Wednesday, 20 August 2014

It was all basic bricks in my day: part two

Note: In the process of writing this post, I realised that to get it done properly on decent sized datasets I was going to have to write some data scraping scripts. Since I've never done that before and it might take a while to figure it out, I decided to post what I'd already done anyway. Consider it a proof of concept for now.

In part one of this series, I took a look at the claims that all sets come with instructions these days, and that there are no basic brick boxes and buckets any more. Since these were extremely easy to disprove, I also looked at the historical trends to see if there are more sets with instructions and less basic brick boxes than there used to be.

In this part, I'll look at the claim that sets these days are filled with specialised pieces that can only be used for one thing. New Elementary has already shown that anyone claiming 'it was all basic bricks in my day' is entirely wrong, but is there any truth to the idea that today's sets have more specialised pieces than those of yesteryear?

For most Lego builders, the phrase 'specialised piece that can only be used for one thing' is likely to be taken as a challenge to find a way to use that piece for something else, hopefully resulting in massed cries of "NPU!". So the definition of a specialised piece is very subjective. If we want to objectively look at whether specialised pieces are more commonplace these days, we need some numerical definition of a specialised piece.

The best I can think of is how many sets a piece appears in. According to Bricklink, the iconic 2x4 brick, surely the least specialised of all pieces, has appeared in 1923 sets, whereas the highly specialised printed tow truck windscreen piece below has only ever appeared in one set. It's not a perfect measure by any means, but it might do for our purposes.

Nice colours though.

The question now is what number of sets should a piece have to appear in before it's proven itself non-specialised? More than 10? Let's run the numbers. Since I mentioned tow trucks at the end of the last post, we'll look at 16 tow trucks TLG has produced over the years, and count the proportion of pieces that have appeared in fewer than 10 other sets*. Since these sets are mostly quite small (average 73 pieces) and to ensure a spread of different model types, I'll also look at 19 mid-size spaceships (average 200 pieces) and 12 train stations (average 360 pieces) as well:

What does this tell us? Well, firstly, pieces that appear in fewer than 10 other sets are really quite rare - almost always less than 5% of a set's parts. There are some higher proportions among the tow trucks and this is partly because they tend to be small sets, where just a few specialised parts will constitute a sizeable percentage of the total. Those who know a little bit about the history of Lego probably won't be surprised that the truck with 28% specialised parts was from the early 2000's, a time when the number of parts and colours spiralled out of control, with many 'juniorised' sets, containing large specialised pieces. You'll notice that this is the set that contains the unique windscreen pictured above.

Yuck. They deserved to almost go bankrupt just for inflicting
this abomination upon the world.

Those with their thinking caps on may have noticed a possible flaw in my definition. Take a specialised part that can only be used in one way, say, a tow truck's winch. Then we say that a non-specialised piece will have been used in more than 10 sets. But there have been 16 tow trucks! So if every tow truck used the same winch piece, it would have been used in 16 sets, despite only being used in one very specific way. So clearly we need a higher threshold. Probably much higher. There have been 16 tow trucks, but scores of spaceships, and we don't want a specialised spaceship piece to slip through the net if it's never been used for anything else.

So let's up the ante and define a specialised part as one that's appeared in fewer than 100 other sets:

Assuming this data is representative of all sets, and that our definition of specialised pieces is good enough, we can say the following claims are nonsense:

  • "Sets these days are all/mostly specialist parts" - in fact the vast majority of sets are (and always have been) less than 30% specialist parts, and the only set that can be described as mostly specialist parts is that abomination of a tow truck from 2003.
  • "Ok, but they definitely include more specialist parts than they used to" - nope, and possibly the opposite, though I'd want more data to be sure of that.

Of course, if you quit Lego in disgust in the early 2000's and haven't checked out any sets since you may be partially justified in holding these opinions. It's interesting that there's a definite rise in specialised parts visible for the train stations in the early 2000's, but whether that's indicative of the known trend or just a coincidence is impossible to say given the small sample size.

