Bringing toys to life may be a relatively new business. But business is booming. Video game sections of retailers are now full of toys. Skylanders, Disney Infinity, amiibo, and new this year, LEGO Dimensions, all offer figures that work in conjunction with their video game software. These games now represent a $4 billion market, and they're already some of the most successful in video game history.
But creating, manufacturing and shipping these figures isn't an easy process. Designing, selling and shipping video games has its own host of problems, and adding the toy component means working on an additional lengthy timeline that often stretches for years before the figures ever reach store shelves.
There’s also the design process to consider and making sure the toy not only works with what the artists wants, but also fits within factory regulations and safety standards. It can’t just look cool.
The toys first have to make it through months of production, tests that include sustaining freezing cold, being dropped from high surfaces and being ripped apart. And in some cases, even being attacked by Asian gypsy moths.
The phenomenon that is Skylanders started in 2011 and came out of Activision's Toys for Bob studio. The franchise essentially created the toys-to-life market, and Skylanders represents over $3 billion of the market, selling over 250 million toys and making it the eleventh best-selling video game franchise of all time.
And it all started with a portal.
"The first time we saw a toy coming to life on a portal, it was one of those moments that was incredibly magical," says Josh Taub, senior vice president of product management at Activision. "Everyone in the room smiled and, fundamentally, believed we had something."
Toys for Bob spent the next three years working on the first version of Skylanders.
Tree Rex from Skylanders
"It's like one of those things you see and think, 'Oh! Of course. Like, why wouldn't this have happened earlier? Because it's two things that you love, right?" Taub says. "It's games and toys coming together."
A typical Skylanders game takes about two years of development time with the toys having a lot of early up-front design work. The team not only has to create the characters, but also how they work in game — the powers, the upgrade paths, the base configurations and the element types.
"You're making firm decisions on characters 12 to 14 months before the game's released," Taub says. "Because you have to go through a very in-depth process of getting prototypes into the system, making sure they look like they did in design, making sure they have a good feel in the hand, to cut tools ... and then start to propose for end use and production."
The design process for a line of figures can take six months to a year, with the prototype and production stage taking an additional six months to a year. The characters that Activision released in 2015 kicked off back in early 2014, and the company is already through most of the toy design process for 2016.
Eruptor from Skylanders
That's quite a bit of lead time for a toy that generally sells for $13 retail.
Each year also brings new complications to the process. Skylanders: Giants, which came out in 2012, required new tool sets, and 2015's Skylanders: SuperChargers introduced vehicles.
The design teams have 3-D printers in their offices and start with printed prototypes. The teams then work with production facilities to first create working prototypes and figure out the finer details and textures for the figures, like Tree Rex's tree bark, or Ninjini's swords or the wheels and grills on the SuperCharger cars.
"That process takes time and back and forth, because what you think may be great sometimes is but sometimes requires a lot of iteration," says Taub.
Someone checks every toy that comes off the line against the original to make sure the quality is consistent for every figure of each character — from prototyping to final production.
Stealth Elf from Skylanders
And while five years ago it may have seemed crazy that retailers would dedicate shelf space in their video game sections to toys, the initial reaction from retailers was nothing but excitement, according to Taub.
It took some education — both on the part of Activision and the retailers — to figure out how to do it. But for retailers, it also meant having a product that kept bringing people back into stores to buy new toys over and over again, as opposed to coming in once for a game release.
That also brings other challenges, including toy availability and the longer lead time needed to produce toys compared to the time needed to produce discs. There's the fact that they are physically different — toys as displayed on pegs as opposed to game discs on a shelf — but it's also a different business model, and Skylanders is a year-round business.
Jet-Vac from Skylanders
"Once you make a game and press a disc, you're putting the disc out to the level of demand," Taub says. "But when you're making toys, you're releasing toys all year-round, and that production cycle continues all the way through the year and sometimes into the next year."
Skylanders has managed to create a new segment of the gaming industry, but it’s also topped the toy industry. Over 250 million Skylanders toys have sold worldwide, outselling even the top action figure lines in North America and Europe for the past four years.
"Sitting outside my office there's a wall of every toy we've ever made," says Taub. "... And you stand in front of the wall and you realize that every one of the toys goes through the highest level of care and that the team is so passionate about what they're creating for each of the kids who's going to wind up with their favorite toy in the season," Taub says. "And that's continued all the way through today."
