Tuesday, 25 October 2016

#tfytchomework RE: 3P, KO... When did it all become the same thing?

OK, I honestly didn't expect over a month to pass in between updates here, especially since that last post was completed quite some time before it went live, and I've had another draft in progress since before then... I'm having trouble with blogging generally, but today I found the opportunity to try something a bit different.

One of the things I quite like about YouTube is that, while it prioritises the channels I've subscribed to, the parameters for its recommendations are accurate enough to pick up on other material that I might actually be interested in, and one such video was this one from smsno1. It's a valid question, and there's at least one part in there that's worthy of deep consideration.

I know the point of these things is to provide a YouTube response video, but I'm still very much of the mind that I don't want to be a YouTuber, so this 'ere blog post will have to suffice...

I saw a prototype of one of the Unrustable Bastards at TFNation (only one photo in my Day 2 post), and it looked pretty cool - not really my cup of tea (despite being motorcycle-based) - but exceptionally well designed, and a development of both TransFormers' '-Master' toys and the anime-style piloted mech concepts. They're robots that transform into vehicles with riders that transform into a sort of central core for the larger robot, but they're not TransFormers, as such. They're similar, yet distinct... and, frankly, I suspect their connection to TransFormers wouldn't even be under discussion had Hasbro's brand not blown up into the global phenomenon it is now, largely thanks to the terrible, terrible live action movies. One might just as easily place these in the Mad Max universe, or in a bad Saturday morning cartoon... or a bad Saturday morning cartoon of Mad Max (there's precedent - RoboCop and Rambo both became cartoons, and Aliens very nearly did). I wouldn't even classify Unrustable Bastards as a parallel toyline - because it's closer to the piloted mech concept (and thereby arguably closer to Diaclone than TransFormers), while it's certainly not a knockoff because the models themselves are wholly original even if the concept isn't.

The question of actual knockoffs is more complicated and multi-layered, because there are still the cheap-and-not-so-cheerful pieces of crap knockoffs that have always been around, with their crummy plastic quality, lurid colours and reduced articulation. But then you have the high-quality knockoffs of products that are fairly easy to find (the smaller Masterpiece Autobot cars, for example). These can be as good as the real thing or they can be plagued by loose and fragile parts. Depending on where you find them, their prices are often not that far off the official merchandise, so there's obviously a particular mindset to those making them and those buying them. They may or may not be easier to acquire than official merchandise, and their prices tend to increase less dramatically on the secondary market. The knockoff Masterpiece jets and Human Alliance toys are good examples of this phenomenon - it's remarkably difficult to find genuine versions of either these days, while the knockoffs are priced to be competitive to the initial retail price of the genuine articles, thereby making it easier to pick up something that can no longer be found in toy shops without paying ridiculously over the odds. You also have the oversized and/or slightly simplified figures where, for example, the Deluxe class Combiner Wars figures are upscaled to Voyager size and no longer have their combiner pegs, so one has to wonder what the real point is - upscaled and fully functional as an even larger gestalt I can understand... but take away the combiner functionality and the Deluxe class figures would be pretty disappointing, so larger versions would be correspondingly more so.

But knockoffs are no longer limited to official Hasbro/Takara Tomy products. When third parties started producing ever larger and more complex homages to the G1 combiners, I doubt anyone would have forseen that any of them would end up being knocked off or, if so, that the quality of the knockoffs would be so close to the originals. One might argue that the third parties are fair game because they're blatantly ripping off Hasbro/Takara Tomy's intellectual properties... but we probably wouldn't have Combiner Wars if it weren't for FansProject's Causality project, TFC's Uranos and Prometheus, the Warbotron sets and, of course, the nine billion third party Constructicons/Devastator sets that have come along over the last decade, nor would we have a two-foot tall Metroplex were it not for Maketoys' Utopia, nor would we have Hasbro asking us to choose between Trypticon, Scorponok or Omega Supreme as the next Titans Return Titan class figure (implying the others may come along later anyway) if all three hadn't already been produced by several third party companies.

