the Lego history book Brick By Brick by David Robertson (the source of the above quote), Lucasfilm loved Lego and was keen to partner with the company. And Peter Eio, chief of Lego’s American division, saw that toys were becoming a licence-driven market, and that Lego was being left behind.
Still, it wasn’t just the horror of licensing another company’s brand that caused resistance in Lego’s senior management – it was the brand itself. “Having something that was called Star Wars, a title like that… here at Lego we have very strong opinions about war and toys related to war,” recalls Jens Kronvold Frederiksen, current design director of Lego Star Wars. One of Lego’s founding values was to ‘never let war seem like child’s play’, so producing a toy line with ‘war’ in the title seemed like a non-starter.
Still, it was clear that Star Wars was somewhat removed from war in real life. “It’s something different,” says Frederiksen, “because it’s these fantastic stories about good and evil, and it was just the perfect metaphor for making as a toy.” And just as importantly, it could be funny. “To be able to make this, we had to make it special, and we had to have the Lego humour in it.”
The Lego Star Wars team in 2000.
A dream job
Jens has been involved with Lego Star Wars from almost the very beginning, back to the moment he stumbled across prototypes for the first sets in the Lego design office in 1998. “I have to say that I was super surprised seeing them as there was nothing out about this yet. And then also because personally, I really love Lego but I also love Star Wars, so seeing them merged together was fantastic.”
“I found out that at that time, the contract negotiations were going on between Lucasfilm and Lego. I went directly to my boss and said, ‘Hey, if this is going to happen, put me on the program.’ I wasn't on it from the beginning, because I was signed to another product line with something called Rock Raiders – unfortunately, not a lot of people remember it, because it never got a chance as it came out the same year as Star Wars. About half a year later, I was assigned to Star Wars and the first thing I did was a prototype of the Y-wing that came out in 1999.”
Lego Tie Fighter and Y-Wing from 1999
Working with Lucasfilm
As the first licensed products in the Lego range, I wondered whether there were any problems in terms of gaining approval from Lucasfilm. “Well, I think I wouldn't call it problems as such,” says Frederiksen, “but there were definitely some challenges and there were a lot of things that we needed to agree on. The most important thing is that it's a good toy … and creating a Lego model means that sometimes we have to make compromises on the design. For instance, if we had to make a completely white ship like an Imperial Shuttle, it wouldn't be only white, there would be other colours in it to make it a good building experience. You know, a box of pure white elements, you would never ever be able to make it.”
Frederiksen says that Lego has strict guidelines to follow from Lucasfilm regarding “the models, the design, the colours, everything”. But he has been working with the same counterpart at Lucasfilm for 20 years now, and they’ve developed a comfortable working relationship: it’s rare to find any friction. “It's an ongoing thing,” he says, “and we do make mistakes, so it's actually quite good having that approval process.”
One big problem at the start, however, was making Lego models – and minifigures – that accurately represented the ships and people of the Star Wars universe using the limited number of elements in the Lego library. “We didn't have a lot of different hair styles or pieces for the minifigures,” says Frederiksen. “Actually for the main minifigure we only had one hair style and we called that in the office the Roy Orbison hair. It has this side parting, and it was like super slick and very shiny. And we used that, you know, for anything, for Luke in tan colour and brown for Han Solo. And we could see, okay, this seriously doesn't work, we need to have more variety. So the first special hairpiece created for a minifigure was actually Qui-Gon Jinn’s hair – and then of course we needed to work out how we were going to create all these aliens.”
Lightsaber Duel set, featuring Qui-Gon Jinn minifig
“The first one was actually Jar Jar Binks – so he was the first Lego minifigure that didn’t have a standard head. Another one that took a lot of experimenting was Chewbacca. We decided that some of the characters would have this plate covering on the front and back of the torso to sport the details.”
The spaceships also presented a challenge, and certain ones required the creation of bespoke elements to make the ships look more like the ones in the films. “Very often it's cockpit canopies because they’re hard to construct from existing pieces,” notes Jens. “We always try to match the reference but also try to make them a good Lego element. Meaning it can be used by other product lines in Lego, but also when that cockpit ends up in the big bin, you know, in the kid’s room, then it should be something that is instantly recognisable and very easy to use in one of the kid’s own creations.”
Lego X-Wing Fighter from 1999
The first sets
When it came to deciding which models to release in the first wave of Lego Star Wars in 1999, Lucasfilm gave some of the direction, says Jens. “We knew that we were going to launch for the first time together with the Phantom Menace, so it was pretty much given from Lucasfilm what we were to create, because we didn't know that much about the movie, so they would know what to go for. But we also had a selection of classic items like the X-wing. There were some obvious models we needed to have.”
