Sunday, 3 November 2019

TransFormers toylines - An Alternate Pitch

I decided against attending the recent MCM London Comic Con on the Saturday, despite the fact that the Hasbro panel that day may have made an ideal lead-in to this piece. A friend of mine was going on the Friday and, despite having the day off work, I didn't feel up to the crowds. We'd discussed meeting up for the Sunday instead, but he ended up deciding against, despite the planned Doctor Who panels, which he had been interested in.

Of course, it transpired that Hasbro revealed nothing in their TransFormers panel that hadn't already been online for a few weeks aside from some BotBots wackiness that was of no interest to me... and the most significant thing on their large stand was the complete-but-mistransformed Studio Series Devastator.

While the War for Cybertron: Earthrise toyline seems marginally more interesting to me than Siege was (albeit because I can treat just it as a continuation of Classics, and ideally pick up toys of characters I don't already have or just weren't done well back in that line), there's still something bugging me about the way Hasbro handles TransFormers, generally, these days. I've rambled about this in the past, but haven't necessarily had any specific ideas of my own, other than "Grrr. BotBots are silly! Do not want!"

Until now.

Strap in, people... this is a bit of a long one, even by my standards...

Aside from TransFormers, I only pay sporadic attention to toys, occasionally buying an action figure or model kit if it tickles my fancy or if I like the character... But it occurs to me that some of the other toylines out there actually follow a format that may actually work well for TransFormers... or, at least, better than the current selection of sublines.

Bearing in mind that TransFormers started out as a single, individual toyline (with occasional tat like party supplies), the diversity we have these days, in terms of targeted toylines, might seem like a luxury... but it mostly just feels unnecessary to me. Outside of the premium Collectors' line - Masterpiece and the Masterpiece Movie subset - we currently have:
  • BotBots (targeted at kids - and evidently adults - who like novelty, Pok√©mon-style collect-'em-all lines with only the most tenuous and illogical of links to the brand). Has a story, but no real ongoing narrative. Tiny and ridiculous toys of everyday objects from a shopping mall which nonsensically transform into robots that really don't look like robots, with essentially zero articulation.
  • Rescue Bots (targeted at preschoolers). Fairly typical ongoing narrative where a team of humans and robots learn to work together, despite initial dislike and/or distrust. Fairly large toys with simplistic transformations, of a similar level to G1 Mini Autobots and with similar articulation.
  • Cyberverse (targeted at young kids). Seems to be the successor to Robots in Disguise (2015) as the bright, colourful, simplistic style with an ongoing, Bumblebee-centric narrative, unrelated to any other line, where RiD2015 had been pitched as 'what came after TFPrime'. Simple transformations, frequently due to shoehorned-in gimmicks that make no sense... for example, an Optimus Prime figure that combines with a tiny rendition of The Ark - the spacecraft that brought the Autobots to Earth - or robots that only half-transform into vehicles in service of spring-loaded features.
  • War for Cybertron (targeted at older kids/collectors). Supposedly associated with the concurrent IDW Comics reboot, though that narrative dealt with characters not featured in the toyline, in a situation that seems to predate the point of the story the toys are intended to represent. Pitched as a(nother) reboot of G1, but now starting on Cybertron rather than Earth, to allow for 'classic' vehicle modes like Tetrajet Seekers... and boxes on wheels representing Ironhide, Ratchet and Crosshairs. Excessively detailed sculpts on essentially quite blocky toys, half of which have utterly unidentifiable alleged 'vehicle' modes, while the other half might as well be terrestrial, with a few inexplicable Galaxy Force references thrown in.
  • Studio Series (targeted at even older kids/collectors). Closely associated with the live action movies, but not released in any discernible sequence. Pitched as a toyline that keeps everything in scale according to the CGI, but which has repeatedly failed in this goal with vehicle modes, and quite frequently with robot modes as well. Many toys are remakes of figures that weren't that good 10+ years ago (Camaro Bumblebees, Blackout, Bonecrusher), while others are released under this banner in preference to creating a new toyline specific to each new movie (Though some Bumblebee toys were released under movie-specific branding, so surely all bets are off at this point?).
My main gripe with this setup boils down to, frankly, "that's not what it was like in my day, and I don't see why it needs to be different!" - TransFormers toys were loosely divided into the smaller, simpler ones, like the Mini Autobots and the larger, (slightly) more complex ones only because Hasbro had combined several pre-existing toylines into one. But TransFormers was there for whatever age range liked the look of it... or there were other toylines. The toys - even some of the larger ones - weren't hugely complicated to transform. Probably the most complicated were the likes of Megatron and Jetfire in the early days, and a palpable sense of achievement could be gained from transforming them (particularly without reference to the instructions).

