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    AFOL Dark Ages and Renaissance in the 90's and 00's


    [box type="shadow"]Editor's Note: This is the first article written by one of our members, Tim Mahoney(timinchicago). What a great contribution to the site. Hopefully this is the first of many great articles by Tim and hopefully more get submitted by the rest of our members. Tim received 500 BrickPoints for having this article published on the site. -Jeff[/box]

    Dark Age”: the period of time between when a person loses interest in LEGO and when they rediscover it as an adult.

    It is not much of a surprise to say that the LEGO collecting, investing and reselling market is almost exclusively the domain of the adult fan of LEGO (AFOL). Without this key demographic, LEGO price guide and investment information websites like Brickpicker.com would not exist. Therefore, the forces that drive people in and out of the LEGO community are worth exploring and understanding as the size of the AFOL market will largely determine the value and worth of all past and future LEGO sets. With that in mind, I sometimes find myself trying to figure out the reasons that contributed to my LEGO Dark Ages in the 1990’s and then thankfully to a personal LEGO Renaissance in the 2000’s. As my experience is probably not unique, I began to think that the LEGO Dark Age phenomenon is not simply a case of shifting adult priorities or responsibilities. That is too simple an explanation. Generally speaking, I believe that there are three universal reasons that contributed to my Dark Ages and ultimate Renaissance that may also apply to many AFOL’s who entered their Dark Ages in the 1990’s only to find their Renaissance in the 2000’s.

    The first Dark Age factor is a decline in quality, both materially and artistically. During the 1990’s LEGO quality seemed to decline quite a bit. Memorable sets were few and far between and most sets did not have any real adult appeal. Builds were overwhelmingly simple and uninspired. There was very little to attract the attention or entice anyone out of their LEGO Dark Age. You could count on one hand the number of sets that exceeded 1,000 pieces and even those sets lacked the intricate detail prized and craved by the AFOL of today. This artistic decline only consistently began to change after 2000. Set piece size count, playability, and intricate details greatly increased and allowed the creative aspect of LEGO quality to flourish, much like, well, a Renaissance. The Ultimate Collector's Series was born in 2000 with the release of the 7181 Tie Interceptor and 7191 X-Wing Fighter.

    LEGO 7181 Tie Interceptor LEGO 7191 X-Wing Fighter

    The iconic 3450 Statue of Liberty was also released in 2000, making it the largest LEGO set that was released up to that point.

    LEGO 3450 Statue of Liberty  

    One need only compare the Cloud City set (10123), that was released in 2003 with the Death Star (10188), released five years later, to get an idea of the strides that have been made in playability, even within a well-established hit theme such as Star Wars. LEGO 10123 Cloud City LEGO 10188 Death Star

    The advent of the “modular buildings” is a great example of the Renaissance in LEGO quality that began in the mid-2000’s and is still in full swing in 2012. This material and artistic revival has resulted in a remarkable jump in value for many of these quality vanguard sets like Café Corner (10182), Green Grocer (10185), Grand Carousel (10196), Eiffel Tower (10181), and Town Plan (10184) to name a few.  

    LEGO 10182 Cafe Corner  LEGO 10185 Green Grocer  LEGO 10196 Grand Carousel  LEGO 10181 Eiffel Tower  LEGO 10184 Town Plan  

    Just check out the current values below if you have any doubt:  

    Set # Set Name Year Released Pieces MSRP (US$) Current Price (US$) % Increase from MSRP
    10182 Cafe Corner 2007 2056 139.99 1099 685%
    10185 Green Grocer 2008 2352 149.99 548 265%
    10196 Grand Carousel 2009 3263 249.99 667 167%
    10181 Eiffel Tower 2007 3428 199.99 890 345%
    10184 Town Plan 2008 1981 149.99 438 192%

    The second Dark Age factor is stagnation and lack of variety. There just were not that many themes or sets available for most of the 1990’s and what was available, lacked variety and gave the impression that LEGO was stagnating and offering nothing really innovative or dynamic. During much of the 1990’s the number of sets released each year hovered around the 200 mark, bottoming out with barely only 100 sets released in 1992! Again, there just was not a lot sets released to drag an AFOL out of their Dark Age. Of those sets from 1990, most were in the Pirates, Space, Town (City) and Castle themes, which were primarily geared towards younger children. It was not until 2002 that a year had more than 400 sets released. Starting in 2006 LEGO routinely released more than 400 sets a year, with some years having significantly more. Last year(2011) for example, saw nearly 600 sets released, including multiple licensed themes such as STAR WARS, Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean and extremely popular non-licensed themes such as Ninjago and City/Town. This new found diversity and variety directly contributes to LEGO Renaissances for many AFOL’s and, more importantly, keeps them firmly committed to the LEGO hobby.

