| BILLUND, Denmark
BILLUND, Denmark Millions of children pick up Lego bricks each year to spend hours -- 5 billion, in fact -- creating their own imaginary worlds.
Now the manufacturer of the little plastic playing blocks wants to take them online to "Lego Universe," a virtual world for fans of the ubiquitous toy.
Lego Universe joins an established trend where toys and video games are cross-promoted, such as Nintendo Co Ltd's Pokemon TV show, game card, toys and video game franchise, and Mattel Inc's Barbie online shopping and gaming portal at barbie.com.
To launch next year as a massively multiplayer online game, or MMOG to those in the gaming community, Lego Universe will let players create online versions of themselves and interact with each other.
"We want to make the connection between digital play and physical play," said Mark William Hansen who is in charge of Lego Universe. "The physical experience is our core, the digital experience will never replace the physical experience, but it's a nice add-on."
Hansen, speaking at the headquarters of Europe's largest toymaker, said he had been working on his doctoral thesis with Lego Group on mass customization and ended up joining the family-owned company to create the game.
Lego Universe will blend real-world style environments with characters and buildings made of digital plastic pieces. A forest would have less bricks in the background, while a city would lend itself to being made nearly entirely with bricks.
Each player's avatar, or online persona, will be a customizable digital version of Lego minifigures, the tiny characters included with most Lego kits that also feature in existing Lego video games such as Lego Star Wars.
That's not surprising. Lego employees are just as likely to pull out a Lego figure of themselves, with name, phone number and e-mail address rather than a traditional business card.
Lego Universe will initially launch as a PC game, available in stores or as a download, and may eventually be available on other gaming platforms. It will operate as a pay-as-you-go subscription service at a "competitive price", Hansen said.
Most social online worlds have their own currency or monetary system, and Lego Universe will also require users to spend virtual money to buy virtual bricks. But rather than winning or beating an opponent, players build capital by spending time in the game.
"The more a child plays, they collect more coins and more bricks. The more you play, the more you get to build things," Hansen said.
The other crucial element of Lego Universe, like other MMOGs, is that users will be encouraged to interact with each other, to build and play with virtual Lego bricks as they would on a carpet littered with real Lego pieces.
"We want kids to come and play together," Hansen said.
Lego Universe is part of a bigger plan by the company to revitalize itself after a near-collapse five years ago, when the company founded in 1932 posted its first loss.
Lego executives say the company lost its way by branching into non-core areas like television shows and toys that required less building and weren't customizable like the core Lego bricks.
"It was a near-death experience," said Henrik Lorensen, vice president of business development at Lego.
Lorensen said Lego was distracted from its main area of expertise of providing toys children could use to build their own worlds and unleash their imagination, or as he says, "the joy of building, of creation, that you have when you play."
Lorensen says the approach of "making good, classic products in the right way" is reflected in Lego Universe.
About two dozen people at Lego are working on the game while an additional group of nearly 70 are working to create the online world in Denver, Colorado, where game developer and Lego partner NetDevil is based.
The digital efforts fit in with Lego's popular video game franchise and also with Lego Factory, a digital design system that allows users to build Lego designs and then order the necessary components in one package from Lego.
Through such efforts, Lego believes it can reach even more people than the 400 million who play with Lego bricks every year. Lego has expanded its line to include kits tailored for girls, featuring princesses and horses and castles.
Lego Universe, the company believes, will encompass all of that and more, as the name suggests. Users will be able to create, destroy, enact battles, or just fiddle with bricks in a world of their own.
It will also give the company the ability to reintroduce bricks that are no longer made in Lego factories and potentially offer all the 6,000 types of bricks made by Lego.
But there will always be a link back to the physical world.
Just like with Lego Factory, users will also be able to order the physical versions of their online creations and have them delivered to their door.
(Editing by Tim Dobbyn)