Best Of 2020: Lego Super Mario Lead Designer On 3D-Printed Prototypes, Aborted AR And Meeting Koji Kondo – Nintendo Life

© Lego

Over the holiday season we’ll be republishing a series of Nintendo Life articles, interviews and other features from the previous twelve months that we consider to be our Best of 2020. Hopefully, this will give you a chance to catch up on pieces you missed, or simply enjoy looking back on a year which did have some highlights — honest!

This feature was originally published in July 2020.

Jonathan Bennink, the lead designer on LEGO Super Mario, has spent an astonishing four years working out how to align Nintendo’s IP with the Danish firm’s perennially popular toy bricks. In an exclusive interview for Nintendo Life, he talks about how the two companies collaborated to create an interactive Lego Mario.

Nintendo Life: Could you tell us a little bit about your background? How did you join Lego and what have you been working on?

Jonathan Bennink: So I’m from Holland, and I joined Lego about six years ago. I created this idea of a physical video game kind of as a fun project slash way to get me noticed. I worked on that for about almost a year and then presented that to the Creative Play Lab at Lego. I think they liked the idea, and hired me, and then I worked for two years on Lego Dimensions. That was a really cool project. Then they said ‘Do you want to become the creative lead of Lego’s side on the Nintendo collaboration?’ Yes! Of course I want to do that! That was a dream come true, and then four years later, here we are.

We’re intrigued as to whether Nintendo got in touch first, or whether Lego got in touch with Nintendo. Do you know how this collaboration started?

No, [but] I do know that they’ve been dancing around each other for quite a while. It just took the stars to align for the product development parts [of the companies] to come into contact. And when they met, that’s when the ball really started to roll.

We never had a partner challenge us in safety and quality, and this was the first time! Every time we shipped a Mario to them, they dropped it 6,000 times. That is Nintendo quality – that was new for us!

They had some initial talks, and they discussed mostly values, how they look at the world and what kind of products they’re making. And they found quite a lot of similarities, as you can imagine, both on our target group, and also on the quality of the products and the safety of the products.

We never had a partner challenge us in safety and quality, and this was the first time! Every time we shipped a Mario to them, they dropped it 6,000 times. That is Nintendo quality – that was new for us!

So when you got involved four years ago, what did the project look like then?

You wouldn’t recognize it, to be honest. Early on in the process we basically made eight kind of big ideas or opportunity spaces, and they ranged from like AR/VR themes to regular play themes. One of the opportunities was an interactive brick, just a small 3×3 brick with a display in it, and it was painted to look like Mario. And that was just something that none of the executive teams on either side had ever seen – interactive-character Lego bricks – so that got the most votes.

We made a prototype on both sides to show each other, and from there on it was mostly a gut feel of, like, this feels really good, it feels really fun and it allows the Nintendo DNA to be infused in the play somehow. Of course, back then we didn’t know what the Lego play was: it was our biggest conceptual challenge. When you look at other technology-enabled toys, they are usually fun for, like, a week. But we wanted to build something that kids could enjoy for a longer time, and also where they could put their creativity into it.

Yeah, we wanted to ask you about the replayability: what’s the impetus for playing again, and how does that actually work?

You should look at this as a creative toolbox rather than a game telling you what to do. So it’s more like Super Mario Maker than it is like a Mario game. We’ve created a toolbox where Mario usually does the same things, the same ruleset, but you have to build a level out of your imagination to either get a fun reaction from Mario or see who can get the highest points. So depending on what you build between the start and finish, you get points – and that’s where you can start getting creative, but also start getting competitive with your brother or sister.

We’ve also tried it the other way around, where we developed an app which told you exactly what to do. So it would show you a world map, and level one looks like this, and we would check if there was grass and water in it, and then you complete the level. And the next level had a rotating platform, and we check if you rotated it, and if you did, you unlock the next level. But this completely took over the play for kids, because kids are so used to these kind of rewards that they weren’t paying attention anymore – to the extent it actually took away the creativity of the very creative users that just enjoy building levels. They felt like they had to complete something.

