Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Not Attending the Third Party

-          Ben Watson

     You know when your mates text you to get you to go out with them and you just give them an excuse because you don’t really want to? I feel like this is all I’ve ever been doing in response to the Third Party Transformers scene. You’ve already seen plenty of love for 3P here on Refined Robot Co. – we’re not going to shy away from it - but in case you didn’t know, there won’t be much coming from my particular corner of the blog. Hey, we’re not all the same! So I feel it’s time to stop replying with a different excuse every time and lay it out for you (and me) to see. Why don’t I like 3P? What’s to not like?

      As time has marched on and it’s become apparent Third Party efforts aren’t ever going away, my stance on the medium/scene/issue has cooled down a bit. Really at this point, you can’t rail against it with any kind of real conviction; you can’t affect anything. It’s pointless to pile hate on something that a lot of other people enjoy that’s become so entrenched. So I don’t. But that doesn’t mean I agree with it. What I’m trying to say is I’m no longer against Third Party, but I’m not for it.

"You ain't no brother of mine..."

     Let’s address the most prominent point first: intellectual property. Even now, I see plenty of people view 3P as IP infringement, but is it? This is where we enter a massive grey area, like Birmingham or somewhere. When each figure is in essence an entirely new design, nothing’s being stolen. They’re not knock-offs. Sculpting, engineering, not even names on the box are lifted from Transformers but you know the core of the thing - the character it tries to say it doesn’t represent that’s the only reason anyone buys it - is. To begin with this could have been seen as less of an issue as companies would aim to only deliver C or D-list characters envisioned through a lens of particular in-house style. But now, as each begins to feel more and more invincible in the wake of an ever increasing number of years Hasbro has left them alone; we’re now in a situation where Optimus Primes are blatantly saturating the market. You literally can’t get any more A-list than that. I don’t care if you call it “Primorion” it still feels like a huge middle finger to Takara's more than sterling efforts. Is MP-10 suddenly not any good? The audacity some of these companies express is certainly something which doesn’t sit right with me. The entire business model is built around them providing a niche of consumers (who clearly have the cash to spare) things that they can see they’d buy in a heartbeat. “I saw you coming” doesn’t begin to cover it and while for you – the discerning reader who really wants a Masterpiece scale Weirdwolf even when a deluxe one just came out – that may be playing right into your hands but you have to see you’re playing into theirs. Myself, I just feel like they’re taking you for a mug (US: sucker) a lot of the time.

      This all amounts to, admittedly a very clever tactic. Realising that collectors are (apparently) chomping at the bit for *throws dart at wallchart* Masterpiece-esque Sixshots, the companies prepared to do so can capitalise on that perceived demand. All that’s left is for you to crack out the heart-eyes emojis and proclaim your wildest dreams have been made manifest. And then do so again five minutes later when another company does the same. Maybe it’s an emergent phenomenon; like swallows swarming, but every few months without fail we’re treated to a new cycle of the same product being offered by different companies and something has to be going on there right? Whether it’s internal competition fueled by some kind of espionage or literally just 7 people getting the same idea at once, it does amount to more choice than you need and the inevitable “war” of the Springers/Grimlocks/etc. Multiple companies deciding that this is something you won’t get from HasTak so you’re definitely gonna be interested and then looking round to see all their peers have stolen their thunder. Suddenly that fringe item that might have been a genuine shoe-in isn’t unique at all and to me this just results in a feeling of wasted resources, a mild chuckle and a hit of irony as their USP careens into oblivion. Which brings me to the next point, 3P lovers’ boldest statement: “We’ll never get that from HasTak!”