The third parties have forced Hasbro/Takara Tomy to up their game. Compare and contrast the G1 combiners to Energon, Power Core Combiners and the War for Cybertron Bruticus set, then look at Combiner Wars and the marked improvements are undeniable. There's also something of a sense that they are now occasionally listening to the fans rather than arbitrarily deciding how to proceed based on some half-baked idea that someone in their development teams thought would be 'cool'. This isn't necessarily a good thing, as they're now committed - for the next couple of years, at least - to the Prime Wars trilogy, which is basically an extension to the Classics line, reinventing Generation 1. Classics was a nice way of celebrating the longevity of the toyline and I probably have as many Classics toys as I have G1 toys in my collection... But, for me, TransFormers has always been about change, and I'm ultimately rather wary of all this recycling, however much they improve on the complexity and articulation of G1. The third parties were filling a perceived void, and now they'll have to try something new (such as developing other original properties like Unrustable Bastards), so the relationship between them and Hasbro/Takara Tomy has become somewhat symbiotic.

Taking a tangent, third parties command higher prices for their shorter-run, increased complexity figures for the collector with a reasonably high disposable income, where Hasbro/Takara Tomy mass-produce toys for mass consumption by kids spending their pocket money. Arguably, knockoffs of third party products are more damaging to their creators than knockoffs of Hasbro/Takara Tomy merchandise, regardless of their quality. Possibly even moreso, as a poor quality knockoff of a third party product may reflect badly on the original if one is not aware of the differences between them (e.g. shortcuts taken by the knockoff versus the genuine model). How does this balance against the expense and availability of the original third party products though? On the one hand, good knockoff makes a particular figure more widely available, and so a collector may be more inclined to pick up a particular company's next product. On the other hand, they may then be more inclined to wait for the knockoff version, or they might be put off entirely by a poor quality knockoff.

And then, how acceptable it is to populate one's shelves with knockoffs is entirely subjective. One collector might be happy to pick up one of the knockoff Masterpiece Seekers, where another would balk at the suggestion and work steadily toward acquiring only the genuine products, regardless of their import or secondary market costs. It comes down to a cost/benefit analysis and, while I'd still love to have Hasbro's Classics-branded cartoon-coloured Masterpiece Starscream and Takara Tomy's MP-3G 'Ghost Starscream', I can't currently afford the average asking price... and, if knockoffs were available of either (which they're not, as far as I can tell), I'd still have to think carefully about both cost and display space.

There are also those collectors who might want both the genuine article and the knockoff, delighting in the minor differences in construction - where one knockoff might simplify a certain part, another might make several changes to improve structural stability, or to introduce a variety of facial expressions. iGear's Masterpiece Coneheads - technically knockoffs - were based on custom figures created from Takara Tomy's original MP-3, while the eventual Takara Tomy Masterpiece Ramjet features subtle alterations to the core design of MP-11 as well as larger modifications to the molded detail. Then, more recently, ToyWorld revealed wholly unique Masterpiece-scale interpretations of the Coneheads which appear to feature a further development of the transformation scheme. Many of these products are sufficiently different that they each warrant the attention of collectors.

But, to return to smsno1's question of support for Hasbro/Takara Tomy, I have to agree that, unless we - as consumers - are prepared to "show them that we want to play their game", they - as businesses with shareholders - will be quite prepared to ditch the TransFormers brand in favour of something that earns them greater profits. I suspect this argument loses a certain amount of power given that these are toys aimed at children - however much of a fanwank Combiner Wars is among those of us who were collecting TransFormers back in the 80s. It has been made abundantly clear that collectors actually account for a very small section of the market as far as Hasbro are concerned (just look at how slow and selective they are with their Masterpiece releases).

As to whether Hasbro/Takara Tomy will continue to make Masterpiece figures if they get knocked off and upscaled, I strongly suspect they will... and the very fact that these models are upscaled might encourage them to increase the size of their products, if only slightly. Certainly, I would hope that a model like WeiJiang's Commander - a Masterpiece-quality figure created from a smaller, mass-produced movie line toy - will show them that they could be more ambitious with their designs (and certainly with their paintwork) to attract a different/new section of the market. Regarding the clearer knockoffs, I doubt Hasbro/Takara Tomy are losing out to any great degree because most of the people who would buy MP-10, for example, would already have it by the time WeiJiang's MPP10 arrived, and an entirely separate cost/benefit analysis would have to be performed not only over whether to buy that, but over whether it would then replace MP-10, or be displayed alongside it and/or MP-1. Likewise, someone who has one of the myriad versions of Classics Optimus Prime might still want to pick up KuBianBao's MP10V to display among their Classics figures.

