The 3rd Party Debate (or lack thereof) – An Editorial

In recent months, I’ve been asked by numerous people, either on Twitter, Facebook or by email “what’s up with you and anti-3P all of a sudden?”  Well, in order to clear the air, and for my own personal sake of clarity, I thought perhaps its time I get some stuff out in the open and explain where I’m coming from in the great 3rd Party Debate.

There are a few factors here, and I’m going to try to avoid any kind of pretentious filibustering (as best I can) because, and let me stress this next part: THIS IS JUST MY OPINION.   Obviously the benefit of living in the Free World is that we are all allowed to make the choices we want, this is just me explaining my choice.

To begin with, let me state this full and clear:  I am anti-3rd party.   There are some grey areas and I’ll get into that, but for all intents and purposes, I will not be buying another non-licensed toy based on a Transformer again.

Of course, Staff Member Abe will still be buying 3P items and we will continue to post his reviews as they come in.

Now onto the meat of this post.

To understand where I’m coming from, we have to roll back the clock a bit to about  2009 or 2010 when the first images of the then somewhat unknown company TFC emerged of a team of slightly taller than deluxe sized (at the time) figures that resembled very closely, the Constructicons.

Herc 1

Up until then, TFC had only produced a few add-on sets of weapons for the Classics/Henkei line of toys.  Understandably, the general fan base sorta went nuts.  Here we were, getting a full on – deluxe class sized set of Constructicons that actually formed a near G1 Accurate Devastator.  People were so enamored by the idea that the price tag of the individual figures, averaging $95 USD didn’t seem to phase much, other than genuinely ruling some collectors out of the running due to cost.  While we had seen some expensive add-ons at the time (City Commander Trailer, for one), this was the first, full fledged stand alone 3P combiner team, and it made TFC an enormous profit, as well as making TFC synonymous with some of the “bigger” 3P companies like FansProject and Perfect Effect.   Hercules was great.  Sure there were some genuine quality control issues, but for the most part, people were willing to look past it as the overall prospect of having a MASSIVE, G1-esque Devastator was the bigger draw. I fell in with the rest and was happily opening a TFC box every month or so as the figures were released, only to gloriously combine them all at the end to have a Devasator as big as my 2 year old nephew standing up on my shelf.   In the bigger picture frame, however, Hercules was the first small pebble of an avalanche that would soon come barreling down on consumers.  The doors, which had been, up until then, secretly opened in hushed hallways allowing unlicensed products to slip into the market, had suddenly and violently been thrown wide, and out poured a slushy, slippery mass of products that for the the next few years would continue to cascade into the market.   Bigger and bigger products were being made, more combiners being planned in hush-hush meetings among the heads of the 3rd party companies.  A pattern started to form.  MakeToys announced their Green Giant, hoping to ride the coattails of Hercules and appeal to buyers with a slightly smaller, less expensive (figuratively speaking) set of copyright infringing figures.   TFC followed soon after Hercules with their next announced set, the comically and somewhat tragically dubbed “Uranos”, a Superion look alike.   As before, each figure came with a near $100 USD price tag, but this time…people started to question the shoddy QC.

A midst these bigger titans, a slew of smaller, deluxe class stand alone figures began to surface.  To this day, I still have a general appreciation toward ToyWorld’s Hegemon.   A magnificently designed (albeit somewhat complicated to transform) near spot-on representation of Megatron.  And because Hasbro could, understandably, no longer make a toy that transforms into a realistic and life sized pistol, a company in China, protected under the complicated and difficult to wade through Chinese Judicial System had no such restraints.  Then came the “Predaking” wars.   A full-on three on three (though one company was a bit “Johnny-come-lately” to the ball) product war between competing companies all producing the same five-character team of a Lion, Hawk, Panther, Rhino and a Bull, all with clever (and sometimes not-so-clever) monikers that would inevitably be reduced to “not-enter Hasbro’s name here” .  And as our fan base is known to do, sides were taken, arguments were had, often violently typed IN ALL CAPITOL LETTERS SO THE TONE WAS BEING EXPRESSED PROPERLY about which illegitimate was better.  (Spoiler alert: MMC’s set seems to have won, hands down).   Honestly, it became exhausting.   Fans of one company clung like wet cats to a bath towel in arguments that spanned pages upon pages of forum space.

