Just over a year and a bit ago I was looking to pass the time between work shifts. Filed away in the back of my mind was the fact that Lego had official digital building software. With a bit of googling and finessing to get it installed, soon I was putting together old sets from my past, revisiting the King’s Mountain Fortress of 1990.
For many AFOLs this what they describe as “coming out of the dark ages”.The last time I’d really built anything would have been somewhere around the mid-90s. My own personal collection of bricks is tucked up interstate.
The ability to digitally rebuild these old sets lead me to start designing my own MOCs and within a few weeks, I had re-entered the AFOL world designing conceptual art pieces.
This article takes a look at the state of play in the digital world of Lego building.
A quick history
However, the story of digital Lego building is quite a fascinating one and it goes back much further than people think. It starts back way in 1995 when a programmer, James Jessiman, decided to develop a file format for generating bricks and a program which could allow basic assembly. LDraw and LEdit were the results.
A community formed around this idea of a flexible system that would allow the creation of virtually any LEGO bricks through a simple vertex array. The advantage being this was lightweight to process (especially for early systems) as opposed to creating individual polygons. Still maintained and updated to this day, the LDraw community strives on creating accurate as possible digital pieces with very strict quality control.
Soon early programs such as LeoCAD began the start of digital Lego design but back then the ability to do photorealistic rendering was limited to only the very top end machines and the end results didn’t look fantastic. However, as a design tool, LeoCad was invaluable and is still used.
Another early boost to the rising digital community was the development of BrickBay in 2000, (later renamed BrickLink.) Programmed by Daniel Jezek It was the eBay for bricks allowing for a global market to form.
2006 is when things started to become official. Despite the LDraw community expecting TLG to come down on them like a stack of bricks, the company embraced the concept of digital design by opening a service called Design by Me which was attached to their official Lego Designer software, which used parts from the LDraw standard, giving LDraw and the digital community it's a blessing.
Lego Digital Designer, or LDD, was also used in the creation of assets for the Lego movies. Sadly the software has reached its end of life. But still remains a key tool for many.
BrickLink developed Studio around 2017. An updated and modernised LEGO building software Studio also featured the ability to place parts into your Bricklink account providing an instant order service for MOC designers.
This hasn’t gone unnoticed by LEGO who fully support digital building and acquired Bricklink in 2019 and help maintain the software.
Sadly the creators of these two systems are no more, James died in 1997 of influenza aged 26. And Daniel Jezek passed away unexpectedly in 2010.
Both left an incredible legacy to the AFOL community that has gone beyond their wildest expectations.
Why do I use digital?
It allows me much more flexibility as a designer. I can instantly swap out colours, trial complex building idea, build models I don’t have or can’t afford or go on a nostalgia trip and build things I didn’t get for Christmas. It also allows me to create stuff I just can’t do in real life, but possibly could do if I had the resources.
So with your options laid out, a quick rundown of the pros and cons.
Build anything! With no limits to what bricks or even what colour they are in you can create the MOC of your dreams or finally start on that Ideas concept.
Try before you buy Not sure about that new LEGO set, or wanted to give something a go that you missed out on. Simply plug in a parts list from the BrickLink database and grab instructions off LEGO to get started.
Pretty lights!!! One new feature of Studio that has just come out is the ability to put in light bricks. Ever wanted to see what your building looks like lit up, well now you can test this out.
It can be daunting to start. One way to get used to the program is to import a Lego set and start following the instructions. The program also features a tutorial that gives you a quick rundown. It can’t quite beat the real thing For all its strengths digital programs really fall down when it comes to mechanical designs and technic pieces especially ropes, hoses and chains. Often requiring dead-on accuracy and flexing pieces around, these are not easy to do when you lack tactility.
Impossible bricks Studio pulls colours from an online database, however, this doesn’t wholly take into account just when a colour was made, let alone if it’s available. Sometimes I’ve put down a brick only to find the last time it was made was somewhere in the 50s. While a checker is in the program that points out when a brick just doesn’t exist, it can take a bit of tweaking to find the right parts.
The big leagues
People have commented on my big brick builds and mosaics. For these to be made I have to use a whole different set of tools.
Blender is a 3D modelling software that’s free to use. It’s been going for a very long time and has formed a solid community of addon creators. One add-on is a Ldraw importer created by TonyLobster which allows for importing of Ldraw files out of Studio. Translation can be a bit wonky at times as some of the newer pieces run the risk of not conforming to the Ldraw standard and breaking apart. One of these developers is Christopher Gearhart, a LEGO stop motion animator who developed Bricker, an algorithm that converts a 3D model and texture into Lego bricks. Chris also develops custom plastic shaders and other tools that I use in conjunction.
One key feature of Bricker is that it can be exported to an LDraw format which can then be imported into Studio. This, however, has a far steeper learning curve than simply using it as it requires knowing how to use Blender as well as 3D modelling and texturing. But the end results can be as great as what’s in the LEGO Movies and there are tons of tutorials on YouTube. Out in the real world, TLG uses a program called BrickBuilder which converts 3D models or images into big sculptures or mosaics. This is an internal-only piece of software and Lego doesn’t send out copies. (I asked).
This is only the tip of the iceberg in the world of digital Lego. A massive community has formed that include animators, artists, designers and MOC builders and sellers.
So don’t be afraid to dive in!
If you want to know more please follow @lego_ranga on Instagram.