Episode 2: He-Man – The Most Powerful Toy in the Universe

Welcome back He-Fans and She-Ravers (I never get sick of that fan-coined term!).

So King Grayskull’s success was behind us. Now what? How do we (and can we) create a full line of MOTU characters using these new shared parts? Grayskull was a bit easier to green light since we already had an approved “slot” for him for SDCC (before we ever saw the Horsemen He-Man proto!). Switching him from being the “last” 200X figure to the first “Classics” figure was a bit easier (due to having the slot already for one SDCC MOTU figure).

Pitching an entire line would now come with its fair share of hurdles.

The original idea from the management team was to pack MOTUC figures as two packs pairing an A list figure with a B or C list figure. Little did we know that in time the customer base would prove almost any MOTU character would sell! A true exception in toy-making and a testament to the strength of the brand and the fans!)

We knew that MOTUC needed to use heavy shared tooling and parts to work from a financial standpoint. Luckily, the vintage line shared this strategy so we had precedent for this tactic, without looking like we were going cheap. It also made the figures feel very “MOTU” by having them use common arms, legs, and furry loin cloths! Additionally, we came up with a creative direction for sculpting (more on this in a later blog).

All figures would be done in the new “Classics style” the Horsemen so brilliantly created.

Much like 200X is a (and I know fans hate this phrase) “hyper detail” interpretation of the vintage toys, Classics was a new interpretation of the same vintage figures, but in a new style. Yes, there were many fans who wanted more 200X style figures, but that was not what Classics was about. We took the same starting point that 200X did (the vintage line) but created a new look and style called “Classics” that would work for any character. Essentially, this was the idea:

  • All characters would be considered modern upgrades of MOTU vintage figures from the 1982-1987 line.
  • If a figure did not have a vintage counterpart from the 1982 line, we would first “imagine” what that figure might look like had he or she hypothetically been in the vintage 1982 line and then make the update into Classics style.

So for example, a POP figure that was originally a doll figure in the 1980s girls’ line would first be reimagined as what she (or “he” for Bow) would look like had the POP figures not been in a girls’ doll line but rather were females in the boys’ MOTU 1982-1987 line (like Teela or Sorceress, who were female action figures, not dolls). Then we would update that hypothetical vintage figure into Classics using shared parts. While this meant doing away with some of the POP soft goods and rooted hair, it helped make them into female action figures, not dolls, which was the idea. (Additionally the original vendor couldn’t do rooted hair, so that sealed the deal on that option.)

This was also applied to NA and 200X original characters (i.e. Carnivus, Faceless One, etc.) We didn’t want to do a direct 200X character with all the Spawn-inspired hyper details of early 2000s toy-making.

Besides, management was VERY clear this style was to be retired.

We could do 200X weapons or armor in the Classics style, but not character faces or bodies (so Beast Man, for example, would not be larger like he was in 200X, but rather in scale to all other figures like he was in the vintage line).

We wanted all Classic figs to have the same style based on this new look the Horsemen created. So even a 200X character was first reimagined as if he or she had a vintage MOTU fig and then updated it for the Classics line. Same with NA, to ensure we had the beefed up look for the Galactic Protectors and Space Mutants and not the super-skinny look they had in the vintage NA line.

With this creative direction in place, we put together a proposal to management for how we wanted to do a handful of SKUs, three actually. The plan was to create three different 2-packs pairing a good guy and a bad guy together. By using these packs to tool the three main body types we would be set up for success should these sell well. The original plan was:

He-Man vs. Beast Man
Skeletor vs. Stratos
Man-At-Arms vs. Zodac

Yes, yes, you can argue that Zodac is not a bad guy.

But really this was about zeroing in on six characters that could use the human, reptile and beast bucks with minimal new parts. Mer-Man needed more new parts vs Zodac, so he didn’t make the cut.

Very late in the game the choice was made to split these 2-packs up into single figures to spread the releases out and have six months worth of product. This would give us time to gauge the success of the line and whether we could move forward with a seventh figure. (And on a personal note, I am so glad this choice was approved!)

While most of He-Man was paid for already through King Grayskull, obviously a few additional items were needed. Originally, design only wanted to give He-Man the half power sword. In one of those (not so rare) occasions of me stepping out of my marketing silo, I literally begged design to please throw in the full sword as well.

Additionally, the original plan was not to have the swappable heads or armor (which is why King Grayskull’s head and armor was not removable). As a fan, I really wanted swappable heads and armor for customization, and I extrapolated that my desires for multiple heads likely mirrored most fans’ desires.

I literally pleaded with the design group to please look into this as an added feature.

While this meant a two month delay in product launch, design was willing to execute on my proposal to make removable heads and armor. He-Man was reworked to have this feature. This is why He-Man was delayed from early fall to the very end of 2008. I think it was worth it!