Not everybody at Disney thought it was a good idea for Disney Interactive — the digital entertainment division of Disney — to start a toy business.
"This is a bunch of guys that, traditionally, their entire careers have made video games and then were given the opportunity to create toys that are compatible with the game," says John Vignocchi, vice president of production on Disney Infinity.
Like Skylanders, Disney Infinity is a "vertical toys" business, which means the toys are designed, developed and manufactured internally, which is different from Disney's typical toy development process. Most Disney toys are licensed to other companies for manufacturing, like Hasbro, Mattel or LEGO, and those companies then make products based on Disney's specifications.
Yoda from Disney Infinity
"Five years ago, you were just a video game developer, and now you're worrying about all these different types of things," Vignocchi says.
Disney Interactive even brought in some toy people from its Consumer Products division for a few months, teaching the game people the process of making toys. One of the recommendations they made: In order to crank out figures quicker, make them 2 inches tall instead of the 6 inches Pixar had initially suggested.
"We didn't know some of those things when we first started off, " says John Blackburn, SVP and GM for Disney Infinity. "And now we're much better at that."
The team ultimately decided on 4 inches for the figures, which balanced quality with the ability to make millions of them.
"We were coming into the manufacturing process so naive because we didn't know all the rules, so we started breaking them pretty early and, I think, to our advantage, to be honest," says Jeff Bunker, vice president of art development. "I think there's a lot of things that were maybe assumed rules and principles of making figures, but ... they ended up not being what was assumed and I think we've ended up in a really good place because of that."
Even internally, the idea of Disney Infinity wasn't always a surefire hit. There was an initial feeling in the company that fans wouldn't appreciate or want the figures if they weren't articulated or weren't action oriented. There was also worry that some of the early character poses might not be popular.
Obi-Wan Kenobi from Disney Infinity
"We've proven that wrong," says Bunker.
Mike Wazowski from "Monsters, Inc." is the best-selling toy of the group, with the Hulk just overtaking Elsa from "Frozen" for second place.
The standard development timeline for Disney Infinity figures is 15 months, and the shortest timeline the team can work under is around 10 months. This includes the approval process for figures, which puts Disney in a unique position in the toys-to-life market, because while it has a deep bench of IP to pull characters from, it also has to work with many different stakeholders in the design process — including the original creators and the actor who may have played that character.
Artists create the initial art in 2-D, which typically takes one to two weeks and includes sketches and early color explorations. Then the design goes back and forth between the 2-D and 3-D artists, and sculpting takes place for another two weeks. Then there's about a week spent on in-game rigging, and then the pose work starts, which takes another two weeks. From there, the figures are sent to the factories and modifications are made for another two weeks.
Then members of the team go to China to work on perfecting the manufacturing mold for about three weeks, with another two to three weeks spent setting up preproduction and the assembly line. The time in the factory can then depend on the number of figures being made — any amount up to two million — so production can last anywhere from six weeks to three months.
Anakin from Disney Infinity
"It's very cool to go to one of the warehouses," says Bunker. "It's kind of like that scene in 'Indiana Jones' in the warehouses."
And then all those figures need to leave China. The shipping process can take an additional three months, and in the past the studio has had to air-ship some products instead of the usual method of boat shipping so they could meet demands that were higher than expected.
Shipping by sea also means the figures are subject to port problems ... and also Asian gypsy moths. The Sony Collector's Edition 2.0 figures were delayed because Asian gypsy moth larvae were found on the boat carrying the product.
Every figure that comes off the line also has to be hand painted and hand assembled, all while keeping the quality as high as possible, according to Disney.
"When you get into mass production and you're making millions of figures, it's crazy how difficult it is to keep quality control," says Bunker.
Problems like overspray or misalignment of paint hits can happen, but when assembling something made up of pieces, like a puzzle, it can make the process a little more exact and replicable across mass production.
Darth Maul from Disney Infinity
And as Infinity has continued over the past few years, the team has relied less and less on paint and split the characters up more and let the plastic do more of the work, trying to pay respect to the urban vinyl look that inspired them in the first place. There's also time — around four months — built into the schedule dedicated to getting feedback from the manufacturer and adjusting the poses of the characters.
Almost every pose is modified off of that initial factory feedback, with the team working to create a figure that is the best solution for both the idea of the pose and the manufacturing process.
