September 15, 2005 4:00 AM PDT

Hacking's a snap in Legoland

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August 11, 2003
When Lego executives recently discovered that adult fans of the iconic plastic bricks had hacked one of the company's new development tools for digital designers, they did a surprising thing: They cheered.

Unlike executives at so many corporations, who would be loath to let their customers anywhere near the inner workings of their software tools, the Lego honchos saw an opportunity to lean on the collective thinking of an Internet community to improve their own product while bolstering relations with committed customers.

All it took was being open-minded enough to see that their biggest fans weren't trying to rip them off; they were trying to improve Lego's products in a way that, just maybe, the company's own designers hadn't thought of.

Lego creations

"I was a little concerned at the beginning because I know there are companies that don't respond favorably to this kind of thing," said Dan Malec, a software engineer from Stow, Mass. Malec is an active member of the adult Lego community, a group of passionate Lego aficionados who build models far more elaborate and sophisticated than the kids' versions most people are used to seeing.

To one toy-industry observer, Lego's positive reaction to the hack is more than unusual.

"I can't think of another instance in toys where it's been basically 'Do whatever you want,'" said Anita Frazier, an entertainment industry analyst at The NPD Group. "If it doesn't ultimately hurt the intellectual property, and (the users) aren't modifying the trademark or the core property at all, (Lego is) looking at it as it doesn't hurt."

Last month, Lego launched Lego Factory, a service through which users can create their own unique and customized Lego models--a cat, the Statue of Liberty, a tree or whatever else users choose.

Once the designs are created and uploaded through Lego Factory, the company manufactures the bricks necessary for the model and ships them to users so they can assemble their models. Customers can also buy the bricks necessary to build from other people's designs, which are posted on the site.

Lego without limits
At its core, Lego Factory is powered by Lego Digital Designer, a free, downloadable, 3D modeling program that lets users choose from digital collections of bricks to compose their own unique models. The software lets users build whatever they can imagine, so long as they have the 3D modeling skills to design their creation.

But initially, Lego Factory didn't exactly curl the toes of some of Lego's more hard-core and tech-savvy fans.

The problem, according to several members of the Lego modeling community, is that the digital collections--or palettes, as they're called--of bricks users had to choose from in Lego Digital Designer often contained far more pieces than buyers really needed. At the same time, they were missing a few others that were integral to the creations. Thus, users would frequently and wastefully have to buy several palettes in order to gather all the specific bricks they needed. And that, they say, made designing and buying models too costly.

"Several hundred bricks are associated with" certain palettes, said Malec. "If you want just to use only two of those bricks, you're still going to have to (buy all of them), and you don't know how many of those extra bricks are coming."

So not only could it be inefficient, it could be downright untidy.

However, the adult Lego community knew that each palette--when delivered--was actually made up of several physical bags of bricks. With that in mind, Malec and a few other Lego users wondered if they could find a way to cut down on the size of the palettes they could choose from. The idea, he said, was that by reducing the number of bricks in a palette, builders would be able to purchase smaller numbers and thus cut their overall costs.

According to Larry Pieniazek, an IBM software architect and an avid Lego user, Malec and others realized that by coordinating their efforts, community members could keep track of the actual bags of bricks Lego provides in its stock sets--and the specific pieces contained in each bag. With that, they could compile a database that lists which bags must be purchased in order to collect specific bricks.

Malec explained that he and a few others were able to modify the actual digital files that list the palettes users would see in Lego Digital Designer so that they were broken down

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13 comments

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Yea, but can you buy just one!
As seen through an adult builder's eyes, a "bag" purchase is great compared to a "palette" purchase but for a 20-something this is crapola. We want to buy just the pieces we want and we don't want to hear the old harangue about "pricing issues". When I model something, I want to put together a piece list and send it off with my cash. Is that so hard?

And by the way, how do can we make Technic pieces available in LDD? Mindstorms are still alive and well!

