Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Action Figure Barbecue: Action Figure Trends of the Future

Prediction #1: In the future, all your toys will bring you birthday cake.

     I had originally started this article a week or so prior to the New York Toy Fair and planned to try to release it prior to the event.  I got delayed, however, and at NYTF I noticed more evidence of some of the things I had originally predicted.  As someone who keeps up with action figure news pretty often, I used a combination of my best insights and the question and answer feature from a 1984 Kowl figure.  The four trends I see happening in the action figure hobby over the next few years after the break...





If you bought a Masters of the Universe subscription, just know that you're helping send Matty's kids to Dartmouth.

  1. More toy lines available only online and targeted directly towards collectors

   Here we go! In the past few years we have seen quite a few action figure properties make their way online.  While one of the earliest online exclusive lines was the G.I. Joe DTC (Direct to Consumer) line from the mid 2000s, I think Mattel's efforts with Mattycollector.com (despite the billions of many hiccups with that site) have really  turned collectors on to the idea of not just buying the figures online but buying them directly from the manufacturer.  While most independent toy lines already deal exclusively online (GLYOS, OMFG), it seems that some of the bigger companies are starting to like the idea of having fans buy toys directly from them.  Last year the G.I. Joe Collector Club began offering their figure subscription service, one of the few ways to get G.I. Joe figures last year.
Just like love and marriage or Lay's potato chips, you can't have just one of these G.I. Joe figures without the others.

   Why is this happening?: Selling directly online allows companies a chance to sell their figures at a price they set and without needing to account for retailer input and costs.  Also, when companies use the subscription method, it ensures that a company isn't having to take much of a gamble.  Mattel didn't have to worry about how their online exclusive Watchmen line would do this year or having excess figures leftover: they had already sold enough units to ensure that the line would be successful.  Companies like to take as little of a risk as possible and to make as much profit as possible, thus this method helps to ensure that. Perhaps the biggest benefit of this method is that it allows companies to tailor their lines to the wishes of collectors, not the desires of retail buyers who have mom and little Johnny in mind. When Mattel sells their DC Universe line directly to fans, they can create figures only fans care about like John Constantine, Black Mask, and Uncle Sam.  When Mattel sells to Wal-Mart, they get a buyer requesting 38 1/2 different versions of Batman.

Pictured: The 38 1/2th version of Batman.
  
 What could happen in the future?: It seems likely that the trend of selling figures online, direct from the companies, is going to continue to grow.  I imagine that in the next 3 years the majority of toy lines collectors are interested in will become available exclusively online and will require some type of commitment from the buyer in order to guarantee enough sales to go into production.

The commitment to a Masters of the Universe yearly subscription would sit at the apex of this pyramid, like Zoar the falcon perched upon Castle Grayskull.


OMFG from October Toys. The guy on the right is the Phantom Outhouse. I kid you not.

2. A rise in creator owned, limited run designer figures

    The past year or two has seen a tremendous increase in small, creator owned lines.  While the Four Horsemen have been offering their own action figure lines for quite a few years now, companies like Glyos, Zoloworld, Marauders Inc., and Spymonkey have shown that action figure lovers can actually start their own businesses and thrive.  While some of these companies produce action figures of some kind, others produce accessories that augment existing lines.  Marauders Inc. has made their mark on the 1/18th scale landscape by making dozens of in-scale, realistic weapons allowing fans to arm their legions of G.I. Joe, Star Wars, and other 1/18th scale action figures.  A few companies have even been creating their own characters designed to fit in with prominent action figure lines, such as Transformers (there is a huge market for unlicensed 3rd party Transformers stuff).  
Marauders Inc. helps Admiral Ackbar to celebrate his 2nd Amendment rights.

Why is this happening? While we will most likely always have the big companies like Hasbro and Mattel producing action figures, they're often not doing too much new and daring these days to meet the needs of collectors interested in areas of the hobby like customizing and creating dioramas.  Also, rarely do we see new intellectual properties turned into toy lines.  Toy companies like to play it safe while fans like to get creative with their hobby. With the prevalence of internet distribution methods available and the number of growing resources like 3d printers, etc., fans have a better chance than ever to turn their ideas into reality.   
Spy Monkey Creations: Eternia's version of the store in the mall that sells wicked fantasy swords, tasers,  and "tobacco pipes" shaped like Gandalf. You know the place.

What could happen in the future?: We'll probably see these small companies continue to grow in number with varying degrees of success.  Hopefully, some of these established companies will continue to grow their businesses and offer more and more unique lines that cater to fans and collectors.  We'll also see these companies continue to improve their technology, thus improving the quality of the figures they are able to make. I imagine we'll see at least one company overstep their bounds by creating their own figures based off of a licensed character and get slapped with a lawsuit, too. Someone always has to try that. 
Something tells me that if Hasbro didn't bother suing Michael Bay, they don't care what people do with their properties.