In later waves, particularly from the 1986 animated movie onward, even the larger toys were only as complex as the Mini Autobots of the early lines. The engineering nous had somehow become lost. This was likely because the designers/engineers who worked on Diaclone and Microchange - the two lines that formed the bulk of early G1 TransFormers - were no longer involved in the brand... But they were still TransFormers. They were still these alien robots disguised as (mostly) terrestrial vehicles, or close analogues thereof.

Basically, I don't understand why we need a separate line of simplified toys - some of which essentially transform themselves - for younger kids. There's no sense of achievement to them, nothing to challenge the eyes, minds and dexterity of the child playing with them. Sure, it's still cool to see a car turn into a robot... but when the 'robot' is just shallow sculpted detail on the underside of a car that splits out, at the touch of a button, to reveal arms and legs, the most interesting and rewarding aspect of playing with TransFormers toys is lost... When one arm is made rigid by a spring-loaded or geared gimmick that, for example, causes a weapon to spin, you've lost as much play value as you've gained in what I consider to be a poorly thought out zero-sum game of superfluous gimmickery.

Maybe I'm putting too much thought into it (this blog has been going for over eleven years now, so would that even constitute a rhetorical question at this stage?) because, when I first discovered TransFormers, I was already older than its intended audience. Really, though, I just don't like toylines that insult the intelligence of the people expected to buy them, and feel that TransFormers is one of the few toylines that can actually be a useful educational tool in their own right... if the toys aren't dumbed down too much. They're also one of the few toylines where a child could use their imagination more to tell a story during play, rather than just to fill in for the toy's shortcomings, and this has only become more true in recent years due to the improvements in engineering and articulation developing out of the Classics-Generations sequence and the movie toys.

And the thing is, if you look at the most recent lines - the Prime Wars Trilogy in particular - the engineering wasn't massively complicated. It was essentially 'G1+Articulation' with a few tweaks to things like the compression/extension of legs to reduce the damage caused by wear and tear. My G1 Megatron, Shrapnel and Astrotrain, for example, can no longer stand because the pegs that keep their legs extended in robot mode have worn away. Megatron, in particular, used a tiny plastic nub on a flexible section of his inner leg panel, which passed between two notches on his textured die-cast metal inner thighs. How was that ever supposed to survive repeated transformation?

So. Step one: balance the engineering of the toys. Prime Wars and, so far, War for Cybertron are probably the best basis for ongoing toylines - TransFormers toys certainly don't need to be much more complicated to be fun to play with, though WfC did choose to resort to making the Tetrajet Seekers into shell-formers where the robot is basically folded up into a cube suspended below the jet shape. All the toys have quick, fun transformations and tend to be nicely stable in both vehicle and robot modes. Much as I like Studio Series, some of the transformations are overly fussy, and the need to shoehorn a somewhat screen-accurate robot into a licensed vehicle sometimes gets in the way of producing a fun toy. Hasbro/Takara Tomy's engineers still tend to rely on folding vast amounts of vehicle shell into a backpack rather than using the inner surfaces of the vehicle shell as outer surfaces of robot, like Unique Toys' Peru Kill and DX9's La Hire.