During this time, on a whim, I picked up Hasbro’s “Platinum” re-release of the G1 Predacon set.  And you know what?  It was fun as hell.   No stress inducing transformations, worrying that I was about to turn something wrong and snap a 100 dollar essential limb member, no bickering about whether LED’s in the eyes or the feet were better.  Just good old memories of having Rampage as a kid and desperately looking at the Toys R Us aisle for his team-mates, but always being happy that at least I had Rampage to tear up the Throttlebots.  For me, this was like a single ray of a light from a light-house poking through pitch-black storm clouds of MMCs vs UTs vs TFCs and hundreds and hundreds of dollars being spent.

During the rise of the 3rd party combiners and figures, something else started to happen as well.  While the “Hasbro Hate Train” had left the station YEARS ago, post G1-era, there was a noticeable increase in momentum.  All of a sudden Hasbro was no longer competing with past projects and lines, but now with a slew of products produced by smaller companies in smaller batches with far fewer restrictions in place.  Coupled with the less than successful Movie-toy lines (which were polarizing at best, and still are) there was this overwhelming sense that Hasbro, the company responsible for bringing the Transformers franchise into our childhoods, was the enemy.  And a viciously hated enemy at that.    Sound arguments such as: well, they’re a toy company, their first and foremost priority is to sell toys that appeal to children at a cost-responsible level with a complexity that suited ages 3-12, were brushed aside with “they need to cater to collectors!  We’re the ones who buy the toys”.  I suppose that’s an understandable argument, the franchise is now 30 years old, so the vast majority of the “older fans” were now into their late 20s and early 30s.   Somewhere along the lines though, a sense of entitlement arose that I can’t quite explain other than the rising popularity of the 3rd party companies and their products.  If Hasbro wasn’t going to make a complicated, insanely articulated “so and so”, to hell with them, I’ll just buy MMC’s version.   What’s wrong with that, right?

For me, there’s now a LOT wrong with that.   Well, let me restate that, there was always a LOT wrong with that, but for me, as time went on, I started taking into account all of that “a lot“.

See, over the past year, through one of my dearest friends, Gus, I have been introduced and have spent dinners and lengthy conversations with many of the integral members of both Hasbro, and IDW, who produce the Transformer Comics (that you all should be reading!).  From Aaron Archer and Mark Webber at Hasbro to IDW’s John Barber, James Roberts, Andrew Griffith, Brendan Cahill and many others, I have discussed, at length the Transformers Brand, Franchise, and have been privileged to know just how passionate they are about their work.  It began to sink in that for every dollar that was spent on 3rd party items, that was essentially money made by these companies on Hasbro’s blood and sweat over the last 30 years.   As Gus would say, there is an inherent laziness to taking someone else’s creation, making minor cosmetic tweaks and selling it off as your own.  Of course, there have been arguments made against that.  One that comes to mind is a friend of mine asking “how is it any different than Hasbro using half a Lamborghini for classics Sideswipe so they can get around trademarks?”   Well, without sounding conceited, the answer is that trademarking and copyright are two very different things.   Want to know more?  Look here.    Suffice it to say, it’s a different argument in legal terms and that’s what this comes down to every time.  Legality.  I run a business as a consultant to lawyers in medical claims.   I’m going to be attending law school in the not-so near future, legality is the bottom line for me, but its not the ONLY bottom line.   As my friend Gus so eloquently puts the 3rd party argument: “I have a kitchen.  In that kitchen are all the items I need to make an omelet.  Just because I’m not in my kitchen right now, doesn’t give you the right to come in, make an omelet and then try to sell it as “Scrambled eggs”.   I don’t think I could put it any better.

