Tuesday, 19 November 2013

TFCC Subscription Service Year 1 - A Retrospective & A Look Forward

When the Subscription Service was first announced and described, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, this was a potentially awesome new product from the Club which initially promised two exclusives per year, but took more than a year to deliver the first, then only really managed one per year thereafter. In that sense, a product which promised to deliver six figures over a six month period was a massive improvement in service.

It also suggested that the Fun Publications was finally taking TransFormers collectors seriously - after all, their other club, for collectors of GI Joe models, had introduced a Subscription Service the previous year and it has often been said that FunPub paid more attention to the GI Joe club in terms of products and services. Let us not forget that the TransFormers Collectors' Club is still without its forum and other online exclusive material almost two years after the site went down following a hacking/credit card fraud scandal.

But, still, the début and fulfilment of the Subscription Service did at least happen in the right year, when many people - members and non-members alike - opined that the constantly slipping schedule might even drag it into next year. I have to say that I was surprised by how quickly the figures arrived once shipping started. With the first figure shipping about six months later than originally planned, each subsequent figure seemed to arrive quicker than the last. Also on the upside, since the previews for year one were quite thorough, I knew what to expect from each figure so, no matter what order they were despatched in, it seemed unlikely that I'd be disappointed.

But how did the figures shape up once they arrived?
  1. Scourge: Based on the updated G2 Optimus Prime mold from the Classics/Generations line, it managed to improve on the original... but the mold had only recently been used (with a new head) in a BotCon set and, let's face it, the idea of Scourge/Nemesis Prime is getting a bit boring now.
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  2. Slipstream: One of the reasons I signed up for the Subscription Service, using an excellent mold with an excellent colourscheme to produce a fairly minor character - the TF Prime continuity version of one of Starscream's clones from TF Animated. The head sculpt was pretty cool, if overly complicated for TF Prime, but the bio was unforgivably poor. Still, it was nice to receive this earlier than expected - cynical me had assumed it'd be the penultimate part of the set.
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  3. Circuit: A pleasant surprise - I had no previous experience of the mold (from the extended movie line, originally Lockdown, then remolded into Axor) and liked it more than I'd expected, despite its awkward parts... Though I don't understand why the Club seems so keen on remaking Action Masters...
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  4. Breakdown: Easily the most tedious, pointless and cheapest addition to the set. The mold was great when it first came out as Sunstreaker, then Sideswipe, and showed that Hasbro/Takara Tomy's designers had created something quite clever with the Classics line. Seven billion reuses of the mold later, it's floppy and dull... and since there had already been a G2 version of Breakdown in the BotCon 2010 set, putting a G1 version into the Subscription service did the subscribers a huge disservice.
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  5. Jackpot: The mold may have already been used in a BotCon set (2011), but the Action Master-referencing paint job and the new head turned out pretty cool. Plus, the TF Animated Jazz mold is pretty cool. Still don't understand why the Club seems so keen on remaking Action Masters...
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  6. Ultra Mammoth: The crowning glory of the set - a (sort of) rare mold with an excellent colourscheme and paint job (including two whole instances of chrome! Not seen on Western figures since Beast Wars Transmetals). This was the other reason I signed up for the Service, since this and Slipstream pretty much covered the cost of admission in my mind.
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The majority of year one could be summed up with one word: unimaginative. Making matters worse, rather than tie the models from the Subscription Service into the Club comic, they seem to have focused on one of them - Ultra Mammoth - plus this year's Membership Incentive figure - Depthcharge - for a different take on Beast Wars, supposedly set in the Shattered Glass universe (though there's been no evidence of that so far, five episodes in).

Naturally, the Club had its advertising for Subscription Service 2.0 in full swing before this year's figures had finished shipping and, this time, they even have a piece of fiction directly connected to it... though, at the moment, that amounts to a seven-page comic that spends as much time on unrelated characters as it does on the SS2.0 figures.

The figures themselves are all of either Deluxe of Scout class, three of which come with Arms Microns, three have remolded heads, and there's the dangling carrot of a seventh mystery figure for those who sign up for the Subscription Service rather than risking the wait until the figures turn up in the Club store. Now, considering the Club insisted that there was no guarantee that any or all of this year's figures would end up in the club store, yet all of them did (though some have sold out by this point), it's fairly safe to say the same will be true of next year's... And when decision time came this year I figured that, at US$279/UK£175-ish (plus shipping and UK Customs charges, which would be applied per figure), SS2.0 was an expense I could happily do without.