Step two: whittle down the toylines to leave only the essentials. Hasbro's G1 fixation needn't be the bone of contention it's becoming. Classics was an excellent concept... but it developed into this continous reboot in three year cycles, when all it needed to do was keep expanding. The toyline started with Generation One, 2019 is G1's 35th Anniversary, and it makes sense to have a big focus on G1 every few years. Not just in the commercial sense, but to serve as a reminder of where the toyline came from, how far it's come, and perhaps to introduce more recent members of the fandom to the origins of the line. But why not have it running continously, gradually remaking every single G1 toy and creating toys of characters from the Marvel comics, the Dreamwave comics, the IDW comics and even the animated TV show who were not based on toys and have hitherto been neglected?

That's my first proposed toyline, the core of the brand, which may as well be called 'Generations'. A line for both casual fans and collectors, it would maintain the current levels of complexity of engineering and freedom of articulation, because I'm pretty sure the average 6-year-old can handle that, while older kids wouldn't begrudge its simplicity because they're still getting an awesome robot that turns into a cool vehicle. This line would gradually expand and reimagine all the classic characters in contemporary forms. Following the aesthetic of the Studio Series brand, the packaging would be generic, but featuring a badge indicating the origin of any toy not based directly on an existing G1 toy (eg. Marvel's The TransFormers, IDW's Lost Light, etc.). However, this line could also accommodate an occasional selection of those from other TransFormers sub-brands (eg. Generations: Robots In Disguise, Generations: Armada, Generations: Beast Wars, etc.), just to stave of the G1 fatigue that I'm surely not alone in feeling.

On the assumtion that the Hasbro Cinematic Universe will continue to expand, Studio Series would remain as the second toyline. It's an excellent line, by and large, with very few outright failures to its name, and just a handful of "could do betters". Mainly, I think it needs a higher budget for paint applications, but a return to the strategy adopted by toylines for the original movie and Revenge of the Fallen, whereby toys were made of characters from the associated comics, games, etc. would be advantageous, as the robot cast of these movies has tended to remain quite small.

My third and final proposed toyline would be Hasbro/Takara Tomy's excuse to get experimental, and really explore what the brand is capable of, both in terms of narrative and engineering, as well as what it means to be a sentient alien robotic lifeform able to alter its appearance at will. It's my opinion that whatever happened to TransTech - which had been intended as the follow-up to/continuation of Beast Wars/Beast Machines/Machine Wars - should never happen again. A significant amount of work had been put into the concepts and engineering of these toys and, while we might not all think they looked good, they were a bold new direction for the toyline. The brand could use the three year arc setup to experiment with concepts and aesthetics that might otherwise be considered too risky (eg. TransFormers: Animated), safe in the knowledge that Generations and Studio Series will be catering to the bulk of the fanbase. A proportion of that fanbase would certainly adopt any new style thrown at them just through sheer love of the brand, while something new and unique would capture the imagination of some kids who had previously dismissed TransFormers as 'not my thing'. This line could be called 'Universe', with subtitles to cover each arc, and could even present an opportunity for crossovers within the Hasbro pantheon (anything from the obvious TransFormers/G.I. Joe to TransFormers/My Little Pony, or TransFormers/Magic: The Gathering) as well as creating new and unique concepts. I know I've complained about past crossovers - the Marvel and Star Wars TransFormers having both been piss-poor examples of engineering - but I believe there's some mileage to the idea, if it's properly thought out before it's developed into toys. Universe would not be a toyline for everyone, but it wouldn't need to be as Generations and Studio Series would be there. It would simply be an alternative TransFormers toyline with its pricepoints in line with the other two, but positioned to surprise fans, newcomers and Hasbro shareholders alike.

Step three: plan the marketing effectively. In its humble beginnings, the nascent TransFormers brand needed comic book heavyweights Marvel and advertising/animation powerhouse Sunbow to create print and TV advertising masquerading as entertainment. Additionally, there was a range of dedicated advertising on TV and in print but, in the case of the latter, there were far more options available in terms of comics and magazines for kids. Since Hasbro - and the TransFormers brand in and of itself - are now in a stronger position, they are now able to make such media in more balanced partnerships, calling the shots on who does what, and - one would hope - what direction the stories take. Granted, the Paramount/Michael Bay movies disappeared up their own horrifically-rendered CGI arses, but the only real flaw to Bumblebee was that it was such a blatant rip-off of The Iron Giant. It was well-written, had an excellent cast, brilliant effects - including more coherent robot designs - was internally consistent (even attempting to keep a degree of consistency with the deleriously inconsistent Bay movies) and didn't feel over-long. That's what we'd need for the continuing movie line - writers who have a degree of understanding of (and respect for) the core concept, and can write stories in which robots are the main characters. That, in turn, will fuel the Studio Series toyline.

