Monday, 13 January 2014

Villains: the key to toyline success

There’s a theory I’ve had since I was quite young about the success and failure of action figure lines. I don’t have any solid science or facts to back it up – only a gut feeling – so I’m curious to see how others feel about this.
My theory is basically this: The success (or failure) of a toy line is directly related to how many villains are in the toy range, and how readily they are available to buyers.

Why do I feel this way?
Well, kid’s toys are meant to be played with, and there’s no point playing with a bunch of hero-oriented toys unless they have villains to battle. When there are no villains in a range – or inadequate villains, for that matter – there’s no real point to having the good guy toys, except as a collector’s piece. And how many eight year olds want a collector’s piece? If your answer ranged between “not many” to “none”, I think you’d be fairly on the money.

Batman, the fact that he is my favourite superhero notwithstanding, has been particularly guilty excluding villains. Since the 1990s, many Batman toy lines have consisted of nothing but variants of the titular character, usually dressed in costumes or featuring accessories that bear little to no resemblance to his comic, TV or film appearances. Regular Batman, Stealth Batman, Camo Batman, Undetermined but Different Colour to the Rest Batman – do any of these sound familiar to you?  Yet action figures of his (very) extensive rogues’ gallery are frequently quite thin on the ground.  
Since the release of the Sam Raimi movie in 2002, Spider-Man has also been a particular offender. Granted, he’s got a few costume changes that can be worked through – Symbiote Spider-Man and Scarlet Spider, for instance – but again, it’s often been a stretch. With such a wide cast of villains available, why not make figures of them?

As an adult, I understand the logistics of parts re-use -- I understand that reusing basic bodies with different paint schemes is important to keeping a line viable. Unique villains that can't be re-used for other figures are expensive to produce. Companies don't want to lose money. But if you've got nothing but variants of the main hero, odds are you're going to lose money anyway -- because no-one wants to buy it.

 But who’s done it right? Well, there are two toylines that I feel have been particularly good at the balancing act of heroes to villains – GI Joe: A Real American Hero and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1982)

G.I. Joe was a real pioneer in this area. While G.I. Joe had been around since the 1960s in one form
or another, it wasn’t until 1982’s A Real American Hero range that it really pushed through to the next level of success. This particular iteration was the brainchild of Hasbro toys and Marvel Comics, who worked in conjunction with each other to create a backstory for the toys, as well as producing a tie-in comic and TV series.

There were always more Joes than Cobras – but there were plenty of bad guys available. Cobra Commander never needed to feel like he was standing alone against a tide of clearly superior foes.  Nor did kids feel like they had no-one to fight their good guy toys against.
Apparently, it was Marvel that really pushed to produce toys of the villains, whereas Hasbro had originally wanted to produce only the good guys. Perhaps understandably at the time, they had concerns that the villains wouldn’t sell. Looking at the action figure shelves today, I can’t help but think that there are quite a few companies that still have that same mentality today, more than 30 years later. Of course, Marvel’s instincts proved right and the line was a huge success – G.I. Joe has run almost continuously in one form or another up until the present day.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987)
Though it ended up getting pretty bizarre and downright weird at times – Ninja Turtles Troll Dolls, I’m looking at you – the diversity of this range continues to impress, even almost two decades after its heyday. The 2003 reboot followed a similar, though more conservative, path than the original toy range – numerous variants of the turtles, accompanied by almost every character that appeared on the show. Most importantly, the villains.

The figures tied to the 2012 reboot have followed a similar pattern so far, though the ratio is definitely a little more skewed towards the heroes. Still, they seem to be consistently selling out wherever I go – which is nice to see.

If I was fortunate enough to be designing an action figure range for an existing or new IP, I would try and work within these ground rules:

1.       Keep the characters looking the same as they do in the movie/TV show/comic.

2.       Include accessories that are actually relevant to the character – and if you must include weapons or tools that have never been seen in their media appearances, make sure they’re removable.

3.       Have a good ratio of villain action figures. It doesn’t have to 1:1 with the heroes, but I think about 1:3 is a good one.

I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this – how important are villains to the success of a toy line? Thoughts, anyone? The other good examples of ranges that have worked this ratio well include Star Wars, Transformers and He-Man. I was never so big on He-Man, but I’m fairly sure that the first Transformer I owned was a Decepticon, and Starscream still remains my favourite Transformer. If you’ve got other suggestions, please post ‘em below!



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