Q&A: Changes, Star Wars Gets Small, and Toys-To-Life

By Adam Pawlus — Sunday, May 10, 2015

1. Do you have any insight into how Hasbro’s 2.5 inch lines (Guardians of the Galaxy and now, Avengers) are faring? I noticed that they released a modular Avengers playset in three parts, where each portion can stand alone or they can be combined. I could definitely get behind a smaller Star Wars line, especially if the result was some playsets… I’m assuming if the format is a success, we’ll see it for Star Wars.

The 2 1/2-inch line has done well enough for Guardians of the Galaxy that Hasbro opted to roll it out to more Marvel segments. Since Hasbro's not announcing its The Force Awakens line just yet, I can't really talk about any of that - but I can say Hasbro had some decent plans of how to expand the scale with Marvel. Hasbro is also known for its mercurial nature and new scales sometimes launch, get really great support, and then suddenly vanish without a trace. My hunch would be that this format will probably quietly go away shortly.

Also, it's worth noting just how green the grass is - or isn't - on the other side. While Hasbro is doing Avengers playsets and Guardians of the Galaxy vehicles, they aren't getting many. Would you be satisfied with 3 playsets that form 1 location from the new movie, or 3 vehicles from the new movie, with that being potentially an entire line save for a few more 2-packs? I'm all in for anything Hasbro will support for a few years, but a new scale that doesn't outlast the sequel trilogy would be pretty disappointing to me. I mean, I loved the original Kenner MicroCollection to pieces and we never got anything from Return of the Jedi, plus Action Fleet fizzled out in time for Revenge of the Sith.

One of the problems with collecting Hasbro now is a lack of definitive scale + vision. For Marvel Hasbro does 3 3/4-inch comic figures, some 3 3/4-inch movie figures, 2 1/2-inch movie figures, 6-inch movie figures, and 6-inch comic figures that are arguably all aimed at collectors. However, no one scale is "complete." If you want Death's Head II, you're going 3 3/4-inch. If you want Agent Coulson, you're going 6-inch. If you want a more complete selection of Guardians of the Galaxy movie, you're going mini. When it comes to collectors, there are no winners when there are competing action figure scales all out of a single vendor - each size inspires jealousy because of what your favorite line didn't get. Heck, there are still Galactic Heroes figures and accessories that don't exist in 3 3/4-inch scale - this sort of thing is, to me, unpleasant. I just want everything in 3 3/4-inch, regardless of articulation, and then anything in any other scale is gravy. (And I love the 6-inch Tauntaun.)



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2. You answered one of my questions about Star Wars Action Figures vs Skylanders Video Game Figures in a Q&A from summer, 2013.

Here: http://www.galactichunter.com/gh/story/qa-fixing-yellowing-retro-action-figures-new-saga-legends-and-other-stuff

In this column, you wrote, "Skylanders is a great trend product." [ Adam's note: I wrote a lot more than this and said Hasbro should do more with this format, too. ]

I have heard that Infinity 3.0 will be heavily Star Wars based. I think that the zero-articulation Star Wars figures for infinity will generate more dollars than traditional action figures and will actually take money from action figures, further diminishing demand and reducing the market for our favorite old-fashioned pieces of plastic. Do you agree?

Lego Dimensions is introducing video game figures (Lego minifigures) with articulation. How soon before we see articulated Star Wars figures for the Infinity system?

Everything is taking money away from traditional action figures, most of all LEGO. $13 gets you one Black Series figure, or four LEGO dudes and a bunch of bricks. A toy that adds functionality to a video game is seen as adding value, while elbow joints do not get viewed that way.

Each license has certain requirements to avoid stepping on other licenses - it can get pretty granular, and sometimes I only hear of certain details by being in the right conversation on the right day. I am not at all involved with Disney Infinity, so I can only speculate here based on other brands I've heard/read/speculated on over the years.

Most likely to avoid infringing on Hasbro's license, which they probably overpaid for in the near-term, they have to be careful about what they make, how tall it is, what kind of articulation or accessories it has, and what it costs. Master Toy Licenses are a thing of the past, so you might have to hit a certain price point (see: Diamond Select's Mego-esque Marvel figures at $80, Funko's Marvel Hikari and Star Wars at $80), sizes (Disney Store's 12 3/4-inch figures), or other details (Star Wars Pop Vinyl figures are bobble heads and not 3 3/4-inch articulated figures) to get around the contracts of another toy manufacturer. LEGO can't sell figures for Star Wars individually or in multi-packs, but they can sell small vehicles with figures for $10 or "magnets." Jakks has 20-inch and 31-inch and now 48-inch articulated figures, which means Hasbro does not. Underground Toys has electronic talking plush, while Comic Images has plush backpacks and non-talking plush of various makes and models, while Build-A-Bear Workshop has a license for their whole spin on plush. It is, as we say here, just different enough to make you mad - perhaps furious if you put up hundreds of thousands or more dollars to secure the rights to make these toys.

