I was the Digital Lead on LEGO Super Mario from January 2020 until June 2022. During that time, I oversaw the development of six product launches (130+ SKUs) and dozens of app updates. We have developed a lot of unique new plays and interactions with these launches and are super happy with the success of the theme! Working hand-in-hand with the Design Director, Simon Kent, I oversaw the digital play layer of the entire play theme and the connections to the companion app.
The LEGO Super Mario theme and play were developed in the Creative Play Lab (CPL). Simon Kent and I were brought on six months before the product's initial launch. This happened for two reasons, the CPL team needed to move on to other projects, and there was concern with how smooth the launch was going, as LEGO doesn't have the best track record for launching digital/physical products. But the launch of LEGO Star Wars Boost Droid Commander and my leadership there gave management confidence in my ability to help smooth over any bumps.
When we initially came on, the project was getting things done, but it needed to be run more efficiently. The main issue with the digital side of the project was that it needed to be more narrowly focused on the first wave of products. The interactions, the app, and the systems that support both would need help scaling up to keep working if more products were to come out. While the project was only intended to last through four waves, the product's success extended the lifecycle. This meant that we needed to quickly scale the digital systems so the hardware, firmware, and software would all keep working as long as products were being made.
Wave 1 - Initial Launch
The initial play was well established by CPL, and the introduction of role-playing as LEGO Mario in a video game world supported by LEGO creative building and small game elements was a big hit with kids. The basic idea of starting with a start pipe and ending with a goal pole and anything in between is a level was super easy to understand for parents and kids. This little innovation and the heavy weight that the Super Mario IP carried allowed for a big success. This is another crucial example in my career of not introducing the user to too many new things to be successful. Here, the main new 'thing' is the interactive figure. This allowed for it to be easily digested.
With Simon and I coming on board, we overcame a few difficulties in the initial launch. We had some specific flow issues in the app and onboarding issues in the app that I was able to help point out. But mostly, my first few months were laying the groundwork for how the system would grow past the initial launch.
Wave 2 - Master Your Level Maker Set
For the second launch of LEGO Super Mario, we wanted to introduce some incremental innovation in digital and physical play. We were able to add more creative level building with the Master Your Level Maker Set. This set also introduces customizable action blocks and our first Special Start Pipes. In this wave, we also introduced another readable color for Mario, purple - for the Poison Soda Jungle.
Wave 3 - LEGO Luigi
It's time to team up with Mario's best brother, Luigi! In the third launch of the most successful interactive toy theme ever, we added a new level of play to the LEGO Super Mario, two-player mode! This increased the complexity enormously. Now our figures needed to talk to one another via Bluetooth. They both needed to be able to connect to the app at the same time, and the game system needed to adapt to two-player events.
This also increased the challenge of how we discussed the complexity of the project with our internal stakeholders. We often had to talk about our digital play systems in terms of SKUs, but that wasn't technically how we were able to develop the digital interactions. We often created new digital interactions based on the needs of an SKU, but with overlapping interactions from SKU to SKU and now two-players effects, we no longer added to complexity with each new interaction, we multiplied. It was my job to help simplify this so my team could be more efficient in the development of each individual interaction.
Wave 4 - Luigi's Mansion
I had a great time designing the Luigi's Mansion wave. Not only was our team hitting its stride regarding how we should work and what we needed to accomplish by when, but it was just super fun to have the incremental innovation of adding the Luigi's Mansion sub-theme onto LEGO Super Mario.
One of the keys to the innovation for this wave was developing a new Power-up for Luigi's Pultergust. This power-up was unique because we added a button to the front of the pants that pressed down on the pins of the actual interactive figure. This allowed Luigi's vacuum to turn on and off. Now Luigi was a ghost catcher, and the play has expanded even more.
Wave 5 - LEGO Peach
It was time to finish the trio of interactive figures with LEGO Peach! We wanted the LEGO Super Mario theme to be as inclusive as possible and Peach to be as much of a hero as Mario and Luigi, so our system works the same for all three characters. This decision made LEGO Peach stand along with Mario and Luigi as a hero and was also crucial for making the system work. Our digital play engine that runs on the interactive figures is the same as the figures and needs to be for the two-player system to function. For the character to feel and react differently, we mainly swapped out the assets and 'pushed' the characteristics they had.
In this wave, we also introduced a Gift and Food system. This play system enhanced the two-player strategy and enhanced role-playing. We found that the level-play was the crucial stand-out for why kids bought into LEGO Super Mario. Still, one of the longevity drivers was the characters' ability to enhance role-play. We took the opportunity in this wave to amp that up for kids that wanted to enjoy that more.
Wave 6 - Ice Biome
The latest set I saw through completion launches in January of 2023. the new Ice Biome sets add a new chilly color for our characters to react to, along with some great expansion sets and characters.
LEGO Super Mario App
The challenge with the app design and development, coming into the project, was it was only really defined by some parties what the consumer and company-driven purpose of the app was. Is it a companion app that supports the play or an engagement driver that helps continue the play and increase purchase opportunities?
Nintendo, the former Digital Lead, the Marketing Lead, and the New Product Owner all had different points of view on this. It made it very difficult to navigate the correct level of effort in upping the experience vs. just continuing with what was given me at the start.
One thing was clear, though, the original design of the app was appealing and had a good level of playfulness, but its design was intended to go up to four waves of product launches. It did not scale how we needed to know that the theme would live on to at least wave seven. So some redesign was required, but the question was how in-depth of a redesign was needed?
It was a tough decision to step away from what was built with the LEGO Super Mario team. I probably felt the most successful that I had until this point in my career working on this project. I was able to help lead the team in a way that we overcame the scaling issues for the play and set up the app to continue the journey to find better ways to handle more sets.
This was by far the most complex project I have ever worked on. I once had to explain why the project was so complicated to upper management and what I was trying to do to simplify it. The initial vision of the interactions made it so that every time a new digital interaction was designed for Mario to interact with you, you were not adding that interaction to our time and his use base but were multiplying it. Once we added in the two-player mode, it got an even higher form of multiplication. So every SKU that was designed ballooned that digital play instead of linearly adding to it.
In my role, my primary responsibility was to oversee how we would simplify each interaction so that it became part of a toolbox for our designers and the kids to use, limiting the bloat on each SKU's design. This came with massive documentation challenges to get the most out of every interaction.