Community Interviews: LEGO Ideas Sonic Set Designer, ‘toastergrl’

Last month, the Sonic community was dazzled by an incredibly creative sight – a design pitch for an official Sonic Mania-themed LEGO set. The creation, by Sonic Robo Blast 2 Kart developer ‘toastergrl’, featured a Sonic Mini-Fig alongside some custom Badnik models and a huge Death Egg robot – and has been the talk of the town ever since. With a concerted push to drum up as much support as possible to make the design a reality, we spoke with ‘toastergrl’ herself to learn more about the project.

You can visit the LEGO Ideas project page by clicking here – make sure to head there and register your support so that it can get made!

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to The Sonic Stadium! First of all, well done on the attention you’re getting for the LEGO Ideas project! Were you overwhelmed with the positive response from fans?

Thank you for the kind words! I’ve got to admit, my nerves are very, very frayed. My Twitter notifications were unusable until I discovered the “mute thread” functionality – and watching that number go up in real time, updating every time I refreshed the page, was a big hit of adrenaline that left me basically unable to focus this week.

Especially receiving [Sonic co-creator] Yuji Naka’s public support – that humbled me in a way I hadn’t been before. I’m still a tad fragile, but I’ve been ‘rebuilding’ myself (ha ha, LEGO jokes) as things have become a little more grounded in reality again. Every supporter is appreciated, even if I couldn’t feasibly say thanks to them one by one.

Your design is incredibly detailed and looks really professional. Have you got a background in product design yourself? Or did you just spend hundreds of hours meticulously studying the art of the LEGO brick to conjure up how a Sonic world could happen?

Believe it or not, I’m just a student in a programming discipline. Your second guess is a bit closer to the truth, but it wasn’t spent specifically on Sonic. As my chosen field suggests, I like recognising patterns and working within a system (ha ha LEGO jokes x2), and as a lifelong fan of the plastic brick and its sister construction systems (Technic and Constraction in particular, to someone with a background in the LEGO world), I’ve picked up a few rules that official releases tend to be beholden to. I’m basically a connoisseur of trivia that individually *seems* quite useless, but when put together with other tidbits of information makes the effect quite convincing.

One particularly enlightening example: multiple people have told me that the Dr Eggman/Robotnik build’s arms include ill-fitting grey pieces that break up the colour cohesion of the design. However, the LEGO Group has generally been quite strict on avoiding new colours for “special” structural components. Those ball-and-socket joint pieces were introduced in 2014 as part of the Mixels line, and the company has only manufactured them in “Dark Bluish Grey” and “Light Bluish Grey” respectively since their inception.

There are generally several rules with how bricks tend to be attached together, too. There needs to be a minimum amount of clutch power holding a part in place for a build to be considered stable, which led to a few redesigns of some of the secondary elements of the project in order to improve that. The palm tree, for example, uses Technic peg connector tubes instead of the obvious System equivalent (the 1×1 cylinder brick), because the height at which it needs to sit is unlikely for little ones to keep steady with when constructing.

I’ve had a few comments from parents mentioning that their 4 year olds or so constantly ask about LEGO Sonic after being introduced to the two concepts separately, so factoring this in was pretty prescient of me.

What tools did you use to design the project?

I originally started on the *very* first chunks of this project in late 2016 in LEGO Digital Designer (the official software by the LEGO Group) as a few separate files, using Bluerender to create high-quality photorealistic images of my virtual concepts, but that version of the project ended up getting shelved because of a change to the LEGO Ideas rules at the time.

When the skies cleared and it became plain sailing again, I spent a few days playing around with LDD before realising the software had been End-of-Life’d and no new parts had been added to it since shortly after I’d stopped using the software. Considering I’d become attached to working with a few parts I’d seen on the “New Elementary” LEGO fan blog and subsequently found in sets, it was clear I needed an alternative.

