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How Lego fans really get into the game

By Katarina Gustafsson
Bloomberg News

BILLUND, Denmark Brent Waller spent his childhood crafting plastic-brick versions of characters from TV shows and movies such as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Batman.” At age 35, the Australian Lego fan has gotten so good at playing with the toys that the company will start selling his models.

Waller’s creation – which includes a miniature of the Cadillac ambulance from “Ghostbusters,” the 1984 comedy starring Bill Murray – will hit shelves in June and sell for $49.99 in the United States. His set is one of six to come from a Lego crowdsourcing website where consumers can propose designs.

“It’s any Lego fan’s dream to have an official set they created,” said Waller, a video game developer in Brisbane. “It’s literally a childhood dream come true.”

With the help of Internet and social media, crowdsourcing is helping companies from McDonald’s to Samsung Electronics boost innovation by tapping the knowledge and experience of customers to create new products. Lego, the world’s second-biggest toymaker, has run its initiative since 2008 with help from a Japanese crowdsourcing website called Cuusoo System.

“Both children and adults these days are getting used to being, and expecting to be, more involved,” Chief Marketing Officer Mads Nipper said in a toy-stuffed meeting room at Lego’s headquarters in Billund. Lego Cuusoo – roughly “my Lego wish” in Japanese – is for finding ideas the company’s 180 designers might not have come up with on their own.

Well-positioned

Lego last month announced its full-year sales gained 10 percent to $4.7 billion, outpacing U.S. rivals Mattel and Hasbro. In 2012, the Danish company had 6.3 percent of the global toy and game market and 63 percent of the market for construction toys, researcher Euromonitor International estimates.

“They will continue to grow, whether or not it will be at the same double-digit growth we have seen is up for debate, but they are well-positioned to do very well,” said Robert Porter, an analyst with Euromonitor in London. The recent acquisition of Mega Brands by Mattel suggests that competition may intensify for construction toys, he said.

Any Lego Cuusoo project that gets more than 10,000 votes is evaluated by designers, marketing specialists and business executives to ensure it meets requirements such as playability, safety and fit with the Lego brand. The review and development of Waller’s “Ghostbusters” set took almost a year.

Users need to be 18 to submit a project and 13 to cast a vote on the website. Lego reviews projects three times a year, with the next session planned for May. So far this round, a plastic-brick bird, an Apple store, and a train inspired by the writer Jules Verne have topped the 10,000-vote mark.

Popular submissions from earlier rounds that didn’t make it to stores include a set inspired by My Little Pony – a brand owned by Hasbro – and a project based on zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead,” which was deemed inappropriate for Lego’s 6- to-11-year-old target audience.

Mixed reviews

Successful entries include a miniature version of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Mars rover Curiosity for $29.99, created by a NASA engineer who worked on the actual vehicle. A set based on the “Minecraft” video game got 10,000 votes in just 48 hours. Lego has followed up the first “Minecraft” set with two more and is working on others. The initial set sells for $34.99 in Lego’s online store, where purchases are limited to two per order due to what the site calls “overwhelming demand.”

“What makes an epic Lego Cuusoo product is when you take Lego and pair it with some other kind of community or some very strong idea,” said Peter Espersen, who oversees the company’s efforts to work with consumers on new designs.

While fans have given mixed reviews to some previous crowdsourced sets, such as the DeLorean sportscar-turned-time machine from the movie “Back to the Future,” the upcoming “Ghostbusters” creation has gotten good reviews from fellow Lego fans online.

Fans whose models are used by Lego receive 1 percent of net revenue. While the company doesn’t disclose sales for individual sets, Espersen said he is “fairly optimistic” about Waller’s “Ghostbusters” set.

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