Hasbro's relationship with IDW seems to have benefited both parties, with new fans being drawn to the toyline via IDWs thoughful, intricate, and very human stories, and Hasbro making a handful of toys based on the likeness of the comic book artwork. If Hasbro can continue to provide IDW with sufficient inspiration and the freedom to create a worthwhile story within the strict framework of a toyline, the comics should continue to thrive, covering both the Generations and Universe aspects of the toyline, with comics under the former brand telling new tales in established continuities, while those under the latter brand break new ground in new styles. Likewise, the toyline will thrive if it continues to include figures based on new characters created by IDW in service of their stories.

The TV output has been much more of a mixed bag. There have been successes and failures but, certainly subsequent to TFPrime, the majority haven't been that great. The Rescue Bots TV show is actually surprisingly compelling, considering the age of the audience it's aimed at, while RiD2015 and Cyberverse have been less impressive, and the big 'event' series of the last few years - the Prime Wars Trilogy made in collaboration with the now-defunct 'multiplatform online entertainment network' Machinima were roundly - and rightly - panned as utter trash, voiced by a bizarre mixture of known actors and YouTube 'celebrities'. This variation in quality is nothing new as, prior to TFPrime, the only real high points were Beast Wars, (arguably) Beast Machines and TransFormers: Animated, while the original G1 show was typical 80s junk kids' TV, RID/Car Robots was poorly-dubbed silliness and the Unicron/Micron Trilogy couldn't even keep to a consistent level of quality per episode, let alone per series.

The ideal situation would be to reach out to the creators of Beast Wars/Machines, Animated and Prime and distill what made each of them groundbreaking, compelling entertainment... Technically, that's easy: great writers, great art direction, and powerhouse voice actors are the necessary components. While I won't argue that Peter Cullen's performance as Optimus Prime in TFPrime was anything other than pitch-perfect, Garry Chalk is 'my' Optimus Prime because Beast Wars/Machines told a better story, more consistently than the G1 animation I had grown up with, and his performance in particular had a more powerful effect on me. I also have a lot of respect for Chalk's outspoken criticism of Beast Machines, compared to Peter Cullen's apparent indifference to the character's senselessly brutal portrayal in the live action movies, so far removed from the ostensible 'father figure' of the G1 animation. Similarly, David Kaye's interpretation of Optimus for TFAnimated was so different from what had gone before, it made more of an impact. The fact that he'd previously been Megatron in Beast Wars/Machines was just the icing on the cake that was a TransFormers show that dared to be different.

In terms of format, I think it's safe to say that live action would impossible to achieve on a kids' TV budget... but, these days, both CGI and 'traditional' animated series can be incredibly expensive to produce. The whole reason TF Prime had such a small cast (and an infinite supply of generic Vehicons) was the cost of designing and animating new models. That said, if the CGI could be derived from the toys themselves - many of which are developed in CAD packages likely to be somewhat compatible with CGI animation tools - that route should become more achieveable. The TV shows for both Energon/Superlink and Cybertron/Galaxy Force, as well as the bonkers TransFormers Go!, mixed this approach with traditional anime and, for the most part, looked OK... Handled by a team with a few more years' experience under their belts, the results today could be phenomenal. Utilising the Sunbow trick of starting with a particular cast, then gradually switching them out for newer characters and upgraded forms would spread the development cost of new CGI models between seasons of the show, and ensure what kids were watching on-screen always tied in to what was available in toyshops.

