Friday, February 26, 2021

Secret Wars Toys As A Parable of Design, Detail and Giving People What They Want

This is a design-is-not-engineering parable:

It should've worked perfectly.

Mattel--fresh off the success of He-Man--decided to make some superhero toys with Marvel. 

You know Marvel, right? The company that currently dominates the entire entertainment market with a gloved fist?

So they gathered ten-year old boys together in a focus group. They said to them "Listen, ten-year-old-boys, what is it that you desire?"

The ten year old boys spoke:

1-Weapons

2-Vehicles and bases

3-The word "secret"

4-The word "war"

That's what tested well.

So they went to Marvel Comics and said "Listen, Marvel, you make the comics, we'll make the toys. Just make sure it has that stuff." Thus was born a comic book called Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars, (over in the UK, a little earlier, the comic anthology 2000AD polled its readers about the themes they liked and they voted for "future war" and thus the comic Rogue Trooper was born). Marvel head Jim Shooter wrote a 12-issue battle royale in another dimension featuring all of the company's most popular heroes: the Avengers, the X-Men, Spider-Man, the Hulk, etc. Mattel made toys in the now-mandatory Star-Wars-like scale. Sales reps went to comic shops and toy stores and hyped them all up and down.

And...

...it didn't work. Well, the comic worked: the first issue sold 800,000 copies. Which is a lot. But the toys, they were not that popular. Again: they should've been. Marvel Comics at the literal height of their popularity with kids (they had recently turned down an offer to buy DC) plus toys, in the middle of The Original Toy Tie-In Decade. It didn't take.

First off you'll notice or remember--the toys sucked:

But it's important to remember what they sucked compared to--it was 1984--two of the most toyetic properties of the late 20th century had just arrived:



Marvel had vehicles! And weapons! And twenty years of good will! Plus a best-selling comic and yet the Marvel toy line wasn't a patch on these newcomers. Why?

Well Transformers and GI Joe had their own cartoons, but the toys were also cooler--and more detailed. And it's important to recognize what that detail meant. Marvel put very little effort into the design of the vehicles and weapons and stuff:                                              

...it's like a...War of the Worlds walker thing that two guys can sit in? With...rays? There is no love in that war walker. But maybe more important it doesn't mean anything. And here's what I mean by that:

Look at GI Joe and Transformers: Roadblock has a fully-automatic machine gun, because he's a big guy and the only one strong enough to carry it, Snake-Eyes has an uzi, because Snake-Eyes is the mysterious cool guy and uzis were cool back then, Soundwave turns into a tape-player and he has tiny other robots that come out of the tape-player, Megatron has a giant cannon on his arm because when he transforms hsi whole body into a gun it's the scope on the gun. And the robots turn into these mundane things because they're hiding on Earth in disguise. Every visual detail builds the world and also has a clue to the narrative (a narrative echoed in the cartoons, comics and the little data-files on the back of the toy box). That gun platform in Secret Wars? It just tells you they're in space. And would like to shoot you.

Of course Marvel had visual world-building: Captain America has that stars-and-stripes shield because he was created as a patriotic propaganda tool in WW2, the Hulk's pants are ripped because he transforms unwillingly from human into monster, etc. but the foundational mistake of Secret Wars--from a toy-selling perspective--was to have the story take place on another planet, light-years away from the world Marvel had already built. The characters were all Marvel, but the focus-grouped selling-point--those vehicles and weapons and bases--didn't have anything to do with the ongoing Marvel story that dozens of creators had already put decades of work into.

If the toys had come with the X-Mansion, Avengers Mansion, the Fantasticar, and Doom's Castle, the line might've done better, but I think the real nail in the coffin might've been the shields.

Every Marvel character came with a shield and this was a terrible idea. Somewhere a toy exec is going "But we're giving these kids more stuff? Who doesn't want more?". But, to a kid, nothing marks this toy line as some off-brand ignorable just-a-cut-above-Hulk-shampoo tat as these shields--they announce immediately that this toy line is detached from the story of Marvel. Why would the fucking Hulk have a shield? With his secret identity head on it? The shields don't even appear in the Secret Wars comic--but even if they did, they would just point to these toys being part of this inessential, skippable, temporary pocket-universe. The shields:

    -tell you nothing about the Marvel world and its story, and

    -tell you that the toy line is going to be characterized by stuff like this instead of things which do tell you the details of the world and its story

With GI Joe and Transformers you had to look at the toys because every inch of them told you something about the character. Where does Grimlock's T-rex head go when he transforms into a robot? Go to a friends' house and look at him. The Marvel toys tell you less than the art you've already seen.

Marvel trading-cards--something with way less genuine play value than these toys--did way better. Because they promised some contribution to the story--one series had each heroes win-loss percentage ont he back, f'rinstance.

The broader point is no ten-year-old boy is going to go "I want toys with distinctive details that feed my sense of exploring an alternate world as large and imperfectly-knowable as our own". They're going to go "I like detachable weapons" and end up with Iron Man holding a fucking lenticular shield with Tony Stark's head on it.

