Article: "Simplified Transformers & Chicken Little"

in 2014, Editorial

Simplified Transformers & Chicken Little

On January 19, 2014, the New York Times released an article focusing on "Transformers" toys. In it, reporter Gregory Schmidt states "Hasbro is revealing a new look for the toys, including simple maneuvers that will complete a transformation with the push of a button or flick of the wrist.". Accompanying this article was a photo of a simple Age of Extinction figure under the sub-line called "Smash and Change". The combination of these two elements set off a firestorm of discussion among long time Transformers fans who feel the Sky is Falling and the end of the Transformers as we have known them is coming.

Such conversations are not new. Indeed, they have happened at almost every single major reconception of the Transformers brand, which is to say - semi-annually. However being in a publication as prominent as the New York Times, this article has garnered special attention from fans old and new.

Throughout the collective outcry, there are several common concerns being raised, and the purpose of this article is to address them and hopefully allay concerns some might have about the future of our beloved Robots in Disguise.

All Transformers toys are being simplified, the traditional Deluxe and Voyager Class price points are gone forever
The proof that this is untrue is found right in the article itself, however if you just skim the article you'll miss it. The article states "Hasbro will continue to make complex Transformers for adult fans who have collected the toys since their inception 30 years ago.". This isn't spin or some type of empty promise. If you want to see some of what Hasbro has to offer older collectors in 2014, check out their upcoming Deluxe and Voyager Class offerings. More to the point, they've closed 2013 and opened 2014 with figures like Waspinator and Skids, proof that the more traditional types of transformations are still alive and well.

Generations is not the only segment of the Transformers toy line that will continue to feature more complex transformations. The "Platinum" line of toys will be continuing, which includes a redeco of Masterpiece Optimus Prime. You can see photos of these on Hasbro's Facebook page.

The action figure pictured is representative of the main line of "Age of Extinction" toys
This is incorrect. The toy pictured in the New York Times article is a "Smash and Change" figure, which is a representation of the sub-line of action figures aimed at a younger audience. This is akin to past lines of toys such as Gravity Bots or Activators. Traditionally, every Movie line of "Transformers" have had sub-lines such as this, and none of them ever replaced the "main line" of toys that took center stage. The only official online reveal of a "main line" Age of Extinction action figure is the new Leader Class Optimus Prime action figure, which is not the "Smash and Change" figure.

Age of Extinction Optimus Prime toys

The original Transformers toys were more complex than anything on the market today
Let's define the word "complex" first, because it holds with it not only the potential for an objective descriptor but also an emotional payload associated with childhood memories of the original Transformers series now officially called "Generation One" that lasted from 1984-1991.

"Complex" at its most base level means the number of steps involved in a transformation and to a degree, the difficulty or challenge in the movements needed to complete a transform. It is one thing to merely slide a panel down to form a robot limb, it is another to have to slide it down, twist it around and rearrange panels on top of it. When Transformers began in 1984, the play pattern of transformation was still fairly new and the figures relied on very tried and true principles, mostly revolving around pulling parts out, sliding parts down and hinges. These are still used quite a bit to this day, but over the years a lot of complexity has been thrown on top of it, sometimes to the betterment of the toys, sometimes not.

Perhaps the most egregious examples of figures that have gone way too far in terms of complexity are the larger, Leader Class figures from past live action movie toy lines. Speaking for myself, I can tell you it once took me about forty minutes to transform "Revenge of the Fallen" Leader Class Jetfire. It's a spectacular looking toy in both forms, but that makes it more challenging than even some Alternators or Masterpiece figures! That level of complexity is nice in "special" figures like a Masterpiece once and a while, but in the main line of figures it is a surefire turn off for parents who ultimately wind up helping their kids transform a lot of the toys.

It should also be noted that there is a false premise out there that states a "complex" Transformers action figure equals a "good" one and thus a simpler figure equals a "bad" one. If you go back to the original series of toys from 1984, which many critics hold as sacrosanct, this does not really stand up to scrutiny. Many of the original Transformers figures only took 2-6 steps to transform, then you would slap a pile of accessories on them, and yet these toys are treasured and loved by many and often held as the epitome of Transformers toy design, even over today's toys which generally feature a minimum of 4-6 steps in their transformations. Clearly complexity alone is not the only criteria to judge a toy by.

Hasbro does not respect the heritage of the Transformers brand
The Transformers brand is one that has, quite appropriately, undergone multiple changes throughout its history. In thirty years we have seen the line change its focus from pure robots to techno-organic animals and back. All throughout this history, there has always been a recognition of the brand's history. Every series has had characters who served as either direct homages or interpretations of characters from the original series. It's not just Bumblebee and Optimus Prime, but other characters such as Rodimus Prime, Jetfire and Arcee.

More to the point, since 2006 the Classics and Generations segments have provided fans with over 100 new versions of classic characters, all sourced from previous generations of Transformers. That count doesn't even include Universe 2.0 which also featured many modern interpretations of classic characters such as Inferno and Sunstreaker. This line is continuing with traditional price points in 2014 and I don't see it stopping any time soon.

Post-1991 toys

Transformers aimed at kids? What about us older collectors?
The New York Times article states "...the new design is intended to re-engage parents and children, who found the transformations too challenging.". This has led to an old argument coming up again, which is why children should be treated any differently than older, adult collectors of the line. First, it is important to note that the toy market of the 2000's is not the same as the toy market of the 1980's. Second, Hasbro does think about the older collectors quite a bit.

So why target younger kids? Back in the day, most kids got into Transformers around the age of 7-12 or so (the numbers vary slightly depending on what source you cite). Nowadays, the video game market is capturing this age group more and more. Over the last decade, this has necessitated targeting kids at a younger age range (generally starting around 5) to sell toys. This is not an exclusive phenomenon to Transformers, it is an industry wide issue. So why aim at younger kids (and thus their parents)? Because they make up the largest portion of the buying public when it comes to toys. Quite simply, older, hardcore collectors make up less than a quarter of the market and are considered very much a "specialty" market. This has been said many times over the years at Botcon Hasbro panels and it continues to be true.

And if you're an older collector well, just read the point above about the brand's heritage. We've hardly been forgotten.

Closing Thoughts
I think it is human nature to view the unknown with fear and suspicion. Whenever something shakes up our preconceived notion of something, it can be jarring. However, there are times where viewing such changes with an open mind can lead to wonderful revelations. I know when Beast Wars was first announced I hated it and couldn't imagine this would be a good thing, but ultimately it was. Time and time again the Transformers brand has created a new identity for itself while respecting the past, and I think we're seeing that again. The line is diverse enough now that even if Age of Extinction toys don't appeal to long time collectors (and I'm not saying they will or won't since I haven't played with any yet), there will be plenty of figures that are aimed at us.

The Transformers brand is strong and making more money than it ever did in the 80's and 90's. I for one, am thankful to see the Autobots and Decepticons (and Maximals, Predacons, etc.) doing so well and wish Hasbro and Tomy nothing but success for the future.