Where things get grey are the add-ons.  For me, add-ons are a bit of a different beast.  From City Commander Trailer to the My First Blaster gun, I don’t really have an issue with a 3rd party company adding to an existing Hasbro/Takara product.  After all, they’re not trying to sell you the Cow, they’re trying to sell you a better glass for the milk.   Obviously the lines blur when it comes to things like FansProject’s Crossfire figures and the soon to be released Microblaze “Warbot” that looks strikingly similar to Onslaught in the War for Cybertron/Fall of Cybertron games.   I have no problem admitting my hypocrisy as I contemplate buying that Microblaze toy.   It will be a matter of me living with my moral decision down the road I suppose (right now I’m not really leaning toward NOT buying it).

It’s an odd thing, but when you look at it, Transformers are the only toys that have so large a 3rd Party following.  You don’t see any GI Joe 3rd party companies making a supremely articulated “ViperSight” with a shiny metal katana.   So why are there so many mimicking Transformers?  Where I have no problem is original work.   While the styling and design of FansProject “Glacialbots” are very similar to Hasbro’s older G1 combiners, the “Glacialbots” have never been an idea Hasbro or Takara put forth and copyrighted.   So why aren’t there more of these original works?  For me, the answer comes back to the inherent laziness.  Why bother making something new, when we can sell something that already exists?

All of this, coupled with the unchecked, obscene rise in pricing, with larger items now easily going for upwards of $450, the 3rd party scene turned from a kitschy dive bar to a full on hipster-rave and I was simply growing tired of the whole thing.   But….I still love and will always love Transformers.   So the other half of the story began when Hasbro announced Voyager class Springer two years back.  Up until then, Hasbro had given us Springer’s in various incarnations, but none captured the idea of his G1 toy, and with the success of the amazing IDW book Last Stand of the Wreckers, Springer as a bad-ass bad-boy, ass-kicker wasn’t really coming across with the recent toys.  But then…then Hasbro announced a Voyager Springer based almost entirely on Nick Roche’s design from LSOTW.   The fandom rejoiced!  Even the Hasbro haters ditched their Warbot Defenders on the eBay side of the road for what looked to be an amazing and triple-changer faithful representation of Springer.  The toy turned out to be as fantastic as its pictures lead us to believe too!  Then Hasbro started doing something that forever won my support.  They started to create Generations figures based greatly on their representations in IDW’s ongoing comics.   James Robert’s More Than Meets The Eye brought obscure characters like Swerve into the limelight and made him a cult-classic and what does Hasbro do?  They make a legends class figure out of the same design (though with an Earth mode).   When Skids showed up in MTMTE # 2, and bust out of his escape pod, landing in the Iron Man pose then proceeding to wallop several Legistlator’s, I remember saying to myself (and kinda to my wife) “I need a toy of this”.   A year later, boom. A comic-accurate, with cannons and mind-erasing guns and ass-kicking tire-feet Skids figure is in my hands.   Hasbro had started to produce the toys I had been craving.

But really…they always had been.  Look, G1 toys now haven’t aged well.  They’re 30 years old and were made using archaic methods.  But it’s easy to forget that they were being produced during the height of the popularity of the show.  I could watch Bumblebee on TV and have him sitting next to me on the floor in the den at the same time.  They have always produced figures that were wanted, the only difference was that, as fans, we were growing older.   I argue that this doesn’t mean we need 100$ deluxes that take 30 minutes to transform.   Pick up a G1 Wheeljack and tell me it’s not fun to get him into robot mode from car in a few steps.  G1 Skylynx to this day still brings a smile on fans’ faces when he slowly walks around the floor (provided his electronics aren’t shot from being left out in the rain….*sigh*…my poor Skylynx…).

The bottom line is this:  I’ve seen the people 3rd party items affect.  I know them.  I’ve spent time with them.  I call them by their first names (and sometimes “Buddy!” ).   I can no longer turn a blind eye to that.   I can’t, but it doesn’t mean I expect anyone else to follow suit.   This is how I see things now and its a decision I’m happy with.   As a fan and a collector I’m happier now than I was before.   Hasbro, IDW, Takara, they feed my happiness with the Transformers Brand, and like a feral cat that’s been taken in, I no longer want to bite the hand that feeds me.

10 comments

  1. Lots of great points. I am bowing out of 3p due to the insanely high costs. Just to keep up became a car payment every month so now I am back to only getting a kit here and there and the occasional awesome bot if it goes well with somethingnI already have. HasTak is finally answering the call with IDW and MP’s. Even the MP’s are enormously expensive but for the most part you know there aren’t going to be a ton of QC issues.