I tried a few free virtual brick-building programs, but the choice I ended up settling on was “Studio 2.0”, a program developed by LEGO community barter-and-bazaar-site Bricklink. It has a proprietary brick connectivity system, which was frustrating when attempting to add the Sonic head part to the software, but other than that issue it’s a very comfortable-to-use program with a built-in rendering system that led to the very good images attached to the LEGO Ideas campaign.

Some other alternatives you could look into if you wanted to design your own projects include web service Mecabricks (I would have looked at this in more detail, but my internet connection isn’t guaranteed) and LDCAD, a very technically proficient program with a user interface only an engineer-by-trade could love.

What’s the likelihood of LEGO adopting this as a proper set that people can buy in stores? Are you hopeful that it will happen?

I’m going to get real for a second – the likelihood is zero *unless* about seven thousand more people vote for the concept on the website. You can register with a Facebook or Google login, or make a standalone LEGO account if you don’t like those companies! It’s a tough bar to meet, I admit, but there’s been a good number of projects that have reached it before, and thanks to the success being so frontloaded we have about a year and a half to meet the goal.

Anyways, obligatory advertising aside – the answer to your question you were expecting is that there probably won’t be an issue, but you can never be sure. The LEGO company is known for not being particularly transparent when reviewing projects so it’s impossible to grok the nitty gritty that might go into such a decision… but based on the rough distribution of projects that have gone before, I feel like it’d be a big surprise if they came back with a “no”.

Guessable reasons IP-based projects have been rejected from LEGO Ideas in the past include:

    • Too violent (maybe if it was a set about Shadow the Hedgehog…)
    • Competing license (there’s no McFarlane or Mega Blocks sets, so this isn’t likely to be a problem)
    • Licensor not willing to play ball (LEGO and SEGA have worked together before, for 2016’s toys-to-life game LEGO Dimensions!)
    • Active theme (their team-up was in 2016, and the LEGO Ideas “Knowledge Base” doesn’t list it as a conflict anymore…)
    • LEGO doesn’t think the concept is compelling or likely to sell outside of the pre-existing 10,000 supporters (are you kidding me?)
    • Limited number of concepts they can put into production per review session, and the competition is just *that* compelling (the only real threat I can currently identify…)

With only the last one being a possible concern, I’m very hopeful the answer would be yes. Of course, we won’t know until we get there. ;D

What made you choose Sonic Mania as a theme over another classic Sonic game (or modern Sonic game)?

This is a complicated business. I don’t think the idea of it being Mania-based solidified until maybe the night before I started working on the final iteration of the concept. There was certainly a level of pragmatism to the choice – SEGA would likely prefer any new product to be based off of contemporary releases, and Sonic Mania is *the* highest rated Sonic game in 25 years (as the official Sonic Twitter’s pinned tweet proudly shows off to this day). It fits perfectly in the space between “popular with fans” and “likely to be approved”, and both are necessary for an undertaking such as this.

This wasn’t dominated by outside constraints, though. Even if it wasn’t Mania-based, I have LDD files dating back to 2016 which feature a Sonic with short legs – the calling card of his classic incarnation. My very first iteration probably could’ve been branded as a ‘Sonic 2’ set, since it only featured Sonic and the quintessential Death Egg Robot… but I wasn’t too confident in putting something forward based on ‘Sonic 2’ that couldn’t include Sonic’s best buddy, Tails, seeings as he was a major defining element of that game. Also, LEGO Ideas concepts can’t introduce new part shapes, and since there’s no pre-existing part Tails can use for his head, he couldn’t happen anyway.

