Shelf Life: Where Games meet Toys meet the Movies

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From the paper and ink comic books of the thirties and forties where it all began to the super-slick Marvel/DC blockbuster showdown that seemingly dominates this and every summer at the movies, the super hero franchise and the branded fantasy media explosion it spearheads have come a long way – and there’s plenty to show for it. Shelves of licensed merchandise, running from dolls and action figures to sticker books, lunchboxes and the like, and much of it based on blockbusting TV and movie franchises such as Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and this summers hot tickets, Spiderman and Wonder Woman. But have we reached some kind of commercial tipping point? And if so, who cares? The video games industry, that’s who. It’s waiting in the wings with franchise hits of its own and is poised to take up any slack…

The story so far

Toys licensed from movies and TV have surfed the wave of enthusiasm generated from the Marvel and DC camps over the last decade, and now Disney too, with its reinvigorated Star Wars universe. From 2008 to 2015, licensed toys based on movie and TV brands accounted for 21% of all toys sold, and made up 41% of the growth, according to Goldman Sachs analyst Michael Ng. Last year, mostly off the back of Star Wars and Marvel superhero movies, these revenues grew by 5% to reach $20.4 billion; no mean feat in a global toy market reckoned to be worth upwards of 87.4 billion USD. This is a numbers game, in the most brutal of senses, and numbers like these show just how closely the creative forces of Hollywood have become entangled with the fortunes of the toy industry in general – and, of course, vice versa. There’s a synergy at work here, separate industries flowing together for mutual benefit; this synergy includes the video game market, and has done for quite a while.

Today’s licensed toy product is not represented just by plastic action figures in a box (Hasbro’s Star Wars range), or even by the Disney Princess line of dolls and playsets featuring classic characters from the studio’s offerings. There’s also a vast array of spin-off products destined for the video game market – from the recent Spiderman tie-in by Marvel and Insomniac Games for the PS4, too many of the online slots and mobile-friendly casino games popular on iGaming sites. These often come hitched to a trending brand upon release – for example, an official Game of Thrones slot, another promoting the movie Jurassic World, yet another for Tarzan, are available play online on Betway casino. Similarly, the Apple Store and Android Play are hosts to a number of licensed apps and games based on films, including the recent Jurassic World – The Game, developed by Ludia Inc, which promises more than 150 dinosaurs from the film. There has been a good deal of cross-matching and hybridization between the licensed toy industry, visual media, and videogames, but now the sands seem to be shifting.

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Too many toys?

Market saturation could be on the way. As Mr. Ng drily points out in his market note, there are seven Marvel films scheduled for release next year, two Star Wars films coming out, and three back-to-back Transformers movies on the books for 2019. Taken together, that’s a torrent of toys set to hit the shelves in the next couple of years, and each from a fixed franchise with a set fanbase. There’s a lot of spillover, but it’s not set in stone that the fan who is buying the Spiderman game would be so inclined to spend money on a Star Wars toy. All those toys from all those films, jostling for space in an increasingly crowded market. Something has to give, and when it does, the video game industry will seek to fill the void left behind, with toys and spin-offs based on characters of its own.

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The toy industry is sprawling and broad and old and established, and expensive, and all about distribution. Five Titans dominate the field: Jakks Pacific, Namco Bandai, Hasbro, and Lego, with Mattel taking the top spot. Tricky, you might think, to crack such a market, but it’s not without precedent. In fact, the reverse has been the case for ages, with products that began life as toys, successfully transitioning to the big screen as licensed movies – think 2014’s Lego Movie by Warner Bros, which made $257,716,507 within its first six months of US release. In fact, Lego is the perfect example here, a flagging tangible toy product into which new life was breathed, first by the popularity of the groundbreaking Lego console games, and now onwards to the movies, with a dash of DC magic applied to the mix in the form of licensed Batman characters. This direction of flow works, and works well, but can lucre flow from original video games to the toy market?

The video game industry, worth a global $108.9 billion, has shown itself adept at what is termed market adaption, flowing amoeba-like from one form to another to best suit environmental conditions: From cartridge to tape to CD to ribbons of code, hanging like cobwebs in the Cloud. Along the way, it’s taken inspiration and official license from Hollywood and TV, from retro board games and parlor pursuits and turned it all into product – games, projects, applications. And all this, in much the same manner as the movers and shakers of Hollywood and TV (but especially the former) in turn took their inspiration from what had come before – from a rich print medium of comic books and pulp novels, the tour-de-force page-turners of their era. Stories and ideas, mined and transformed, carried from one stream of media to another, and now it would appear, running the gamut from pixels to plastic and back again.

As you might expect, the first scouts to arrive on this scene are those associated with spectacular achievements in their home markets; collectibles licensed from the Halo games and last summer’s ambulatory Pokémon Go craze, cuddly toys in the form of Rovio’s Angry Birds, miniatures of Geralt from The Witcher 3. Lessons are being learned and chances are being taken as companies glean data on what sells and what doesn’t. When these get applied for the second push, sales will ramp and profits will be taken.

Looking ahead

It’s early days, but the signs are good and the video game-based toy invasion is already underway. As yet, the industry has but a tiny presence here, a scattering of footprints in the sand at the edge of an untested desert. But a diminutive army of toys based on characters from original video games is marching steadily upon the market horizon, a distant column of dust perhaps, or the first ranks of a vast army.

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