 

3. A greater divide between kid and collector lines

Pictured: This is what serious collectors want in an action figure.
     It is becoming far more common to see companies release two versions of their toy lines, one aimed at collectors and one aimed at kids.  Playmates released two versions of their TMNT figures in 2012 and Bandai also tried the same thing with the Thundercats in late 2011.   Mattel's toy efforts with the Dark Knight Rises also had a kids line and the Movie Masters assortment geared towards collectors. The trend of offering very different lines for kids and collectors doesn't seem to be stopping, as one of the biggest surprises at NYTF was the news that Star Wars would be dividing their product as they are getting ready to release Star Wars: Black. Star Wars: Black is a deluxe 6 inch line targeted at collectors.  It'll be released alongside a Star Wars line with a minimal amount of articulation targeted specifically towards kids.  Because kids hate stuff that's awesome. 
This action figure is marketed towards grown up collectors. That means no kid would ever want this.

Why is this happening?  For a variety of reasons companies are realizing that it is getting harder to please collectors while keeping kids and parents happy by producing easy to find action figures at a reasonable price point.  Most smaller toy purchases for kids are impulse buys: kids either want to spend some allowance money that's burning a hole in their pocket or mom and dad are just telling the kids to grab something cheap off the shelf.  For awhile (and some lines are still going in this direction, like Character Options' Doctor Who toys) the trend was to create figures in a smaller scale, but that trend seems to not be as popular as it was just a year ago.  With the price of 1/18th (G.I. Joe, Star Wars) figures retailing for around the $10 mark and 6 inch figures around $15-$20 or higher, action figures just aren't the cheap purchase they used to be.  This leaves companies needing to create lower cost options with reduced paint and articulation in order to remain relevant. Meanwhile, collectors are willing to drop money to get product they want and won't settle for less, leaving companies to create alternate retail lines or to create online exclusive toy lines.
This is a 12 inch toy and will only cost you about $10. A Hot Toys release it is not. It is, however, a better actor than Hayden Christensen.

What could happen in the future?  On retail shelves, expect to see more toys with diminished features (paint, articulation, accessories) at a cheaper price. Hasbro is doing this for quite a few of their lines including Marvel Universe, Iron Man 3, G.I. Joe, and Star Wars.  Mattel has done it with a lot of their DC stuff (including Batman) and there doesn't seem to be much indication that things will turn around.  Fortunately, collectors will probably get better stuff out of it (just at a higher price).
It's a bootleg, but it is a bit better than Mattel's Green Lantern movie figures.

4. More toys that interact with video games

"Downloadable content is for Facebook games and socialists!  You want to buy extra levels"
  
 To say that Skylanders, the video game series published by Activision, has been wildly successful is putting things a bit mildly.  And while we can debate whether or not it is a good idea to encourage companies to make more and more video game content add-on only or available through micro transactions, this type of product helps to bridge the gap between traditional toys and video games.  It's no secret that video games, like some kind of cyber Pied Piper, have led kids away from the toy aisles towards a life spent in front of the TV, controller in hand.  It is refreshing to see kids at least interested in something that has some traditional toy traits and is still fun when the power goes out.
To be honest, this guy probably shouldn't have been allowed within 100 yards of Hamelin.

Why is this happening? Younger gamers are no strangers to the worlds of micro transactions and purchasing bizarre peripherals for their games.  Combine that willingness with getting the kids to pay for a plastic figure as well and you can see why companies would want to use this sales model to pull in all the extra cash they can.  Skylanders combines the collectible nature of any fad toy line with the usefulness of new in-game content.
This picture needs no comment.

What could happen in the future? Disney already has plans for their own Skylanders like game (Disney Infinity) so I imagine we might see the "collectible figure" genre become a major player in video games in the next couple of years.  I'm interested to see if any studio will ever attempt to take something like a military first person shooter and use this formula (either G.I. Joe styled military figures or something closer to traditional plastic army men).  I imagine that some action figure lines might jump on-board, also, offering interactive features or codes with purchase.  Of course as action figures become more "interactive," it also seems that more than likely our toys will become smarter than us. Then they will become self aware and plot to kill us in our sleep. Crap.
Let's just hope Hot Toys made enough John Connor figures.


Barbecue17's action figure trends for the next year include buying Lego sets, Masters of the Universe, TMNT, and inevitably more Batman stuff.  His trends also include being broke, selling blood, and reviewing toys and Lego sets on his Amazon profile page.

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