Packaging was also a major issue from the start. Management was pretty clear that we needed to do this on a very minimal budget and we had almost zero resources for new packaging. Actually, the specific direction from management was to slap them in a plain white box and send them out. Because this was an online toy line, management did not see why we needed full color packaging (retail needs packaging for obvious reasons). As a toy fan, again I knew many customers want to keep their figures mint in-box as “art” pieces, so it was important to go all the way (if we could). I was willing to fight for this, too.

I sat down with packaging and pretty much begged them for any resources possible. While we couldn’t go with the red rock vintage homage concept that the Horsemen had pitched, we had the great “green brick” design from the SDCC figure already in the can. If we could use these existing graphic elements, it would save a huge amount of time.

I was also very insistent that the bubble blister had the inverted belly button mark that was an homage to the vintage line. Because this was a simple addition, packaging agreed to add this, even though they had little budget or resources. Essentially, a few MOTU fans in the package group stayed late on their own time to make this package happen. (So while some fans have complained about the package over the years, you have to realize this was all done on spit and wax. It was pretty much reusing the green brick from the SDCC figure or having a plain white box. The option for a more elaborate package was just not available or possible.)

We also knew that there was no new entertainment planned to support the line.

We had no budget for mini-comics (like I said, we could barely afford to create a new package!), especially when fans voted for multiple heads over mini comics at NYCC in Feb of 2008. To give fans some type of “entertainment,” we decided to put bios on the back panel. Obviously, there are tons of contradictory cannons for MOTU. We didn’t intend (and still don’t) for MOTUC to be the definitive cannon. There is no definitive cannon. The stories fans make up in their play and imaginations are just as valid.

But what we did do is take the best elements from different (often contradictory) cannons and merge them into one storyline. I’ll have more to say on this when we get to Stratos, which was about the time all of the bios (beyond the first six) were written.

The last packaging element was getting the vintage art for the shield. Luckily, most of the vintage figures had art across the top. I put in a request to the archive department and pulled the six vintage figures that corresponded to the six figures in the roll out. (Boy, was there a lot of dust!) Cards were scanned and the art was good to go.

One quick side bar to note. All of the vintage figures also had one line of “copy” across the art. He-Man’s was something like “He-Man defends Eternia with his friends and allies” or something like that. I thought it would be really cool if the one line of copy from the vintage figures was incorporated into the bios, so we made sure that the “last” line was the final line of the new bios (Skeletor is an early exception). The idea (kinda) was “what if these bios were around for the vintage line, they just got cut down to one line on the final figure.” Now, for the first time, we were presenting the hypothetical “full bio” for each character as written in the vintage days (at least this is kinda how I saw it in my head, take it or leave it).

So there we had it. Six figures ready to go, six bios written, and we even managed to find a way to create packaging with almost no resources available What a month that was.

But I digress. Back to He-Man specifically.

So here was our flagship guy. The Most Powerful Man in the Universe was ready to kick off what could potentially be an entire line of new updated collector aimed figures. Man, I hoped this worked! A lot was on the line.

The first samples came back and he looked great. A little bit too much overspray on the eyes and a few small adjustments, but the head was now removable, as was the power vest. He had the half sword and the full sword that I had begged for. At this point, it was time to see if he would sell.

He-Man went up on Mattycollector.com in late fall 2008 and did “okay.”

He was not at all a runaway success. We sold a modest number of units, but not anywhere what I expected or what Mattel needed to sell in order to green light more figures.

Oh well. At least we got He-Man, and King Grayskull, Beast Man and Skeletor were already in production so we knew they would at least be sold. I had little hope after He-Man’s slow initial sell that we would ever get to another figure beyond the first six (well, seven if you count King Grayskull – which I do!).

One side note I should add is that He-Man was actually the first figure to suffer from the dreaded “reversed shoulder” issue. When He-Man was assembled (and actually the original King Grayskull, too, I should add) the male human shoulders were new to us and no one but the Horsemen caught that the shoulders were reversed. Obviously we made this correction with the second run, but man, how embarrassing. Luckily, the detail that differentiated left from right was very minor.

But still. A figure that wasn’t perfect was not what we wanted to sell.

Luckily (for us), fans did not have much exposure to these figures yet and no one really caught this until Skeletor came out with corrected shoulders (more on that when I get to Skeletor in this blog series). Plus, since He-Man was our main guy, we were able to get the resources to swap his shoulders for a second release later on.

Packaging and accessory issues aside, the line was kicked off.

