I find myself often wondering just what is the future of physical goods.
Related to my post last week, I’ve found myself going through much of my physical collection and evaluating it. I decided to confront my own hoarder-like mentality of hanging onto to every possible thing. I’m by no means a hoarder in the true sense of the word but I confronted the truth that I had kept many things that I didn’t really want to keep.
For example, toys. I have a vast collection of action figures. Some of them I really love and take pleasure in taking out, holding, handling, and playing with (the Transformers Classics Jetfire toy from 2006 is objectively one of the best toys ever made). Some of my collection hold a special place in my heart, providing anchors to pleasant thoughts of the past (memorable gifts, for example). Some are historically significant (while a pretty crummy toy, the original Transformers Megatron from 1984 is a landmark toy for many reasons).
But some, I have for less than preferable reasons.
While I don’t begrudge monetary collectors for their chosen hobby, I do take some issue to the lengths it can often go to (and the effect it can have on the industry, but more on that in a moment). I have many toys for a perceived investment value. I own toys not because I like them or they matter to me, but because I feel like they’ll be worth something one day. And while they may be, it is still a dubious prospect to engage in that kind of collecting, at least without committing to it with proper storage and monitoring trends that determine matters like that. Just having an item and hoping it will one day be worth ‘something’ is an often losing prospect.
I additionally have many toys out of a sense of completion. I own either an entire toy line (a sizeable portion of the Generation One Transformers), a narrative subset (all the Autobots that came over on the Ark, and the Decepticons that came over on the Nemesis), or a character subset (all the released versions of Prowl). This last one becomes especially problematic when I have a character I like (again, Prowl; I’m a sucker for any character voiced by Michael Bell) and thus have multiple versions of that character. There are a lot of versions of Prowl and some of those figures are better than others. If I find that one figure is overwhelmingly superior to others, and said others have little personal significance, how wise is it to hand onto it?
Collectors in the audience might have a lot to say on the matter, and they’re not wrong. But I’m really not a collector. I don’t care for these toys the way a collector might (or should), nor do I select figures for any reason except my own preference for the character. More than once I’ve passed up on more valuable figures in preference for a common figure, and I’ve angered collectors by shelling out a small fortune for boxed figures, only to experience the joy of opening the character out-right. I don’t collect toys for financial gain or even some sense of accomplishment. I collect them because I’m essentially a 15-year-old child who masquerades as an adult and I just want a lot of toys.
Neither goal is any more or less valid. But it is the mixing of the two that is a problem. If you wish to be a collector, be a collector. If you want to be a big kid, be a big kid. But being both can cause a serious conflict. The two past-times aren’t automatically mutually exclusive, but they’re close. Most collectors who pursue both end up with essentially two collections, having one figure to keep and one to play with.
Long story short, this led me to begin to purge my collection. I wasn’t harsh and abrasive, removing all but only a highly elite few figures. I kept more than I got rid of. But I got rid of many figures I owned simply because I felt compelled to have them, despite not liking them (looking at you, Robots in Disguise and Energon Prowls).
But this led me to look at modern figures, to see if there were toys for whom I liked the characters but didn’t like the figure itself (Galvatron, for example). I checked all over the internet and found that we live in a golden age of toys for the modern collector. But what about the modern child?
Toys are not exclusively the realm of children, but like Disney movies and theme park rides, they are principally the realm of children. They are primarily for children first (obviously there are PLENTY of exceptions). So the toy market should, for the most part, cater to children first and adults second, right?
I’m not so sure.
Transformers has explored the splintering of their audience since the release of the live-action movies in 2007. They released the Animated TV series in conjunction with the movie, providing a more child-friendly version of the Transformers. This would continue with Transformers Prime (which is damn-near a tween or adult show, darker in moments than the Marvel Cinematic universe), paired with Rescue Bots (a show similar to Handy Manny or Dora the Explorer). This is great and this is wonderful, but is this sustainable? Can the franchise operate with these divergent personalities?
The original Marvel comics of Transformers were clearly written for younger readers, but the modern IDW comics are very mature in their themes and issues. And while one of Transformers’ great unsung points was that they spoke up to kids, not down to them, one does have to wonder just what their target audience is.
And this leads me back to the point of physical goods. If the franchise continues its splintering, with more and more of the toys aimed at the adult collector, said collector will eventually get phased out. If the majority of Transformers fans are fans of the original cartoon, that audience will begin dwindling soon. Some will pass on their love of the franchise, but the likelihood that it will endure is questionable. If modern children are less interested in physical toys, will the market endure?
Dan Larson at Toy Galaxy explored this not too long ago in a terrific video addressing how deadlocked the action figure market currently is. It does raise the question, especially in the wake of Toys R Us’ tragic closing, just how long will the toy aisle endure?
Toys as we know them today really aren’t too old of a phenomena. GI Joe’s original design by Stan Weston dates back to 1963, apocryphally attributed to a bet with his wife about being able to sell dolls to little boys (thus the distinction between action figures like GI Joe and fashion figures like Barbie; the distinction between ‘boys toys’ and ‘girls toys’ to this day being solely the ability to style the figure’s hair). If toys ceased to be a major pastime, their departure would be little more than a blink in history’s eye.
That said, it has long been believed that media would not endure, especially when a competing past time arrived. After all, video games brought an end to physical sports. And television brought an end to movies. Magazines brought an end to books, just as books brought an end to the very concept of the human memory. So perhaps all this speculation about the end of toys and tangible collectibles is so much hand-wringing. Maybe the action figure market will endure so long as there are fun stories to tell and kids want the freedom to recreate the adventures, or to create their own.