The first line of Lego Star Wars models came out in March 1999 and included a Landspeeder, Speeder Bikes, a Snowspeeder, a TIE Fighter, a Y-wing and an X-wing. These were followed a few months later with models based on the Phantom Menace that launched to coincide with the release of the film.
The original Anakin's Podracer set from 1999
“I remember one of the most popular models was the Naboo Starfighter,” recalls Jens. “It was a very strong model and was very well received. And also the pod racers. We had a big box with three pod racers and then a smaller set with just Anakin’s pod racer. That's also why we selected Anakin’s pod racer as one of our anniversary models.”
The 20th Anniversary Podracer
“The most popular models are the most iconic ones: X-wings, TIE Fighters, Millennium Falcons, Slave I. They’re all very popular models and that's also why they’ve been launched several times.”
Importantly, Lego Star Wars was a massive success for the company at a time when Lego’s fortunes were beginning to falter. The company was struggling to cope with adjusting to the rise of digital entertainment, which was taking kids’ time away from traditional toys, in turn causing its profits to plunge. But in its first year, Lego Star Wars exceeded the company’s internal sales projections by 500%. And in the early 2000s, when Lego came close to bankruptcy, Lego Star Wars was one of only a few product lines that consistently generated a profit.
But Lego eventually managed to turn its fortunes around, in part because it embraced the digital medium that was eroding its core business. Enter Lego Star Wars: The Video Game.
The video game
Lego had attempted to port its bricks into the digital space on several occasions prior to the launch of the Lego Star Wars video game in 2005. Its first effort, Lego Fun to Build, was an exclusive for the Sega Pico that was only ever released in Japan. But Lego Island from 1997 gained a worldwide release, and it kicked off several more Lego video games, including Lego Racers and a title based on the short-lived Rock Raiders theme. However, the majority of these early games, which were produced by a variety of third-party studios, received decidedly mediocre reviews.
Then Traveller’s Tales, based in Knutsford, England, was contracted to produce a Lego Star Wars video game. The developer was formed in 1989 and had a long history of creating licensed games, including Mickey Mania for the SNES and Mega Drive and Sonic R for the Saturn, not to mention various Pixar games. Frederiksen recalls his role in the transition of the Lego Star Wars models to the TV screen: “I was involved a lot with that, and there was a lot of discussion about how the models should look in the game and also the humour part. There were a lot of things that we needed to align.”
Traveller’s Tales worked closely with Giant Interactive, which was formed by senior managers from Lego Interactive, the internal video game division of Lego that was wound down in the early 2000s. The two companies eventually merged to form TT Games. But most importantly, perhaps because of the close working relationship between Lego staff and Traveller’s Tales, the developer managed to nail the feel of the Lego world. And the key was humour.
“I think the humour is very important because it's what makes it unique,” says Frederiksen. “And it was also something that was considered safe by parents. It was something they would let their kids play. I have very good memories about it and I personally also played that game all the way through. Seriously, I couldn't stop myself, it was really fun. And it was pretty groundbreaking at that time, it was the first game of that kind. It was great fun being part of that.”
Lego Star Wars: The Video Game was a massive success, becoming the 13th best selling game of 2005, while TT Games went on to produce a sequel and more than a dozen more hit Lego games. And they’re not done yet.
Skywalker Sound’s Matt Wood let slip in April that he was working on a new Lego Star Wars game, although TT Games and its owner Warner Bros. have yet to announce anything official. We contacted Warner Bros. to ask for an interview for this piece, but they declined, saying that “TT Games aren’t available for interview at this time.” Rumours of a new Lego Star Wars game continue to swirl, however, and an announcement is likely soon.
In the meantime, Lego has released five 20th anniversary Lego Star Wars sets to commemorate the line’s debut in 1999, and each comes with a special edition minifigure based on the original moulds – so once again, we get to see Han Solo sporting his Roy Orbison hair.
20th Anniversary Lego Dropship, featuring "Roy Orbison hair" Han Solo
Still, after the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker later this year, the next Star Wars movie isn’t scheduled to hit cinemas until 2022. I asked Frederiksen whether he’s worried about the gap between movies and how it will affect Lego’s toy line. “I think we've been able to actually keep Lego Star Wars going without films,” he says, “but we also know that there are new opportunities coming in the future. New, you know, Star Wars TV shows and stuff, so I definitely think that that there will be new stuff, new material, new content to create products in the future.”
Unlike 1999’s poor old Rock Raiders (RIP), there’s plenty of life in the old Star Wars licence yet. I wonder what that unnamed Lego vice-president would have to say about it now?