There's also safety and other testing standards that need to be considered. Most toys-to-life figures are made in various factories in China that follow a list of international labor standards written by Disney over the years.
Tests include drop tests (how many times a figure can be dropped from a certain height before it breaks), pull tests (how hard you can pull on the limbs before it breaks), freezing tests, measuring the sharpness of points and lab work to ensure the paint and plastic aren't toxic.
And as indestructible as the Incredibles might be in the movie, some of the team's inexperience showed through in the first run of figures, even though the toys passed these tests. A 4-foot drop could break the ankles of the first run of the Mrs. Incredible figures. The pins ran from the base up into her feet, instead of the other way around, weakening the ankle, so that was fixed in the second run of the toys.
Ahsoka from Disney Infinity
Other figures in the first run also had problems. Dash had problems with his head. Violet's hair originally didn't connect to her back. Sully’s plastic was too stiff and would sheer off if the toy was dropped from certain angles, so the team had to adjust the hardness of the plastic.
"Any time you let the video game guys go design toys they design stuff that looks cool, not stuff that can be made," says Blackburn.
And even more recent toys all still have to find that balance between aesthetic and durability. But that aesthetic has been well received. Disney Infinity was the best-selling hybrid toy/video game in the United States in 2014 based on revenue and starter pack sales.
Not bad for a bunch of video game guys trying to figure out the toy business.
"It's not a question of whether or not you're going to drop the ball on something; it's how many balls you're going to drop," says Vignocchi. "Without a doubt, these are big business. They generate a lot of revenue. But it's not without a lot of complication."
By the first half of fiscal year 2015, Nintendo's toys-to-life product, amiibo, shipped over 21.1 million figures globally, with the bulk of that in the United States, all while being plagued with stock problems.
Nintendo declined to comment for this story. But Yacht Club Games — the team behind the hit indie title Shovel Knight — is the first third-party company to launch its own figure under Nintendo's amiibo brand, and the studio opened up about its experience producing the Shovel Knight amiibo.
Which, the team says, has been a learning process.
For the Shovel Knight figure, Yacht Club started with a sketch ...
"Going into this, we didn't know anything about distribution; we didn't know anything about manufacturing. We didn't know anything about what goes actually into making a toy. We didn't know anything about retailers or how that world works. We didn't know if we'd make money off of it," says David D'Angelo, a programmer at Yacht Club Games. "There [were] almost zero details which we actually knew anything about other than, like, we had these other amiibo characters in front of us and they looked cool."
Around winter of last year, the studio seriously began pursuing the idea. Nintendo asked Yacht Club if the company would be interested in somehow using amiibo figures in its game. The indie studio was, but it wanted to create its own figure rather than using Nintendo’s pre-existing ones. Nintendo was open to the idea and asked Yacht Club to come up with a pitch on what it would do, who would make it, how many units it could sell, what stores it would be in and how it would function in the game.
Yacht Club had already signed an agreement with Just Toys to do merchandise, but it still had a lot of details to sort out, including how many units Just Toys would be able to make and how fast it would be able to make them.
Yacht Club had also just signed with U&I Entertainment to distribute physical copies of the game to brick and mortar stores. U&I shipped the original PlayStation console, so the company had experience beyond just shipping games.
Firming up the details took about five months, and Yacht Club got the final go-ahead from Nintendo at the Game Developers Conference in March.
... experimented with a 3-D printer ...
Yacht Club had a couple of poses and some concept stuff done in its pitch to Nintendo and had hired a 3-D modeling company to put together a basic idea so it would be ready to go, but the studio still had to finalize the design. The design team went through three major poses for Shovel Knight, but it ran into problems with one pose obscuring the base, and it wouldn't work without one of the now infamous "pee-stained" pillars. ("We decided we didn't want those, for sure," D'Angelo says.) The only way to fix it was was to do a mount on the bottom to secure the figure.
The concerns over another pose came from Just Toys, which was worried about the figure breaking, falling over or the weight being off for the model to stand properly. The Mario Party amiibo had also just come out, and Yacht Club noticed the differences in those compared to the earlier figures launched.
"We liked those a lot better than the Smash ones," says D'Angelo. "You might notice the difference between Mario in Smash and Mario Party. There's a big difference. And one of the big differences we kept pointing out is the Mario Party ones actually looked up."
