MOTUC Director’s Commentary – Stratos

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#5 Stratos originally posted 02.21.2012

[box style=”doc”]Stratos. So here was a big one.

Well, not so much for the particular figure, but after Stratos went on sale was when we not only pitched a full year of product (beyond Hordak, who at the time was the last figure), but this was also the time we sat down and thought about this line for the long haul.

But I’ll get into that in a minute. Let me round out any outstanding issues on our little flying monkey man first.

As I’ve said in previous blog entries, Stratos was sculpted and designed at the same time as the other “first” 6” figures. One of the issues that came up was that he and Beast Man were sculpted and shipped at the same time. When they arrived in Hong Kong, our vendor team accidently mixed up their loin cloth/belt pieces (likely due to seeing the red on the belt for Stratos and assuming it was for Beast Man to match his armor – oops!). The incorrectly assembled figures showed up in the cross-sell and a few loose (and packaged) samples of Stratos with the yellow Beast Man belt actually showed up online and freaked out a lot of fans.

But we quickly saw this error and made the correction before he went into production. I remember one of the members of the management team told us to ship him as-is and that he was “our character” so we could give him whatever belt color we wanted.

Terry and I were adamantly against this and pretty much spent up all of our political Mattel capital to insist that the belt be changed. And it was. It was a close call and if not for Terry’s insistence to his bosses, this wouldn’t have been changed (and my nagging).

Another issue that surrounds Stratos is his lack of accessories. I hit this one in a previous blog, but to recap, basically, the first six figures were worked on in a bit of a bubble. After Stratos, we started looking at the figures as part of a long term line. But before Stratos’ sale, we didn’t think we would be getting past the first six, and then the first eight, when we added Mer-Man and Hordak (and Faker as a quick repaint for NYCC).

Once we knew we had a full line ahead of us, we made an unofficial rule that each character needed at least two accessories or a second head and one accessory (many got more than this!). But for the first six, we were not working under this self-imposed guideline and were just following the vintage line tit-for-tat.

The vintage figure had no accessories, so the Classics figure of Stratos did not. Many fans asked about adding accessories, such as the Emerald Staff of Avion or something like this. And had Stratos been a later monthly figure needing two accessories under our self-created rule, this would have likely been the first idea we had, too.

BUT: like the other early figures, Stratos fell victim to the “trial and error” that befalls every toy line’s early figures and wound up being accessory-less (just like his vintage figures). Hopefully, one day we can find a way to get him some accessories (if you haven’t armored up your Stratos already with one of the weapon paks or something). It is interesting to see how this happens on almost all toy lines. The first batch of figs are always experimental. Bugs need to be worked out and whomever is lucky or unlucky enough to be one of the first figures in a line usually winds up having issues that get resolved with later figures.

On a personal note, I should also add that Stratos was one of my absolute FAVORITE figures as a kid. I loved Stratos and used to bring him everywhere. I actually had the reversed colors version with blue wings and a red pack (the vintage line had some odd color swaps — imagine what today’s online fans would say had the internet been around for the vintage line!) so I was particularly glad when we got to this reversed color version in the MOTU vs DCU line (more on that when we get to those figures in this blog series).

The final issue to talk about with Stratos (other than his sell-out in minutes) was the articulation on the wings. When the figure was reviewed, customers quickly pointed out and asked for articulation on the wings. I actually completely misunderstood what customers were asking for (and I take total fault on this one).

What I thought customers wanted was an articulation point at the wrist like the 200X Stratos had so the wings could be moved up and down. But what the customers were asking for was to make sure the wings could be rotated 360 degrees around the wrist to mimic the vintage cross-sell art. I totally dropped the ball on this and did not understand what customers were asking for. The online posts I read just were not that clear, or if they were I missed the point.