Then there's the question of copyright/trademark infringement, where smsno1 asks if Maketoys' Cross Dimension Striker Manus is copyright infringement. Well, yes, it is... but however recognisably 'Optimus Prime' it is, it's an original figure design with clear reference to a particular character which is part of Hasbro/Takara Tomy's intellectual property, rather than being a knockoff of or a variation on an existing toy. Neither Hasbro nor Takara Tomy are ever going to release a similar figure because its aesthetic doesn't fit any of their existing continuities - it's almost War for/Fall of Cybertron, but not. As long as it bears no Autobot insignia, and as long as they don't call it Optimus Prime, it is ultimately "just a red and blue robot-truck", and I suspect Hasbro/Takara Tomy would have a hard time pursuing it through the courts (not least because it's not being manufactured in the US, or in Takara Tomy's sites in Japan, China or Vietnam). That figure, in particular, isn't even 'filling a gap in the market', it's creating a whole new TransFormers fan continuity in which to create fantastic new (yet recognisable) transforming robot figures aimed at the older collector who wants something different. Honestly, the only reasons I didn't cave in and buy one at TFNation (finances aside) was that it's just another Optimus Prime in a market saturated by Optimus Primes, and I'm not madly keen on that particular aesthetic. I mean, I like it... but it's not what I look for in a 'Robot in Disguise', because its vehicle mode isn't really a disguise. I admire the engineering, but it's not for me. Similarly, their Rioter Despotron looks fantastic in robot mode, but whenever I look at the alternate mode, all I see is a black and grey, sci-fi version of the 'Gristle Gun' from the David Cronenberg movie eXistenZ.

So, are knockoffs OK? Ultimately, it's up to the buyer. Personally, I try to avoid them because knockoffs I've bought (knowingly or not) tend to be crap.

Are third party versions of Hasbro/Takara Tomy's intellectual property OK? I'd have to say yes, but with caveats. Where it takes TransFormers in directions unexplored by Hasbro/Takara Tomy and/or where it forces the intellectual property-holder to reassess the brand direction and improve their product, it can only be a good thing. Third party gestalt teams gave rise to Combiner Wars, so I feel it's foolhardy of the third parties to continue to produce combiners that Hasbro/Takara Tomy have now produced. For example, TransForm Mission's entry into the game - Masterpiece-scale Stunticons - seems, to me, to be pretty much redundant and rather too late to make much of an impact... except with those who appreciate the IDW Comics look, or those who want their combiner to be in scale with the newer Masterpiece figures. On the other hand, TFC Toys' Poseidon and Unique Toys' Ordin are filling a gap - other than their underachieving and ugly Legends class, TF Prime/Beast Hunters Abominus, Hasbro are exceedingly unlikely to recreate the Terrorcons or the Seacons for the Prime Wars trilogy because they don't fit into the established aesthetic (though I grant that their Titans Return Sharkticon, Gnaw, is an anomaly), so collectors wanting a new take on either of those gestalts will have to shell out for a third party version (and it currently seems equally unlikely that either of these gestalts will be produced by other third parties, so we won't be overburdened by them the way we have been with the Constructicons).

By and large, I think I'm happy with my current set of Optimus Prime figures, and no longer feel compelled to buy each new toyline's version of the Autobot leader (Takara Tomy's Legends Optimus Prime - or is it Ginrai - will be an exception, Titans Return's triple-changer will not, as I'm happy to wait for the all-but-inevitable Octane repaint to complete my Classics triple changers set). I have no interest in acquiring third party Optimus Prime figures, but WeiJiang's M01 became an exception to that rule despite being based on a Hasbro figure I already owned because it was not only upscaled but improved in terms of its complexity and screen accuracy, was made with die cast parts, came with two possible faces and included a selection of additional weapons. While it's technically still a knockoff, it's so far beyond the quality of other knockoffs - and official Hasbro/Takara Tomy products, for that matter - it became more than a knockoff, and is possibly one of the finest Optimus Prime figures ever made so far, comparing favourably to Takara Tomy's premium repaints of the Leader class figure from the Revenge of the Fallen toyline. If Black Apple's upsized and reworked Dark of the Moon Megatron ever sees the light of day, I sincerely hope I can acquire one.

