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Review: Pley, the Netflix for Lego

Review: Pley, the Netflix for Lego

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 4.12.24 PM

I am Will Ferrell’s character in The Lego Movie.

I’m not proud of it, but it’s nothing new—even as a child, to the frustration of my mother, I used my Lego sets as model kits to be assembled, not tools for pure creativity. Today I’m a true aficionado of Legos* and although I constantly marvel at the creative output by Lego fans around the world, my own collection sits largely unused, carefully sorted into an enormous card catalog. Others might find all of this rather surprising, given my unconditional love for the little bricks.

Pictured: Me
Pictured: Me

All this is to say that I might be the perfect customer for Pley, the Netflix for Lego sets.** Pley’s business model is straight-forward: pay a monthly fee and they send you one Lego set at a time. Build it, play with it, keep it as long as you like, mail it back, and they send you another one from your queue.

Certain potential customers might immediately disagree with the entire premise. Who would want to acquire a Lego set without actually owning it? Who’d pay money to a company just for renting toys?

Well, me, for one. I enjoy the simple act of starting with a big pile of Legos and ending with a spaceship (or truck or whatever, but come on, you know I mostly want spaceships). I think Lego designers are enormously talented and produce some really innovative designs that are a joy to construct and then swoosh around the room (SPACESHIPS!). Most crucially, I have more than enough Legos to my name, and no space or desire to add more. But being able to build, appreciate, and return sets? Fantastic.

Bam!
Bam!

So a few months ago, mere hours after learning of Pley’s existence, I forked over the cash for my first month. Pley offers three membership tiers: Fan ($15/month), Super Fan ($25), and Mega Fan ($39). The sets available at each price level would normally retail for $10-15, $20-30, and $50-500, respectively. It’ll surprise nobody that, once I was assured that this wasn’t an elaborate scam, I quickly upgraded to Mega Fan.

First step was to select Lego sets for my queue (called the “Pleylist”). Pley offers almost 200 sets as of this writing, divided across the three tiers. (If you’re a mere Super Fan then you can’t select the Mega Fan-level sets, though you can add sets from a lower tier.) Pley is rather insistent about keeping “at least ten sets” in your Pleylist at all times, for reasons that’ll become clear shortly.

Sets arrive in a bright red envelope or box, with the set’s pieces zipped into a reusable mesh bag inside, along with the instruction book and a return label. (More than one delivery guy, upon hearing the rattle inside the box, thought I’d ordered something that was now terribly broken.) Pley encourages you to keep and play with the set as long as you like before returning it for another. There’s no charge or penalty for missing pieces upon return, which is obviously a relief, but might also be a bit of a liability (see below).

The bricks and instructions are almost always in good shape. Pley claims that they clean and sanitize the bricks between renters, which is comforting when you imagine some anonymous fellow member prying bricks apart with his teeth. I’m not sure the cleaning happens every time, though, since sets sometimes aren’t fully disassembled. More than once I’ve found a still-assembled cluster of Legos in my bag, then faced the odd moral conundrum of whether I should take them apart so as not to deprive myself of building the entire model.

Photo 9
Pictured: my version of the Trolley Problem.

Sadly it’s in putting the models together, Pley’s raison d’etre, that I found the single most irritating aspect of the whole experience: missing pieces. Lego is famously fastidious in its quality control, and missing pieces in sets are extremely rare. Scouring my brain, I can remember missing a piece out of the box exactly once in my decades of Lego purchases. That’s a fantastic track record.

Not so with Pley sets. In five of the six sets I’ve received, at least one piece has been missing (usually either one or two). Early in my membership they would include a small bag of 10-20 “frequently missing” pieces, but alas, the grab bag never matched up with what I needed. Pley also has a useful webpage for you to select and order Legos from the inventory of what came with the set. But then the site displays an icky warning that it’ll be a long while before the missing pieces arrive in the mail, and politely suggests that you might simply return it or play with it as-is.

I took their advice, and substituted the missing parts from my own carefully-sorted collection. It seemed to be the rules of the game, so to speak. The worst offender, however, was a tow truck set that lacked over 50 of its 800 pieces, including two of the large wheels, which left the completed truck looking in need of a tow itself. Given this, the overall build experience was frustrating, even more so than you’d think. Any experienced Lego fan knows well the momentary panic of thinking that a crucial Lego is missing, and then the relief in finding it hidden under another piece. With Pley sets, the stress is real, and often repeated. It’s advisable to have a personal Lego collection to supplement missing parts as I did. But then you need to keep track of what you’ve donated. Again, it’s more of a hassle than it seems.

