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.

Conclusions

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.

    30 comments:

    1. Interesting analysis but I think you need to normalise the first two graphs by the total number of different sets lego released each year. IMHO the downward trend in pieces used in <100 sets is entirely due to the fact that TLG are producing >10x more different sets than they were back in the 70's and 80's.

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      1. That would be necessary if I had analysed a part from a 1975 set in terms of how many sets it had appeared in up to 1975, sure. But I analysed each part in terms of how many sets it's appeared in ever. Maybe I didn't explain that clearly in the post, sorry!

        What is true is that in, say, 10 years time, <100 sets will be too low a threshold because of all the extra sets that will have been released by then.

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      2. Ah, but alot of specialised pieces have a limited life then get discontinued - so, due to the increase in number of different sets per year, a 1980's specialised piece has less chance to appear in 100 sets before being discontinued than a 2000's specialised piece. It's difficult coming up with a good metric isn't it :)

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    2. I disagree with his is method of defining what it means to be a "specialty brick". A specialty brick is not defined as how many sets the piece is in but instead if the piece can be used in trans-theme sets. For example, a large castle tower piece requires a lot more creativity to use when building a motorcycle than say a 1 x 2 piece. The 1 x 2 piece is non specialized and can be used to build items in a different theme and the tower piece is very much intended to be part of a castle. (Other uses just look ridiculous (see the Castle Cavalry set from the Lego movie for example). The power piece is specialized and the 1 x 2 piece is not. I recognize that this is harder to measure but then again this topic is subjective.

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      1. Hi there. You're absolutely right, which is why I'll be repeating this analysis with same-theme uses of a piece excluded, as I mentioned in the conclusions. Just need to figure out how to get the computer to do it for me!

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    3. Interesting that your back-of-the-envelope analysis arrived at 30% for the specialized-piece threshold, since that's exactly the number cited in David C. Robertson's book Brick by Brick as the standard to which TLG's designers hold themselves.

      There's another phenomenon at play too, one that's really difficult to quantify or even name, but the best I can think of is "retroactive despecialization." It's the idea that a part can start out specialized and become less so over time as more sets use it for a greater variety of applications. Following from the tow truck example, LEGO's very first buildable tow truck contained part 3176 Coupling Plate, which at the time had only been used in fifteen other sets (mostly trains). So at the time it was released, Coupling Plates could have been considered specialized, but now that they've been around almost fifty years and appeared in over 450 sets, not so much.

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      1. Just realized you pretty much addressed my whole second paragraph in the reply to the first comment, so go ahead and ignore that

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      2. Hi Jacob! I've actually read that book, but didn't recall that figure - guess I'll have to read it again! It's a nice validation of my method, so thanks for pointing it out :)

        You're right about the retroactive despecialisation - and the first comment by Anonymous raised a similar point. To future-proof this analysis, it would probably be better to define a specialised part as one that has appeared in less than x% of all sets, rather than an absolute number x.

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      3. Haha, yes - but I'm glad I didn't ignore it because you made me think about it some more and lead to a solution of sorts!

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    4. another thing that I think should be considered is pieces that are a new or limited use color. for example the Sand Blue 1x1 brick (4169428) was only ever in 1 set! where as the exact same part 1x1 brick but in white (300501) is found in 440 sets (data via brickset). so with that in mind would we conclude that the sand blue is specialized? its still a basic brick. this is one of the more dramatic examples I am aware, but it does have an effect on the data. and taking the same example a step further, that percentage of 1x1 bricks per color in less than 100 sets is a staggering 80% (52 of 65) and percent less than 10 is still a massive 30%. and lets take it one last step, of the 20% above 100 sets the combined total is 2362 sets verses the sub 100set group which combines to 856 sets. so although 80% of the colors are sub 100 sets, the remaining 20% accounts for 63% of all 1x1 bricks in sets! (above data does not take into account how many are used in each set) so there you have it the 1x1 brick when looked at via colors is a special part... but via overall usage is not... so which is it special or common? I'll let you decide on that one ;) ~GallardoLU~

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      1. calculation mistake: the 63% should actually be 73% ~GallardoLU~

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      2. My completely subjective view is that color doesn't really play a part, if only because I almost never hear complaints that there are too many colors these days. A few weeks ago, a customer in my store dipped his hand into a bin of basic bricks and trotted out the old "When I was a kid, Legos were just bricks like this," but he made no mention of all the Medium Lilac (Bricklink's dark purple) 2x4 bricks that were in there, which have appeared in a grand total of five sets.

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      3. Hi GallardoLU. Good points! The number I've used here is the number of sets the piece has appeared in regardless of colour. Since I did the data collection by hand, it's no coincidence that this is the easiest number to come by on Bricklink :P
        I will definitely look into weighting by number of times used in each set when I can automate the data collection. Colours may have to be a subject for a separate post entirely!

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      4. my main point wasn't necessarily the color but that the way parts are listed by sets is limited to each bricks color. applying to the above charts, tow truck 7638 (2009) has a 1x1 orange brick this would factor into the sub 100 group as it is only in 88 sets. but its still a highly common part type. really there is no question 1x1s are common, but from what I can see these rare colors will affect the percent special list if limited to only numbers of sets found in. I don't know how though to avoid that issue. I only wanted to bring it to light for consideration in future calculations. ~GallardoLU~

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      5. As I say (though you may not have see my comment before you posted yours), I used Bricklink for the data which gives you the part appearances regardless of colour, so my data should be safe from the issue you raise.
        Incidentally, Brickset is not a good source for parts data because it uses TLG's shamefully incomplete set inventories.

