Q&A: Star Wars Force Link, Battlefront Toys, and Clearances

By Adam Pawlus — Sunday, January 28, 2018

1. First, I am not exactly sure how the force link tech works. Does the wrist machine come pre-loaded with phrases done well in advance and a chip in the figure lets the device know what phrases to use - or does the device have the flexibility to "learn" new material for figures to be produced down the road? The idea is a neat gimmick - but if it can't grow with the line, I don't see the point. It seems like a sightly upgraded version of the the Com-tech stuff they did for E1.

Second, if the force link tech isn't too expensive, will it be included with the upcoming vintage collection of figures?

Finally, while I am somewhat impressed with some the craftsmanship (sculpt, details, etc.) of the 5-points of articulation in the standard figures - I want more. I got spoiled when Hasbro started making incredible cantina/Jabba's palace figures with lots of detail and articulation. In fact, I repurchased many classic figures simply because of the appreciated upgrades. My final question is this: is there enough time for Hasbro change up their line-up to ensure a better chance of the vintage line succeeding? I mean, how do you have Donnie Yen in a Star Wars film and he is represented with a 5-points of articulation figure? I bought the standard version but I would gladly continue to give Hasbro my money if they are willing to upgrade. Super articulated Han from the force awakens minus the snow gear, Poe not wearing a pilot outfit, Last Jedi versions of Rey and Kylo - the list goes on. However, with Hasbro double dipping with what Wal-Mart offered, I just can't see the line making it (which would be a shame...for me anyway).

Good questions! I have some partial answers. The current iteration of the Force Link band is indeed pre-loaded with phrases - it's a finite product, so a skilled hacker (which I am not) could probably unearth a bounty of information of unreleased, unannounced, upcoming, or canceled toys from the phrases locked away inside this. As to the future of the format, stay tuned - the last time such a gimmick was conceived was in the late 1990s, and we just barely missed out on CommTech 2.0. Something like this does indeed have the ability to be grown, but the question is how they do that, what format will it take, and indeed what other ubiquitous technologies could be integrated to expand it.

I absolutely adore the idea - it's RFID, the same basic thing as CommTech or Amiibo. (Fun fact - you can use some RFID readers to activate things like the TIE Silencer's lights. I ran it over an external 3DS Amiibo reader and sure enough, the thing lights up the engines.) The strange execution of shaking the figure with less than stellar connection integrity can make it harder to play with, but it's a killer idea that I would hope Hasbro (or someone else) refine.

I'm quite surprised - and frankly, annoyed - Hasbro didn't roll out this tech to everything. 12-inch figures, Black Series, Forces of Destiny, and I'd like to see it incorporated in Transformers, Marvel, and Baby Alive. From an execution and rankly environmental perspective, it's a brilliant idea. One device can power lights and sounds on hundreds of products with just two batteries? This is utterly brilliant and can lower costs on a number of toys. Sell people a $30 band, and then every toy you buy can lose the battery compartment, speakers, wires, and so forth. Why did they stop at 3 3/4-inch? I asked them - the answer I got was clearly one of avoidance. Perhaps cost, perhaps a lack of foresight, perhaps just getting their feet wet on what could be an utterly amazing idea. I'm in love with the idea of a chip that can identify and unlock features on toys - if you could wave a Nerf gun over a reader and it tells you which darts to buy, or show you the instructions on a Transformers toy, or what kind of batteries you'll need for Baby Alive? That's brilliant. We're not seeing anything like that yet on the other lines, nor am I at liberty to talk about its future just yet. But hey, Toy Fair's in two weeks. Hasbro can avoid talking about it there, too.

It is absolutely too late for Hasbro to change the line-up for its Vintage line. We don't know for sure that it will fail - if Hasbro decides to limit it on purpose (this is me pointing to the 40th Anniversary 6-inch line) it could succeed by merely playing hard to get. I really don't like the direction the entire line is taking right now, with no one action figure format (or frankly, scale) being definitive. Some figures are only 6-inch, and some are only 3 3/4-inch - as a collector, I hate this. But that's where we're at. I'd love to see more thought going in to how do address what not just collectors, but long-haul fans might want. Poe repeating itself, lack of 3 3/4-inch vest General Leia from The Force Awakens, and so on are just bizarre - articulation or no, character selection is a baffling issue and having the same characters repeat in super-articulated and 5-jointed formats at the same time just further results in Hasbro competing against itself. It makes sense for troopers, and some of the major characters, but I dunno, man. Why are there so many Poe Pilots out at once?



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2. Battlefront II is certainly polarizing for a lot of reasons, but I did find the new characters introduced in the campaign to be interesting. Given how these games' releases are pushed as an event in themselves, I'm surprised to not see much collectable merchandise. There's the Gamestop Inferno Squad figure but I couldn't find anything else--no Funko Pops, statues, etc. Lucasfilm considers these games as canon, so it's not the expanded universe effect. There wasn't much around the last Battlefront either, but we have seen The Old Republic Lego sets, Force Unleashed multipacks, and so on (a Lego Corvus would have been pretty fun). Are figures or other collectibles from non TV/film multimedia off limits to the mass market nowadays or is this a casualty of the frequency of the films and not wanting to confuse the customer?