We also found in tests that once [kids] built a level, they were so proud of it they didn’t want to take it apart

So we scrapped that app, and then we created a new app that’s all about inspiring you to build new levels and giving you new ideas on how to increase your point score. So, for instance, if you finish just in time, in 59 seconds, you get a point bonus. We also found in tests that once [kids] built a level, they were so proud of it they didn’t want to take it apart. So we put a simple photo feature in there so they could share that level and feel it was safe for eternity, and then they had the opportunity to break it apart again.

That’s reflected in the design: looking at the sets, they’re quite basic, so is the emphasis on wanting kids to take them apart frequently?

Yes, we made this kind of modular system, and they snap together. We don’t want to take away that Lego experience of completing something out of nothing, but we also know that most kids don’t want to take the whole thing apart again. So in order to quickly rearrange or rebuild a level, we’ve made this system so it’s kind of a balance between taking it all apart and not being able to rebuild. Not every kid likes to do that.

And big kids like us just like making sets and leaving them as they are!

Yeah, and that’s also in the line: the starter kit looks very basic, but some sets like the Bowser castle are more display sensible, but they still work with Mario. We hope that the adult fans of Lego enjoy putting it on the shelf. Also, there’s the NES we announced recently.

Yes, we wanted to ask about the NES set – were you involved in that as well?

Yeah, I was part of the design. The part where I added to the project was the reactions of Mario. One of the designers came up with the rolling screen, and we came up with the idea that you could put Mario on top of the television, and the colours rotate underneath, and Mario reacts to what’s happening.

So it strikes us that the Lego Super Mario stuff is more designed for five to eight-year-olds, that kind of age range, and then perhaps you wanted something for the adult fans as well.

Yep, I mean, we do hope that all fans of Mario will play with Lego Super Mario of course. But yeah, we do hope that with the entire line we are catering for a lot of fans.

Was there any point where you were considering making Minifigure versions of Mario and just doing a basic Lego set?

The brief that we got from our higher management was to make a product that only Lego and Nintendo could do together

I mean, of course, that is what you would default to. I think that is one of the first ideas that came up. But the brief that we got from our higher management was to make a product that only Lego and Nintendo could do together. That doesn’t mean just licensing the IP, it also means utilizing Nintendo’s qualities in terms of digital interactivity. And by doing a traditional plaything, they couldn’t really add their magic sauce to it, so to speak. The Minifigure stayed on the table because we wanted an interactive figure that could also be a Minifigure, but the technology that we needed to bring the play we have here to life was just too big to put into a Minifigure. So maybe in the far future.

Fair enough. And you mentioned Nintendo’s IP. Nintendo has a huge number of characters you can draw from; were you always going to do Mario or was there discussion about other kinds of IP?

Of course, when you start a project you look at all of the IP. The Mario one was definitely the one that has most in common with our target group. Really early on we defaulted to the Mario universe. And because it is the first time we’ve collaborated, we wanted the most iconic and recognizable of the whole Mario IP, because of course there [are] lots of Mario games out there, and the most iconic is Super Mario Bros., and that’s what the whole line is based on.

The look of it reminds us most of New Super Mario Bros., was that your inspiration?

We took inspiration from various games. Most of the sounds are from the old eight-bit [games], then the voices were from newer games. And for the style, it’s kind of a mix between Super Mario Bros. and also 3D World, with the rounded corners.

It leaves the door open to kind of more collaborations with Nintendo in the future then? We’re thinking immediately that Pokémon would be a perfect fit. Can we talk about that?

[Laughs] I’m sorry, it’s your job to ask, and it’s my job to not tell you! But of course, we have such a good brand fit and similar consumer types that, you know, we really hope that we can do more in the future.

And what about poor old Luigi? Where is he?

[Laughs] Again, I can’t talk about anything!

So you’ve got quite a few Mario sets already, but is this going to be a long-term collaboration with Mario, with more sets in the future?

