The Growing Complexity of Lego

The growing complexity of Lego is obvious to those of us who used to play with the small plastic bricks as a child.

The bricks we buy for our children today have moving parts, more colours, more pieces and can be programmed. These changes take the humble plastic block to a whole new level of complexity.

The LEGO Group (TLG) has become the worlds largest toy company in the year 2015. The Danish brick-maker announced in its 2014 financial report that revenues increased 11% in the first half of 2014. Total sales hit $2.03 billion USD, narrowly beating out Mattel’s $2 billion in revenue over the same period. In particular The LEGO Movie and its franchise has been a key to their recent success. More recently the company lost 3% of its net profit and intends to lay off 1400 workers. The rise of the company and the development of its products has been documented and discussed in detail. In particular the economic difficulties that nearly ruined TLG in the period leading up to 2004 and how the TLG recovered from it has been investigated. The majority share of the popular LEGOLAND theme parks, for example, were sold to Merlin in 2005. The innovations that TLG produced resulted in a portfolio of products that go beyond the basic bricks. Today TLG also sells computer games, television series, books, clothing, and stationary. The LEGO themes are often associated to other media products, such as the Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings franchise. LEGO has been investigated as transmedial phenomenon and even its connection to Philosophy has been explored.

The brick is no longer targeted exclusively at children. It is estimated that 5% of all LEGO purchases are made by adults that consider themselves as Adult Fans Of LEGO (AFOL). This group has dramatically grown in recent years which triggered the launch of several LEGO themed magazines, such as The Brick Journal, Blocks, and Bricks. The cult of LEGO has also been the topic of recent book releases.

Scientific investigations on the development of the LEGO products remain scarce.  showed that the faces of Minifigures has become more diverse and that the number of angry faces has increased. Their original data survey was the basis for the development of a pictorial scales for assessing affective responses.

At times quantitative studies are being performed to investigate common misconceptions about LEGO products. A typical misconception is that LEGO has become more expensive. Studies reveal that LEGO sets have not become more expensive, they just contain more bricks. The average price per brick has actually slightly decreased.

The interest in the development of the product prices is not limited to purchasing decision for the private use of LEGO sets, such as for birthday presents. Due to a growing secondary market for bricks and sets LEGO has become the object of financial investors. The Brick Picker (https://www.brickpicker.com/) website is dedicated to advising investors what sets to buy and when to sell. The most popular dedicated trading platforms for LEGO products is currently Bricklink.com and Brickowl.com. Many special LEGO sales can also be observed on the more general online platforms, such as eBay.

The goal of this study is to investigate further common perceptions of the LEGO bricks in particular from a historical perspective such as:

  1. How many new bricks and sets did TLG introduce each year?
  2. Have the LEGO products become more colorful?
  3. Have LEGO bricks become more specialized?
    1. Has the number of bricks that occur in only one set increased?
    2. Do LEGO sets contain more specialized bricks?
  4. Do LEGO sets share less bricks with other sets of the same year?
  5. Did the number of sets that can be build by taking bricks from other sets decrease?

The number of bricks and sets that TLG produces each year has increased annually by around 7%. The size of the sets, meaning the number of bricks in each set, has also increased by an average of 1.9% per year while the number of bricks of the largest set in each year increased on average by a staggering 5.0%. There is also a significant shift towards larger sets per decade. Research shows how the number of bricks TLG offers per year has increased exponentially. We can clearly conclude that the sizes of sets has significantly increased which may also justify their price increase as it was already argued by.

The sets also include more diverse bricks. The average number of brick types in a set has increased on average by 2.4% per year and the maximum number of brick types in a set has even increased by 4.1%. The bricks have also become more specialized since their expected occurrence in the five year period following the sets release has decreased by 4.8% annually.

The sets have not only become larger and more diverse, they have also become more colorful. The number of colours in a set has been increasing at the average rate of 2.4% per year and the maximum number of colours in a set has been increasing at the average rate of 3.5% per year. Overall, the number of colours has increased exponentially at average annual rate of 4.4%.

Sets have also less parts in common. The commonality has decreased at an annual rate of 2.0% and is today at an absolute value of only 0.09. This is inline with the observation that the set sizes have increased and that the bricks have become more specialized.

Overall we can conclude that the LEGO products have indeed become far more complex. While TLG is still selling a product line of “basic” bricks, the number and sizes of sets has increased significantly. Sets have become more colorful and the bricks more specialized. Sets also share less and less bricks with each other. A judgment of whether this increase in complexity is good or bad remains difficult. Anybody interested in “basic” bricks can still purchase sets that only contain those. Nobody is forced into buying specialized bricks and sets. One can, however, argue that the strong reliance on more specialized bricks in combination with strong association to licensed themes may inhibit children to take their carefully build models apart to build something completely new. On the other hand one can argue that the bricks are comparable to a language. The increase in vocabulary size only means that writers can express themselves in ever more complex and imaginative ways. The gap between master builders and instruction followers may increase. But if we learned anything from The LEGO Movie than it is that you need both, creativity and the ability to work in a team using instructions to build monumental designs.

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