Hobby Korner: LEGO Digital Designer

All children love LEGO, and I was no exception. I remember the first LEGO we ever got was secondhand, in a big pink bucket, and it was predominantly yellow pieces. I didn’t think too much about that at the time, but now I wonder if what we were really getting were pieces that no one wanted. I picked up LEGO sets as I could growing up, and my favorite themes were Space Police II and Blacktron II. Space has always been my favorite overall LEGO category.

After college I went to work at eBay, and that was dangerous. I had money, and I was on the site all day, and my LEGO collection grew drastically. It outpaced my ability to keep it organized, and store it. In bulk, I have over 200 pounds of the stuff now, down in the basement. Simultaneously, my desire to build bigger and more detailed creations meant devoting bigger and bigger spaces to each project. I reached a point where I didn’t want to spend twenty hours organizing, and without taking that time, my LEGO collection was unusable.

And then along came LEGO Factory (since rebranded DesignByMe) and LEGO Digital Designer. (See Footnote)

LEGO Digital Designer is a program for Mac and PC that allows you to build a model digitally from a large (but limited) series of parts. It’s a little bit of a performance hog, so I wouldn’t fire it up if you’re on a four year old laptop, but if your machine is recent, you can build ships of pretty astonishing sizes. (Don’t like ships? Build castles, or townhomes, or whatever appeals to you. I build spaceships.) You can upload and purchase physical versions of your models, print instructions, even take screenshots. It has become my major hobby.

Exempli Fucking Gratia:

(A link to flickr, since the embed slows the page load to a crawl)


Yeah, guys, I know that digital LEGO building precedes LDD by quite a while. My first experiments with it used MLCad and LDraw and POVRay, and there are many purists out there who consider this the only way to go, but I can’t get into it. Here’s why:

In LDD, pieces know how they’re supposed to stick together. In MLCad you get a nice grid, and you can change the grid size, and even position pieces numerically, but getting two pieces together in a sensible way is the world’s biggest pain in the ass. I spend all my time fighting the system, whereas LDD, which admittedly has a very limited palette and doesn’t know all of the ways that pieces can connect in the physical world, is very very quick to attach pieces the normal way, most of the time. In the time it would take to attach pieces in the usual plate to plate alignment in MLCad, I can work around LDD’s limitations to figure out a SNOT technique. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten past the tutorial in LDraw, but I can build 600 stud spaceships in LDD.

Also in LDD, you can import sub-assemblies and attach them to your module, which means you can build in a modular way and then do a final assembly. I’ve been doing this ever since I got my hands on the old Space Police II Galactic Mediator, and it’s nice to be able to build digitally how I build physically.

Now, if the problem is that I use MLCad instead of some better program, please, please let me know.


Looking around at some LEGO blogs this week, I've discovered that the term most LEGO enthusiasts would use for me is "spacer," ca va dire one who is at play most often in the space themes, and whose original creations are often spaceships. There are a couple hints as to why in the review I gave of Mission to Mars, but I think it boils down to carrying no creative dead weight. Pirates, castles and knights, even the recent Vikings sets all have some historical dead weight. If I want to make something, it has to be something that existed 200, 500, or 1000 years ago. That means making it out of wood or stone. If I had more interest in LEGO architecture, I suppose I could have built enormous castles, but I don't.

Licensed themes have their own dead weight, which is the universe they come from. Harry Potter or Star Wars or Batman may all be cool in their LEGO incarnations (and in fact, one of the coolest video games ever made was the double license LEGO Star Wars), but it's difficult to add to that universe with your own builds.

But the space themes I grew up with: Space Police II, Spyrius, Exploriens, Magnetron, Blacktron II, Ice Planet, and so on, don't suffer from any of those limitations. You can build anything you want, and the universe is so ill defined that anything you build fits in it.