  2. I hear you. I too recently wrote about this topic after seeing a lot of the new 3P offerings that were unveiled at TFCon. However like the other person commented, I’ve backed away a bit due to costs. I clearly understand your stance and it’s very honorable, but at the end of they day I’m still going to purchase what I like.

    I knew Hasbro was working on a Generations Roadbuster, but when compared to FP’s Revolver I found the latter to be the better toy. I hate not supporting Hasbro with this particular release, but if I’m going to spend my hard earned money on something I want to make sure its something I like. I’m not just going to buy the latest Hasbro Transformer just because it’s new. I’ve been there and done that.

    All is not lost however. Hasbro has answered the call with a lot of these Generations toys and of course with Masterpiece. While I may not buy as much as I used to, I am more likely to buy (a good) Hasbro product over 3rd party these days if for no other reason the cost and availability of the product.

    The 3P scene has changed a lot and I’m not sure how strong it can continue to be. We’ve got several companies making the same toy, QC is all over the place and the prices continue to climb higher and higher. I feel there is a breaking point for many and as you’ve expressed you are already there. People’s reasons for leaving behind 3P toys are varied for sure and if Hasbro plays their cards right they can once again climb back to the top.

    Hopefully Hasbro will listen to it’s fans and see what it is exactly about the 3P scene people enjoy so much and start producing it themselves (with Takara Tomy of course). Bring back the Scramble City style combiners. Continue to give modern updates to characters people clamor for. At this point only time will tell what will happen with TFs. It’s a great time to be a fan, but with the current trend it’s hard to enjoy some of the offerings out there unless your last name is Trump!

    1. I hope for all that too man. I really do. The only thing I’d argue is the Roadbuster idea. Hasbro’s Roadbuster is a total blast. Great proportions (he looks better in hand than the stock photos, watch my review if you havent’) and has the bulky body. FP’s core thing just seemed very…stale and bland. Their Steelcore is still really cool, and he’s also (wait for it…) an ORIGINAL concept! But I get what you’re saying about where you spend your money for sure!

  3. The trend of several 3P’s coming out with variants of the same figure within a few weeks or months of one another is somewhat welcome by me because at least there’s competition which in theory at least gives us better pricing and quality. I am very much looking forward to the not-Dinobots, as I have so far been pleased with what has already come out from Planet-X, for example. The 3P MP sized bots so far have been comparable in both price and quality to HasTak, surprisingly.
    As for the combiners, I am unfortunately done. They are the size I have dream of for years, but to pay $500+ for what amounts to a single robot is mind-blowing and out of control when you consider the opportunity cost of your buying dollar. That’s more than an Xbox-1 with games, one or two car payments, etc.
    As a collector I have made huge purchases, no doubt, and a few of them in hindsight I regret when the next big bot comes out just a few months later, or when the same bot is 25% off at the end of the year, when I bought it as fast as I could so that I wouldn’t be subject to scalpers and Evil-bay.
    I am a lifelong collector but at some point as a group we have to let the 3P’s in particular know when enough is enough so far as price goes. I know they are expensive for a reason and not everyone can have everything. But enough is enough.
    As for the idea for creative license of Hasbro, I totally understand. I do like it when a company makes their own unique transformable robots. Nostalgia for 80’s updated robots is cool, but it is past time for companies to just have their own ideas for robots and for us as collectors to reward the creativity with out buying dollars. Most of the robots only resemble HasTak creations due to deco anyway. A car is a car and a dinosaur is a dinosaur. Give them unique decos and let’s move on. Make a transformable space station or citybot. It doesn’t have to be something from the 80’s Hasbro. Just give us large, high quality, transformable toys!

