2002 BotCon Hasbro Panel

Andrew Frankel, aka "Swiper", is working for Hasbro and has been "for a while now". As some of you might know, a GI Joe figure was released last year with the name "Sideswipe". His bio card says his real name is Andrew Frankel, and the figure's head sculpt is -- to anybody who knows Andrew -- clearly him. This led to speculation that Swiper, at worst, had a good friend inside Hasbro. Well, he does. Probably several, since he works with Hasbro Direct as the "Exclusives Director" for Transformers.

The other Hasbro reps were: Michelle Field (marketing director for TFs), Aaron Archer (primary American disigner), Joe Matico (senior product manager for TFs), Amy Agnew (holds some marketing position beside/under Michelle). Michelle's marketing work involves things like advertising, packaging, and licensing. As part of this, she has a big role in overseeing production of the Armada cartoon, and presumably the comics as well. Aaron is the rep who spoke the most at this panel, and seemed to be the one "in charge" even though his title sounds less important than Joe Matico's. Aaron is a designer, but he's also responsible for consistency of the franchise across its incarnations (toys, cartoons, etc.), and is the guy who assigns names to the toys/characters. At other BotCons during the Beast Era, I think it was said that names were assigned by marketing people, so perhaps this is something which has changed since then. The most detail I can recall about Joe's responsibilities was that he does quality assurance stuff. There was something else listed, but, I don't recall what it was.

One of the lead guys from Takara's design team was at the panel, but sitting in the front row of the audience. Aaron described him as his counterpart in Japan. Another guy in the Takara design team has been with Transformers since the Pre-TF Diaclone days. (Aaron chose to say it as Diakron, interestingly.) I don't know what that guy's name is, but I wish I did. He deserves to be famous.

The Hasbro panel was very slick. They had a polished computer presentation for us with artwork and photos, and more than one of the reps spoke during this portion. The presentation included a long segment where they anticipated and answered all the obvious questions that people were going to ask them. (Covered below, but the list included continuity, realistic vehicle modes, name reuse, and Unicron, and maybe a couple others.)

They repeated the answer we basically knew already about trademarks, with the use 'em or lose 'em angle. Specifically, they mentioned that nobody really wants to see a Transformer character name end up being used on a completely different product such, and used "Hot Rod" as an example. Aaron also made a point along the lines of "These were great names for characters when I was growing up, and they're great names now. I want kids today to grow up with their own Optimus Prime and Starscream." Lastly, he also brought up the old "there's more than one Aaron in the world, so there can be more than one Mirage on Cybertron" thing.

They continue to choose plastic over metal for the toys because A) metal is more expensive and 2) diecast metal is less versitile or "flexible" in terms of what sorts of shapes you can make it into.

The term "alt modes" was used on one of Hasbro's slides. I don't remember ever seeing that fan term used in an official capacity before this.

The Armada cartoon series will have 52 episodes and the animation is produced by a studio called Aeon. Regarding continuity, they want to "stay true to what Transformers are about" without being bogged down by previous lines in the franchise. Aaron repeated the "Final Fantasy" analogy which has been mentioned here recently. When asked about the voice actors, Michelle refused to answer the question explicitly, although she did say that the cast would be announced very soon. She didn't even want to confirm that the voices we'd heard the previous night were in fact Kaye and Chalk, so Glen stepped in and answered the question for her, confirming those roles. The casting was done less than two weeks before the convention, and the first episode has its dubbing done just one day before the screening at BotCon. (Much like the first episode of Beast Machines, which Aseph Fipke had finished the sound mix on in the morning before flying to the convention friday night.)

No female Transformers are planned for Armada. They are just starting to come up with ideas for the next Transformers line, though, and there are (at this moment) plans for females there.

They're making the vehicle modes believable, but not match real world vehicles exactly because they don't want exact vehicle modes to get in the way of other features. Aaron used the example that if you lop off the front of a Lamborghini so you can put on a cool launcher, then it's not really a Lamborghini anymore anyway. So, they just make the vehicles look however they want.

One of the goals for Armada is that its various arms are "in synch". This definitely applies to the visual design, as in, all the artwork will be based on the same designs for the toy packages, cartoon, comics, and whatever else they may make. (No more hilariously off-model artwork in storybooks and such.)

A concept storyboard from Drexhall Jump (the design studio known in Transfandom for having done the Trans-Tech concepts) illustrated what became Armada: In a fight between two large robots, one receives a punch and, like the sweat flying off a boxer's face when he is hit, little pieces of debris fly off from the robot. But, upon closer inspection, the things falling off are smaller Transformers.