Is this data representative of all sets? I don't know. The only way to tell is to repeat it for other similar sets of sets. I chose tow trucks and stations because they were some of the earliest models available and they keep being regularly made throughout the decades (spaceships didn't appear until a bit later, but have been regularly made since). I'm doing the data collection manually (indeed, literally on the back of an envelope), so I want to settle on a definition of specialised parts that I'm happy with before making efforts to analyse more sets.

Let's try a different approach. Instead of trying to define a specialised part, let's make a really strict definition of a non-specialised part - the sort of definition the oldest, grumpiest, most die-hard "Lego is rubbish these days" critic might use. Non-specialised pieces are those from these Bricklink categories:
No stupid 'modified' bricks or plates, no pretty round bricks, none of your newfangled slopes for making nice roofs, and no tiles for fussily hiding the studs. If you can't make your model out of rectangular bricks and plates, this guy isn't interested. In fact he's positively disappointed in you, and he only grudgingly allowed plates to give you a chance. Let's see what this definition gives us:

Well, it's hard to argue with that. The proportion of a set that is just bricks and plates has indeed decreased over time. The lowest point on the graph is our old friend the orange tow truck, narrowly avoiding a 0% score with the inclusion of a solitary blue 2x3 brick. The train stations are consistently comprised of a higher percentage of bricks and plates, almost certainly because they're models of buildings, where basic bricks are clearly more likely to be found.

If we want to be slightly more generous and include slopes and tiles, the graph looks like this:

Mostly unchanged then, though the early 2000's dip becomes more apparent for the train stations.


Here are my conclusions based on what we have, and assuming the findings are representative of all sets:
  • The proportion of a set that is highly specialised pieces, i.e. pieces that appear in fewer than 10 other sets is almost always less than 5%, and hasn't changed significantly over time.
  • The proportion of a set that is specialised pieces, i.e. pieces that appear in fewer than 100 other sets is almost always less than 30%, and hasn't changed significantly over time.
  • The proportion of a set that is just basic bricks and plates has decreased significantly over time.
  • The early 2000's sucked.
Which method is better? The second method is simpler and gives more decisive results. It shows quite clearly that while it wasn't all basic bricks in the old days, sets did tend to have more basic bricks. On the other hand, from an AFOL's point of view, i.e. someone who isn't opposed to specialised pieces per se, as long as they aren't completely unusable for anything else, the first method is more useful. The trick is to choose the correct number of other sets a piece has to appear in to count as non-specialised. One thing I didn't do, because it would have been too time-consuming to do manually, was to exclude uses of a part in models from the same theme. For example, when looking at spaceships, if a piece has appeared in 110 other sets I would have counted it as non-specialised. But if 50 of those other sets are in the Space theme, it was probably being used for the same purpose in those other sets, meaning that it should only count as appearing in 60 other sets and therefore should count as specialised.

That's the sort of thing I aim to do in future with some clever data scraping, but I have to learn how to do any data scraping at all first, so in the mean time please comment with any feedback or criticism or impassioned defences of orange tow trucks.

Part three of this series will arrive shortly, with less data and more opinions!

    * To simplify the process, I count all minifigs and their constituent parts as non-specialised, regardless of how many sets they've appeared in, because the issue of minifig variety is a slightly different and more complex one than the issue we're considering here. Basically, I counted anything Bricklink defines as a regular part in a set inventory, except sticker sheets.

    Saturday, 9 August 2014

    It was all basic bricks in my day: part one

    If there's one thing you're guaranteed to hear from the general public at an exhibit, it's some variant of "When I was a kid, it was all just basic bricks". And when it's just a well intentioned comment on the detail and complexity of your models, it's not a problem.