Since nobody is Disney or Lucasfilm will talk - and Hasbro probably won't out of fear of angering the licensor - we can only guess, or hint based on things we've heard at parties. Right now, there's simply too much going on and too many competing initiatives for anyone to properly merchandise well. With Marvel we see a little bit of cannibalization with one movie coming on the heels of another. A movie like Thor: Ragnarok could probably support 12-18 months of product, but instead gets support for about 4. Similarly, we've seen Hasbro drop support for both Star Wars Rebels and Star Wars: The Clone Wars about halfway through their runs, with video games getting - at most - a token launch tie-in figure.

This is where your perspective comes in.

Back in the old days, games launched with few to no figures. The only exceptions were in Kenner and Hasbro participating in major marketing initiatives between movies with Shadows of the Empire, the 2003 version of Clone Wars, and The Force Unleashed - which launched long before the game itself. Thanks to delays and the mature audience, toys aren't always a prudent tie-in. This is why you're getting more collectibles, or you're getting things much later like with a lot of LEGO. And, as you've noticed, you're also competing against The Last Jedi, which itself was a pretty lackluster and unfocused launch. Is it because of secrets? Is it some sort of market research that just happens to be incompatible with what we want? Or is it someone at the top making bad calls? Only the unwritten tell-all books that will remain unwritten can tell us for sure.

When it comes to "canon," I'd say stop kidding yourself. A licensed product is a licensed product, and these can and will be overruled as soon as a movie, TV pitch, or other more important (to them) form of content is pitched to overrule whatever it is. Also keep in mind that the TV shows are canon, and there's a lot of product we've never seen - a lot of which was never actually even shown to the consumers - so a game not getting product is basically small potatoes. It took years to get out Revan, and years after the promised rerelease to see the still-never-materialized rerelease. Games aren't top dog.




3. Since the marvel legends didn't sell very well, at least in my area, what do you think would be the cause? Thor ragnarock, the Guardians of the galaxy, and the spiderman homecoming sat on the shelves most of the holiday season and once they were marked down to $15 there were a few nibbles, but currently the walmarts near me have dropped then to $9 and suddenly there are none to be found. The doctor strange wave is still $9 in some places, but had dropped to $5 at one point in order to clear the shelves. Is it possible that the build a figure has a factor in the slow sales?

It varies - depending on the mix, some assortments do very well. However, we're also seeing more assortments (if not necessarily waves) per year than before. The retail store infrastructure doesn't generally require wave 2 or wave 3 of an assortment to be marked down as the line goes, but a one-wave wonder will see its end of life come much more quickly - especially near back-to-school or New Year's.

There is no perfect solution. There are always dud figures and occasionally poorly forecasted waves. If each store has a handful of unsold figures marked down but sold a few cases worth at full price? It's still a success in its current state. That's the same problem with Star Wars - while all of us see the current state of 3 3/4-inch figures as poor, it's possible Hasbro (and Lucas, and Disney) are happy with the numbers and have no incentive to make better, more varied, or cheaper product. Success is hard to define and rarely is anyone who is happy with their success going to change things just because it makes no sense to the end consumer.

In the 1990s, legend had it McFarlane Toys had a number of figures it knew it could sell to core Spawn fans and collectors who enjoyed that kind of product - but it made more that it knew would get dumped to Kay-Bee Toys at a reduced price. But why? The price-per-figure goes down when you make more, and you're probably still making a little something on those marked down figures - and if you had a super-hot wave and had more made, that's more money you make rather than leaving it on the table with an intentionally limited edition product. (And from where I sit, usually nobody is happy when something is harshly limited.)

We are seeing Marvel (and of course Hasbro) leaning on the same characters over and over. The big guys tend to do well - Iron Man, Captain America, even Spider-Man seem to be a nearly bottomless well of potential interest across numerous age groups. When it comes to something like Doctor Strange, he lacks the fame as his peers and you won't sell quite as many varieties. His secondary characters aren't well-known, and the fact he gets a wave of his own - my understanding, a thing dictated by the licensor - isn't helpful. Back when Hasbro got the license for Marvel over a decade ago, I was hoping we'd see the movies treated more like Star Wars - rolling assortments mixing various properties, so maybe the wave that hits in November would have Doc Strange and whatever characters were still in demand from the last Iron Man picture. Has Hasbro just had a single Marvel Legends assortment and waved in characters from whatever comic or movie made sense given the marketing needs of the year? I doubt we'd have this problem.

I don't know how much of the Marvel line is dictated by Marvel, like the buzz tells me Lucasfilm dictates much of the character selection and product selection of the Star Wars products. If someone is calling the shots who isn't a toy executive, Hasbro's need for higher sales on each item may mean that the run is too high for the kind of product Marvel wants Hasbro (and friends) to sell. We're seeing more super hero LEGO on markdown, we're seeing a few more Marvel Legends marked down too. A top-notch build-a-figure makes a big difference, and someone like Groot or Hulkbuster - someone actually in the movie - is a heck of a lot more compelling to the non-Marvel hardcore collector. I don't buy a lot of the line for my own stash, and while there are comic figures I do want (Man-Thing! Iron Monger!) there are also a lot that I don't. Mantis? Mantis is exciting, in the movie, and a decent way to sell an entire wave of figures. I mean, I don't know who Nova is - but I bought one. Because Groot.