You may see where this is going.

Things like a stand glued to a figure's foot can make it a "statue," or perhaps Disney can convincingly say that a non-articulated figure that interacts with a piece of software is not an action figure and therefore does not infringe on whatever it is Hasbro is doing. And sure, they could convince Hasbro to make toys under their current license deal that works with Infinity, but it would go against the cartoony aesthetic and cut in another company on their license to arguably print money. (Personally I'm sick of the whole toys-to-life thing, but I'm not 13 either.)

Much like how Kotobukiya's prepainted plastic statues were sold as model kits as to not get in the way of the likes of Gentle Giant or Sideshow, so too can Disney Infinity figures be pitched as a different sort of game figure than an Attacktix or a Fantasy Flight Games miniature. The whole "slicensing" gambit will ultimately result in smaller toy lines with more specific audiences. This means factory runs are lower, prices will be higher, and fans will feel more frantic as a segment they love is introduced and quietly gets put away because it's not meeting revenue goals.

So to answer your question, Hasbro's license to do Star Wars is up for renewal around 2020 if memory serves. Should Disney decide to put a provision in there about what they can or can't make - or want to amend it sooner - that's certainly possible. If what you want is a Hasbro-compatible Infinity figure to sit on your shelves I wouldn't hold your breath. Also I assume that the whole toy/game trend thing is going to have to get a lot more interesting to sustain itself, because slapping a license on an existing product can only take you so far and you can only do that trick so many times without some radical change. With a new $50+ piece of software every year for Disney and Skylanders (and seemingly now LEGO too) it will certainly be interesting if this market can sustain itself for more than one or two generations, regardless of shoulder joints.

...I'd personally love to see Hasbro get into bed with EA and take a cue from Nintendo's Amiibo program - build a solid game with the figures unlocking optional features, like costumes or in-game items. Could you imagine how great it would be if Hasbro sold you a $25 6-inch Starkiller figure with a transistor in his food that could activate one level of DLC in the game or a new costume for the hero? There's still potential in this space, and I'd love to see someone try to see if there's a way to square the slightly older gamer and the slightly older toy collector. Given the investments in these platforms, that may prove unrealistic.




3. I read your column every week and I understand that you work for a toy company that is trying to sell toys (you aren't shy about letting us know this which is the way it should be). However, when we "vote with our dollars" this isn't like picking a democratic or republican candidate that we really like. It's more like the actual voting process where we don't like what is out there and just don't vote or vote for what is available because there isn't anything else.

I'm not a whiner that says "make this specifically for my personal tastes" but I feel the frustrations of the community as a whole with things like Command and 5 POA figures (i realize you like them) and "shampoo bottle" 12" figures. IF there was also a decent amount of 3 3/4" "vintage or articulated" action figures out there ... or even 6" for that matter... then I think it would be a fair comparison of what collectors and the community as a whole really want. Rereleasing the same figures and giving us things like the Mustafar playset and then saying "playsets don't sell" and "collecting is falling off" isn't fair.

What do you say about this? Do you really think collector's won't buy good stuff if it's available? Look at the figures that sell on Ebay and you'll see there is money out there and people buying stuff. Are you really as concerned as you seem about the future of Star Wars 3 3/4" action figures?


The Rolling Stones- You Can't Always Get What You Want (vinyl) from JeffN727 on Vimeo.

From this email, I think you basically already know what's coming - things change, and the tastes of the 1980s aren't the tastes of today. This is true everywhere - Transformers are no longer metal, G.I. Joes are no longer popular, He-Man is out of vogue, Nintendo's no longer #1, Star Trek is no longer airing new episodes every week, and I could go on. What you saw as the gold standard is the past, and the past is over. Things make a comeback (vinyl records) and sometimes not (POGs). A comic book from 1980 looks very little like many of the ones issued today. Time marches on, regardless of your feelings on the matter. There will probably be a day where figural toys are no longer culturally relevant - the 12-inch action figure with cloth outfits are gone, and the 5-inch "Kenner"-style figure is pretty much dead too.