It’s hard to know how Pley can correct this problem permanently. Since Legos can weigh as little as a tenth of a gram, they’d need very careful measurements of their sets upon arrival to even detect a problem, and then they’d have to inventory the entire set to find out what’s missing. So the obvious response—charging or penalizing customers for not returning the full set—can’t possibly be made cost-effective. Still, though, I’d think they could have at least realized that my tow-truck set was 10% light before shipping it out. Even more obviously, they could allow you to report missing pieces without requesting that they be sent, for the benefit of the next member. (Pley states that they’re planning this feature.) UPDATE: As a part of the ongoing website/branding relaunch, Pley just introduced Pley Detective, which lets you do exactly that.

After enjoying and displaying my sets for a few days, I tear them back down (almost as much fun, for some reason), drop them back in the bag, and mail the set away. Then comes my second-least-favorite part of the process: the unpredictable wait for the next set. The shipping itself can be slow, sometimes painfully so (a good transaction might take a week from shipping one set to receiving the next). And Pley is completely unpredictable as to which set from the Pleylist they’ll be sending you. Though you can sort your list by preference, I’ve received sets that were as far down as 10th on my list—the nicer sets are in high demand and low supply, it seems. Those at the very top of my list, like the $400 Death Star, seem frustratingly hard to get.

DEPRESSING UPDATE: I mailed off a set the day after posting this review, and was informed via email two days later that the new set being sent to me is the 17th on my Pleylist.  …Out of 17 sets. Dead last. Adding insult to injury, this set is at the Super Fan level, meaning that for the current rental at least, my $39/month is paying for something I could have gotten at the $25 level. Discouraging, to say the least.

Update 2, just for my own record keeping: the next set was the UN Building, 9th out of 16 sets. It was a Mega Fan set, at least. New policy for my Pleylist: no more “nice to have” sets, only ones I’m actually excited to receive. It’ll be interesting to see if the list gets pared down to its bare bones as sets are sent to me faster than I add new ones. I’m also curious whether I’d have better results if my list *only* consisted of the hard-to-get sets, but I suppose I’ll soon find out.

Update 3, since this post is still getting some attention: My queue basically went out with a whimper. I stood my ground, and eventually I had about 10 Mega Fan sets on it, none of which were being shipped to me. After a month of waiting, I cancelled my membership. And that was that.

*sniff*
*sniff*

Investment in their inventory would surely help. 190 sets in their current catalog sure seems like a lot, but I really only had 20 or 25 that were of interest to me. On a related note, I receive no notification when new sets are added to their collection, and there’s no way in the current website to sort by “recently added,” making the search for new sets feel like rummaging through a used-DVD bin.

These all might be growing pains. Pley is an interesting business concept and it’s certainly in its “plucky young startup” phase, down to finalizing its name and branding. And it certainly picked the right year to open up shop. As linked previously, they’ve got a page up at http://pleygo.uservoice.com where users can submit suggestions. They’re also running miscellaneous giveaways and other contests, and inevitably heading toward social media by inviting you to upload a gallery of your creations.

So I’m sticking with them to see how well these wrinkles get ironed out, and what else they have planned. Even with flaws included, they still solve a very particular problem for me, which is the highest compliment I can give any product or service. I hope they stick around for a long while.

Update 3: Alas, I reached the end of the line. As mentioned above, I began deliberately allowing my Pleylist to shrink, so that it only consisted of top-tier sets that I genuinely wanted. What followed was two long months of nothing. Not a single set shipped to me. I was reminded multiple times that Pley recommends more sets on one’s list, but for $39 per month, I shouldn’t have to add mid-level sets just for the pleasure of receiving them. Thus ends my experiment, in frustrating fashion, since I really rooted for Pley to succeed. But their time simply ran out.

*Yes I call them Legos, just like every other red-blooded American. I say “y’all” too.

**They were called Pleygo until halfway through writing this review, when they relaunched with what seems to be a much-improved website. One imagines they’re not only steering clear of Lego lawyers, but positioning themselves to offer other types of toys in the future. Either way, I like the change.