Why the focus on classic, even before Mania paved the way for that iteration of the brand to have a future? It’s definitely not that I don’t like Modern Sonic – my first game was Sonic Heroes! I mentioned off-handedly before that SEGA and LEGO have partnered up once before – for the toys-to-life game LEGO Dimensions. With a single Sonic mini-figure and a few parts you could use to build:

  • An undersized version of Sonic’s car from All-Stars Racing OR a very off-model oversized Motobug OR a hovercraft;
  • An undersized version of the Classic Tornado OR an on-model but oversized Crabmeat

This Sonic had green eyes, was a darker shade of blue, had a long torso print, and had a longer variety of Mini-Fig leg – all signs that established it as a toy related to Modern Sonic. The intent, then, was to have something that didn’t conflict with that: a unique selling point by including a “variant” of the character, in the same way The LEGO Movie 2 sets can entice you to buy a new release because the Benny spaceman mini-figure in that set has a robot arm compared to his toy from the first movie. Stuff like that. Standard tricks of the trade in the toy industry, allowing the truly Sonic-obsessed (of which I am one!) to own both distinct incarnations.

Can you realistically build the sets you’ve designed with already-existing LEGO sets, do you think? Beyond a Sonic head piece or two, what exactly sets your design apart from LEGO sets that are on store shelves at the moment?

Every part in the concept is a pre-existing piece produced by the LEGO company in the past three and a half years, if you ignore colour and printing. That was actually one of the rules to the submission process; LEGO Ideas is a relatively low-budget, fast-moving affair by LEGO standards, so no completely original pieces can be tooled up for projects submitted this way. It removes some of the flexibility a regular LEGO designer might have, but part of the fun of making art is working within the constraints of a medium.

In a strict reading of your question, the answer is that there’s nothing truly unique about it. However, that’s ignoring the contribution of the printed pieces – the faces on the Motobug, the Death Egg Robot, the Flickies, and Eggman himself add a lot of character to the build.

I suppose it’s part of the point – very few official LEGO sets are completely infeasible for someone to build an approximation of before they get released, if instructions are available, but the charm in LEGO Ideas is that they get released as something you get to own without hunting for each part individually, with nicely formatted instructions to leaf through.

Wow, you really know your LEGO! Is it safe to assume that you’re as much a fan of the little coloured blocks as you are of the blur blur? When did you first get into LEGO?

Yeah, I’ve managed to cultivate a lifelong passion for the stuff! Funnily enough though, aside from the obligatory sub-brand Duplo as a toddler, my earliest memories weren’t with the brick-based building system. My conscious start was through the BIONICLE buildable action figures (or “Constraction”, as the play pattern would later be termed) in the early 2000s. An extension of the Technic system that my grandmother kept from back when her kids were young, the biomechanical characters captured the imagination.

From there though, the LEGO catalogues they’d send you in the mail once you’d made a purchase or two on-the-line were the perfect gateway. While I don’t remember the specifics, I know I had a reasonable assortment of stuff from around that time. A small trebuchet from the Knights Kingdom II line, a handful of pocket racers from LEGO Racers, a few obvious serial-number-filed-off Indiana Jones sets known as “Johnny Thunder”… from there, it was Spiderman, Vikings, Harry Potter, Exo Force… as the years went by I got more and more invested in the format!

The “Dark Ages”, as Adult Fans Of LEGO generally refer to them, did arrive eventually – but by then I would be quite hooked, even still occasionally picking up a single small set to scratch the itch that my teenage shame in “childish things” (as if!) couldn’t quite suppress. Fast forward to today, with the cadence having increased over that time and having absorbed a perspective only active online community could provide, and I’m definitely enjoying getting involved again.

You’re also quite heavily involved in the Sonic fan community, working on the fan game Sonic Robo Blast 2 and its sister offshoot, Sonic Robo Blast 2 Kart. Can you tell us a little about your work on the games and how you got involved?

SRB2 and its sister project, SRB2Kart, have been fascinating to work on. The very nature of how moddable that game is encourages people to follow their passions and create with it. I started my career with an exceedingly terrible series of MS Paint squiggles collected in “spongebob.wad”, an add-on allowing you to play as the saviour of Bikini Bottom himself through all 9 levels comprising the base game.

I never finished ‘Spongebob’ to a degree that was satisfactory, and my attempts to share it were met with derision, but I was having fun creating and… long story short, the skills I picked up while messing around then somehow ended up with me becoming the lead artist on the recent but not-yet-released revamp of Tails the Fox’s sprites.