This ties in to another of my gripes about TransFormers media in general: The early Marvel UK comics used the toys as guidance for the art style, while the Marvel US comics and the cartoon used horrible, simplified designs which Marvel UK were later forced to adopt. TFPrime was initially conceived as an independent TV show, for which only a handful of toys - the First Edition line - would be produced, so the CGI was not designed with a view to being viable for a sustained toyline. RiD2015 was much the same, and Cyberverse almost follows the TFAnimated example of ignoring the laws of physics to create a bold aesthetic that just cannot be translated into adequate toys at the level of complexity thought appropriate for the age group the show is aimed at.

To me, this seems like sheer folly, but it's a symptom of Hasbro's assertion that the should be percieved as a holder of multi-platform IPs that, almost coincidentally, also makes toys. I don't know why they feel that's the best way to position themselves in the market, particularly when it clearly has a detrimental effect on their ability to do any one task effectively, but that's their choice. My instinct is that they would be far more effective if they took a more unified approach to each brand. For example, TransFormers as a brand is primarily focused on Toys, Kids' TV, Comics and Movies. Therefore, TransFormers should be more effective as a brand if the same team oversees each of those areas, ensuring that the TV shows, Comics and Movies present the brand in an appropriate manner (eg. drop the childish 'humor' and overt sexualisation of the Bay movies), and that the robots themselves can be represented adequately in all forms of media, including the toys, while in turn ensuring the toys adequately represent what is depicted in other media in terms of articulation and complexity of transformation. As long as there's some consistency of presentation, suspension of disbelief will take care of the rest as far as consumers are concerned.

You'd also have only two different aesthetics - at most - occupying shelves, and so less confusion for parents and relatives of TransFormers fans looking to buy a gift.

I have to assume that there's still some TV and print advertising for TransFormers toys, but I barely watch television at all, let alone whatever kids TV is available on weekday afternoons and weekend mornings, and the few comics I've bought in recent years haven't featured toy ads at all... So I'd be curious to know where they're currently concentrating their advertising budgets.

Connected to the marketing, we have step four: be more choosy with licensing. To my mind, nothing bespeaks a lack of concern for brand integrity than the licensing of that brand for irrelevant purposes. I can understand TransFormers branded clothing - to a degree, and within reason - but I cannot understand TransFormers branded party supplies, stationery, Christmas decorations or cookie-making kits - none of which were ever desirable to me, though they have, over the years, been gifted to me. A lot of this pointless tat is on a par with the dumbed-down toys aimed at younger kids: it makes the brand look lowest-common-denominator. Personally, I also detest statues of TransFormers characters. Non-transforming action figures are bad enough, but utterly immobile effigies of these living machines runs contrary to everything the very concept of 'TransFormers' represents. I'd be curious to see how much money Hasbro actually makes out of these licensing agreements... and to know whether they genuinely believe they're worth it, both financially and in terms of brand exposure.

Finally, we have step five: Invest, invest, invest. The best way to make money on a brand is to put money into that brand - not just promotion, but development. Ensure that the best available talent is working on every aspect of the brand (particularly the engineering of the toys), put some time into thoroughly analysing feedback on the products, and accept that losing money in the short-term can be inevitable with some undertakings with long-term benefits. One of the things I dislike about the War for Cybertron line, for example is how simplistic the transformations are, and how some of the Cybertronian vehicle modes don't even try to look like vehicles.

Many fans have bemoaned the visible drop in Quality Control over the last 15-20 years, and the shift in manufacturing from Japan to Taiwan to China to Vietnam seems to have been accompanied by a steady decline in build quality. What I've found quite baffling is that the US used to be a manufacturing powerhouse, and Hasbro could just as easily invest in their own manufacturing setup rather than farming it out overseas. It'd be a huge initial expense, certainly, but think of the jobs it'd create. The US is still a major producer of crude oil, so they'd have easy access to the raw materials for plastic production. They could also look into the use of recycled plastics for some (parts of) their toylines, as well as reducing or eliminating plastics from their packaging. Bringing even a portion of their manufacturing back to the US would, I suspect, substantially reduce distribution costs, not to mention tariffs on import/export.