No matter how popular a brand is, anything can have a bad year. I used to get a lot of LEGO at 75% off on my hunts. I've bought deluxe-class Transformers for $1-$4. I saw a $9 Resistance Ski Speeder at Walmart over the weekend. I picked up some figures for a penny. The decision to make every wave of Marvel Legends around a single theme, usually a movie, results in confused consumers when you mix up movie and comic. I almost bought Thor: Ragnarok - but I wanted figures of the secondary movie characters like Emperor Jeff Goldblum or action-warrior Idris Elba. I don't want Comic Thor. At all. The decision to mix up comic figures - especially when there's no second or third wave for a movie - results in an unsatisfying collecting experience for the devoted, but not necessarily hardcore, fan. That person doesn't want to buy everybody for a build-a-figure, although I will say Ragnarok may have had the most compelling build-a-figure of the year with the gladiator Hulk. Everyone is different, but with Marvel it seems like they're trying to please two disparate audiences. If Hasbro made you buy Expanded Universe Star Wars figures to build a significant movie character, your movie fan who doesn't read all the comics or novels will see this as punitive. You want to broaden, and not alienate, your core consumer.

If Hasbro reduces the run of its products? It's a worse return on their investment and there's a good chance they will under-produce someone and result in higher secondary market prices. If they keep doing what they're doing, more items are going to go on clearance. The Marvel Cinematic Universe fan could be a collector unto themselves, but won't necessarily cross over to the comics. With Marvel licensing limiting the amount of time from which you can make movie toys, there's another hurdle - any momentum your movie has will be cut off at the knees before wave one of the product even hits stores. A different strategy on how these figures are assorted could do wonders for its success, but that push-and-pull between fans who want Yondu and fans who understand why Angela is a Marvel figure now - let alone want one - is going to result in the kind of unsold figures like you continue to see.

The eclectic mix of product you see is an attempt to make everybody happy. It seems to mostly be selling quite well, and I'd rather see stuff marked down and removed from aisles than sit there for a year or more like we used to see. Overall, I'd say Marvel Legends is doing a good job - but if they split up movie and comic into separate collections with movie or comic-specific build-a-figures I would probably expect we'd see more interest from both comic and MCU fans.



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A lot can happen in a week. We knew this was coming, but the announcement of Toys R Us closing 182 stores still stings - and stinks. Greed and a changing economy for retail means nearly 20% of their American stores will go away, and that means a big chunk of many toy companies' support network is about to go away. Toys R Us and Walmart used to jockey for the #1 toy seller in the USA, with Toys R Us supporting a lot of smaller product lines that nobody else had the shelf space to carry. Except online.

I don't think any of the toy stores from my childhood are going to be left after this Toys R Us closes in April - a couple of Targets sort of exist, but were moved and remodeled from their older forms. The Kmarts, Kay-Bees, Long's Drugs, Toys by Roys, Lionel PlayWorld - they're all gone. I hope Toys R Us reopens a few new stores and thrives once again, mostly because they've been awesome and toys are a very browsey product. Kids and adults go to the store to see what's out there, unless a toy company's marketing is so obtrusive that people know to hunt it down by name. Most people giving gifts for a birthday need to go to a store and see what's out there. They don't make toy runs and they don't drive across town to Toys R Us if Target is next door.

When I lived in my last apartment, there was a wonderful Toys R Us that closed just as I was moving away, thanks to a new location (which will remain open for now.) The one by my current home will close in April. If nothing else this make for an interesting Spring and will undoubtedly shift the balance of power in the toy world while changing what a giant toymaker like Hasbro or Mattel can do with what may well be a 4% reduction in American shelf space.

It may not sound like much, but that's a huge deal - no other toy retailer has the real estate or patience of Toys R Us. Walgreens and Family Dollar may have close to 20,000 locations between them, but a tiny sliver of that space is devoted to toys. Walmart has tons of space, but has gradually rolled back toy shelves over the last 15 years. Kmart may as well be gone, and Kay-Bee is gone. Word on the street is Target isn't doing great either, although the rumor of Amazon eyeballing them is certainly an interesting one.

I know you're going to read a lot about people saying that their childhood is ending, or a piece of their past is gone, but don't ignore the fact that one of the big major players of the toy business is going away - which means diminished capacity to sell toys in an era where Hasbro seems to be making more of fewer items. It's also another strike against the next generation of toy collectors. This is going to cause changes - maybe good ones, maybe not - as Toys R Us and the Internet are the only ones that tend to sell the biggest of the big toys. With another decline of yet another major toy player, our odds of ever getting a Sail Barge just went from slim to worse.

--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.