This has a less funny origin, but I also ended up having an aptitude for programming. I was able to get onto the development team by being a notable, active member of the community and constantly impressing everyone who laid eyes on my work, creating a now-broken test level set in a gravity-flipping Casino, complete with Sonic Heroes-style pinball table.

While I ended up departing from that team to pursue other projects, the bonds I had made and the impression I had made meant that when I had energy to spend on the game and community again, there was a welcoming place on the team of its Kart racer spinoff, which I happily remain on to this day.

Sonic Robo Blast 2 has been something of a fan game darling ever since the concept of fan games were a thing on the internet. We originally covered it 18 years ago! How does it feel to be a part of a community project with such a long legacy?

There’s definitely something special about it. I found it a regular point of pride to mention it whenever I was introducing what I worked on to real-life friends, and I relished in the shock when the 20th Anniversary trailer ended with the words “20 Years” and people suddenly realised how long that stretch of time actually *is*. Heck, I’m only a few years older than that game!

It’s a bit less relevant now I’m working on SRB2Kart, but I don’t know why – their history is our history, and Kart’s development is still over a decade long…

We can clearly tell you’re a huge Sonic fan, like us – what’s your favourite thing about the series? Favourite game, comic, TV show? And what is it about the franchise/character that interests you?

This is a tricky question. How do I choose? I’m a child of the Modern Sonic era, honestly, but I think I love basically everything. My pals are constantly irritated by my unfaltering ability to go to bat for Sonic Heroes, a game that is ultimately mediocre at best… but that’s not the best answer I could give.

I think a clearer picture is given by the next four titles I picked up – Sonic Advance 3, Sonic Gems Collection, Shadow the Hedgehog, and Sonic The Hedgehog (2006). Before you stare at me and think it’s really weird how someone with nostalgia for those things could have seemed so rational beforehand, hear me out!!

Because I absorbed what’s generally considered the nadir of the franchise as a child, the stuff I’ve come across later is an improvement by comparison. I’m a fan of the classic games because they’re like Sonic Advance 3 and a bad port of Sonic CD, but more polished. I’m a fan of the Adventure era because they’re like Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic 2006, but more polished. I’m a fan of the ‘Boost formula’ because it was an unparalleled step up a few years later, arriving at the perfect time for me to start actually demanding quality out of the things I played.

Honestly, Sonic’s world is such a positive and nice place in general, even with the nefarious machinations of Dr Eggman taking place. It’s gorgeous for both the eyes and ears in all but the rarest of circumstances, and there’s legitimately something to love about all his friends. Ironically, Sonic himself is probably the least interesting of them all, but I appreciate his attitude and praxis and he never grates. I sadly missed out on the Archie comics while I was young, but catching the IDW reboot so far has been a fun experience.

I always feel a bit embarrassed when talking about the things I love in the franchise because they’re not the typical subset of things an adult fan would generally point to as “good”. Sure, it’s super easy to hate on Sonic 2006 because it’s easy to find obvious, silly, gameplay-interrupting bugs that make you go “ha ha this game is incomplete”, but that’s not even the worst-playing Sonic game that came out around that time; I strongly contend that Sonic and the Secret Rings is only held in higher regard because nobody actually remembers how it controlled. The things I don’t like, then, only serve to illustrate how much I do.

We want to thank toastergrl for giving her time to answer our questions. And, at the time of this feature going to press, the LEGO Ideas project page currently has nearly 3,500 supporters. For this insanely cool idea to become a reality, the page needs to hit 10,000 supporters within the next ~600 days.

Let’s give it all the help we can – head to the LEGO Ideas page and pledge your support, and share with all your friends!

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Founder of The Sonic Stadium and creator/co-organiser of the Summer of Sonic convention. Loves talking about Sonic the Hedgehog in his spare time. Likes Sonic Colours a little too much for his own good, apparently.

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