The set includes:
  1. Chromedome w/Stylor: From the TF Prime Wheeljack mold, so it's actually pretty cool, and it's the only one with both a new head and a TargetMaster/Arms Micron (neatly using the character who was be his G1 HeadMaster partner). Looks to be the best of the bunch, but not unmissable.
  2. Rewind: Using the Henkei/United Rumble/Frenzy tank mold, which hasn't had great reviews. New head is decent, but the overall thing isn't exactly exciting. Easy pass, for me.
  3. Fisitron: aka Ironfist, a character already produced as an attendee freebie/addition for BotCon 2011's TF Animated 'Stunti-Con Job' set. The character is derived from a late G1 'Lightformer', which looked pretty brick-like. This time, the Club are reinventing him as a 'spare' Wrecker for Hasbro's repaint/remold of their Fall of Cybertron Bruticus set, using the Swindle/Roadbuster mold. It's probably one of the better models from the set... except when viewed from behind. Easy pass, for me.
  4. Barricade w/ Frenzy: The second one to come with a TargetMaster/Arms Micron, but this is essentially a repaint of TF Prime Prowl, which was basically a repaint of TF Prime Smokescreen with a new head and a lightbar. It's sort-of in reference to the TransFormers MMORPG, only not, and his partner refers to the live action movie continuity. Cool but, like Chromedome, not unmissable.
  5. Treadshot w/ Catgut: Another of the Club's infamous Action Master reboots, and a straight repaint of Classics/Generations Warpath. I was quite keen on the original, and rather like the mold's use as Strika, but this exclusive is an easy pass, even with an Arms Micron update to his G1 TargetMaster partner.
  6. Thrustinator: Since I'm a big fan of Beast Machines, one could be forgiven for thinking that a combined reference to Waspinator/Thrust might tickle my fancy... but this thing really doesn't. It takes the (Japan-only) Beast Wars II Dirgegun and turns it into a virtually half-and-half blend of Beast Wars Waspinator and Beast Machines Thrust. The new head is a bit of a travesty, and the base mold is close enough to BW Waspinator that I have no intention of going anywhere near it.
To be fair, it's a bit more interesting and original than year one... Just not interesting enough to me, personally, to make me spend the money. Also, aside from Thrustinator, the molds are consistent enough that they could be from one continuity, whereas year one is an Axiom Nexus administrative nightmare.

The Club has another couple of Beast Wars reference characters lined up for 2014: Protoform X/Rampage - using the TF Prime First Edition Megatron mold - is the Membership Incentive figure, and a reimagining of Transmutate using the awesome TF Prime FE Arcee mold will be one of their regular boxed exclusives. I'm far more interested in these, and they seem to have as much connection to this year's Ultra Mammoth as they do to next year's Thrustinator. However, this just shows how random the Subscription Service has been.

I'm not familiar with GI Joe toys, but it seems to me that there's one overarching continuity (Joes vs. Cobra) with new characters added in every so often, and the style of toys has remained much the same since the beginning, with exceptions like Sigma 6 turning up once in a while, tying in with a TV show. Since the style/appearance of TransFormers has changed so much over the years and through its myriad continuities, I truly feel that the Subscription Service needs something to tie it together, if not into the Club's broader Timelines continuity.

OK, granted, the very essence of Timelines is that it is pan-continuity, with Axiom Nexus as its fixed point/hub, but the Club thusfar hasn't done an especially good job of tying any of its toys to its fiction since the five-year story that introduced the components of Nexus Prime/Maximus, and even that used more characters from outside the Club's exclusive collection than those inside.

I dunno... Is it really that weird (or wrong) of me to expect the Club to tie its own exclusive toys into its own published fiction? Seems to me that would be the sensible marketing option... After all, the IDW comics come in for criticism every so often for being - gasp - thinly disguised advertisements for Hasbro's latest waves of toys, just as the G1 cartoon was thinly disguised advertising for the G1 toys. It's surely the standard procedure... and yet...

On the few occasions that story has taken precedence over marketing we've have some of the best TransFormers fiction/advertising anyone could ask for: Beast WarsBeast Machines (arguable... though most people agree that the toys were pretty shite), TransFormers Animated and TransFormers Prime (especially when you take Beast Hunters into account). But the Collectors' Club are offering premium, limited edition, exclusive products. Surely this means that their best bet is to tell the story of the products they're selling. That's what BotCon does every year, so why not the Collectors' Club? Why would they even try to tell stories that are independent from and unrelated to their exclusives?

I've previously expressed the opinion that the Club should reassess its strategy and plan its exclusives and fiction around BotCon (or vice versa?), but they seem more keen to deny any link between them other than the 'discount' for booking into BotCon via the Club. But if each year's serialised story served as an introduction to BotCon (which generally happens at least halfway through the year, equating to at least three issues of the magazine), they could be generating even more hype for the convention and, by association, BotCon would more easily drive interest in the Collectors' Club.

I like the idea of the Subscription Service, and the Club is rightly enthusiastic about it... but it needs something more than a few pages of events from Axiom Nexus to tie it together and make it truly part of Timelines. Otherwise, it's a random grouping of six exclusives which will likely continue to be divisive - not to say polarising - and will cause some people to shell out for a full set when they only want one or two of the figures, while others decide not to buy in at all.

Tying it into BotCon will make it either the perfect complement to the BotCon boxed set (and the increasing number of attendee exclusives), or the perfect alternative to it. Tying the fiction together isn't a necessity, but it would allow them to tell more coherent, less scattershot stories.

As for the character bios... They just need to be written by people who understand what a 'character bio' actually is in reference to TransFormers toys. All those old G1 Tech Specs are excellent examples: A bit about their personality, a bit about their abilities, a bit about their weapons... That's all they need.

That, and better grammar.

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