  4. While I respect your decision to stay true to Hasbro or TakaraTomy only product, I must disagree with your argument. While yes, 99% of the third party items are using Hasbro’s IP as a basis, Hasbro itself is not currently pursuing many of those particular IP’s and haven’t shown any plans to do so. Take Scoria for example. There has been absolutely no indication that a Dinobot Slag/Slug is in the works from official channels. So what is wrong with another company coming in, and filling that void? They aren’t directly competing with Hasbro for any revenue because Hasbro doesn’t have that particular figure available. In your analogy, it is like Hasbro has the capability to make scrambled eggs, but hasn’t done it because it isn’t profitable for their business model. Now if in the future Hasbro were creating an MP Slag/Slug I would completely agree that it is their sovereign province to create a figure based on their IP and no other company should infringe on that. But because no one can predict what will or will not be released, I don’t think it is worth condemning the 3rd Parties for decisions made with the information they had. Incidentally as I’m sure you know Fanstoys had an MP Soundwave planned and almost ready for production when MP-13 was announced. Instead of releasing it anyway they decided to scrap the project and refocus. I think they did this not only because they knew they couldn’t compete with Hasbro/Takara’s version but also because they didn’t even want to try.

    Also, these are small fan-based companies who aren’t looking to “take down” Hasbro or Takara. In fact, it is their love for those companies’ original creations and ideas that inspires them to do what they do. And as each third party company is different to some degree, I think it is unfair to lump them all into the same category. IGear is another good example. In their case they actually took a Hasbro design and reverse-engineered it for their own seekers. In other words, they just copied Takara’s design and resold it. Now I absolutely think this was reprehensible and I refuse to buy anything IGear because of it. But that doesn’t mean I’ll condemn Fansproject, Fanstoys or any of the others to the same fate just because one particular company violated this rule. While many of these companies create figures based on existing IPs, they are almost always brand new figures with a brand new design. In fact I would argue it is harder to create something that reminds us of a particular character but uses new engineering and modern techniques rather than just making a brand new figure. Where you see laziness, I see a tribute.

    I will say this, if Hasbro/Takara did decide to release an MP Slag/Slug, Scoria would be on the curb in a heartbeat. 🙂

    1. I get that Ark, but unfortunately you’re going to force my “prick” response on this. Everything you’re arguing here, is an argument for your convenience because you want an MP Slag. Plain and simple. Corporate law cares nothing about these companies being “fan based”. That argument is the same as me saying I want a new tv. I dont want to wait until the store has the tv on sale so I’ll just go steal someone else’s tv. It’s the same argument. Copyright IPs are protected , there’s no arguing around that. Plus you really don know what Takara is planning. Even Hasbro doesn’t until they discuss cross marketing. So you don’t know if they’re planning the Dino’s or not. But either way, it’s their IP.

      Also, there’s no legitimate basis to saying they’re not competing with Hasbro, by their very nature they’re stealing from them, so competition is moot.

      I appreciate your feedback Ark, but let’s call it what it is, they’re giving you someone else’s Tv.

      1. Excellent response, and one I was about to make. At the end of the day, Hasbro owns the rights to the Transformers IP (well them and Takara, I guess). They could say, screw it, and make NOTHING. These third party companies and their products would still be what it is now: theft of IP. And if another company creates products and makes a profit based off of another company’s IP (that they aren’t compensating HasTak in some way for) then that’s theft. Pure and simple.

      2. Excellent response, and one I was about to make. At the end of the day, Hasbro owns the rights to the Transformers IP (well them and Takara, I guess). They could say, screw it, and make NOTHING. These third party companies and their products would still be what it is now: theft of IP. And if another company creates products and makes a profit based off of another company’s IP (that they aren’t compensating HasTak in some way for) then that’s theft. Pure and simple.

  5. Wouldn’t it be more like I’m buying a TV from a company who has made a new TV based on the aesthetic design of a 30 year old TV from another company? The outside may look similar, but the guts are completely different.

    And I’m not arguing with you on Corporate Law, you’re absolutely right. But in my experience I’ve found the law tends to be very black and white in a mostly grey world. Sometimes it works well, other times not so much.

    And you’re right, it is an argument of convenience. I am giving my money to Fanstoys because I don’t believe Hasbro/Takara will ever make an MP Slag. However, if they do I will most likely sell mine and buy the official one. If there is ever a choice between two figures, I usually pick the official one, but in this case where the choice is between having essentially what is an MP Slag or having nothing at all, I will choose the figure.

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