You say the community as a whole hates 5-jointed figures. OK. Then why are they selling? Why are online stores who ordered a ton of Saga Legends now sold out of most of them? Why is Mission Series one of Hasbro's better-selling Star Wars lines? I can't explain what I see happening against what you think is happening. Your argument tells me that the fan community should be ignored. (I hope the community is not ignored.) The kind of person who goes online to discuss things is usually a more invested, more interested, more discriminating fan. You don't go on to record collector web sites to see people discuss the relative merits of the super-popular Taylor Swift on vinyl - but you may see things about European releases of The Cramps or the newish release of the S.O.A. demo 7". You don't go on to video game collecting sites to read up about the new ALIENS arcade gun games, but they probably have something to say about Ms. Pac-Man cocktail tables. Hasbro sells a lot of Rescue Bots Transformers, but mostly to short people, and not to people who post on forums. We are a self-selecting group who does not consider the input of the culture at large. It doesn't mean that what you like isn't any good - what it does mean is that what you like has changed around you, and you have experienced a transformation from "just one of the group" to a (for lack of a better word) snob/plastic hipster while the market changed around you. As you aged out of the target demo for toys, as disturbing as this is, we're all approaching irrelevance - toy companies don't cater to 40-50somethings any more than Lady Gaga or Sega. Congratulations - we're sticking around long enough to no longer be important to a company's bottom line.

I had about seven paragraphs of ramblings that I deleted because the reality is that there's a disconnect in the conversations we want to have. What I see you asking is now, fundamentally, "why are things changing in ways I don't like?" Most toy lines go through lots of changes on their way to obscurity. Batman has been numerous sizes and shapes, aimed at different age groups, with no one format really holding dominion. Megos come and go, 5-inch action figures are basically done, the very popular "animated" Universe is long gone. Star Wars has given so many of us an extended childhood that it's easy to forget that most franchises change over the years into new and barely recognizable formats. The 35-cent comic book of 1977 may have the same dimensions as today's $3.99 Marvel comic, but the art and storytelling and page count and paper quality are all very different. You'll also note that the audience is considerably smaller for comics today than it was, as many of these audiences found themselves engaged in a similar arc to toys. Collectors jumped in, made "collector-only" versions, and now you will actually see people on forums making what appear to be sincere arguments that Hasbro should not make its products aimed at children but instead, collectors. This is effectively a correction, with extra harsh movements thanks to the rise of the Chinese middle class and Hasbro's desire to sell more units of fewer SKUs. The market has changed - even if our wishes haven't.

As your question is very vague it is very likely that what you want isn't what I want, or what the other readers want, or what the kids want. Fans are highly resistant to change and newness in this particular franchise, as we come to the table with very high expectations which always diverge from what we get - and sometimes we love it, and sometimes not. After thousands of toys there are only so many things to do and Hasbro wanting to maximize its returns means that you will see new formats, new characters, old characters in new formats, and things you won't want to buy. The same can be said about comedy, rock & roll, sports, movies, TV, video games, kids these days, and just about anything else. The older collector is, figuratively and literally, a dying breed - the fact that Star Wars has performed this well for this long speaks volumes of our loyalty and the franchise's ability to cultivate new fans. There may even come a day where Hasbro loses the license to Mattel or someone else, and perhaps the 3 3/4-inch figure will disappear from toy aisles completely once again - the torch is generally carried by G.I. Joe (and its rip-offs) and Star Wars. eBay's not a good market indicator for what new product you should offer, but it can be - that's a longer topic.




Well, that was depressing. One of the ongoing problems I think Star Wars has - without new media - is trying to get fans to agree on any one request. Back in the late 1990s, Yakface.com held a poll asking for a Shuttle, a Skiff, and Wuher - and thousands and thousands of people showed up, signed on, and guess what? We got our stuff. Ever since then, we've seen diminishing returns thanks to the fact the collector market of the 1990s was larger (as all-in fans go) while we've seen a decent increase in kids and casual fans and non-complete collectors. The dollars are good, but nobody's buying a dozen of anything for later anymore. They learned their lessons. When you see things like the last few "Fan's Choice" polls, you can see the vote breakdown splits fast - no one figure gets a decent quantity of votes, in part because (as depressing as this is) we've gotten most of the good stuff.

