Child's Play: A historical look at simplified Transformers (Part One)

in 2015, Article

Child's Play: A historical look at simplified Transformers
Part One: In the beginning...


In February of 2015, information on the coming year's worth of Transformers was released to Transformers fans via various fan sites including Among the reveals was the "Mega Optimus Prime" pictured above, and this prompted one fan to make a meme similar to the one I created above. The fan asked simply "Why" - the implication being that this is a toy that demanded some type of justification to exist. A bit of a debate resulted from this, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that this was a completely legitimate question if one does not have a historical perspective on "Transformers" and the toy industry in general. In this three part series of articles, I will endeavor to provide you, the reader with some high level information on the phenomenon that led to the development of the modern day "simplified" Transformers such as Mega Optimus Prime. Part one will provide some background on where the toy industry was in the 80's versus now. Part two will explore how the Transformers toy line has attempted to launch "simplified" Transformers many times over the years. Finally, part three will bring everything together and look at the current landscape in the toy and collecting world.

Before we begin, you may ask yourself "What qualifies this dude to write this article?". Well, while I did do some research much of this comes from being a collector for over twenty years. I am not just writing down something I've heard about through a proverbial grapevine, the very changes and concepts I will be talking about are things that I have experienced first hand and seen with my own eyes. Of course, my relationship with Hasbro (and folks in other parts of the toy industry) also inform what I write in this series.

A Simpler Time
Once upon a time, toys were largely one off items that held entertainment value all their own. Look at toys like Etch-A-Sketch or Mr. Potato Head and they were not tied into a multimedia stream. They were concepts that were amusing and made kids want to play with them. However, the big game changer came with the release of Star Wars in 1977 and its corresponding action figure toy line. As AOL rightfully points out in a December 2014 article, "When Star Wars hit Hollywood in 1977, no one imagined it would change the toy industry so dramatically.". Suddenly, action figures based on a movie proved they could rake in huge money, and this marketing scheme became a template for decades to come.

Video from the the Youtube Channel of Mister 80 Retro

When "Transformers" was developed as a brand, the engineering for the toys had already been done by Takara, so they just needed to create a fiction around the toys. This fell to Marvel, and you can read details about this in my interview with Bob Budiansky from 2004. This formula could be found again and again throughout the 80's and 90's with toy lines such as "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe". Usually there was a television show with an accompanying toy line. In some cases such as "Transformers" and "G.I. Joe" there was also a comic book and other media (such as books on tape). For at least twenty years, the formula of using a TV show with a series of toys proved to be a success for many brands, some of which are still around in 2015.

Video from the Youtube Channel of Retro Commercials Forever

Fragmentation Begins
Nothing lasts forever however, and soon the classic formula proved even it was not enough on its own to draw kids the way it once did. Thanks to technology and the simple march of time, the market for action figures began to fragment.

By the 2000's, technology and the toy industry began to change rapidly. A 2004 article on The Big Game Hunter sums it up nicely: "Children spend more and more time with video, electronic game consoles, and computers. ". This meant that the time kids in the 80's may have spent playing outside with their action figures began to get split up into different types of entertainment. I remember gleefully chatting with fellow Transformers fans for hours about life, the universe and everything on AOL Instant Message back in those days and I'm sure many kids did the same.

Another big factor came crashing up against the action figure world at this time: home video game consoles. Now, you might say "Hey, the 80's had Atari and Colecovision" and you'd be right. But those home video game experiences did not match what you would have to go out to an arcade to play. The Pac-Man on the Atari 2600 for instance was not the same experience as the Pac-Man Arcade game. Fast forward to 2000 and now households could have a system like the Playstation 2, which had graphics and production values that brought Arcade level play into your living room.

Video from the Youtube feed of Jason Harder

Meanwhile, there was a simple fact: the kids who had grown up in the 80's and 90's were now getting older. They were either working professionals or in college, where (for the most part) action figures were not high on their list of things to worry about. Some fans did stay in action figure collecting however, but their standards grew as they aged. The "That's Han Solo because we say so" school of sculpting from the 80's would not do any longer. Companies like McFarlane Toys began to introduce a new level of sculpting and detail to action figures. Older fans demanded a higher level of sophistication from their toys that matched their own sensibilities in terms of design, subject matter and creativity. Some of this sensibility actually found its way into "Transformers". If you look at many of the designs of the "Beast" era, they were very different than what fans had grown up with. The offered very detailed sculpting, sophisticated transformation schemes and posability using concepts unlike most of the toys that had preceded them in the 80's.

Video from the Youtube Channel of Lévai József

Fast forward to 2015, and this fragmentation has taken even greater hold. Not only are the kids of the 80's now adults with their own sophisticated tastes in collecting, but there's a whole other generation from the early 2000's with similar demands. Then you still have the traditional market of kids from various age ranges such as 3-7 and 8-12 to contend with, and suddenly you find that one action figure line tied to a movie or TV show is no longer going to be sufficient to cover the entire spectrum of potential toy buyers. Even worse for the action figure market, gaming at home has become more ubiqitous and cheaper with games such as "Angry Birds Transformers" and "Transformers Legends" being "free to play" on devices that can be found in the homes of many collectors. Indeed, as I watch kids such as my 8 year old cousin playing with his action figures, his iPad is never far away and he goes back and forth between the two often (before putting them aside and switching to his Nintendo console).

Video from the Rovio Entertainment Youtube Channel

The end result? A very different market than some readers grew up with in the 80's and even the 90's. Sales that were once almost guaranteed to go to an action figure can now go to any number of other sources. The toy industry is not blind to any of this however, and in the next chapter of this series I will focus on just how Hasbro has specifically dealt with this quandary going back to (believe it or not), 1986!