The videogames industry may have had its financial ups and downs over the years, but one thing consistently sells even if the games don’t – videogame toys. Despite the economic downturn, gamers still have no problem shelling out coin for collectibles based on the games they love.
“The popularity of videogame toys has definitely increased, and there’s more of a demand now,” said Randy Falk, director of product development at NECA. Having made action figures based on Gears of War, BioShock, Assassin’s Creed, Resident Evil, Dead Space and Street Fighter, to name a few, the New Jersey-based collectibles company has certainly seen the rise of videogame toys in recent years. Although NECA is also in the business of making toys for movie licenses, Falk said that videogames are where it’s at right now.
“In many cases, games are exceeding movies now in terms of revenue, and to be honest, there aren’t a lot of great new movies being made,” he explained. “Between all the sequels, re-makes and unnecessary 3D, videogames have filled the void for new and exciting content, and that includes videogame toys.”
Indeed, a plethora of companies are offering videogame playthings for collectors and fans these days, whether it’s high-end collectibles like statues and busts or detailed, articulated action figures. As far as acquiring licenses, it seems that both the game companies and toymakers are reaching out to each other in tandem to get these items into the hands of passionate fans with expendable cash.
In fact, the demand is so high that Japanese game company Square Enix not only started making merchandise for its own titles like Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts and Dragon Quest, but also for other game publishers as well. In the past year, the company has expanded its product line to include licensed properties such as Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and Halo.
“While the merchandise department is a segment of Square Enix, we aspire to become a collectible toys creator with top-product quality in the whole industry,” said Kanji Tashiro, Square Enix’s head of merchandising in North America. “It may be rare, but we’ve overcome barriers in obtaining licensing agreements from other publishers and can proudly say that the quality of our merchandise is widely acknowledged.”
But not every videogame is worthy of being immortalized in plastic or resin. There are a few prerequisites before just any toy is made. “We look for titles and characters that are unique and compelling as toys, and the characters themselves really need to have a ‘toy-etic’ quality to them where they feel like they’re action figures already,” explained Falk.
Todd McFarlane, Spawn creator and founder of McFarlane Toys, shared the same sentiment: “Not all videogames are created equal. You have to pick and choose what it is you want to do, what’s going to work and what makes sense.”
And for McFarlane, the thing that made perfect sense was Halo. When the comic book luminary founded McFarlane Toys, videogames weren’t necessarily on his radar until a few of his employees told him about this Halo thing they were obsessed with playing. The company acquired the license just after the launch of Halo 3 and has made a slew of figures ever since, most recently for Halo: Reach. While a popular franchise like Halo was a sure thing, he said that you can’t always predict what resonates with collectors; McFarlane Toys has also made figures for popular Activison properties Call of Duty and Guitar Hero, which only did “okay” in terms of toy sales.
“Grand Theft Auto, for example, is a very popular game, but it’s sort of an awkward toyline. What are you going to make with it?” McFarlane asked. Even if transforming the game’s characters into desirable figures isn’t an issue, sometimes it’s the game’s ESRB rating that holds the toys back at certain retailers, like Walmart and Target. “Some of the bigger games, they’re terrific videogames but they become a little bit harder to convince [retailers] to put it on the shelf because it has a Mature rating,” McFarlane said. “With Call of Duty, to do those toys in a big scale, most of the stores aren’t going to endorse and glorify the ‘war toys’ per se, so it’s tough.”
One way to get around retailers’ whims is to just sell customizable videogame toys directly to the consumer, like FigurePrints does. The company makes custom 3D statues of gamers’ World of Warcraft characters. Founded four years ago by Ed Fries, the former vice president of game publishing at Microsoft and a huge World of Warcraft fan (natch), FigurePrints has made more than 25,000 statues since its launch. The standard character goes for $129, but there are smaller, cheaper options such as busts and pets. Fries said that sales have increased exponentially since the company made the figures available in Europe last year, and his printing machines are running 24 hours a day to fulfill all the orders.
“I think what’s really great about [FigurePrints] is that it’s your character,” Fries said of his toys’ appeal. “It’s the character you spend so much time with in the game, and to be able to just have it with you out in the real world, it sort of bridges the gap between two worlds.”
Drew Seldin, vice president of TriForce Sales, definitely knows about “bridging the gap” between the real world and the videogame world. Specializing in high-end collectibles for the fans with the deepest pockets, Seldin’s company only has a single videogame license at the moment, but that’s all it needs. TriForce is known for creating the $950 replica of Gears of War‘s Lancer Assault Rifle, and while it doesn’t actually shoot (or chainsaw) people to death, it’s the closest thing gamers can get to a real version of their favorite virtual weapon.
“Most of the weapons, armor or character pieces in videogames are just really cool,” Seldin said. “They’re used in a videogame world to battle monsters or gods or some kind of evil to help humanity prevail. But many of these pieces aren’t real-world items, so being able to own a piece of it appeals to fans.”
For TriForce, and all the videogame toymakers, authenticity is key. Every company said it works closely with the developers to make sure each collectible is accurate to the game they’re inspired by. The toymakers have to rely heavily on the developers for reference and art direction; after all, they’re taking characters and items that only exist on-screen and turning them into physical 3D objects.
“They were easily the most involved group we’ve ever dealt with,” said McFarlane of Halo creators Bungie. The developers had feedback on everything from the shade of green on Master Chief’s helmet to the thickness of the rivets in a Spartan soldier’s armor. “If you can think about it, they had a comment,” he said, laughing. “But they know their characters better than we do. Sometimes that can be a little bit of a frustration, but it was rewarding … they were a huge, valuable asset to us with their comments.”
The attention to detail has clearly paid off, and the toy companies are busier than ever. McFarlane said that his company has sold out of Halo: Reach product this year; NECA is seeing its Gears of War, Bioshock and Assassin’s Creed lines fly off the shelves; FigurePrints is producing even more custom World of Warcraft figures with the Cataclysm expansion on the way; and Square Enix can barely keep Final Fantasy VII toys stocked (everyone wants a Cloud and Sephiroth toy).
And yes, TriForce is even selling its $950 Lancer. “I think that a collector’s passion is what drives what they purchase,” Seldin said, when asked why someone would drop a thousand bucks on a videogame “toy.” “What makes the person who spends $950 on a baseball autograph different from the person who buys one of our Lancers? When you’re thinking about making a purchase, you have to ask yourself, ‘Do I have to have it?’ If you can honestly say ‘yes,’ then go for it!”
Tracey John is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York. When she’s not writing about games, toys and comics, she’s probably LFG in Azeroth. Find out more about her at her website, www.traceyjohn.com.