    The final Dark Age factor is the general LEGO group lack of focus and direction. Beginning in the 1990’s LEGO seemed to be moving in many different directions at once and not particularly focused on their core expertise of making unsurpassed brick building toys. Considerable energy was diverted from this core value to establish the Legoland parks and to compete against the likes of Disney and Six Flags. The entrance into the video game market was yet another ancillary branch that took LEGO further from its core strength and diluted the core LEGO building toy concept. This is not to say that some of the video games were not good—some certainly were—but honestly, there are many, many more companies far superior to LEGO when it comes to video game publishing, and NONE that are superior to LEGO when it comes to creating brick building toys! Finally, there were countless ill-conceived LEGO lifestyle products that simply added nothing to the core LEGO strength and only served to blur the lines of the LEGO brand. LEGO is best when it does LEGO and that means brick building toys. There is room for other LEGO concepts just not to the extent that they take away from the basic LEGO core strength. After all, it is this core strength that ultimately allows the other concepts to exist. Stray too far from this universal truth and you risk losing LEGO fans to the Dark Ages.

    The above reasons are by no means exhaustive on the subject and are really only an attempt to stimulate others to explore the forces that led them out and back into the LEGO collecting world. There is a fine line between a Dark Age and a Renaissance and no two AFOL’s journey is exactly the same. Many AFOL’s never had a dreaded Dark Ages, and for that they should consider themselves fortunate. However, now that LEGO is on strong creative footing, with seemingly endless themes to delight all ages and remains laser focused on the LEGO building experience, one can only imagine that there will be far fewer Dark Ages in the futures and many more Renaissances. Who knows, maybe the Dark Ages are on their way to extinction?
     

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    Wow, great article and I concur 100% My last set purchased before my Dark ages in 1990 were 5590 Whirl N Wheel Super Truck and 6285 Black Seas Barracuda. I went to High School and College with no purchase sets or interest. Then in 2000, I came across Lugnet and saw 7191 X-wing and 3450 Statue of Liberty and have been collecting the larger sets from every year since. Missed out on 10179 Millennium Falcon and 10181 Eiffel Tower though, Oh well. One thing not mentioned in this article is the online website factor that played such an important role in buying, selling, cataloging, and appreciation through websites like eBay, Lugnet, Bricklink, and now Brickpicker. These play a large role in keeping people engaged in LEGO and out of their Dark Ages. Also for me personally, Eric Harshbarger's website was the one website I came across in 2000 that made me realize "Lego is for Adults too" and brought me out of my Dark Ages more than any other inspiration.

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    Nice work...For me, it was the 10030 UCS Star Destroyer that got me back into LEGO collecting. I took a 20 years hiatus from LEGO collecting for many reasons. The main reason was that it was the same old sets every year. Something must have changed within the LEGO mindset around the early part of the '00s because they really started developing top notch sets. The Ultimate Collector's Series STAR WARS sets are the top of the LEGO food chain IMO and to this day, set the bar for the rest of the themes. The new R2-D2 is fantastic.

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    Great article. I think my dark ages lasted 15-20 years. Set 8097 Slave 1 lit my fire again. Wait...forgot I picked up 7094 King Castle Siege on clearance at Walmart the year before I bought that. Totally thinking about picking up some older (non star wars sets). Anyone recommend some older sets with cool features? I liked the Wild West 6755. That set had a cool feature.

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    Amazing article! I love the perspective that it brings out about the whole concept of the Dark Ages altogether. For me, my Dark Ages only lasted a few years, as I am only 20 and was a huge fan of LEGOs in my childhood. High school and college brought that down until one day, my girlfriend bought me some Cars sets and I fell in love all over again, with the girl and LEGOs. ;)

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    All AFOLs sometimes need a reminder that TLG repeatedly emphasizes their role as a manufacturer of children's toys. That adults comprise a sizable portion of their market attests to at least two facts: that adults are the ones who buy their kids toys, and that adults are still kids. Hence I think that imprecations of Lego's "immaturity" (for lack of a better word) are rather wide of the mark. But if Lego is tacitly acknowledging the increase of AFOLs due to more intricate builds (and the Internet, frankly) then it changes their responsibility drastically and, I think, not wholly in ways they may desire. Kids will always want to play and Legos are the greatest toy, and compared to that what company would want to hear that that Obi Wan's Starfighter is boring or that the SSD is ugly and impractical? It's an interesting time, a cusp if you will, and I wish I had more time to go into the nuances.

