Home ExclusivesInterviews ‘LEGO Super Mario’ Lead Designer Jonathan Bennink on Evolving the LEGO Experience – Exclusive Interview

‘LEGO Super Mario’ Lead Designer Jonathan Bennink on Evolving the LEGO Experience – Exclusive Interview

by Chris St Lawrence

For generations, The LEGO Group and Nintendo have fostered the youthful and creative spirits of millions, entertaining with hours of problem-solving fun. For the first time ever, these two brands have come together to develop an all-new line of products – combining the unlimited compatibility of the Danish company’s brick system with the renowned iconography and function of Nintendo’s Super Mario franchise. This new collaboration, titled LEGO Super Mario, marks a significant step towards digital interactivity for LEGO, who had previously only dabbled in the world of digitally augmented models very briefly with themes such as “Hidden Side,” “Fusion,” and “Life of George.” This feature may prove to be the company’s first smash hit with interactive media, finding a suitable niche somewhere between building toy and videogame.

We were lucky enough to have Jonathan Bennink, lead designer on ‘LEGO Super Mario’, for an exclusive interview. He has been hard at work leading this venture for years. We talk the origins of this innovative dream project, the future of digitally interactive LEGO products, and he was kind enough to give us a hands-on demonstration of the upcoming set due to release later this summer.

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Bennink courtesy of LEGO

DF: How did the idea for LEGO Mario come up and did LEGO approach Nintendo or vice versa?

JB: Both of the brands have been wanting to work together for quite a long time. I think about five years ago, the top management of both companies visited each other. Pretty soon after that, small teams were formed on both sides. That was about four and a half years ago I would say. We did a big concept round of all sorts of ideas. We had roughly 25 product ideas and distilled it down into eight directions. One of those directions was to have an interactive LEGO Mario or LEGO Nintendo figures. Then one actually got the most votes and won the voting rounds. Pretty early on, we made a prototype of Mario in LEGO brick form, but he had a screen for a display and a speaker and that was it – none of the fancy technology we have now. We all kind of fell in love with this cute little Mario in brick form. We decided that whatever we did in the future, the product would be built around that.

DF: What was the initial pitch or idea for the sets? The directive?

JB: The pitch takes a few times as you can imagine. After this first idea, we came up with a lot of digital games for this to play. Our management was like, “Yeah that’s nice but where’s the LEGO DNA here? Even though he has a few studs on his head, that doesn’t make it a LEGO product”. They forced us to think again. That’s when we came up with the idea of building levels for Mario to play. That eventually evolved into anything you build between the start pipe and the finish line – you make out of bricks and anything is a level. In the level, you collect coins within a certain time frame. That’s where the LEGO DNA really came in. The Nintendo DNA was already there with having an interactive Mario of course because Nintendo was all about digital, physical, and bringing Mario to life. But the LEGO DNA was also there where you could use your imagination and creativity to build any level that you think would be cool for Mario to experience.

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DF: Did Nintendo have a lot of oversight during production on the sets or was it mostly your decisions?

JB: It’s a very close collaboration because we’re still working with them on a daily basis. We have at least two Skype calls every week and we visit each other three times a year for a week-long workshop. We retreat and co-create with the Nintendo team and their creative lead. Takashi Tezuka who’s been with Nintendo for 35 years, this really is his baby from their side. They’ve been very involved early on from the play concept. Finding out, what do you do? How does it work? Further on, they helped with lots of technology. For instance, they have a lot of experience with displays because they have all these consoles. So they know a thing or two in that field. They also helped with the sensor technology and on the marketing side of things. It’s been a very close collaboration with them.

Bennink gives us a hand-on demonstration of LEGO Mario in action using the “Starter Course” set due later in the year. He showcases the unique qualities, proving how much of an advancement this is for the LEGO brand. We also got him to reveal his favorite contribution to LEGO Mario that he designed himself.

DF: So with such an interactive base for the sets, how is this design process different from making a traditional building kit?