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      6. I don't really see how color figures into this analysis much, because any given piece can still be used in the same construction, regardless of color.

        For example, take a highly specialized piece such as an airplane nose; regardless of its color, you can still build an airplane but not much else. Depending on color, the resulting model may be a bit of a rainbow warrior, but that doesn't change whether or not you can actually build the thing in the first place.

        There is, however, a certain kind of color change that could make a difference toward specialization/despecialization of a part, which is from opaque to transparent (or vice versa). For example, the cockpit piece used as a wheel well in the new Mini Cooper is made possible by virtue of being opaque rather than transparent. I.e. as a transparent piece, it's use it pretty limited to being a windscreen, but as an opaque piece it can be used more structurally. Similarly, opaque pieces such as half-cylinders are often used for towers etc, and can't be used for windows. When transparent, however, the usage changes and does make a difference in whether or not you can build something, rainbow warrior or not.

        I have no idea how you would begin to account for this in the data without going through every piece. On the other hand, I feel like this kind of situation is probably rare or too inconsequential to have much of an effect on the rest of the data.

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      7. Yeah, I think colour is something that's not worth worrying about too much, with the possible exception of printed parts as I mention in reply to C's comment below.

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    5. Jacob Gartin actually hits upon a great point regarding "retroactive specialization". When the little binocular piece was first introduced, who would have imagined it would become so prevalent across so many themes with such a large variety of uses? Or how about the lightsaber blades? I'm still impressed with how many "specialized" parts introduced out of necessity for Star War sets are now commonly used in new, non-SW sets. And that's just sets designed by Lego; AFOLs are continually surprising me with their ingenious usage of parts that even my fairly creative imagination couldn't have conceived. Really, the only overly-specialized parts I can't stand are the big cockpit pieces used for pretty much every helicopter or airplane set that comes out. But those kinds of sets likely wouldn't have interested me even if they used more brick-built methods for those aircraft.

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      1. Hi Omar, I agree with basically everything you said! There must be someone out there who's managed to use a plane cockpit in an interesting way for a MOC but I don't recall ever seeing anything.

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      2. I haven't yet either, but I imagine it's only a matter of time. After seeing the boat piece from 70006 used to make a spaceship/hover-vehicle, I knew anything was possible. From that same set, I've seen someone use the olive green rafts for mech legs, which was brilliantly done. I know I'm probably not adding much to the conversation, but I couldn't help but chime in as I've been seeing the "basic bricks vs specialized bricks" thing come up so much recently, even from other AFOLs. The bad journalism bits popping up lately are the worst, obviously. I started reading the comments on one of those articles and had to stop almost immediately before they gave me an ulcer.

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      3. Very sensible of you! I foolishly carried on reading the comments and got so angry I ended up spending the best part of two weeks making graphs about plastic bricks :/

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      4. I appreciate your sacrifice!

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    6. As other have pointed out, I don't think colour should be counted in what makes a piece unusual or unique- . I bet there are loads of printed parts that have appeared in only one or two sets, because the printing is specialised to that set or theme or something. For example, isn't the "cab" in the picture in the article the same one used in the 7939 cargo train, only in yellow in that set?

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      1. Ah, now here's the thing. Different colour parts aren't counted separately in my analysis, but printed parts are. That's due to the fact that Bricklink counts printed parts as unique parts, but I think it's fair - printing is much more likely to 'specialise' a part than its colour.

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      2. Interesting; my first reaction on seeing that tow truck cab was that without the printing it would make a perfect locomotive cab...

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    7. You've gone statistical with this, where my thoughts for the outcry of "Specialised!" lie in the psychology of building.

      When a person looks at a blocky model, the burden of imagination lies on the viewer to imagine whether the creation is a camel or a helicopter. Because they used their imagination, they project that the model must have taken a lot of it to build. When a model is clean, and crisp and has parts that are shaped and sculpted, it seems like they were meant to have been used exactly that way, no matter the original usage. The creativity lies completely with the builder, and the more successful they are, the more the viewer sees a lack of imagination. This translates to all models, official sets and custom creations alike, as I've seen people claim that a stack of plates and bricks comprising a car door as "specialised." I've read articles about how the design team in Billund, has to make active strides to show studs and not finish the model too much lest they be perceived as being "not LEGO."

      The added distance that many of the viewers/reporters/complainants have from actually being builders amplifies the issue.

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      1. Hi Drew. Yeah, I think this is an important part of it as well - as you say, when a builder finds a perfect use for a part it's going to look as if that's exactly what the part was designed for, especially if you don't know its original or usual role.

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      2. Just as bad is that when people look at a model on the outside, they have no idea how complex the construction is on the inside just to obtain a slightly more realistic aesthetic. I made a box truck that runs about 300 pieces (6-wide cab, 8-wide cargo space). People are astounded when I tell them that the non-functional roll-up door in the back took 78 pieces to achieve.

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    8. I think Drew is on to something, and I also think that your last two graphs are on to the same thing.

      I have a suspicion that this sentiment could stem from the number of *different* parts per set. Whereas a 1980s 200-piece vehicle likely contained 20 different pieces, each one used many times, a modern 200-piece vehicle could easily contain, say, 50 different pieces, each one used fewer times.

      It would be interesting to repeat this analysis by looking at the number of different parts per set, corrected for set size. You could express this metric as an average of X different parts per 100 elements for example. I have a strong suspicion that this average has increased over time, contributing to this sentiment being so predominant.

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    9. I would love to see a graph on the size of brinks over time. Has the proportion of the 2x4 brick fallen?

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