Unlicensed Third Party: The Death Spiral

TFCon USA's Third Party Panel just finished earlier this afternoon. We can't show you any of the slides that were displayed since the TFCon organizers do not release them to the majority of sites that might be interested in carrying them afterward, but we can sum up the presentation pretty quickly: Lots of things that have already been shown off, and more of the same things everyone is doing or has done already. Few new reveals, and most were only shown as concept art or renders. At least one report from the event noted booing from the audience at the end of the presentation. It seems not to have been a good day for unlicensed products. Keep reading to find out more...

First some disclaimers: The statements and opinions in this article reflect only myself (ExVee) and not those of anyone else at TFormers. This is also not a condemnation against any particular independent toy maker, but of the entire field of unlicensed transforming robot toys as a general exercise.

Many of the prominent, long-lived third parties had some nice looking products to show at the panel. MMC's brands, MakeToys, Iron Factory... and even newer names like Fans Hobby that have risen to prominence just recently were showing off wares that presented care and consideration and maintaining their levels of quality that's earned them credit among their peers. The problem is we've seen the vast majority of it already. And repeatedly. Any TFCon third party panel is going to contain some amount of reruns, it's always been that way, and up to a point it's beneficial. If they show a couple pieces that are already released and maybe have some good standing among the buying audience, it helps establish that a reputation exists before opening in to the new and upcoming. But this year's showing was one of the heaviest on repeats and already-released products I can remember. And from some of the groups that aren't as well-rooted, their presentations may not have had anything new to display at all.

There is a certain lead time and development cycle that goes in the production of any product, and transforming figures that need special engineering can extend that process considerably. It may not always be possible to be far enough along in a new project to be ready to show it off when a convention rolls around unless you're launching several in rapid succession. We've seen signs of that approach a lot of past years, but quite a bit less recently. We'll come back to this, though. So, what did we see being offered up at the panel this time?

Stunticons. MP-scale Stunticons from at least a couple companies, enough different Combaticons to outfit an army (though I will admit Iron Factory's is pretty appealing within this well-tread ground), Dinobots at the Masterpiece and Legends scales, Springers, and some Optimus Prime and Megatron analogues in different styles to round things out. A couple of groups were showing intent to hit some far more obscure characters from late G1 or early G2, but this was mostly smaller, newer brands that both need to prove out their quality of work over time and see if they'll actually last long enough to carry out half of these planned items. I don't dismiss them for lack of will, but it's not the easiest area to get a foothold in. Even when you find that overlap point between "already established" and "working outside the box" such as with MakeToys' planned Galaxy Force-derived items, you discover that they're still defaulting to relative safety: traditional Seeker recolors of the Starscream they struggled to get released, and the corresponding Optimus and Megatron for that series. This all gives me deep concern about the future success of this subline, since these are probably far off from the first thing on anyone's wishlist of remade Cybertron/Galaxy Force designs.

Ultimately, this all presents as symptoms of a big problem: Very few entities in this realm are able or willing to take risks. The newcomers sometimes will lead with something a little more out there, after all, if you succeed it's a good way to stand out from the crowd. But even when they begin that way, they seem to circle back to "safer" behaviors. One of the important things in early third party was its ability to deliver things that were at the time improbable to happen from official sources. Today, the range that we can expect from Hasbro and TakaraTomy is quite a bit wider than it used to be, and at the same time, third party has narrowed a lot. One can speculate that general fatigue with some styles of product have directed the evolution of this market. That's why there's a lot more focus going to the Masterpiece style and size range; right now that seems to be where a lot of the interests are of the people that are willing to pay out what the unlicensed merchandise costs. It's not a coincidence, either. Masterpiece has grown not just in frequency of releases, but also to a degree in what kinds of things can be expected. But even at a high point Masterpieces only come about once a month so even if you assume every single fan-important character will get MP treatment eventually, it could still be a very long wait. It's a field that lets these companies keep doing, to an extent, the thing they were trying to do in the first place.

And now that a lot of makers are in that particular genre, it's leading to a lot of repetition. As everyone tries to jump on and offer their version of the character of the moment, it's reducing the market reach of everyone, and that can only go on for so long before it starts doing harm. So where are we at? A narrowed range of products, a lot of repetition, and less variety. Yes, you may have a lot to choose from, but unless you want to choose an instance of the one specific character everybody has decided to make at the current moment, it's not benefiting the consumer at all. This can lead to two major outcomes. First can be loss of the buyer pool because they're not that interested in a Springer, much less six different flavors of Springer. Even if someone commits to one Springer from the pack, there's still five other companies that sunk investment to making their own Springers that have one less customer to get that money back from. This adds up.

Before, I referenced how we'd seen less sign of some companies having a lot of balls in the air at once, especially compared to just a couple years earlier. I think they're going broke. In one sense, playing it safe might have backfired since a lot of them doing that developed this culture of ongoing repetition and direct competition as multiple outfits all try to sustain themselves off a small pool of popular and recognizable character concepts, because they decided that was the surest way to keep making money. But that doesn't work when everyone is doing the same thing at the same time. And it's no longer a simple problem to solve. MakeToys' rather public issues with getting Galaxy Meteor to happen beyond a small initial run for convention sales can serve to show that even trying to work in a different direction can be met with resistance or at the least, apathy enough to jeopardize the project. But that also comes back to the underlying truth that they're still sticking with core concepts of The Seekers, Megatron, and Optimus Prime even when they're dressed a little differently.

Some segments of the fandom have been predicting the death of third party for years. But it kept pushing along just the same, lending little weight to those calls that the end was near. Thing is, it was never going to be an all at once death, quick and clean. It's always been the snake eating its own tail, a condition which has just become more and more apparent as time has gone by. And I think it has finally survived long enough to see the worst outcome: The bubble has burst. We can't say that the audience at one third party panel at one TFCon is definitive or even necessarily representative. But it's setting a bad precedent. The description of the moments after the presentation wrapped up were of an audience confused, that had expected more and not received it. Booing happened, apparently because of how little was actually revealed during this panel. This audience is not in itself representative, but I think it may be a sentiment that will be echoed more and more going forward. Buyer fatigue is going to compound more and more if the major players continue doubling down on the safe options in one form or another, and if the frequency of releases starts to diminish, I think that buyers who act largely thanks to momentum will also fall off.

This doesn't necessarily mean the death of Third Party in its entirety. If things keep going as they appear to be now, the landscape will most definitely change. Companies that can't adapt to that will end up folding, or perhaps reorganizing with others to become something different. That already occasionally happens anyway. But, it's my belief that we've gone past a tipping point for Third Party. When the audience at what is generally acknowledged as functionally being Third Party-Con, it's writing on the wall.

Again, the opinions expressed in the preceding article are solely those of ExVee and are not the responsibility of TFormers or anyone else associated with TFormers and no attack is intended against any specific product maker.

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