Early designs for Armada Megatron were shown to us, starting with the US-drawn ideas with the basic look and transformation, and moving on to the more detailed and precise transformation designs worked out at Takara. A feature of the toy which was dropped during the process was for his tank mode pinchers to extend out so he could grab mini-cons who were in front of him.

Based on that and other things Aaron decribed, it seems that, indeed, the design process for Armada has been the same as other Transformers lines. Aaron spent about three weeks in Japan during the line's planning and worked directly with the Takara TF deisgners. He showed a picture of the office, and it was a nice, brightly lit space with lots of "fannish" stuff around the room like toys on desks, anime posters, etc.. There was also a group photo of Aaron with the team, and it had about 15 people in it. He said that the Takara engineers don't use any CAD systems for their work. All the designs and engineering are completely done on paper.

For the Mini-Con faction insignia, they intentionally decided to go with something besides a face. They were hoping to evoke an image of something like a circuitboard with the design they chose. They showed examples of some earlier ideas for the insignia. There were face-like symbols, and symbols with the "M" like the final version. I quickly sketched the face insignias in my notebook, and I'll post tidied versions of them later for the curious.

Development of the Mini-Con idea for the line went through many steps. At one time they saw the mini-cons as being larger toys, around the size of a Hot Wheels or Matchbox car. To illustrate the "some ideas are great, while others end up getting left behind" thing they showed a funny drawing with a tanker truck and a robotic horse as one early mini-con idea. They showed some concept boards for how the mini-cons could activate gimmicks on the larger TFs, and they had fun sound effects drawn into them comic book style, like a hand attaches a mini-con to a figure and in the next panel there's a big "ZOOOOOM!" written in block letters.

When asked about the lack of ball joints in Armada figures, Joe explained that they are not trying to avoid them for any particular reason. Basically, the type of joint at any particular place is determined by the rest of the toy. A certain kind of joint may be needed to make the transformation work, for example, or a ball joint may be too weak to hold together in certain places (especially with all the gimmicks in Armada toys). They actually like ball joints for a lot of applications because they are so simple (ie. inexpensive) and versitile.

Repaints of the Armada Starscream and Megatron were on display in the dealer room. They are named Thundercracker and Galvatron, and are in appropriate colors to serve as homages to the G1 characters. Their Mini-Cons are also repaints of those of the original toys. The mini-con for Thundercracker is named "Zap Master"; they wanted to allude to a lightning bolt to go with the crack of thunder.

When asked about the Mini-Con named Leader-1, Aaron explained that it's basically a joke, as we all thought it was. They picked up the name when Tonka was bought out, and he figured they'd make use of it. His initial idea was to make Leader-1 have a sort of superiority complex such that "he thinks he's the one in charge" while he obviously isn't. Aaron implied, though, that this idea didn't completely work out and that Leader-1 probably won't be characterized that way.

When somebody asked about the lack of tech specs on packaging, Michelle explained that it wasn't an easy decision for them. It was an issue of not having enough space on the package. Because all writing on the box needs to be tri-lingual, there just wasn't enough room to make do tech specs unless they were incredibly short and banal. After the panel, some people asked about including tech specs as an insert, perhaps on the back of the sticker card, but even that isn't doable. *Everything* in the package must be trilingual. AFAIK, though, nobody got around to asking why Transformers had to be trilingual while other Hasbro action figures are not. Michelle did say, though, that they plan to expand their international marketing efforts for TFs.

Laserbeak was introduced into the line because they wanted to have a role- play element which has been lacking from Transformers for a long time. A way for kids to pretend they're part of the story. That is, he exists as a toy for this purpose, and exists in the cartoon to help sell the toy. Or, if you like, there's sort of a more organic aspect to it wheras they wanted to have something in the toyline that could be part of the cartoon at the same size, without being a giant robot. But it couldn't be just a prop of some sort, like the toy swords and outfits that some toylines have, because they want everything in the Armada toyline to transform. So, they came up with Laserbeak.

And, yes, they changed Laserbeak's color to orance because of safety laws in the USA. If you have a problem with that, write to your senator. Don't call Hasbro stupid, and don't post to ATT that you shouldn't have to put up with an orange Transformer just because you think parents are able to completely control their children at all times. If you really care about this issue, do something productive about it.

