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In 2003, LEGO was seemingly on top of the world. Thanks to shrewd licensing deals that brought Star Wars and Harry Potter sets to the masses, the company was enjoying tremendous success. But unbeknownst to many, including those inside the company, sales were plummeting, and no one could figure out why.
Some blamed LEGO‘s poor strategic choices in the 1990s, such as the Legoland theme parks and forays into digital products. All of these misguided developments had slashed profitability, and even Star Wars and Harry Potter sales had shriveled between movie releases. It’s difficult to imagine now, but at the turn of the millennium, beloved LEGO might have been headed towards a pitiful end.
During this fallow period, one product line stood apart with startling and consistent success: Bionicle. This series of buildable action figures was backed by rich world-building and cross-platform promotion, providing a unique and immersive experience for children and adults alike. The toy warriors of Bionicle wouldn’t just conquer their fictional enemies; they’d also pioneer innovations that would transform LEGO and rescue the company from possible doom.
Bionicle was inspired by co-creator Christian Faber’s battle with a tumor at the base of his brain. Despite facing physical and mental strain, Faber refused to let his illness dampen his creative spark. A 28-year veteran of LEGO projects, Faber’s unchecked enthusiasm for his work was palpable. He designed brochures for LEGO toy lines and gained exposure to various products, including the undersea-based Aquazone and the sophisticated Technic series. This experience gave him a deep understanding of LEGO’s standards and practices, which were undergoing significant changes in the mid-90s due to the rise of computers and video games. The pressure to shift towards “craze products” that catered to current market tastes with a planned one-year shelf life was strong, but Faber remained committed to LEGO’s traditional R&D cycle.
Faber’s illness had a profound impact on his work. A doctor found a benign tumor inside Faber’s pituitary gland that was impeding his sight, a condition called prolactinoma. The tumor was in the least accessible spot in the body for surgery, so doctors prescribed daily medication to keep it from growing. However, the side effects of the drugs included severe nausea and dehydration, which effectively sidelined Faber from social activities. Despite these challenges, Faber found most of his energy for work at night, as the medication’s side effects were most pronounced in the mornings.
Bionicle’s creation was a pivotal moment for LEGO. It marked a significant shift towards new product development and innovation, which proved essential in rescuing the company from its decline. The success of Bionicle also paved the way for other product lines, such as Ninjago and Hero Factory, which became fan favorites and kept LEGO at the forefront of the toy industry. Without Bionicle and the dedicated work of Christian Faber and his team, LEGO may have become a relic of the past, overshadowed by the rise of digital entertainment and other competitors.