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    @ Brickarmor... Very good point. A lot of AFOLs fail to realize that it is the children that drive sales. The Ninjago and City themes are two of LEGO's most successful themes money wise, yet are ignored by investors and collectors. Kids love these themes and buy a ton of these sets. I think LEGO does an excellent job catering to the AFOL, with the UCS, Large Scale Models and Modular Building themes. I love all the sets though. I often find myself building something with my 2.5 year old son's Duplo sets. Your post sounds like it would be a great article for the site. Feel free to come up with something that we can post here. I'm sure people would love to hear your views on this topic. Thanks.

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    Nice article, Tim. I think the single biggest reason people go into a Dark Age is age. LEGO can be producing the most amazing sets ever, but when you start hitting 14-16, other things become more important - girls, high school sports, friends, etc. Then many go off to college and most college students don't have a lot of money or time for messing around with LEGO sets. But once they start to have a little more disposable income, they see some of the awesome sets they missed out on. That's where we come in :)

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    @Danny - Excellent point on internet sites playing a major factor in keeping AFOL's interested and engaged in LEGO collecting and investing. Would make an excellent article!

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    @Mos Eisley - Another good point. From my own perspective if LEGO had been producing the intricate and complex adult oriented sets of today back when I was that age, then I may have never had a Dark Age. Timing is everything!

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    When I came out of the dark ages there were very few sets from the 90s I went back and bought. Black Cat was one of them and well worth seeking out. One of the best Model Team sets.

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    Growing up with these late 90's early 00's sets, I am obliged to disagree with you about them being the dark ages. There's an aesthetic to the sets that's nearly impossible to find now, such as any of the larger sets in the Western line in the mid 90's. I also got to experience the emergence of Bionicles, which was beyond cool. What I will agree about is the fact that everyone probably feels like this about Lego sets at a certain time; I feel like the quality of Lego sets after 2004 until about 2008 were atrocious and that the design of the sets was sloppy. I think the most notable was the 2008 Star Wars line (barring the Death Star). I think Mos Eisley hit it out of the park; there are many factors causing us to tell our brains to enjoy Legos less. Thank you for taking the time and thought to write an article!

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    I would also like to add that I agree that the lack of variety sometimes in lego sets is really unappealing. I'm thinking along the lines of the newer Bionicles and the re-re-hashing of Hero-Factory (which I just humorously mis-typed as herp-factory). Once again, I really do appreciate the effort you put into your article, and I don't want you to get the impression that I disliked it.

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    I am a huge fan of the Bionicle theme and I agree that LEGO sometimes takes the easy road and re-releases older sets as newer versions. In their defense, they also give the new, young LEGO fan a chance to buy a classic LEGO set new.

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    Exactly! Some of the new stuff this year is so impressive that I had to get back in! I am extremely satisfied with the new Star Wars line, but even more, with the city line.

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    Thank you for the feedback TedZ, it is always cool to hear different perspectives. I agree with you about the aesthetic of some of the sets from that period. With LEGO even their average sets are better than most other toys out there at any given time. It would make for an interesting article to examine the great sets from that time period. Also I believe that nostalgia plays a big role in how we remember some of the sets from the past.

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    Wow! I can't tell you how great it is to be part of a community in which an author both takes criticism the right way and replies promptly to his critics! I'm glad I could provide a new perspective; granted you seem to be on the same page with me already. I actually had plans to write about some of the lost gimmicks of Legos, but I have to finish finals first. Keep a look out for it! Once again, thank you so much for taking the time to reply.

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    After a 20+ years away from LEGO, it was building my daughters Medieval Marketplace that brought me back. The detail and design blew me away. This was not the LEGO I remembered as a kid. Since then I've been hooked. Thanks for the great article!

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    Great article - I've read it numerous times. My dark ages lasted just shy of 30 years (!!!!) and then were rekindled due to the arrival of a little baby boy. Ok, so he can't build the sets, nor even play with them yet, but as a responsible Dad I feel it is my duty to invest heavily into LEGO and also to establish a collection. LOL. I like Brickarmor's comment - something for him/us to explore further. An extremely interesting point raised indeed.

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