Sooner
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
You can buy one...
At the Mall of America, the Lego store there sells individual pieces and seperate colors however they are the standard bricks and not the specialty ones... It's still cool that Lego is providing these tools...
Posted by brothe (22 comments )
Link Flag
You can buy one...
At the Mall of America, the Lego store there sells individual pieces and seperate colors however they are the standard bricks and not the specialty ones... It's still cool that Lego is providing these tools...
Posted by brothe (22 comments )
Link Flag
Not yet
Maybe some day. I can't wait until people can make online kits for the crazy mindstorms stuff they've been building. There should be no reason that you can't buy Legos one brick at a time. You can at the really killer Lego stores, why not online? Most of the process could be automated, Lego would have more net sales, and people would be more willing to use (and get addicted to) this product.
---------Andymon
Posted by Andymon711 (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
There's some irony here
Since when has it been the policy of international corporations to condone security attacks on their systems? It is irrelevant what those concerned were out to do, this sort of attitude is exactly what spurs on the people who cause problems that companies and individual users are having to pay for. The less security exploits are glamourised, the less incentive there is for people to use their skills in that way in a bid to gain notoriety. I wonder how IBM would react if hackers got access to their software and made changes 'for the better'? If Lego want to "lean on the collective thinking of an Internet community" then they should go open source, not encourage the kind of activity that can be detrimental to the rest of us.
Posted by (3 comments )
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This is not a security attack
You really need to wake up a little. This was a tweak to the data the program uses and nothing more than that. On the "hacking scene" it's very simple and doesn't proivde some kind of breeding ground for "hackers" to gain any serious recognition.

This company just realized they have something to gain by accepting the changes. Most companies will fight them and alienate themselves from their fans losing out on opportunities to make money out of it.

This is more like a fan modification for a game that have often been embraced by the gaming companies even if they don't directly support or distribute them.

As for the reasoning behind your complaint, it too has poor grounding in logic. Without attacks on secure systems, there would be no secure systems. In this case the system was not meant to be nor needed to be secure.
Posted by zaznet (1138 comments )
Link Flag
There's some irony here
Since when has it been the policy of international corporations to condone security attacks on their systems? It is irrelevant what those concerned were out to do, this sort of attitude is exactly what spurs on the people who cause problems that companies and individual users are having to pay for. The less security exploits are glamourised, the less incentive there is for people to use their skills in that way in a bid to gain notoriety. I wonder how IBM would react if hackers got access to their software and made changes 'for the better'? If Lego want to "lean on the collective thinking of an Internet community" then they should go open source, not encourage the kind of activity that can be detrimental to the rest of us.
Posted by (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Poorly written
It is unfortunate that one has to read to the 7th paragraph to even start learn what the hack is. This should be explained much earlier in the story. Imagine reading about a disaster that caused a lot of destruction and having to read 7 paragraphs before you knew it was a hurricane.
Posted by (16 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Poorly written
It is unfortunate that one has to read to the 7th paragraph to even start learn what the hack is. This should be explained much earlier in the story. Imagine reading about a disaster that caused a lot of destruction and having to read 7 paragraphs before you knew it was a hurricane.
Posted by (16 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I didn't think so.
The story, I think, was more about how the company reacted to the hack and not to the hack itself. I believe that was in the first couple of paragraphs.
Posted by System Tyrant (1453 comments )
Link Flag
Finally, a company gets it
Too many companies spend too much money stopping free fan support. Ironically, this has the opposite effect of what the company is trying to achieve: higher profits.

If you have a property with a huge fan base, and you alienate the fans, who are not trying to rip you off, but help you, you deserve the drop in support and sales.

It is a shame that so many businessmen can't see past their noses. It is not a surprise since business majors rarely attract anyone with an IQ over 90.
Posted by Bill Dautrive (1179 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Finally, a company gets it
Too many companies spend too much money stopping free fan support. Ironically, this has the opposite effect of what the company is trying to achieve: higher profits.

If you have a property with a huge fan base, and you alienate the fans, who are not trying to rip you off, but help you, you deserve the drop in support and sales.

It is a shame that so many businessmen can't see past their noses. It is not a surprise since business majors rarely attract anyone with an IQ over 90.
Posted by Bill Dautrive (1179 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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