Any collector worth his weight in plastic can probably list you a solid dozen or so figures that don't yet exist in plastic, pulling from the Cantina, Jabba's Palace, and the large reserve of pilots/droids/aliens out there. Add in the TV shows, and you could probably do a few decent years just with existing new characters. With that in mind, the bulk of the characters with a significant role in the movie have been out one or more times, and when you get into the more obscure regions of the hobby - which is where I swim - it's not like I can get a lot of you to back me up on Jaxxon or Vlix. (It doesn't mean I won't keep asking about them.)

So now we're plodding toward the future with a new movie in the works and certain aspects of it probably won't be discussed until July if not later. We don't know if Lucasfilm and friends are going to be smart and take advantage of Comic-Con, or try to keep everything a secret until August which will allow fan sites to locate, purchase, and photograph all the toys first thus controlling the marketing and announcements rather than the licensor or licensee. (That's what happened in 1998 and 1999.)

Generally with movie year lines, we see a decent change to how the action figures come out. For 1999, we got CommTech chips and some enhanced articulation - we went from 6 joints to as many as 10! That was a big deal, if you can believe it. In 2002, we saw "blast effects" and magnets added to some figures, while others were transformed into statues with giant robes and limited movement. 2005 brought us Super Powers-style squeeze-leg action features and articulation continuing to vary wildly from figure to figure, and in 2008 we had a line that was almost completely super-articulated with some build-a-droid elements added in for good measure. What's happening for the new movie? You'll just have to wait and see...

--Adam Pawlus

Got questions? Email me with Q&A in the subject line now! I'll answer your questions as soon as time (or facts) permit.



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Small-scale Star Wars

For what it's worth, when I asked Hasbro about a 2" line for Star Wars last year, they said it wasn't in the cards. This was also during their rollout of Command, so that line's failure to catch on probably cemented the fact that 2" is not the scale for Star Wars:

SSG: In the Guardians of the Galaxy line – I know you guys are separate – instead of putting out 3 3/4″ they put out those little 2″ guys. Hasbro put those out in a limited wave for Episode I back in ’99. Is that something you’re sort of testing with Guardians maybe to bring into Star Wars in the future?

BR: We’ve played with different scales before and we’re always looking at different scales. The Episode I 2″ figures did not sell very well. Whenever we go down to that scale in concept stage, that always comes back up. One of the great things about Star Wars is the figure-vehicle integration. Being able to play with your figures and your vehicles is really what Star Wars is all about. Having that smaller figure would allow you to get more vehicles and really blow out the “war” in Star Wars. We’ve kind of taken that approach in Command. This is your way to really start to reenact or reimagine that war and collect those smaller figures at that scale. We have no plans of doing an articulated figure at 2″.

3 3/4″ is our scale for collectors and even our kids. We lowered the articulation level for some of the Rebels stuff and for Mission and Saga in order to keep the price point low. For 10 bucks, a kid can go into a store and buy two figures and really start to get into our brand. We’re trying to get more and more kids into our brand because they’ll be the fans that buy the Black Series 10, 15 years from now. So we’re constantly trying to hook new fans and keep the existing fans excited about the brand, which Black Series is hopefully doing, keeping all the fans and hardcore collectors excited. Some of them can be excited about the other stuff as well. [Saga Legends and Mission Series are] really an offering that has less deco and less articulation but that, again, is so we can maintain the playability. Kids can put that figure into a vehicle by just bending his legs up and he slides right in. The highly articulated guys, it’s a little bit harder. Six- or seven-year-olds are fumbling with those legs to try to slide him into an X-wing. We have a play testing facility at Hasbro and we start to see how kids play with our toys and that’s when it starts to click where maybe seven-year-olds don’t know how to play with these toys and let’s change some things.

No 2" figures for me.

I truly hope that the 'no 2" figures' plans for Star Wars stay the same. I was initially all-in for the Guardians of the Galaxy line and got my son most of the ships and quite a few figures for Christmas. It was nice to be able to get him several of the ships for the same price that a single TIE interceptor cost me a couple of years back. It took about ten minutes for him to lose Gamora (she has since been found and lost again several times) and the legs keep popping off the other figures. the 3 3/4" format may be a little more expensive and the ships may take up more room for storage, but the difference in durability of the lines can't be ignored. I'd gladly pay $10-$12 or so for a hulkbuster in the 3 3/4" scale and buy the Hulk separately than pay $10-$15 for both and get crappy toys that don't last a week. If Star Wars should go to the 2" format then we'll be ignoring those toys in the same way we're not buying the current Avengers 2" line. Give me a 4", 5 PoA figure any day over the 2" garbage.