JB: It’s been very different, especially in the early stages of the project because we didn’t make too many of these nice models that we’ve now shown to the world. That’s a bit of a waste of time if you don’t know if you’re going to launch the product or what it’s going to be. So especially on the just figuring out, the play concept has been very different. After we came up with the level idea, we had to find out how it actually works and why is it fun? How can we take the famous Mario mechanics to the real world without instructing the players too much? We found that if we tell you exactly what to do like a “Simon Says” game – go to blue, go to red, like a board game type play, that doesn’t really fit the open lightheartedness of the theme. It doesn’t fit the LEGO idea of upgrading anything you want because basically, you need to do exactly as we tell you.

It’s more akin to Super Mario Maker where you can put the start and the finish next to each other, but that’s not fun. It’s up to you to make a cool challenge. The same goes for LEGO Mario. We don’t want to punish the players too much either. At one point, we had it where you could get negative coins if you fell off platforms or hit things. Then kids ended up with minus 10 coins at the finish and were almost crying because they didn’t know why. They were really sad. So what we ended up with is this cool principle in the project that we call, “You can do right and more right”. You always get a little bit, but if you do the right thing that we want you to do – make a lot of rotations on the platform or don’t hit the bad things – you can get into this multiple coin mode where you get more and more coins.

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We reward you for doing the right thing rather than punishing you. Mario also doesn’t die as he does in the video games again for this reason. Figuring out the play cocktail and playbook has been quite a long journey. We do a lot of focus group tests where, normally, we put sets in the room and just kind of ask kids which they liked the most. But here we had to onboard them to this new way of playing. We found out that kids get the most energy from feeling that they are a level designer – in the shoes of Shigeru Miyamoto and Tezuka creating levels for Mario, that is actually the most fun element of this. Everything we do revolves around stimulating that behavior.

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Video Game Moguls Takashi Tezuka & Shigeru Miyamoto courtesy of Nintendo

DF: What future do you see for this kind of interactive content in LEGO? Whether outside or inside of Mario?

JB: What we find is that if we do it right, the digital aspect, whether it’s a digital layer or with it being inside Mario’s bricks – it can really add to the creativity and reasons why you would build and rebuild. I see a really bright future for us to include, digital aspects, gaming IPS, or gaming-inspired mechanics to traditional LEGO play. As long as the traditional LEGO play is at the heart and core of it. Where in Super Mario Maker, it’s about building and rebuilding levels with experimentation. Kids feel like they’re level designers so they feel empowered and they also have a reason to build because they get some coins at the end. So if we do it right and we stay true to what the power of LEGO bricks is, then I hope to see more of these experiences coming out.

DF: Do you have a favorite scrapped or alternate design for any of the sets that didn’t make the cut that you think are worth sharing?

JB: I can’t say too much about the things we haven’t done because at one point in the future we might do them. It’s probably those digital inspired games that we made for Mario that we talked about earlier. Kids had a lot of fun with them, but we didn’t end up doing because there was no LEGO in those sets. Maybe one day another company will come out with them. I think the coolest thing we’ve come up with in the past four years combined with what is the most iconic is hopefully represented in the product we launch in August.

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DF: Can you talk about the companion app that you recently announced?

JB: It’s still in development so we can’t share a lot of details or screenshots of it. Bluetooth connects to a companion app. You don’t need the actual app to play because we’re very proud that the whole play works with the bricks and you use both your hands to play. But to get new inspiration, there is a companion app that has building instructions on it. It has videos on how to play. I think one of the funniest moments was where we tried to instruct kids how to run, jump, and shake Mario on paper and they just didn’t get it or they skipped it.

We seem to be the last generation that understands arrows, you know, reads manuals. The kids don’t do that anymore apparently, videos are that format. So we ended up having companion an app with five-second videos where you can just see how to use the cloud or rotating platform and how to get coins from it. That’s in the companion app along with a big inspiration section where you get blueprints either completed or you have to complete them yourself for levels.

DF: Is there a timeline on that when you think it might be out or,

JB: The companion app will be available at launch as well and anybody can just download it because it’s free. To access all the content you, of course, need to connect to LEGO Mario.

The first LEGO Super Mario set is set launch August 1, 2020!

Follow writer and video editor Chris St. Lawrence on Twitter: @ey2studios

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