There's also the question of actively protecting their intellectual properties, particularly in the face of the massive increase in the number of Third Party makers of transforming robot toys. It occurs to me that, rather than striking down these companies, Hasbro/Takara Tomy could license them to specialise in certain areas of the brand. Hasbro/Takara Tomy could then produce their basic range of toys for kids, but actually make money off the third parties who upscale those toys and substantially improve the paintwork, if not the engineering, to produce a version of the figure targetted at the premium Collectors' market. Furthermore, it cannot be argued that some of the Third Party Masterpiece-grade figures are substantially more advanced than official Masterpiece products, not least those in the Movie Masterpiece line, and the upscaled and re-engineered Evasion Mode Optimus Prime figure, produced by WeiJiang, essentially turned a Voyager class toy into a Masterpiece. Just imagine what could be produced if Black Apple was working for Hasbro/Takara Tomy. Sure, some of the excesses and miniscule details might get beaten down, but they'd certainly have been able to add some finesse to many of the existing toys. While Hasbro have, by and large, presented a fairly relaxed attitude to Third Parties - in fact, they seem to have been a source of much of Hasbro's inspiration in recent years - those few instances of "cease and desist" would work out better for everyone if they became "let's see what we can achieve together". Greater availability of these figures would be just the start.

Actually, let me add one more... Step six: Bring back full, proper Tech Specs with character bios. In a way, the only thing that really set TransFormers apart from contemporaries like GoBots/Robo Machines was the cut-out-and-keep card on the back of the packaging. Frankly, some of BanDai's toys were better than Hasbro/Takara's, particularly when compared within the most analogous size classes. For me, certainly, it was the descriptions of each character's personality and abilities that won me over and got me fully invested in TransFormers toys... I cannot accept that I am alone in this, and I believe that full character bios, written in collaboration with those who are developing the associated media to ensure consistency of character, would still help to get new fans invested in the brand. I almost got the impression that Hasbro were listening to my requests when it seemed that Siege weapons would be fully described in terms of what they do and how... but the reality was a massive let-down. There's nothing in the packaging or the instructions that explains anything, and the icons and bar graphs attributed to each weapon in the instruction leaflets fail to impart any useful information... Or even the name of the weapon, preferring instead to use a truncated 'model number' approach.

Ultimately, a character bio helps people figure out how a toy/character fits in with the toyline/story, and also helps fans to identify with the characters. For example, back in the 80s, there were toys I decided not to buy because their characters didn't fit in with the collection I was building... And there are toys I missed out on (either due to availability or lack of funds) that I have since endeavoured to collect because their characters, as described in their Tech Specs, were of great interest to me.

Another reason I detest the G1 TV show is that it played fast and loose with the character bios, ignored their stated abilities, gave them extra abilities whenever some sort of deus ex machina was required (Jazz's grappling hook, anyone?) and presented nonsense stories that could have been used in any number of other cartoons, instead of exploring any character's described strengths and weaknesses, and how they contribute to the ongoing situation. For example, Prowl was a military strategist whose sophisticated logic centre could get scrambled by the unexpected, yet he tended to be a background character while, more recently, he's tended to be portrayed as a lawmaker, seemingly just because he transformed into a police car on Earth. Thundercracker was said to be contemptuous of anything that cannot fly, but also uncertain of the Decepticon cause, yet he barely had any dialogue of his own and ended up as just another of Megatron's mooks. Where was the story of Prowl's first, mind-blowing encounter with sentient organic life, after he was rebuilt in the image of Earth's machinery by way of disguise? Where were the signs that Thundercracker wanted to be anywhere but in the middle of a war he didn't believe in?

An awful lot of work went into the brand in its early days, but that work was largely ignored by what a large number of fans consider to be the definitive work. From that point of view, I can understand why Hasbro won't bother now, but if only they'd take the creative reins, and let the brand team define the necessary parameters rather the cedeing the whole thing to companies with no vested interest in following someone else's template, the brand would remain both strong and consistent.

I realise a lot of this is very much pie in the sky... but hopefully sounds a bit more interesting than the seemingly endless 3-year G1 reboot cycles Hasbro keep churning out alongside their shoddy, ill-conceived, gimmick-laden kiddie lines.

Soundwave 1984-2019 - The more things change, the more they stay TransFormers...

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