Q&A: Cyber Monday Edition

By Adam Pawlus — Sunday, November 27, 2011

What's going on with multipacks? Well, nobody said yet. Is Vintage Aurra Sing new? Yup! And why do video games get all the love with toys these days? Well, when you break it down, they really don't. All this and more, so read on!

1. Have you heard if we are getting another wave of Target 3 - Packs this spring? There was no word at NYCC, but I thought they were planning on making more and they seem to be pretty good sellers.

None have been announced, just the 9 we've had so far (the initial 3-pack of 3-packs and two waves of 3-packs later.) I was a little surprised when they announced they were going to do them in 2011 based on how the first one did, so it wouldn't stun me if they said "oh, we forgot to bring up this one." (They do that a lot-- look at the Search for Luke Skywalker Not-Battle Pack we just got that Hasbro actually never officially announced.)

So far Hasbro has only done direct updates of the original sets, keeping the same trios for these new releases. This limits them to the first two films, and this page at the great Star Wars Collectors Archive shows the bulk of them in one big shot. We've had 9, they show about 16, so Hasbro could probably do a few more waves... with more duplicate figures.

So yeah, who knows? It's a shame they don't do "Vintage Battle Packs" and just make 3-packs like these, but the graphics aren't probably going to appeal to kids much despite having a smaller packaging footprint with less waste. Really, it would be nice if they used this for all their 3-pack needs but they're going in a different direction for 2012. Maybe they can use it in 2015 for the original Star Wars? That'd be cool. A 3D line that's 100% vintage!


2. Is the Vintage Aurra Sing the same as the Clone Wars version with a new head? She looks like it in the slide show presentations. I thought the animated version was an excellent figure and one that fits in well standing next to characters from the films (actually surprised we haven't seen a "stealth" version from the "Assassin" episode).

I was just watching "Assassin" the other night and in between bouts of boredom, I had the same thought-- Aurra Sing's sniper outfit is an easy, sensible repaint. Given what we know about the lineup so far next year, I'm not hopeful unless someone demands/gets an exclusive wave of repaints.

As far as I can tell, the Clone Wars and Vintage Aurra Sings are not the same body-- there may be shared parts, but if you look at her limbs you'll notice a few differences in the body and legs, specifically. The way the joints sit look different so I personally do not believe they are the same figure with a new head.


3. We've had the opportunity to buy Star Wars video game related figures and vehicles in the past, and when compared to regular media like the cartoon and Blu Ray we know that there's not enough momentum to support more regular releases. This is more an in-general question about video games and supporting merchandise.

We see video games sell millions of copies worldwide, the really popular ones with well developed characters, large worlds, and a rich story making more money in revenue than most summer Hollywood blockbusters (though if they cost more to make, I couldn't say). What is it about video games that you don't see them get merchandise support on a regular basis like a mainstream action figure line as movies or TV shows do? You see the smaller companies picking up Assassin's Creed and Time Crysis, Mattel has DC - though Arkham City runs in a subset - McFarlane has the Halo franchise but they're known as an adult collector company. But with known-would-be-blockbusters games like Uncharted 3, Skyrim, and Zelda out now and a game like a Mass Effect 3 coming in the spring as examples, isn't there a business opportunity there? Or in this case are video games victims of their own game ratings and a different marketed age audience (hence body spray, soda and jeeps)?

So to sum it all up, I think the main problem boils down to age. The next generation is going to have it better. Pokemon is a rare exception, but I guess it's safe to make the comparison with Star Wars-- Pokemon is a big franchise spanning the world with dozens of games, TV shows, movies, and huge character recognition and a massive depth of characters. The first two games alone spawned over 100 characters that would make great toys, plus a cast of humans on the TV show-- this is a line that could go on forever reinventing itself, especially with that whole Squinkies scale.

On the other hand, Mass Effect 3 is rated for older fans-- sort of like making toys for an R-Rated movie, which fell out of favor (for kids) in the 1990s-- kids aren't getting a lot of Aliens and Terminator, and when they did get Terminator they turned it into a PG-13 movie last time. The older you aim, the smaller your appeal-- and while some companies embrace this (NECA, McFarlane Toys) others do not (Hasbro).

If you compare video game merchandise from the 1980s to today, things have gotten a lot better-- we've gone from a few products based on Q*Bert to high-end lines of amazing figures from Square-Enix, spanning characters outside their own license portfolio. There is a problem, though: the generation who came up with video games and perceives them as you do is still pretty young, and the revenue issue is sort of a loaded statistic. Sure, Halo 3 brought in more money than several big movies, but a ticket to a movie is $10 and Halo 3 is $50. Also, finishing a movie is easy-- sit still for two hours. Finishing a video game is not-- I don't know what the rate of completion is on most games (or if studies have been done) but I can tell you that I probably haven't completed even 50% of the games I've bought since 2000.

