That Time When Digital Domain Made a LEGO Game

Since I'm one of the younger ones here, I have strangely fond memories of a puzzle-based LEGO game called LEGO Alpha Team. Surprisingly, this game has a somewhat odd history, starting with the fact that Hollywood VFX company Digital Domain were the ones that made it. In fact, the entire toy line basically spawned because of Digital Domain.

That Time When Digital Domain Made a LEGO Game

Digital Domain is the VFX company that became famous for its industry-defining special effects in films like James Cameron's Titanic, The Fifth Element, Pirates of the Caribbean, and hundreds of other films.

Like other companies though, Digital Domain has an interesting history that has been swept under the rug. Even the Wikipedia page doesn't mention it at all. Digital Domain had an internal team making games, unbeknownst to many of us.

Digital Domain's LEGO story begins with Titanic. DD was very much in trouble when the production of Titanic was ongoing. The effects were expensive, hell the whole movie was expensive. It was close to driving Digital Domain into crisis over leadership and money.

That was when Digital Domain's internal team released a completely forgotten game called Barbie Fashion Designer for Mattel. It sounds pretty mind-melting, but it actually made money; a lot of money if lead designer of Lego Alpha Team Tom Mott is to believed. In fact it was enough to help keep Digital Domain afloat during the production of Titanic.

After that, Digital Domain decided to shift its focus more toward a "digital toy company". They ended up pitching a number of ideas to LEGO, including a story about a team of secret agents that used Rube Goldberg machines to defeat the bad guys.

LEGO liked the idea for some reason, and LEGO Alpha Team was born.

The first iteration of the concept never quite saw the light of day, and its only remnants are found in an animation reel put together by Doug Wolf. You can see it at 1:25 in this video.

As you can see here, the first iteration appeared to feature a motley crew of LEGO figures from various odd careers, including a magician. Intrepid fans Jamie (jamesster on Eurobrick) and VezonWireless reached out to Doug Wolf in the comments to get a better picture:

jamessterV2 9 months ago
What's the animation that goes from 1:25 to 2:38? Looks like an animation for LEGO Alpha Team, but aside from Ogel and TeeVee the characters look almost nothing like their counterparts in the finalized game. Was this some early concept animation? Looks really well done. Got any more stuff like that? :D

Doug Wolf 9 months ago
You are correct! Well spotted. That is for the cut scene to the first incarnation of LEGO Team Alpha. I worked on it at Digital Domain with a team for about a month to get the whole thing done. Then it was sent to Lego corporate offices, who loved it, and then immediately said, "By the way.. We have changed all the characters and we wont be using it." Alas... but it will live on in my demo reel forever.

VezonWireless 9 months ago
Along with what jamessterV2 said, I recall hearing from various sources that the LEGO Alpha Team game was originally going to be called the Trans-International LEGO Team. I don't suppose whether or not you can confirm that this is true, and if it is, would 1:25 to 2:38 happen to be starring the cast of the original Trans-International LEGO Team?

Doug Wolf 9 months ago
I cant remember that name exactly, but it was something like that. It is the first cast of Lego Alpha Team. You can read the comment below for what happened at the time. ;(

For a while, we can be sure that development proceeded at a steady pace, though there is more secret history to LEGO Alpha Team given to us by jamesster on Eurobrick again.

Later, while digging through the Alpha Team video game files, I found asset lists and files and other evidence that the game was intended to have two more zones than the final game. Details can be found here (along with more things posted later in this topic), but in short, Alpha Team at one point had Mountain and Moon (Space) zones, in addition to the four zones in the final game (Tropical Island, Subterranean, Undersea, and Arctic - all but Subterranean were turned into real LEGO sub-themes). I also found object listings for a "Cyberia" zone, and a "Neandert" listing under the section for enemies (more on that later). So it's pretty apparent that Alpha Team went through some heavy changes throughout its development. To get more information, I emailed Tom Mott, the lead game designer. The result was pretty surprising.

-jamesster

It would appear that even during development, the scope and design of the project changed on a regular basis, so much so that these areas were either cut or never made it to production.

The email that Tom Mott sent back also expands on what has been said so far. It's also where some of the earlier information in this post came from:

Hi Jamie,

Holy cow, what a great email! I'm glad we have fans.

Yes: it was originally called LEGO Logic and the team was called T.I.L.T. Digital Domain (DD) was coming off the heels of making Barbie Fashion Designer for Mattel, which make boatloads of money (it kept the company afloat while they were doing special fx for Titanic). So DD decided it would be a "digital toy" company. It pitched 5 concepts to LEGO Media – LEGO racers, a virtual LEGO set, LEGO robot builders, a LEGO adventure, and then to round out the list, they threw in a half-baked idea to build wacky Rube Goldberg type contractions – similar to the popular game The Incredible Machine. LEGO already had a number of the other ideas in development but they loved the contraption-builder concept, so that's what they chose.

The initial idea was to freely mix-and-match themes. So the team consisted of a chef, a gymnast (Flip), a magician, a mad scientist with bouncing powers (Dr. Pogo – our idea was that LEGO would produce a rubber mini-figure instead of hard plastic), and a marching band musician (Major Minor). The chef would flip things in his frying pan; the gymnast would provide spinning motion; the marching band musician would provide forward motion, the magician could teleport things from one spot to another. There were probably other team members – my memory is fuzzy. We had a lot of characters in the game at one point. I recall a "motor" that was a cowboy sitting at his campfire. If something lit his fire, he'd start cranking his spit. So he functioned as a fire-activated motor. The worlds included places like Aromazona, Mt. Fridgy (home to the Neanderthaws – those unfrozen cavemen-type creatures you referred to), Poodle Dreamland, and more. Bill Benecke did the concept art and may still have some of it. I'll see if he can dig some up and share it. It was really fun.

We were fairly far into full production – animation, building out the worlds, starting to build puzzles – when LEGO Media flew myself and the senior producer to their offices in London to present what we were doing. They hated it. The mix-and-match aspect just didn't fit in with how they market LEGO themes. We were pulling bits and pieces from themes targeted at 5 year olds, 8 year olds, boys, girls, etc. They told us they wanted to completely revise the idea to base it around a "Mission Impossible" style "Spy" team. Keep it all very blue and black and "boy" oriented. More of a focus on cool gear and gadgets. So we threw out 90% of what we had developed … keeping TeeVee and Evil Ogel … and created Cam, Dash, Crunch, and the rest. It was a bit rushed – we had eaten up a year and a half of production heading in the wrong direction – but all things considered, I think it came out pretty well. I think the abbreviated schedule necessitated cutting the moon base and the mountain hideouts. I'm not sure how developed those ever were though.

If I can find some old files I'll share them with you. I'm still in touch with a number of the guys who worked on the project too, so I'll forward your email.

Thanks again for the great email.

Best regards,
Tom

Instead of a ridiculous international team capable of performing crazy feats, LEGO wanted the set to be a slightly less ridiculous Mission Impossible-eske team of super-spies, so the whole project had to be altered. Even though they had to toss out most of the concept and rework it, Digital Domain's team managed to pull it off.

LEGO Alpha Team was released in 2000 and ended up kicking off the entire Alpha Team LEGO toy line that lasted from 2001 to 2005. The initial sets in the toy line were all based off the work that Digital Domain put into the game. Effectively, Digital Domain were the ones that drove the whole toy line.

There's a whole lot more of jamesster and the game's team going back in forth in this thread on Eurobrick. After the initial round of emails with Tom Mott, more tidbits like where the team was now (two of the Engineers went on to work on the God of War series) and how things started out started getting talked about. If you're interested, it's a good read.


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