    If there are three things you're guaranteed to see in the comments section of any mainstream news or comment article about Lego, it's these:
    • "When I was a kid, it was all just basic bricks" and its related cousin:
    • "All the sets come with instructions these days, and you can't make anything else with them"
    • "Lego is too expensive these days"
    Is this a problem? That depends on whether or not these claims are true. The third was comprehensively disproved in a fantastic blog post by Andrew Sielen, along with the commonly held belief (even among AFOLs) that licensed sets are more expensive.

    This time, I'll take a look at the claims that more sets come with instructions than in the past and/or you can't get basic brick boxes/buckets these days. Next time I'll try to see if today's pieces are more specialised and less useful than they used to be. To tide you over until that post appears, try reading New Elementary's excellent post on the matter. And in a third and final post in this series I'll summarise the findings and give my opinions on whether they're a problem or not.

    Do all sets come with instructions? When people say this, they usually refer to the boxes or buckets of basic Lego bricks they had as a kid. These still exist! Multiple boxes/buckets of bricks are available right now, under the theme Bricks and More. However, most of them do seem to come with some instructions for suggested models. Let's be ultra strict - are there any currently available Lego sets with no instructions whatsoever?

    It even comes with a brick separator in case you don't already have
    at least 300 of them.

    Yes! 10664 Creative Tower has no instructions, and is mostly 'basic' bricks. It would surely satisfy even the most diehard instruction and 'specialised' brick hater. [EDIT: And, as pointed out in the comments, every Lego store has an entire Pick a Brick wall dedicated to selling just bricks, which generally seems to be a third to a half 'basic' bricks.]

    Ok, that's one example, but surely there were more of these instructionless sets back in the good old days? One simple way to see if that's true would be to find the proportion of sets released each year with instructions, and see how that has changed over time. This is relatively easy - it's possible to see a summary of the number of sets released each year at Bricklink, and similarly to see the number of instructions released each year. So we simply divide one by the other to get our proportions.

    Conclusion: If you were a kid in before the in or before the 80's, you may be on to something when you say there are fewer sets without instructions, UNLESS you were a kid in the 70's, when it was about the same. But these numbers don't look quite right. Only three quarters of sets had instructions in 2013? In fact, the raw numbers state 154 sets without instructions, which just doesn't seem right. And indeed it isn't, because Bricklink counts a lot of things as separate sets that really aren't. For example, 75 of those 154 sets are the individual builds from the advent calendars, for which there aren't separate instructions listed. So we can't quite rely on these numbers.

    A set, according to Bricklink.

    Is there another source of set numbers? Yes. Brickset has a brilliant query builder that allows you to run custom queries of its database. I did a simple query for sets in the 'normal' category, which excludes things like keychains and weird promotional items, then used these numbers with the instruction numbers from Bricklink*. The percentages from this are more in line with what I'd expect:

    Ok, apart from the 130% of sets in 1969 that came with instructions, the percentages are more in line with what I'd expect! And I think that's partly because the records for the 60's and early 70's aren't entirely reliable. [EDIT: I wasn't clear enough here that this is a problem caused by using numbers from different databases. Since Brickset and Bricklink don't always agree, particularly in the early years, the occasional weird result is not unexpected if you divide one set of numbers by the other]. If we ignore the 60's, the conclusions are more or less the same as before - the 70's were relatively instruction heavy, and since the 80's the proportion of sets with instructions has been increasing.

    One more test. Let's look at the beloved basic brick boxes/buckets directly this time, and not worry if they happen to come with instructions for a few example models. From Brickset's themes, the ones that appear to be mainly comprised of these brick boxes/buckets, and that aren't Dacta or Educational sets, are Basic, Bricks and More, Bulk Bricks, Creator (pre-2007), FreestyleMake and Create, and Universal Building Set. So I did a query for these that excluded sets with fewer than 100 pieces, to get rid of odd promotional sets and polybags. Because Creator became mostly instruction sets after 2006 (albeit usually with 3 different models) I had to do a query for it separately, excluding sets from 2007 onwards, and add those numbers.

