A License to Kill (the Fun)

A License to Kill (the Fun)

My dad has a theory that the price you first paid for something remains, internally set, the price you think is proper.  My first comic book cost me a dime, but shortly thereafter they went up to twelve cents.  I was shocked to find that the cover price of a Superman Action Comic is $4.99. 

Which is all a precursor to say that talking about price when it comes to toyland is very subjective.  Many are looking for toys under $25 dollars, and those toys exist, and (particularly in the game and puzzle space) still offer great play-value.  But in reality the toys that might have been in that category a few years ago are now closer to double that. As manufacturers up their prices each year by what they might consider a small percentage, the dollar increases are not only cumulative, but compounding and daunting for many of us, pushing the price of these play-objects out of reach.

There has long been a class differentiation in playland.  In earlier times it marked by the difference between homemade dolls and highfalutin porcelain ones.  There were the mass produced toys and the much more expensive European imports at specialty boutiques.

It was often easy to see the difference in quality between the levels of toyland.  The money went largely to higher levels of craftsmanship.  Hold onto your hats, though.  Welcome to the twenty-first century.

Today, the cost of licenses can be a major factor in the price of a toy.  I first noticed this when covering children's software.  A basic racing game would cost much less than one that relied on a Disney character on the front of the box. 

This holiday season, three prime examples of this come from movie and TV licenses, James Bond, Star Wars and Star Trek.  Don't get me wrong, anyone who has ever been in my office or home knows I love both franchises, so much so that I have two giant 7' space ships in semi-permanent storage.  But, what I saw this season really troubles me.

Playmobil sells a number of detailed toy vehicles at prices that seem to depend on size, number of figures, and license.  For instance, you can get a simple Playmobil Family with Car for $19.95. a Stunt Show Crash Car for $24.95.  Adding the Porsche license, battery power, and some extra pieces, and for double the price you get to the Porsche 911 Carrera 4S Police vehicle at a price that doesn't yet offend me.

But adding the James Bond license to a Playmobile raises the price to $89.99, the James Bond Aston Martin DB5 – Goldfinger Edition.  Yes, it has an ejection seat, bullet proof shield and other details, and instead of coming with one figure it has Bond plus several villains, but unlike the Porsche, it is not motorized.  What you have seems to be the idea that if a "toy" appeals to grown-ups as well as kids, you can charge more, even though you're arguably offering less.

Consider  Snakin' Grogu ($79 if you can find it at retail, but selling for much more on the resale market as it comes in and out of stock).  Adding to the reality of the price is short supply and high demand, not just from kids, but from Star Wars fans of any age.  As a result I've seen the often-out-of-stock doll being sold high above list price. 

Everyone's first reaction when seeing and hearing this animatronic doll is "how cute".  He has arms and eyes that move, and big wiggly ears, too.   Baby Yoda, as everyone calls him, makes cute baby gurgle noises most of the time, except when he is slurping food or trying a force trick.  At $79 he might, indeed will, make an upper and toy-pick for lots of Star Trek devotees, at a price that is in line with other animated dolls.  You might even call him this year's Tickle Me Elmo.

The only thing is, at this price he does so much less than Elmo and other similar dolls.  The way to get him to turn on for most of his vocalizations is to press down on his head, three times for the force sound to play.  (The materials say "pat" the head.  In reality you push down on it pretty hard, in a way that would be really harmful if you did it to a baby, Yoda or otherwise.) There are no sensors that react to light or stroking.  You can put things in one of his hand by sticking a tab on the food or toy into a slot, but even the act of doing that prematurely triggers the doll to move its arms and talk.  The "Force" ball that is supposed to appear to hover, is connected in the same way by a clear plastic piece, so there is really no difference in the "magic" of the food and the ball save the sound effect.  Oh, wouldn't it  have been great if they had used a magnet to suspend the ball.  You can also use a spoon to force the mouth sensor to trigger an action and movement, as in many baby dolls.

It just feels like the designers were constrained by the license.  Was it the price, the time factor of getting the toy out while the license was hot?  The toy, like Elmo, is mostly a novelty item, but I expected more in the way of tech and creativity from the team that created him.  I don't think he will get a lot of use after the first few times he is used.

The most egregious license-to-kill-the-fun product of the year goes to Playmobil's Star Trek Enterprise.  I'm not sure it is fair to call it a toy; certainly at $499 list, it is less likely to be used by kids than as a fetish object for adults.  The toy looks like it was designed for kids (in the Playmobil mold) but it is clearly aimed at grownup Trekkers.  Now, I'm not opposed to expensive toys for grown-ups per se; I even have a few myself, but my first reaction to the Enterprise was that (for any age) it would have been fairly priced at $250 relative to other toys, acceptably priced at $300.  That it now sits at a two hundred dollar premium because (in my opinion) its license makes it so highly appealing to adults who grew up on the series, smacks of an overreach, a cash grab.  In fairness it is a big model, and does come with sounds, lights, and lots of action figures.  In honesty, I have sat with the order page on Amazon many nights thinking about pushing the Buy Now button.  I just can't do it.   It is the apotheosis of a consumer culture that has been nurtured in me since I first pretended to be captain of the Enterprise.  Ultimately, it is an inert piece of plastic that will ultimately sit on a shelf.  It won't mean much to my grand-children (who don't know from the original series), and at $500 they shouldn't really be playing with what should probably stay boxed as an investment.  Nor do I want to reward Playmobil's pricing which relies on decades of movies and tv watching to make me pay the Star Trek tax, particularly at such a high rate.

Just say no.