Most people who saw all these toys as a kid could probably tell you now that they weren't going to trip over themselves to get the Marvel toys (even if they couldn't tell you why)--but the toy execs couldn't. And this was even though the design principles they were using ("toy guns good") were solid. You can't really design from the outside-in. You have to have ideas about why what you want people to love should be lovable.

Moral of the story: beware of "design principles". Love what you're doing and build out from there.

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12 comments:

Luca Lorenzon said...

Gosh - I didn't know there were other figures besides the 8 we saw in Italy!
I remember the good characters' shield, being circular, didn't work very well with the gimmick of secret identities.
And the line presented Kang (the first figure I owned) but, as far as I know, he was not present in the comic book miniseries!

Nick said...

It's not really a design flaw in the way those awful shields were (or the general detached nothingness of Secret Wars), but both my Spiderman and my Cap lost their detail paint within 6 months, rendering them aesthetically unbearable to me. Truly horrible memories of these shitty figures.

Cap didn't actually have his proper shield either.

You've brought something to mind...in the UK it was all about Action Man ('78-'84 range, superior in all ways to the US large scale GI Joe figures which had spawned them...i started with them during their last year and there was a thriving second hand market for at least another 4 years) and I returned there forthwith. Detail was key. Customisation was emphasised. No two kids had the same Action Man.

This was story generated not from sound design principles and nested, meaningful detail, but pure DIY 'make the best hero you can from what you've found on market stalls and swapped at school'. I feel sad and maybe a little old, thinking how modern kids don't get to experience this.

I hope detailed dolls get another run someday. They definitely lead into D&D for me (well, Fighting Fantasy RPG anyway).

Simon Tsevelev said...

My first thought: "Hey, cool, Kang and Doom and Captain. But why is Doc Octopus carrying a shield, isn't this silly and completely out of character?"
Oh. Riiight.
Love the moral of the story. I spent ten years in self-hatred over my inability to deal with Aristotle's composition before I found out that there's picaresque.

Adamantyr said...

Oh yeah, my brother and I had a few of these. The comic was good, the toys were not. Besides being cheaply made (Doc Ock's arms broke off within weeks of purchase), they had no real soul to them. The only reason to get them was to have a Marvel themed toy, really. Plus, there was zero connection to the comic, since they had figures that weren't even IN the Secret Wars.

G.I. Joe had already introduced articulated figures you could pose easily, that made them incredibly fun to play with. Transformers? Well I'll be honest... they are pretty and cool, but actually playing with them was a pain. All the various Transformers were widely variant in scale since they came from two different toy lines originally, plus the die-cast metal linked with plastic parts meant they broke frequently under heavy play.

But a year or two ago, I found out that a local toy store here bought and sold classic G1 Transformers, so I got all of our collection out and brought it down to them. Not in original boxes, with wear and tear, I made close to $1500 selling the entire collection. (A classic Megatron is particularly valuable these days as they can't even manufacture them overseas like they do many of the old G1 line; his gun appearance leads to him getting seized in customs every time.)

Point being, Transformers had a great story behind it and some well developed characters and voice actors that made the toy a runaway hit. GI Joe was a little less successful (I honestly couldn't tell you the storyline from the old cartoons at ALL, it's been years since I watched them) but the functionality of the toys and the well developed character bios helped drive them along. Plus they had ninjas.

Zak-Chad Elite said...

- suing gen con and winning
- suing mandy and winning
- sued ettin and won
- rest of the traitors doomed
- producing top tier commentary on drama
- producing godly content

Zak's back, baby!

Zak Sabbath said...

If you say so.

Zak-Chad Elite said...

I got tossed out face-first from the discord for saying "I don't think we should be acting on this too harshly unless Zak gets charged with rape."

They said I was you. That's the only possibility. There was no nuance in 2019. I was pretty mad, lost a handful of good OSR friends I played with regularly, so I'm pretty happy you're making a comeback.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Z-C E

If I actually did any of the heinous shit Mandy accused me of I should be decapitated and sold to Jawas. But I didn't so what they did makes no sense.

You don't ever assume guilt without asking questions. That's Hitler shit.

Zak-Chad Elite said...

Not gonna get an argument from me my dude. Banning you from everywhere based on accusations and hearsay isn't how the real world works, and the RPG hate club treating the )real world( like it was a fucking discord server or subreddit board was still the dumbest shit the internet ever did. fuck those cowards

Simon Tsevelev said...

Well, what they did makes sense if you consider that by "they" we mean some evil, destructive people and lots of thoughtless people.
Now that I think of it, it does sound like Hitler shit.

Zak Sabbath said...

I want to be clear about that analogy:

The root of both problems is -refusing to think- when another human pisses you off. Just taking your instinct or programming and running with it. Not going "Ok, stop: I owe other humans exactly what they owe me". And that is why I feel very comfortable with that analogy. People pre-decided, without any curiosity or care, that things are exactly what they seem when you're angry or hurt. It is the alchemy where stupid becomes evil.

Dogstar said...

Another interesting comparison would be to the earlier Micronauts. The figures are decent quality but, also a mishmash of type and tone. Yet, the comic was really high quality and made the disparate elements work. And, while definitely a marketing exercise for toys, the lack of an established history helped in this case.