Have LEGO sets become more complex?

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Christoph Bartneck, author of the scientific studies Have LEGO products become more violent? and The Emotional Expressions of LEGO Minifigure Faces, has just published a new paper that looks at whether LEGO sets have become more complex.

Of course, we all know that they have, but proving it scientifically is not straightforward.

Here's the abstract:

The LEGO Group has become the largest toy company in the world and they can look back to a proud history of more than 50 years of producing bricks and other toys. Starting with a simple set of basic bricks their range of toys appeared to have increased in complexity over the years.

We processed the inventories of most sets from 1955–2015 and our analysis showed that LEGO sets have become bigger, more colorful and more specialized. The vocabulary of bricks has increased significantly resulting in sets sharing fewer bricks.

The increased complexity of LEGO sets and bricks enables skilled builders to design ever more amazing models but it may also overwhelm less skilled or younger builders.

Read the paper, view the data used for the analysis and more at Plos

 

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35 comments on this article

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By in United Kingdom,

When I saw this at first I thought it said have Lego sets become more expensive and straight away I said yes but I was wrong it’s not about that :/

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By in Austria,

Wow, an interesting study. Another great study is about the expression of the Lego Minifigure.

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By in United States,

So when will these geniuses discover that water is wet? Seriously some of the things that they analyze are a perfect waste of their time.

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By in Australia,

I do feel that the part range is a little on the large size at present. Believe me, I am not one of the people that claim a past where children only had 2x4 and 2x2 bricks and they could build anything in their imagination. As a child of the 1980s I know it is a past that doesn't exist, or at least if it did exist in the 1960s and 1970s it was a past that sucked.

I have just noticed an ever so slight creep in especially small specialised pieces. Just as when in the late 1990s to early 2000s there was a Juniorfication of large specialised pieces (entire helicopter cockpits as one piece), it feels now we have pieces like 32828 and 25269 that are there to produce more polished looking models or get around design problems (I can't build this in LEGO so I'll just create a new part so I can).

I am certainly not one of those that look forward to the dozens of new parts unveiled every year, and sometimes see it as a sign of a failure in imagination amongst official LEGO designers. I also see a sign of a good set is one you can part out years later from easily available parts, leaving the inflated secondary market prices to collectors who never open the box.

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By in United Kingdom,

I love the more challenging builds, something like the creator ferris wheel or the helicarrier drives me into buying lego more than a city or ninjago set,

Bit of complexity never harmed anyone..
Also teal has been re-introduced which looks quite nice on the new diner and the Noctura Palace from lego elves, so far so good lego in 2018 ??

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By in Australia,

^^ Completely agreee. Recently I started to rebuild one of my old 1960’s town plan sets again and the difference is night and day. No manual, just an inspiration cover at the other side of the board. Add to that the minimal colours and shapes and basically you let your imagination run wild.
It kinda annoys me when they release new parts since they’re just creating a simple solution rather than being imaginative with the parts they have

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By in Belgium,

new parts are just to make sure you dont build the set with the bricks you have but buy the new set...

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By in Australia,

I disagree with people who say that more parts means less creativity. New parts are great, they allow us more ways to connect bricks in new and different ways. That's why we have terms like 'Nice Parts Usage', we're celebrating an individual's creativity and imagination, turning a specialised part into something else. If anything, it's even more creative than being limited by 2x4s and 2x2s.

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By in Spain,

Instructions nowadays are easier to follow, we have even 3d models.

New parts introduced to make unique sets... that would be a very interesting study indeed. (We now for sure that TLG does it with minifigs, isn't it?)

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By in Poland,

Kids today have way more complicated things around them, we are surrounded by miniature wonders of design that were unthinkable in the 70s snd the 80s. This is an importsnt factor that drives the introduction of new parts. When first 3d graphics was introduced gamers were in awe about graphics but show those ps1 games to kids these days and they are like 'what kind of crap is this?' The same applies to brickbuild toys. But every year fan builders come up with amazing ideas to use parts in creative ways. One can say that parts are like vocabulary. So the fact you know more words dosent limit your sentences, on the contrary!

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By in Netherlands,

I've been wondering this for a long time, so I can't wait to read the full paper and see all the details.

"The vocabulary of bricks has increased significantly resulting in sets sharing fewer bricks." I think this is a major factor for sets to become more expensive.

The next thing I'm really curious about is why prices differ so much between countries and also why so inconsistently.

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By in United States,

"The increased complexity of LEGO sets and bricks enables skilled builders to design ever more amazing models but it may also overwhelm less skilled or younger builders."

That quote is the crux of the study, and just answering the title question in the affirmative like Jumbo Bricks Blue contributes even less value than they think this study has.