When a company knows the market and the license, you get good results-- right now, in the USA, that company has been McFarlane Toys. Their Metal Gear Solid lines for the first two games came out when the notion of video game toys was a Japan-only thing. Even Hasbro has tiptoed around it with Street Fighter II having originally been part of G.I. Joe, so just the fact that we're now getting game toys is pretty amazing-- Toy Biz had numerous licenses (Mario Kart, Zelda, Darkstalkers, Tomb Raider, etc.) in the late 1990s and 2000s which were hard to find and nobody remembers.

If you're still reading-- this could go on forever-- there are three extremely good reasons why you don't see more video game product overall.

1. Gamers Love Games More Than Movie Lovers Love Movies. Someone who watches a movie and loves it may watch it two or three more times-- maybe more-- but usually their affair with a movie may be 10-12 hours in their lifetime. On the other hand, video game players may play 20, 40, or even 100 hours and the relationship they have with those characters is incredibly strong. The problem is that a blockbuster game may not sell as many tickets as a movie, and that love does not always extend to licensed products. Knights of the Old Republic gamers are probably more in love with the game than some of us are with Return of the Jedi, but that emotional connection with hundreds of hours spent in that world isn't the same as the tens or hundreds of millions of people who've sat through all 6 Star Wars movies-- it feels like a more epic adventure, because you lived through it. But sadly, not as many people came along for the ride.

2. Game Licensors Are Insane. I've been privy to some of the notes some companies (who are not Bungie or LucasArts or Sega or Konami) give to their toy licensees and... well, some people think their characters are on par with or are bigger than Mickey Mouse. In some cases, they're right-- and in others, they aren't. Because of this, they have expectations of huge sales which they might not get because their character product may not be sold in every store in America the same way Darth Vader may be.

3. Video Games Are Like Movies. And what's the percentage of movies that get toy lines, particularly timely ones? The Big Lebowski took almost a decade and me nagging people starting a manufacturing business. Animal House took about 25 years. A lot of movies get nothing unless NECA cranks out a few figures and moves on-- and that's exactly what they do for video games. Not everybody is willing to plonk down $50,000 to license and manufacture something, be it a game or a movie, simply because they don't have faith that it will succeed.

The barrier of entry to being a gamer-- which includes some significant time and money invested-- is daunting. Not only do you have to have $50-$300 to play most games, but you need to have a life without distractions to play through it. The barrier to seeing a movie is (at worst) ten bucks, three hours, and a date/some friends/mom and dad. Generally speaking you can't ask that hot chick you're dating to come over and play Metroid for six hours.

With your license about Mattel, a subset makes a lot of sense-- to most buyers, Batman is Batman, but you can pick up extra customers by slapping a familiar label on the package and making sure it also appeals to gamers. This is more or less how Star Wars worked, and in the context of a larger line it's definitely the way to go. (If you ship a case of 12 figures, and 11 are from proven properties, there's less risk.) The Force Unleashed wave of 2008 resulted in some turkeys, so there is a definite benefit in just making the absolute best designs from whatever the license is-- there are some great Arkham Asylum designs like Harley Quinn which translate into fantastic action figures, and (correct me if I'm wrong) they're part of an ongoing Batman: Legacy line which runs alongside DC Universe.

Doing a game-only line is problematic because this industry is not a young man's game. I'm not that young... but I'm a baby as this business goes. Most of the buyers are much older than I am and if you say to a major buyer at a toy chain who's 50 or 60 and say "it's based on a Batman video game," they're going to have an allergic reaction to that. I mean, other than Halo and Mario, it's tough to get in to the big box stores-- Batman was more or less put in through a backdoor of putting them in assortments where it's entirely possible the buyers weren't even aware what they were getting in any specific sense. When a toy company pitches a store a figure assortment, they don't get a complete list of every toy that's in it-- it's not like Hasbro sends me a list of every Vintage figure coming in the next 9 months as a buyer at Entertainment Earth. We have a rough idea what's coming, and most of what we (and by we I mean I) know is because I do a lot of extracurricular activities, like this one. The toy buyer for a major company just ordered a box of $20 retail Batman figures, and as to the specifics-- he or she is too busy managing other lines to really care about who comes in there. At this point, all that matters is that it sells, unless the buyer has a vested interest in that brand and (and some are) is a collector him or herself.

So video games can be tricky, but they are seeing increased acceptance with some NECA product getting in to Target and Toys R Us being incredibly receptive to video game product in ways you just don't see outside online toy stores. Not even GameStop seems to carry that much anymore. Even slam-dunk ideas aren't happening, like (for example) Smash Bros., Nintendo's catch-all brawler featuring all of its most popular characters. The franchise has been around for over 10 years and is filled with nothing but winners-- yet for some reason, either Nintendo or toy companies can't grasp that a single license containing the heroes from dozens of million-selling franchises might be worth translating to toys or collectible statues. (Samus, Link, Zelda, Mario, Bowser, Luigi, Captain Falcon... the list goes on!)