Smsno1 mentions (haulage company) Eddie Stobart at one point, and I'd have to admit that one of the few things that might compel me to buy another Optimus Prime using a mold I already own (such as the G1 version) would be giving it the Eddie Stobart livery because then, at least, it would be a novelty... and I'm more intrigued by that sort of novelty than the likes of Pepsi, or Bape (aka Bathing Ape), or Evangelion, or any Chinese astrological symbol.

I'm equally ambivalent toward the vast majority of third party interpretations of other characters. Mastermind Creations' Reformatted line is producing IDW Comics-style figures of characters that Hasbro/Takara Tomy are highly unlikely to touch but, aside from their myriad Azalea-based figures, the only one that's really caught my interest is the Death's Head remold of their Lockdown analogue, Jaegertron, and that's because I quite liked the character from the old Marvel G1 comics.

Conversely, when one of the third parties comes out with an original take on the Seekers, such as MMC's Cyber Engine Knight Morpher/Hearts of Steel set, or iGear's IDW-ish Con Air Raptor Squadron, my interest is very much piqued, and my wallet is frequently raided. Similarly, when original femme-bots, such as Perfect Effect's Motobots, come along, I'll always pay attention, and frequently pounds sterling. Anything that tickles my particular fancies could end up on my shelves (or just as easily end up being a massive disappointment, like PE's Beast Muscle Leonidas), but it's far more likely to do so if it's something different to what Hasbro are offering at the time. I picked up FansProjects' Stunticon analogues specifically because Combiner Wars didn't exist and, at the time, probably wouldn't even have been in development. Since Combiner Wars came out, I've had no need to spend such sums of money on a third party combiner (though I am still quite tempted by TFC's Uranos) when Hasbro/Takara Tomy's more affordable output is satisfactory and, most importantly, more easily available.

The bottom line, for me, is that TransFormers wasn't even an original concept when the brand launched. All the early toys came from Takara's Diaclone and Microchange brands. Running in parallel, Bandai had their Machine Robo brand of transforming robots, not to mention Rock Lords. These days, all kinds of toys have transformation features, and brand crossovers are commonplace, but what TransFormers lacks is any real direct competition. With Hasbro/Takara Tomy now giving us Combiner Wars/Titans Return/Unite Warriors/Legends, I would be interested to see what the third parties will do in future. What other directions could one take with the concept of sentient alien robots that are able to change into other forms for disguise and/or utility? The big advantage TransFormers had over Diaclone and Microchange was an overarching story which was, for the time, quite original (within the parameters of the traditional 'Good versus Evil'). We've already had Beast Wars, so what's next? As long as the third parties keep giving us something new, especially while Hasbro/Takara Tomy are content to relive their glory days, they're OK by me. If their artistic direction is then followed by Hasbro/Takara Tomy, that gives them the opportunity to transform once again, and present another new and exciting product. Meanwhile, if Hasbro/Takara Tomy continue to adapt to offer a mainstream, branded alternative to the third parties, they're OK by me too... As long as they also create something new and unique of their own.

I'd rather not buy knockoffs (especially unexpectedly, when they turn out as bad as my movie Fracture), and will actively avoid any knockoff that uses crappy plastic or is less complicated than the original mold because they're just foul. Where a model has been improved, like KuBianBao's Deformation Detective, I'll give it due consideration. Where it falls within one of my fixations, like Hell Cat/Carroll from the MorphBots Final Battle set, there's a good chance I'll take a chance and buy it (at a reasonable cost). Original third party stuff is exciting and always worthy of attention... Sadly - or not, depending on your philosophy - third party stuff is likely to be the driving force behind Hasbro/Takara Tomy's future creative decisions for quite some time, at least until those companies evolve beyond the need to reference Hasbro/Takara Tomy's intellectual property... and the likes of Unrustable Bastards is the first sign that's actually happening.

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