It wasn’t a runaway success yet and no one (including myself) was looking or even thinking we could do more than these six figures, ending with Zodac. At least we had six in the pipe and if sales picked up maybe, maybe we would get to do more. Only time and fan interest would tell…

SdN

(AKA Toy Guru)

 

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Episode 1: King Grayskull & Secret Origins

I’m a toy fan. That’s no secret. It’s pretty much the reason I applied to work at Mattel. I’m also a big movie fan (I was a film major in college, well at least one of my majors was film, I’m an overachiever sometimes). One of the things I love about movies is hearing the behind-the-scenes info and the DVD format was perfect for this because it gave us “Director’s Commentary” with insights and secrets behind some of our favorite films.

In honor of the 30th anniversary of MOTU, I thought it would be a blast to take a look back at MOTUC (circa 2008 – current) and create a blog reflecting on each figure released to date. It is rare for one brand manager to work on a single line as long as I have so I’m in a cool position to share ramblings on both the origins of the brand and a look behind each figure. I don’t remember every detail of every figure, and I’m sure as we get closer to current releases I will have more clarity. But for now, much like getting the director’s commentary on a DVD, this blog is my attempt to offer that same concept but for a fantastic collector toy line – Master of the Universe Classics!

Each entry will focus on one figure, starting with King Grayskull from SDCC 2008 and going all the way up to the current monthly or quarterly release coming out this year. I hope by the end of 2012 to be caught up with all the figures. There won’t be an exact rollout of these blog entries as I’m going to write them in my “spare” time. But look for them every so often as we take a trip down memory lane and reflect back on the greatest collector toy line of them all, MOTU Classics!

So where did it all start?

Well, back in 2007 I was new to the Action Play Marketing group. I had just moved over to the group from the Hot Wheels packaging team where I was a writer on basic cars and track sets. I was moved over to the Marketing team to help start up more robust collector lines as I was a collector myself (in addition to helping to launch the DCUC line with the WB group!).

One of the first things at the top of my list was somehow through **** or high water getting a MOTU line up and running for collectors. MOTU was my favorite line as a child and getting to work on a MOTU line (or line extension) was a dream job. Basically I wanted to make the MOTU line I always wanted, meaning highly articulated, fully detailed and huge character selection. Yes, that sounds 100% selfish, but remember, as a fan myself my plan was that if I was pleasing myself (as a HUGE MOTU fan), likely I was pleasing most fans (not every fan obviously) but I used my own “requirements” for what a collector MOTU line should be as a jumping off point.

First stop was SDCC.

We were a year off from SDCC 2008 and I really wanted to find some way to bring MOTU there. The 200X line had “ended” about 4 years earlier but we still had all of the tools and molds for this line at our factories. I was a HUGE fan of this show and the line (I remember waiting in line at SDCC myself for a Keldor and She-Ra figure and being very upset I only walked away with one She-Ra the year she came out. So much for having a second one MIB!)

A lot of folks were a bit unsure whether we could launch a MOTU line without any new entertainment and relying on collector interest only. Others were very supportive of the idea. In the end, what we decided was to try one figure using shared tooling.

There were quite a few characters that never made it into the 200X line and the original idea was to just pick up where the retail line ended and keep pumping out 200x style figures using what shared tooling we could use. Very early on, King Grayskull became the character we wanted to do as he would be a great SDCC item since he was “He-Man” but was not really “He-Man,” appealing to both hard core fans and ideally casual new buyers as well.

The original idea was to use the 200X Ice Armor He-Man body buck since it had the cape and boots we wanted. A new head would give us this figure perfect to “close out” the 200X line. King Grayskull was not originally intended to be the start of a new line but rather the “final” figure in the 200X line (or if he hit perhaps the start of a 200X collector line).

Design started looking over the concept and management approved King Grayskull as the SDCC exclusive for summer of 2008. We reached out to our vendor to dig up the old Ice Armor He-Man tool and were about to call the Horsemen to ask about creating a new head.

But then fate stepped in.

The Horsemen showed up at SDCC 2007 a month later with an all new concept for a He-Man figure they created on their own independently. You all know what I’m talking about because we slipped it into the display case just to see what fans thought!

This was a highly detailed, fully articulated figure that used the proportions of the vintage line but updated with today’s standards (set pretty high by a certain 6” Superhero line that was legendary and marvelous).

The best part about the Horsemen’s new pitch was the figure was designed to heavily use shared parts. I can’t overstress how important this is for a collector line. Tooling is INCREDIBLY expensive. So finding a way to incorporate shared tooling from day one was the only way a line could work. AND what was great was the vintage line was based on shared tooling, so reflecting that in a collector line actually worked without it looking like the line was going cheap.

The sneak peak in the case was a huge hit with fans at SDCC 2007 and we quickly came back to El Segundo and scrapped out plans to use the Ice Armor He-Man buck and instead thought, “what if we used this new buck for a whole new line of MOTU characters?”