4. I will fully admit that I am just along for the ride with my collecting, primarily because it's focused solely on the Vintage Collection; once that packaging stops, I'm out, so I'm grateful for whatever I can find, whenever I can find it. That said, there are times when I'm really at a loss when it comes to understanding the distribution, case pack choices, and sometimes even character selection. So my question is this: Who is the Vintage Collection really intended for - collectors, or kids?

Hasbro's business model is usually to focus on both-- they have to be designed to appeal to a mass audience (I hesitate to say kids because a lot of these guys are being sold to adults who don't necessarily collect). I don't think things like distribution and casepacks really have anything to do with who the target audience may be, and may instead have to do with Hasbro's own policies in manufacturing and tooling. "New figures at one per case" are nothing new-- it's the same way in The Clone Wars and we've seen this sort of thing since 1998 with Kenner and Bespin Luke as well as in a number of other action figure lines. The thing is most lines keep shipping those new figures after they're old, so you can get a second shot at most characters-- Hasbro hasn't been doing this with Star Wars very much since 2009, where most of the movie figures started to ship for one wave and that would be that.

Today there are figures which are produced in great numbers that don't make it to stores quickly-- we've seen this in other Hasbro lines over the past year. Some items show up, and then show up in larger numbers within a year or on clearance. This is one of the reasons we as a group can't always expect to get everything we want in the first week-- it might still be sitting in a warehouse in China or Chino for some reason. Hasbro's goal is to sell as much of as few items as possible, so what we're seeing lately is counter to that. The question is, why? Is Hasbro shorting the market to make up for a few years of too many pegwarmers? Is Hasbro underestimating the appeal of certain new characters? Is Hasbro's tooling capacity so low as to only be able to make a smaller number of new figures per wave and can't go to two or three per box? These are things we don't quite know yet.

My guess is that Hasbro is playing it conservative since retailers seem to be light on ordering Vintage this year, although this may be a chicken-and-the-egg scenario. We're seeing many figures-- not just Star Wars, but Iron Man 2 and Transformers too-- that could show up outside The Big Three and basically were online exclusives for over half the year, not intentionally of course. Back in 1998 Kenner told me they had too much product in circulation-- too much variety, too many figures, too many assortments-- and it's entirely possible we're seeing that again right now. It's just that today, that's not the kind of thing Hasbro will say in so many words, although in their G.I. Joe Q&A Hasbro alluded once more to a mandate from above to keep the line's size down. (Basically, Hasbro would rather sell 100,000 each of 2 different figures than 5,000 each of 45 different figures-- Nintendo's theory back in the 1990s about this was that you won't sell more total games by offering more total variety, so just focus on fewer titles and market those. Hence, fewer Mario sequels and more Anakins.)


5. Target exclusives are lacking with a big figure vehicle combo set this year. Think we have seen the end of that or would you expect TPM set or the like next holiday season?

This year we saw Target (and the entire line) get smaller with their new offerings for Q4-- unless Hasbro changes their minds, it looks like there will be few or no new items in November and December this year as they continue to focus on distributing existing items. In many respects, this is the smart money-- collectors shop all year long, but to most consumers shopping for the holidays everything is new to them. Unfortunately, to us, it means we're bored and may seek other plastic pastures.

Hasbro's Big Toy Box exclusives have gradually gotten smaller. In 2007, we had the massive Endor and Hoth sets. 2008 got us a Sarlacc Pit and cool Christophisis pack. 2009... I don't think we had anything big in 2009, but we did have a few items. 2010 were two more Hoth packs, where you got a little bit less for a little bit more money.

If the Phantom Menace relaunch takes off, it's possible Hasbro and Target may scramble to get a $50 price point boxed set out-- but since they just canceled a set of Battle Droids and Gungans, I sincerely doubt it. I do expect there to be more Phantom Menace product into the end of 2012, unless there's a mandate from above to stop doing it like there was in 2000. (That's when we got Power of the Jedi.) If anything, I'd assume we'd get that canceled set again if Hasbro and Target went that way-- but more than likely, we won't see it. It seems Toys R Us is increasingly the domain for the Big Box Set, and for all I know they (or someone) will just get a repackaged Royal Starship next year.



Aaand we're still going, it seems. It's a crying shame we don't have many new toys shipping to talk about, but I guess we'll all be crying in January when we spend something like $500 in a week on the new stuff.

Right now it seems things are remarkably slow-- I found Generations Sky Shadow and Junkheap Transformers over the weekend, plus a new Jedi Force exclusive set at Target. I'm going to guess that's going to be everything for 2011 at this point. And that's just fine-- I need to get my place ready for January.

--Adam Pawlus

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