They devoted a full slide to this odd business of changing Hot Shot's head. It was titled something like "we're listening", and apparently, a lot of people have been complaining about Hot Hot's facial expression. This was news to me. Maybe it's a big debate on the Allspark or something? Anyway, they showed pictures of a remolded head which is very boring and blank, unlike his present happy face. After the panel, one of the reps (Joe, I think) said in conversation that the new head would probably only appear on the Japanese version of the toy.

Regarding G1 reissues:
  • They wanted to make the reissues a store exclusive to make sure they were at a retailer who could "give them special attention" such as providing the proper shelf space, and flexibility in terms of shipping requirements and dates. They decided TRU would be that retailer based on past cooperation and on TRU's online partnership with Amazon.com.
  • They'll do as many of the Takara reissues as they can, with our help. They plan to start with the toys that are more likely to sell.
  • Some of the toys have to go through modifications before being released in the US due to safety regulations. They are doing everything they can to make the reissues as close as possible to the originals.
  • They brought up G1 Megatron and confirmed, as everybody knows, that he cannot be released here in his original form due to regulations. They tried a lot of ideas to see if they could do it, but eventually decided that they would have to change him so much that nobody would want to buy him. They showed a photo of Megatron done up in electric blue and dayglo orange, as has been previously mentioned. This modification was actually not good enough to pass the regs, apparently because his gun mode *shape* is so realistic. The only way to go, really, would be to make him entirely orange. There was a joke around their office that they could market him as "lava Megatron" from the end of "Heavy Metal War".
  • Tools for Soundwave are not in very good shape and would require some big financial investment to bring up to speed. If Takara decides to do it, Hasbro will release him, too, but probably not otherwise.
Andrew Frankel is personally responsible for us getting Air Attack Primal, Scourge, Fort Max, Heroes of Cybertron, and apparently the Mega SCF PVCs will be coming out as well (the slide said "5.5 inch Japanese action figures". They actually didn't list Megabolt for some reason, but, it's pretty clear that was his work as well.

Swiper confirmed after the friday dinner that HoCs were being sold in "alternative" venues, most specifically Meijer and drug stores. He also said that they will try to release as many of them as they can, including characters who have not been previously represented in the US. And, of course, they are releasing figures that were "chase" figures in Japan.

Maximus is having trouble passing "drop testing" standards, where the toy is required to survive falls without breaking in ways that could be dangerous. Andrew mentioned the risk of "impalement" on toy shards, which I thought was pretty funny.

There was a question from the audience about whether store exclusives will be available in Canada, and Michelle indicated that they do offer the toys to the Canadian branches of the US retailers who get exclusives. So, I guess that if Canadian TRUs aren't carrying the US TRU exclusives, it's because the buyers for TRU-Canada decided not to bother with them. (?)

When asked about video releases of older cartoons, Michelle explained that she didn't really have influence over when/if that happens -- it's all up to Rhino. She did, however, imply that video releases of the RID series would occur next year.

Michelle "hates" the new-movie question. She knows there have been lots of rumors flying around about it. People occasionally come to them with ideas or proposals, but as of now, there is nothing happening.

The Trans-Tech Story, by Aaron Archer:
  • After Beast Machines, they wanted to do a slow drift back to vehicle versus vehicle Transformers. Hence, the vehicles based on Beast characters with some animal qualities. Aaron specifically used the term "monkey truck" to refer to some of the concept art which has been online for over a year.
  • They spent 8 months on development on it. Unpainted models of some toys do exist, but they didn't get further than that. No molds or tooling.
  • They then decided to start fresh and "return to the core" of Transformers, so they aborted development.
  • RID was brought in as a "stopgap" to give them a full year to figure out what to do next. So, that's no longer just fan speculation.
Storm Jet and the Autobot 3-pack in RID had their sparks left as-is and simply painted over. If you scrape away that red, you should see their old Vehicon sparks underneath. It was simply not worth the expense to create brand new Autobot sparks for them. The Hasbro person answering this question said that the sparks are "gang molded" which was a new term to me. Basically, lots and lots of them are made all at once.

There are no plans right now to make toys of "The War Within". They didn't completely say "no", but I think the chances of getting any are very, very low. Basically they gave a "if the comic's a really big hit, we'll consider it" line.

One of the reasons that hasbrocollectors.com was dropped was that it irritates Hasbro's retailers when Hasbro sells toys directly to fans.

At the 3H panel, somebody asked if 3H had considered using the aborted deluxe-size Obsidian toy as an exclusive. 3H said that no tooling exists for that toy.

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