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From Bricks to Screen – by Jim Lockey

Jon Burton and his team at TT games have worked on video games from licensed franchises for many years. They have worked with film properties, and mascot video game characters like Sonic the Hedgehog and Crash Bandicoot. It would be fair to say that TT was another run of the mill middle tier developer, that was until 2005 when they released Lego® Star Wars: The Video Game.

This title was another licensed game, only this one had two parents to please – both LEGO® and the Star Wars people. Despite the restrictions, TT games managed to infuse the game with original ideas; unique, lovable humour; and fresh gameplay mechanics that more-or-less singlehandedly revitalised couch co-op. Lego® Star Wars was a fan favourite and critical darling that has spawned sequels and what feels like a genre unto itself, as each year another intellectual property gets the Lego® video game treatment.

Jon Burton was the creative director on that first Lego® Star Wars game, has since gone on to direct many other games in the series, and act as executive producer on The Lego® Movie – perhaps one of the best family films of recent times.

We sat down with Jon to talk about his success, his passions and his vision for making experiences people of any age can fall in love with.

Did you play with LEGO® as a child and do you like LEGO®?

Yes, and yes. Our family didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up so we didn’t have many toys, but we did have a big box of random LEGO® and that’s what I played with the most. I vividly remember trying to make an X-wing fighter, and a car that had windscreen wipers that moved when you pushed it along.

Many of the LEGO® games encourage playing collaboratively with friends or family. Did you envision that they would have such generational appeal or was it a surprise?

The plan from the start was to have ‘drop-in, drop-out’ gameplay so people could join in with your game or leave at any time. The idea was that parents could help kids get past sections they were struggling with without having to wrestle the joypad from them. That meant the kids still felt in control in the game while the parent helped with a section. The parent could then drop out and go and get on with chores or whatever else, if needed. Of course, in reality what ended up happening was the kids joining in to help their parents!

How does the huge success of the LEGO® games affect you when taking on the next project?

Well, each game is a hard act to follow for sure, but for me I’m always interested in creating new and interesting things, whether that’s movies, games, tech or whatever. So, the success of LEGO® is only a positive thing to me.

Is there a message or principle that guides the style of the games and films that you make? 

I certainly never wanted to tackle games for adults. I hated the thought that a game I had made might influence someone to do something illegal or violent etc. So, I stuck to games for kids. With the films, I have two aims; for you to either leave the theatre having seen something you’d never seen before (awe/amazement) or to leave thinking about something you hadn’t thought of before. And a redemptive story where possible.

How do you know when an idea doesn’t fit the vision, and does your Christian faith play a part in the process?

My Christian faith absolutely plays a part. There have been many projects I’ve turned down because they didn’t ‘feel’ right. I believe you know what’s right in your gut – that God can speak to us that way – so I always trust my gut. If I can’t get comfortable with something it’s usually because it’s the wrong thing to do.

Despite being licensed games, the LEGO® series feels distinct; it has a clear identity through its humour and animation style that is unique to itself. How much does the team bring of themselves to a project like Lego Star Wars, or Lego Marvel’s Avengers?

I think the licence and the LEGO® minifigures give a nice structure to each game. They are immovable objects, if you like. Which means that everything else can be played with within those constraints, and indeed needs to be, to express what’s different about our games. So, we pretty much let the team run with everything and nothing is off the table. When I design a game I have the broad strokes of what the mechanics and layout of the levels should be, and I fill in a few areas where I think a certain thing might be cool, but beyond that the team is free to express whatever they feel is the right direction for the humour and animation and so on.

Star Wars, Batman, Marvel, Lord of the Rings – your work on the Lego games has allowed you to work with some of popular culture’s best known franchises. What was your favourite IP to work on?

I really enjoyed the Portal and Dr Who sections of LEGO® Dimensions. Peter Capaldi gave me and my kids a tour of the Tardis when we visited the Dr Who set – I love my job!

Is there a story or franchise out there that you’d like to make into a LEGO® game?

Star Trek would be cool.

When working with a well-known and loved franchise, how do you balance the trademark LEGO® humour and references with authenticity to the source material?

All our teams fall in love with the franchises we work on. It’s so important they live and breathe them. And then the humour just flows. When you love something, you know how to respect it, so the humour is always additive not destructive to the franchise. And because we need to have so many secrets hidden in our games, we dig deep into the franchises to find all the little touches that only true fans would ever notice – because we become true fans (if we’re not already!)

The Lego Movie, wow! As an executive producer, how much did the LEGO® video games inform the film?

I spent quite a bit of time with the directors, explaining how we’d tackled the humour and animation in LEGO® games, because that was really the starting point for the movie. I think they went too far with the humour at first and had to pull back when LEGO® didn’t like it, so a lot of time was me giving notes on the script to try and keep them within the bounds of what I’d learned LEGO® would accept. But they certainly managed to make the humour a lot more edgy than in the games, which I think was fantastic. The directors are extremely funny and talented guys.

Making video games and Hollywood movies is a huge undertaking. What advice would you have for readers who themselves have a project ahead of them, or a big life event?

I think to stick to your vision of what you are trying to achieve. One of two things can happen if you do – you either achieve your vision, which means you will likely have a successful future, confident in your ability to execute on your vision, or you won’t, which means you probably shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. If you compromise your vision, or try to execute someone else’s idea of what it should be, you will always be second guessing what the right decisions should be, which will probably lead to stress and failure. So, don’t compromise your vision, and surround yourself with people who believe in you and will help you achieve it.

Do you feel pressure to make the LEGO® games more combat-orientated, or make the humour more adult to conform with other popular titles?

Nah!

Finally, it takes loads of people to build a game – it’s like making a blockbuster film. Does your faith influence how you lead a team?

I like to lead by example, doing every hour I can to make the best possible experience. But I often lose sight of the fact that people have lives and family. I find it very hard to compromise or understand that other people value other things differently to me. It’s a lifelong lesson. I’ve recently discovered that I have high functioning autism, ADHD and dyslexia, which goes some way to explaining why I’ve struggled in this area, but that shouldn’t be an excuse. I believe that there are always things God wants us to change and work on, and my goal is to listen and try to change, even if humanly I fail most of the time.