Hopefully! Of course, you know, you don’t spend like four years in a shed doing a single wave of products. But also, I think both companies are keen to see what consumers think and what the world thinks about this type of product. Of course, we do functional testing, so you get a little bit of appetite for [whether] kids like it or parents like it, but in the end, there’s no such thing as a simulation of the real world. So we just want to see how the line does.

We had a full screen for Mario, where you could get the whole face on the screen, which of course allows for a lot of expression… But the problem was that when you turn it off, he looks like a television

The big thing that set alarm bells ringing for us was the price. It’s quite expensive: the starter set is £50, and it’s quite a low number of pieces. Is that something that you’re concerned with? What was the thinking behind that?

There are about 220 pieces in there, but one of them is very valuable, which is Mario, and he has quite a lot of tech in him. I think competitively speaking, we think it’s quite a good price. You know, we do price studies and see what people will pay for it, and they often compare it to [the price of] a Mario game. I hope that we’ve struck a good balance between the starter course and the rest of the assortment. Of course, the starter course is $60 / £50, but after that, there’s everything you can do with the weekly challenges in the app, which you can build with the starter course. Also, you can add your own bricks to it, because Mario reacts to the colour of Lego. And the expansion sets, they vary in price. After that initial barrier [of buying the starter set], there is lower pricing.

How much input did Nintendo have on Mario’s design? Were many builds rejected?

It’s been quite a long design process. The first two years of the project were spent mostly on the concept – figuring out what works, what mechanics are there to keep kids engaged – and we just used a very basic Arduino-based Mario that was 3D printed. It looked like it had been through a war, because it goes through all these kid tests, and it gets thrown around and paint chips off.

Then we had to get management from both companies to agree the line, and when the play concept was down, we started focusing on the actual design. We went through quite a few iterations. We had a full screen for Mario, where you could get the whole face on the screen, which of course allows for a lot of expression. But the problem was that when you turn it off, he looks like a television, and then you just lose so much character. Also, the full screen had the game data projected on top of the face, which felt really unnatural. It was actually in a workshop in Kyoto where we together came up with [the current] design idea.

Were you going over there quite regularly to Kyoto? We have this image of a boardroom full of Japanese executives playing with Lego…

Yeah! [Takashi] Tezuka-san is the creative leader over on Nintendo’s side, and we were really honoured to have so much time with him, because two times a week we have a Skype call or Teams call. Then before coronavirus hit we had three or four workshops per year where they would come to Billund or we would go to Kyoto.

Nintendo really appreciated being able to play with Lego during the meetings! It was a lot of fun, we built a lot of levels together. Also, of course, we did a lot of brainstorming work, but it feels like a really close collaboration: some of the team are friends now.

It’s also been a very humbling experience, working with greats like Tezuka-san and Koji Kondo. They make arguably the best games in the world, but they’re very humble

It feels a little bit like a shortcut to all these great people who work at Nintendo. We had meetings with Koji Kondo about the sound, and you have to work at Nintendo for years before you can meet Koji Kondo! It was a great privilege for us to be able to work with our childhood heroes.

You mentioned about approval for sound effects. Presumably, Nintendo has been quite strict about what exactly you can and can’t do with Mario?

Yeah, especially his voice. We had Charles Martinet record a few special lines. It was a cool moment when we received a sound file from the voice of Mario, specifically made for us! But I think Nintendo strikes a really nice balance between making sure that it’s IP approved, but also they care about the end-user and the fun in it a lot.

The last thing we wanted to ask is what has Lego Super Mario personally meant to you?

I’m very young, but I feel it’s kind of this magnum opus thing! I can’t believe this product is finally going to be in the stores. I spent the first half of my childhood playing with Lego, and then I bought a Nintendo 64 and then a GameCube – I played that endlessly. Getting the opportunity to work on this project is a dream come true.

It’s also been a very humbling experience, working with greats like Tezuka-san and Koji Kondo. They make arguably the best games in the world, but they’re very humble. They don’t brag about it at all, but they are still are so involved with the actual product, the details. It’s been an extraordinary journey and I can’t wait for the rest of you to enjoy it.

We’d like to thank Jonathan for his time.