      While I sit writing this surrounded by brand new Headmasters and Combiners, you’ve got to accept that we are being given more and more of the figures we thought we’d never see in a million years - at main-line level no less. A Leader Class Sixshot just came out I mean, Odin's Stones, who could have ever expected that? Whether it is in fact some kind of response to the efforts of Third Party companies or not, it’s impossible to deny HasTak are providing the stuff you – as an “adult collector” – have wanted for years. So to say you prefer 3P because they give you what you want while 1P doesn’t, is - let’s be honest - complete toss. A huge part of this market is based on impatience. Look at how many Backdrafts have suddenly found themselves in sales piles now MP Inferno is here. I’m prepared to wait for that MP Jazz and if it doesn’t happen, oh well. As a fan who places less importance on G1 than most I think I can safely say 90% of 3P efforts aren’t things I need right now. Having a smidgen of faith in Hasbro has for the past few years paid off as each toy fair or comic con has given me more figures I didn’t know I wanted. I don’t want to be given what I actually want, because then what’s left to stay in this game for? Tease me baby. To me Generations is the perfect blend of new spice with good old… spice. They can mix it up and still deliver you that Galvatron you’ve been waiting for. Ok maybe they still wouldn’t come up with a transforming Death’s Head, I’ll give you that… This is the area 3P legitimises itself in, truly original design not relying on the bankability of widely known characters. But here we are with at least three companies still trying to sell you another Optimus Prime as if you haven’t already got twenty. If there’s one thing I’d like to see more of, it’s definitely designers putting their skills to use on the kind of thing there is no precedent for. No matter what sort of tone you’ve taken from this article so far, please know that I am still impressed with a good measure of 3P offerings. There’s some really cool stuff out there. But just because I like the look of something doesn’t mean I want to buy it…

Yet another unrealistic body expectation for Gears. 

      Here is where we enter the most nebulous area of my own opinions on Third Party. One which I’m not sure I know how to navigate. It could be described as “brand loyalty” but I just think that makes me sound like a capitalist sycophant. I buy Transformers because they are Transformers. Maketoys Rioter Despotron is not a Transformer. Therefore however flippin' cool it looks, I’m simply not going to buy it. Perceived legitimacy doesn’t enter into it here. Similarly outlying but actually fully licensed converting robot brand Action Toys’ Machine Robo catches my eye too, but I still don’t feel like throwing cash at that Blackbird one. What’s going on here? Permit me a bit of on the fly self-exploration and maybe we’ll get to the bottom of this.

Self  Vs. Self

     Transformers have always been toys made for children. I played with them as a child. I looked at them in shops as a child. I continue to look at them in shops as a man and buy them for the child that lives in a crystal prison inside me. Third Party figures are not toys made for children. Kids don’t play with them. Kids can’t look at them in shops. So what is my inner nine-year old clawing at his amethyst cell going to get out of them? While I’m an “adult collector” I only want to take the adult side of that equation so far. I still want to buy toys. I still want to buy things that smaller me would’ve gotten a kick out of after picking it up in Tesco's. “Oh, but what about Masterpieces?” I hear you intone. I’ve got to admit, I feel mostly the same way about them. But then once in a blue moon, the swish official logo on the box swoops in to say “Hey, you want this really,” in a suave inflection of Japanese and before I know it I’ve dropped sixty quid on a Hot Rod I didn’t need. I think I’m trying to say that as long as it says “TRANSFORMERS” on the box, I’m game, boy. But there’s already so bloody many of them that as soon as you push Carnifexes and Striker Manuses into my vision, I’m good to leave 'em alone. You see plenty of people who go and buy all of it; anything and everything. HasTak, 3P and even KO’s line their shelves and well, more power to ya, but that isn’t the way I roll. I guess when it comes to my “collection” (a term we might explore the connotations of in more depth in future) it’s one of Transformers. To some people that word means “toy robots that transform” but (and I don’t think I’ve ever admitted this) to me it means “this particular brand of toy robots that transform which appear in films, cartoons and comics of the same name.” When it comes to anything else, I’m simply not interested. It’s not for me, but if you want to weigh up which one of five MP-alike Springers you want to buy because you can't wait for an official one, please be my guest.

     So that’s about it. Some main points in the case of Ben Vs. Third Party stated for the court. While I’ve not mentioned unregulated safety standards, hit and miss quality control, hit and miss good design, the fact I simply don’t like the plastic they use or how the headsculpts are always off; all that’s really straying into the name-calling, unjustifiably subjective area of critique. We want to keep it above the belt here and while I’m very aware I’ve already set some reader’s backs up, we want you to too. This is an immense topic of discussion in our robosphere and while I could go on, it’s time to let that discussion flow; in the measured and introspective tone I hope I’ve just been using. Keep it #refined, yeah? 

Pictures by Leigh Gregurke (Follow Ben on Twitter @Waspshot23.)

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