    This seems to show that the number of basic brick boxes/buckets released has been increasing over time, with a slight dip down these past few years. But many more sets are released these days, so the more relevant quantity is the proportion of sets each year that are basic brick boxes/buckets:

    Ignoring the 60's, we see that the proportion of normal sets each year that are basic brick boxes/buckets fluctuates between 0 and 15%, but on average tends to be about 5%, with a slight downwards trend recently.

    So, what do we conclude? In this case I think we may be tempted to concede that Joe Public has a point - there seem to be more sets with instructions these days. I must admit I was surprised that most of the basic brick/boxes available today come with instructions, even if they're just a few example models. I don't think this is really a problem - you can always throw away the instructions after all! I've read that the reason that Lego stopped including back of the box pictures of alternate models on all sets (they were always there when I was a kid) was because they got complaints from parents that their children got upset because they couldn't build these models. So maybe the instructions are more common these days because people actually wanted them.

    When we look at the average proportion of sets each decade that are basic brick/boxes, it's basically been hovering around 5% ever since Lego started including instructions with models. It looks to have been on the slide over the past 20 years, though this is partly due to the increase in total numbers of sets released. For example, the average number of normal sets released per year in the 70's (when the proportion of buckets was highest) was about 62, whereas in the 2010s it's been 387. If we take the 70's proportion of 6.4% and apply it to 387, we get about 25. To those complaining about the lack of such sets, ask yourself if there's a market for an average of 25 basic brick buckets/boxes every year? Has there ever been?

    Final conclusions

    First, let me say that if you disagree with any of the methods or assumptions I've used, then please leave a comment, especially if you can think of a better way. I want this to be as good as possible, and won't take it personally. Now, on to the conclusions:

    If you were a kid in the 50's: Feel free to say there were fewer sets with instructions in your day - essentially there weren't any! [EDIT: See the comments for a discussion of whether there were actually instructions then or not. It seems at least that there weren't the modern, detailed instructions that we're familiar with today.]

    If you were a kid in the 60's: Dig out your old sets and memories and help update the records, because the stats don't have a clear message to tell. We can at least say that there weren't any sets with instructions before 1964. [EDIT: Not quite, see above]

    If you were a kid in the 70's: There were fewer sets with instructions in your day (72% of normal sets vs. 97% in the 2010s) but you actually grew up in a time of relatively many instructions compared to the following decades. There were slightly more basic brick boxes/buckets in your day (6.4% of all normal sets vs. 2.3% in the 2010s).

    If you were a kid in the 80's: There really were fewer instructions in your day (55% of normal sets vs 97% in the 2010s) and you grew up in the least 'instructioned' time since instructions began. There were slightly more basic brick boxes/buckets in your day (4.3% of all normal sets vs. 2.3% in the 2010s).

    If you were a kid in the 90's: There were fewer instructions in your day (64% of normal sets vs 97% in the 2010s). There were slightly more basic brick boxes/buckets in your day (6.2% of all normal sets vs. 2.3% in the 2010s).

    If you were a kid in the 2000's: There were fewer instructions in your day (79% of normal sets vs 97% in the 2010s). There were slightly more basic brick boxes/buckets in your day (4.1% of all normal sets vs. 2.3% in the 2010s).

    If you are a kid in the 2010's: Then why on earth are you reading this?? Go play with your Lego, and be glad you aren't a boring old fart who thinks this tow truck is better than this one.

    I mean, really? Images from Brickset.

    * Why carry on using the Bricklink instruction numbers? Simply because it's the most complete record.  Brickset only has the instructions that are provided by Lego Customer Services, which are woefully incomplete before the mid-nineties. Peeron is the other well-known source of instructions, but seemingly hasn't been kept properly up to date for about 10 years now, and hasn't had any new scans since 2010.

    [EDIT: Purple Dave asked in the comments for a graph of absolute number of sets without instructions, so here it is:

    The overall trend is similar to that of the number of basic brick boxes/buckets, which is encouraging.]