My 8-year old nephew got Yoda's Starfighter 75168 for Christmas and there were a few techniques that gave him trouble. The problem with a bunch of snobby AFOLs commenting on this article is that the box says 8-12 but none of us are 8-12. When I was in that age range, a similar set in piece count and age range was Stardefender 200 6932. That set says 7-12 but wouldn't give anyone a problem because the complexity is much lower. The only thing I would get out of this paper is that maybe LEGO should adjust the age range up a bit as they introduce techniques that require higher ability with spatial relations.

And no thor96, being able to operate a smartphone doesn't mean they should all be able to easily put together LEGO sets with greatly increased complexity.

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By in Germany,

I find such studies a complete waste of everybody's time. Those doing the study and those bothered with being told about it.

Anyone with half a brain will have noticed that sets of decades ago were much less complex than sets of today.
On the other hand, modern instructions have been so dumbed down as to be really annoying, even for small children. Having steps with just one or two new bricks is stupid to say the least. We don't need instruction books that rival telephone directories of old in size and volume.
Just look at instructions for large Technic sets of the 80s and 90s to see what I mean. You can kill a man by hitting him on the head with the instruction manual of the Arocs. Try the same with the manual for 8880 ;-)

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By in United States,

More parts just mean (when used creatively) more opportunities for MOCERS and great builds.

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By in United States,

@AustinPowers you should see the instruction manual for the 2017 UCS falcon

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By in United States,

This was kind of an interesting read, but not anything revealing or new. We all know they've gotten more complex. They have to in order to keep selling. You can only make a car so many different ways with a set number of bricks before you get bored, so you have to keep making new pieces to keep people engaged. There are always creative ways to build stuff, sure, but eventually people get tired. Without anyone necessarily arguing for or against Lego being more complex, this just one of those "oh, ok" type of articles. But great work collecting all of that data, I'm sure it was a chore.

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By in United Kingdom,

Some of this analysis is just nonsense. 9550-1 does not contain 81 unique bricks. It contains one unique brick with multiple different prints. I don’t consider a printed part to be a unique part or to make a build more complex.

I think also the definition of complexity seems a bit vague. More parts doesn’t always mean more complex. I’d consider complexity more a result of unusual connections or harder to understand 3D orientation of parts.

I think sets have become more complex but don’t consider more colours or printed parts a good marker.

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By in United States,

Interesting read, thanks for sharing. I have some minor criticisms, but I won't think it would change the over result. They don't make an mention or have type error analysis. Most set databases, including BrickLink's, are incomplete or wrong between 1949-1972. Many set inventories for those dates are also wrong. That data should have been rejected or at least have an error associated with it. Clearly the authors, editors and referees didn't enough about the data to know that it could be problematic or incorrect.

Oh, those wondering about water and how wet it is, that research has already been done (quite a while ago). It turns out water is not particular wet.

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By in United States,

Surprised how many people say "this is nothing we didn't already know" and therefore "the study is a waste of time". We all know that the US people today are a good deal heavier than back in 1950's, but I appreciate scientists taking the time to gather & analyze data and showing by exactly how much.

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By in United Kingdom,

@Jumbo Bricks Blue and AustinPowers,

The accumulation of knowledge in science (and to an extent the social sciences) does not proceed on the basis of assumption or assertion. Unless knowledge is apodictic, it must be demonstrated to be true; the default being that it is false. Scientists (and social scientists) are sometimes criticised for researching and stating the obvious. But from an intellectual point of view, what they are doing is necessary to establish the fundamentals on which more complex - and possibly interesting - findings can be tested and made.

@buildalot, Agreed.

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By in United States,

@Zander and @buildalot, we didn't need a scientific study to tell us sets are more complex. It's easy to see. It's not accurate to compare it to a study about obesity or something. You gain knowledge through a study like that, but not from one about Lego complexity. I'm not insulting the study itself or the researchers. But it's telling us stuff we already know, and we all know it for fact, not just assumptions. There's clear evidence in place that the sets are more complex; we didn't need a study like this to tell us that.

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By in United States,

@monkyby87 Well said. @Zander Are you familiar with the term apples to oranges?

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By in United Kingdom,

@Jumbo Bricks Blue, I think you mean 'apples and oranges', not 'apples to oranges', but no matter - it has no bearing on what I said.

Are you familiar with the works of Ibn al Haytham, Sir Francis Bacon and other contributions to the scientific method?

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By in United States,

@Zander You are comparing apples to oranges. It means you are comparing two different things as if they are the same. Go stick it in your ear!!!!!

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By in Canada,

^ Nope, it is definitely "apples and oranges." And neither fit in a persons ear.