Now at the same time, we were starting up Mattycollector.com (my major project for coming over to the marketing group). If we could get this new MOTU shared parts line up and running it might be the perfect backbone to this new online distribution model.

We hatched a plan to use the new buck system to premier King Grayskull at SDCC 2008 as planned, with the idea that if we reflected the vintage line and created basic human, beast (Beastman/Stratos) and reptile (Skeletor) bucks, we could make a variety of characters with minimal new tooling (heads, capes, weapons, etc…).

I’ll go into detail about the first 6 characters when I get to their blog entries, but for now, a look at how King Grayskull came about.

We had very little assets and very little time. The packaging group came up with the idea of putting him in a castle-like package and even adding in lights and sounds for that extra Comic-Con affect. Yes, he would be a 100% tool, but we were looking at him as an investment that if we tooled King Grayskull, we would essentially have He-Man and the base for countless other figures.

The dice were rolled and we took a risk!

I remember getting the first early sample back and plunking him down on my desk. Wow. We did it! The first new MOTU figure in almost 5 years and boy, was he amazing! I completely credit the Horsemen with the amazing look. Keeping those buffed-up proportions from the vintage line was a stroke of genius. While the original idea was to use the limited shared tooling from the 200X line, having an all-new buck system and starting an all-new line actually made way more sense (especially to upper management) because it gave us the chance to make ALL of the characters again, not just the ones that didn’t make it into the 200X line (like King Grayskull).

At NYCC in February 2008 we announced the figure as an SDCC exclusive with the idea that there was more to come and a whole new MOTU line with “the best distribution ever” and “MOTU would be back on shelves everywhere.” This was my first experience of fans misinterpreting what I meant. A lot of fans took this to mean store shelves everywhere. I wasn’t yet cleared to announce Mattycollector.com as the distribution model (as that was a reveal saved for SDCC in a few months).

What I had intended to mean was MOTU would be back on “your” shelf. Meaning the shelf you keep your collection on at home. And by the “best distribution ever” what I meant was anyone in any country could order these online. (As opposed to a retail-exclusive line. If MOTU was, for example, a TRU line, if you lived in a country without a TRU you were out of luck!). Online distribution really meant the widest distribution possible. I honestly never intended to mislead fans and customers and this was a good key learning to watch what I say as everything I say will be picked apart and possibly misinterpreted! A lot of fans were upset when they learned at SDCC this would be an online line, but I think over time it has worked out. Not having to rely on retailer interest has actually been a great move for this line and what has allowed us to do items without thinking about retailer shelf space.

Anyway, regardless of a few early communication issues, King Grayskull was off to a great start. We even came up with a concept for a “chase” version at the show to help generate more PR and noise by doing a bronze statue version (for the record, this was the suggestion of some of the web masters at He-Man.org who have been a great resource, especially in the beginning when we were getting out feet wet!).

The figure and package really came together nicely. We no longer had rights to use the actual voice from the 200X series in the toy, but luckily we had a recording from a talking figure from 200X that was a sounds-like voice that we owned. The sound studio deepened the “I have the Power” call from this toy to make it more “King Grayskull” and the package was set.

We brought King Grayskull to SDCC 2008 and he was a huge smash. This was also the show where we announced Mattycollector.com itself and that there would be more MOTUC figures coming later that fall. (I’ll get more into that in the next blog entry.) We also made sure to produce a few additional units to sell online to kick off the website. Unfortunately, due to not thinking holistically, the electronics we used in the package prevented us from shipping King Grayskull outside of North America. This was never something we did intentionally, but when you are trying to make a cake sometimes you break a few eggs. This was a big one. We really wanted to cultivate an international audience so it killed me that we had this restriction.

But in the end, despite a few missteps, we had a hit. King Grayskull wound up being the perfect figure to kick off the line since, as I said above, he “was He-Man, but was not He-Man”. He was a figure that was not in the vintage line, but was being done in the new Classics style as an interpretation of what an updated hypothetical vintage King Grayskull would be as updated through the new “Classics style.” Just as the 200X line was a reinterpretation of the vintage line, so was the Classics line. All characters would be in the same Classics look, regardless of where they were from, the vintage line, 200X, POP, NA etc… One all-inclusive line for all figures in a new style. How awesome.

King Grayskull sold out pretty fast online and it was soon clear that we could proceed with a whole line. But how to do them? Singles? Two packs? What would the packaging look like? How deep in character selection could we go?

The future was wide open and no one at Mattel was more excited then I. A skinny little kid from Connecticut who played with MOTU when he was 4 was now helping to make figures. Wow. A dream come true no matter how you shake it. For the very first time, MOTU had actual MOTU fans running the line. We were in for one heck of a ride.

SdN

(AKA Toyguru)

 

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