    Monday, 4 August 2014

    An Introduction

    Hello and welcome! I'm Big Sal, an AFOL living in Leeds, UK. I'm primarily a builder, and although I collect some themes (always Space, and also Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit at the time of writing), my sets tend to end up in the parts bins sooner or later. You can find all my MOCs on flickr and I usually post the good ones on Eurobricks as well. In the days before flickr gave everyone a terabyte of space I used to host my images on Brickshelf, so you can find more pictures of my first MOCs there, as well as the occasional bonus (i.e. crappy) MOCs that doesn't appear on flickr. I can also be found on Brickset and I sometimes post on the forum there.

    My first set. Ah, memories. Love that parrot!

    A happily LEGO-filled childhood began with my first set - 6259: Broadside's Brig. Space was always my favourite theme, but I wasn't fussy. I loved Star Wars, so you can imagine my excitement when I learned that Star Wars LEGO would be coming out. Bionicle also caught my imagination, and I collected the first few waves, but these, plus some of the original Star Wars line, were to be my last sets. Like many a geeky British teenager before and after, I succumbed to the temptations of Warhammer, and in the grim darkness of the far future my dark ages began. Eventually I emerged from the haze of polystyrene cement fumes and body odour, mainly due to the mutual exclusivity of Warhammer and girls*, and headed off to uni in Leeds.

    The story of my return to Lego begins one bored afternoon, when I was browsing eBay and came across a set I'd always wanted (I can't remember which it was now unfortunately) as a kid. It wasn't too expensive, and I was flush with student loan money, so I bought it just for a bit of fun. And the parcel arrived, making the glorious rattle that only a box of Lego can, and I opened it and built the set and suddenly it was a year later and I'd bought pretty much every Space set I'd ever wanted as a kid**.

    I liked Insectoids as a kid and still do. Most AFOLs seem
    to hate them, which worked in my favour - I managed
     to get this set on eBay for a tenner!

    This satisfied my inner child, but the adult collector in me was only just getting started. I now had most of the Space stuff from Ice Planet to Insectoids. But what about the amazing themes that came before, like Blacktron and Space Police? I would have wanted them as a kid, if I'd known about them. That was justification enough to extend the range of my collection back to Futuron, i.e. everything between Classic Space (which was far too large for even me to contemplate trying to collect, incredible as some of those sets were) and Life On Mars (which, even as a kid, just didn't really appeal). Around this time I also starting building MOCs again, starting with an M:Tron base made using only parts from a few M:Tron sets. This was mostly down to necessity, as all my childhood parts were still at my mum's house.

    Some of my first adult MOCs were... interesting.

    So far I'd stuck to buying old sets, apart from the Collectable Minifigs. But when a combination of great reviews and bargain prices for 7066: Earth Defense HQ started to appear, my resistance to new sets crumbled, though I was determined to stick to Space. Then they announced Lord of the Rings Lego, a Yorkshire based LUG (Brickshire!) sprang up, and a Lego store opened in Leeds. I had no choice but to become a fully fledged AFOL.

    I hope you'll enjoy reading this blog, which I plan to be a mix of my experiences of being an AFOL, the stories behind my MOCs, and my opinions on Lego issues, past and future. Feel free to leave comments!

    *I kid! I have to maintain a constant derogatory attitude to Warhammer to prevent a relapse. Even now, nearly a decade since I last wielded a blast template, I won't go into a Games Workshop for fear I'll be sucked screaming back into that world. Judging by the amount of enthusiasm for things like BrikWars and 40K MOCs, there are a number of AFOLs with similar stories who are flirting dangerously close to the edge. God help anyone trying to afford both LEGO and Warhammer as hobbies...

    **I'd also really loved the Aquazone sets as a kid. So when I found out that Aquazone was originally conceived as a Space them called Seatron, I joyfully added Aquazone to the list of sets to buy. A boxed 6195 Neptune Discovery Lab arriving in the post one Saturday morning will probably always be one of the greatest memories of my AFOL experience.