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By in United States,

@zander, I’m not really sure what you’re getting at. Are you trying to prove that the scientific method exists? Because nobody is debating that. Science is great. I love it. There’s a time and place for scientific studies and data collection. But not all science studies are needed to point out facts. That’s the case here. You’re trying to make more out of this study than there is.

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By in United States,

(walks in with a bucket of popcorn) don't mind me, i'm just here to watch the argument!

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By in United States,

Have they done a study on the clutch of bricks? Especially through the years. I have older sets that still hold together great and come on/off easily while some sets I've had in the late 2000's seem 'loose' at times on certain elements while others hold their clutch well. I keep alot of my models put together and on the shelf over the years so I'm assuming the clutch will be looser and looser over time? How long? Which parts stay together better? Will Lego keep improving the clutch or regardless, time and physics will loosen bricks on the parts held together too long.
Would be good to see a study on which parts stay together better over time.

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By in United Kingdom,

@monkyby87, I agree that the study is unnecessarily rigorous for the purpose of entertaining AFOLs. But the intended audience of this study was not primarily AFOLs and its intention is not for entertainment. It was published in a scholarly journal to push the boundary of knowledge for everyone.

Imagine if a researcher in the field of developmental psychology wanted to know whether kids' toys generally (not just LEGO) had become more complex over time. If they wanted to include LEGO among the toys being investigated, they couldn't rely on the impression of AFOLs - however strongly held - when a more rigorous approach was available. Maybe the AFOLs are mistaken. Maybe the sampling of AFOLs isn't representative. How would they know?

The argument that something is self-evidently true and therefore does not warrant rigorous scientific (or social scientific) investigation will often be valid, but not always. For thousands of years, people fervently believed in a geocentric universe. It was obvious to everyone and was reinforced by authorities within the respective societies. We now know that they were wrong, but we only came to that realisation through rigorous modes of investigation. Supposition cannot be relied upon. That principle is true regardless of whether you want to know the centrism of the universe or the complexity of LEGO sets.

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By in United Kingdom,

^ You'll be telling us that the Earth is not flat next!

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By in United States,

@Zander, alright, you got me, you do indeed know more complex words than I do ;)

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By in Germany,

@Zander: fine if you have a use for such a useless study, suit yourself. I know better ways to spend my valuable time. I feel sorry for these guys who have wasted precious time of their life for compiling knowledge that every normally intelligent person has known without putting together loads of irrelevant data.

Comparing it to a study about obesity is absurd, as that has potentially valuable information for doctors, insurance companies, the food industry, governments, etc.
The study about LEGO set complexity offers nothing valuable for anyone.

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By in Australia,

I appreciate the time and effort that has went into this and it was sort of interesting. But there was a lot of unnecessary statistics and explanations, it was just a bit too 'deep' for a discussion about Lego.

I also read the article on Has Lego Become more Violent and it would be interesting to cross reference the historical context of events in both these articles.

The complexity 'boom' in Lego is around the same time of the 'technological revolution', more information readily available resulting in children able to do, or wanting to do, more complex tasks, children who need constant stimulation, such as new parts, rather then content with a few simple bricks.

In regards to Lego becoming more violent, The 'traditional' Lego company, when Ole was still alive, was in surrounded by a country only just freed from years of occupation and a world of imminent doom, a world as fragile as the pre-clutch power system bricks. (Nazi-occupation of Denmark, Cold War, Cuban missile crisis etc.).

The 80s and 90s saw the end of the Cold War and a mostly peaceful world, so violence in TV and the new internet/ games rises, with toys not far behind.

One thing to mention is that in the weapon studies, they forgot to mention the Classic Wild West theme, which saw the first proper rifles and pistols (revolvers) and explosives (dynamite), the closest we have ever come to 'modern' weapons in Lego.

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By in United States,

I was just happy to see that the author completed a fully thorough analysis of this when I noticed they evaluated Shannon’s entropy for the color distribution for each year. Bravo and well thought out.

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By in United States,

@tomenadi is exactly right; the specialty parts ensures you can’t build sets using parts from other sets. However, we as consumers shouldn’t necessarily be “OK” with that.
The reason being, this actually stifles creativity, not promotes it.

“The increased complexity of LEGO sets and bricks allows skilled builders to build ever more amazing models”

This is only true if these skilled builders can afford to purchase massive amounts of sets on an annual basis, which doesn’t include many of us, or even most of us. So if I wish to build the car in the Downtown Diner set and make it red instead of pink, I probably can’t even do that because the car contains specialty pieces that are only available in pink and only available in a $170 set (just a hypothetical example).

I suppose there are 2 ways to look at it, but any scenario that can even remotely be connected to a stifling of creativity in order to make profit isn’t exactly a great look for TLG.

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