But recently, LEGO City has been drawing me in. It started with the shipping port. A container ship, a crane, and a little truck… it doesn't sound particularly inspiring, but it was all very cool. The truck, especially, which was a tiny part of the model, was very cool. From there, I continued the transport theme by building the Airport, which has a little commuter plane. And since then I have built a fire station, a police station, a hospital, and a gas station, a tiny little part of LEGO City that would represent, what? A bayside regional airport, close to a small shipping port, that happens to be located close to the major services of the town? I suppose it doesn't hold up particularly well, but it was all enjoyable.

I don't know when LEGO added motorcycles like the one above, but I'm pretty fond of them. Cars still don't look particularly realistic, which is a scaling problem, but trucks–if you like boxy cab-over-engine designs–look pretty good in LEGO scale. At home in my town are two firetrucks, a cement mixer, a garbage truck, the little container truck that came with the port, and an ambulance, all with more or less the same clever front grill.

I'll be watching the set additions in the coming months, looking to improve my LEGO city, because it looks like the strongest theme going right now. It's only a shame that I can't really add much from my own collection, having stayed away for years from wheeled vehicles in favor of space ships.

LEGO’s Mission to Mars

It is the future, and on Mars, strange energy crystals have been discovered. A mining operation sent to tap their awesome power comes under attack by creepy aliens, and the miners scramble to turn their industrial equipment into a credible defense force.

So says LEGO magazine. None of that mattered to me when I decided to start building these. I was just happy to see a non-licensed space theme again. The favorite sets of my youth were the Space Police II sets, but for a long time there has been nothing but Star Wars from LEGO's space team. The Star Wars LEGO sets were good, too–minifigures and lightsabers and X-wings and so on–but LEGO is about building and playing with your own imagination, and Star Wars carries a lot of baggage. It's hard to build something from your own collection and integrate it into that universe. Your standard LEGO sets, however, are agnostic. They don't come with the description I just gave. They come with a name, and wordless building instructions. The rest is up to you.

Unfortunately, my imagination started to unearth some troubling notions when I put these together.

But first, the good:

  • Like most new LEGO themes, the large and medium size sets all come with pieces from both factions. That means you can play both sides even if you only get one set. The price of LEGO sets hasn't really inflated in the last ten years, but they're still not cheap, so it's nice to get some play value right away.
  • At least for the good guys, you get a variety of set types. There are two major aircraft, two or three ground vehicles, a little fighter, and a base.
  • There are some new tricks using technic parts that I hadn't seen before. I'm always happy to add a new tool to my LEGO building arsenal.

Some of the bad:

  • Humans vs. non-humans again — the Vikings would have been more interesting if they had been pitted against other people of that time instead of dragons, and what I liked best about the old space sets was that the good guys and the bad guys were both human factions. When there are two human factions, you can also play with neutral factions, smugglers, or whatever. But now it's humans vs. aliens, humans vs. robots, humans vs. sharks or dragons or wolves.
  • All of the alien ships are the same.
  • The aliens aren't standard minifigures. They can stand, but they can't sit, and their hands don't move or hold anything. This basically guarantees that they will never be used again once I take this apart.

The… creepy:

  • the new "expressive" faces on LEGO minifigures. It started with EXOForce, and I guess it continues on Mars. New LEGO minifigures have anime faces. I rock mine visors down.
  • The alien storage tubes. There's a whole undercurrent here of alien capture and experimentation that is totally creepy. The medical bed with restraints at the top of the main base, and the pneumatic tubes used to push the aliens around the base, makes this more sort of an "alien autopsy" than a heroic fight for freedom.
  • The crazy mix of alien subjugation and strip mining in this set makes me really not like the Mars Mission guys very much. LEGO provides so little background for these things that it's hard to say whether the "aliens" are Martians or something more exotic. The aliens certainly don't have helmets or other life support gear, which makes the whole drama seem to me like "humans go to mars and subjugate the local population to get access to their energy crystals." That isn't the game I want to play. Probably it will turn out that the energy crystals are the alien eggs or some such thing.

On the whole, I don't think my Mission to Mars collection will live very long before being relegated to the parts bin. The sets are clever, but the story isn't for me. Especially with the great stuff available as part of LEGO City. Mars just isn't that compelling.