Many of the Smash Bros. characters — all taken directly from each respective characters' Smash Bros. poses in the games — look down. Shovel Knight also initially looked down, and Yacht Club felt people placing it on their desks wouldn't be able to see the figure in the coolest pose or angle that way.
Production for the retail figures began in the beginning of September and lasted until November. It's a far cry from the production time of Skylanders and Disney Infinity figures, but it’s in line with what Nintendo produces for its own amiibo characters. Even super popular characters like Mario have only had four months of production, and rare characters — like Rosalina — have only seen two months, according to the production dates on Nintendo’s Consumer Product Safety Improvement compliance certificates.
... polished the design ...
Even with production starting in September, the window to try to get Shovel Knight into consumers' hands before the busy holiday shopping season was tight. From starting production, the first shipment left the factory around five to six weeks later. Yacht Club was trying to get its figure out before Christmas, and it was very close, but the company announced on December 3 that Shovel Knight would release in the states on January 8, which was in line with original release estimates, given that it was a big order and was being made during a busy season for the industry.
"There's a really big movie you might have heard about called 'Star Wars' that wants to take over every factory in the planet," says D'Angelo. "It's figuring out the scheduling and the shipping and all that stuff. It's been an ordeal."
The shipping process can take up to eight weeks to Europe and six weeks to America. In China, the figures have to spend time in customs, and then shipping by boat takes around a month. Then there's getting them to the local distributors to get the figures to stores, with (ideally, he says) a week of time in stock for retailers to prepare everything.
"It's a long, seemingly old-fashioned process," says D’Angelo.
The other trick — especially for amiibo figures, which have been plagued with stock issues — is figuring out how many units to produce. At the time of this interview, it was something Yacht Club was still trying to figure out, and the orders were changing every day. Also, for Shovel Knight specifically, Yacht Club has a relativity new indie character that might not be as well known to consumers as, say, a Mario or Bowser figure.
"I think retailers have really overblown expectations because they can't keep them on shelves, right?" D'Angelo says. "They are coming to us ordering two to four times what they should be ordering."
... and settled on the final look.
Yacht Club’s distributor comes with numbers based off of what the retailers order.
"It's hard for our distributor. Our distributor is the one handling all the orders for us, so they're essentially saying, 'This is a lot of orders. Everyone is really excited about it. We think it will do really well, but we have no idea,'" D'Angelo says.
Yacht Club managed to get some sense — but not an exact sense — of how many to produce from Nintendo. "Nintendo really can't tell us numbers," reports D'Angelo. So the studio is producing something close to what it thinks Nintendo produces for one of its characters.
"For us, I think, that seems extremely high, but then again, they are sold out all the time, so it's hard to say," D'Angelo says.
This is especially tricky, because in territories like Latin America that don’t have eShops, many people haven't even seen the character before. And Yacht Club doesn't want to have leftover stock.
"For most of [the retailers], we're saying we're not giving you as many as you want," D'Angelo says. "I think everybody is very excited about it and not understanding it's not a big Nintendo character."
But once Shovel Knight does hit shelves, it will mark the end of a nearly year-long process of learning how to do something totally different from what the studio knows how to do: make games. It was a huge learning process, but Yacht Club is already thinking about doing it again.
"We've gone through the pain of doing it once," D'Angelo says. "All of these things take a really long time to figure out, and it feels like if we don't do another one, that seems like a waste almost. For us, it's so cool to have something that is in our game that is this real thing out in the world."
And that’s part of the success of toys-to-life games: taking a digital character and giving it physical shape and form. Fans of gaming are able to expand their collections not just in the digital space, but they also have figures they can display and play and connect with.
This means that playtime isn’t reserved only for when the TV is on anymore. The barrier between toy products made to coincide with a game’s release and toys made to work within a game is fading, and video game fans, toy collectors and young kids can hold their favorite characters in their hands and create exciting adventures both in the game world and outside of it.
It just takes time — and resources — for companies to release and build these physical experiences. It’s a long road — from the artist to the designer to the physical sculpture to the factory and then through shipping and customs — before the product ever reaches consumer hands. And it's a complicated process, one that has had a learning curve for the video game companies now helping to further expand this growing segment of the gaming industry.
Video games aren’t just restrained by coded dimensions anymore, and with figures like these, games are able to transcend the screen and occupy space in gamers' homes. As long as their shelves can hold them all.