So when I said we couldn’t articulate the wings, what I thought I was responding to was that we couldn’t re-tool the wings to have an articulation point at the wrist. Of course we didn’t have to glue them in place! But I honestly didn’t understand what customers were saying when they asked for articulation and I trusted Terry and his design team with the choice to “glue” the wings from rotating. I didn’t want to step on their toes and it wasn’t my job to “tell” them how to make a figure.

Once customers clarified what they meant, I of course wanted to remove the glue to ensure the wings could rotate 360 degrees. But by that point it was too late. We were able to make this a feature on the reverse color Stratos in the retail vs. pack, but alas, original Stratos never got the rotating wings and I still chalk this up to an early miss on my part.

Okay, now the part you may be waiting for. The roll out (I’ll address the bio creation in the next blog).

So Stratos sold very well. Better than we could have hoped for. After Skeletor became the first figure to sell out before the next figure went on sale, customers jumped on Stratos like white on rice and bought him up lightning-fast. While this was faster than we needed to see, it became a great talking point for upper management to get a full year line green lit (and boy, did we need a victory talking point!)

Looking at past collector lines, many had died an early death simply because they burned through characters a bit too quickly. This was especially the case with the 2003 Staction line from NECA.

To avoid this, I decided to create a multiyear rollout to ensure that each year had a robust selection of figures from all the factions and corners of the MOTU world.

Of course, this rollout was not going to be set in stone, but it has actually surprised me how little we have deviated from it over the years. It has been a great tool and one we still use. We do make some changes and as we add or subtract the number of SKUs we offer each year (such as adding beasts) or when we get access to new characters (like Filmation rights), we do make alterations. But for the most part, I’d say we have followed the original rollout 85%+ of the time. The figures coming out next month were originally slotted into that month at the time of Stratos’ sell out. Which is pretty cool and really helped make sure each year would be strong.

Now of course there is no guarantee this roll out will be followed forever. And heck, I am sure I will not be the brand manager on the line forever. But for the moment and for the last four years it has been a great tool to keep us on track.

To make the rollout, the first thing I did was make a master list of all the characters we had access to. I knew Filmation was off limits, as were things like comics and books (outside of the mini-comics and the DC comic book series, due to our partnership with DC Comics at the time and to this day). I brought my long list to Legal and sat down with a pair of very nice Mattel lawyers on the top floor of our corporate office.

For the most part the lawyers approved my list. I was told to definitely stay away from Filmation, and the 1987 movie was also a no-go for now due to rights issues. But for the most part, the 200X series (which we had full access to) provided most of the key Filmation characters (Orko, Man-At-Arms with a mustache, etc.), as well as some nice bonus characters that made it into 200X from Filmation, like Marzo and Evil Seed, during a legal window that existed when the 200X series was done and gave us an odd loophole.

I did show the legal team images of the Horde Witches from Episode 35 and images of Shadow Weaver to see if that was a “back door” way to get her into the line but was told flat-out “no” on that idea. Mattel respects other companies’ copyrights and we, in return, respect theirs. Besides, Legal was very clear we had more than enough characters between the vintage line, POP, NA, and the 200X line and show. So there was no need to spend gobs of money and time chasing a few stray Filmation characters through shady loopholes. And honestly, even as a fan, I 100% agree with them. Sure I wanted Shadow Weaver, but from a business perspective it did not make sense to chase rights and spend money on what was (and still is) a very small collector line. Especially when there already were hundreds of characters we could do.

So life is life. We had a clear line drawn on who we had access to and who we did not. With this knowledge in place, it was time to draw up a road map for the character rollout.

I must have spent hours every night and on the weekends for the next few months just poring over spreadsheets and fan requests online, reviewing the lineup, then take a step back, review it again, move slots and figures around and keep fine-tuning it until I felt it was “just right.” Yes, I could have pounded this out at work and had adequate time to do so, but it was one of those things I wanted to spend hours on and was happy to do so.

To say I took this seriously was an understatement. I knew helping to pick the line up was not only a great honor, but a HUGE responsibility and I wanted to do right by the fans. The goal was a blend of males, females, vintage figures, 200X figures, POP, mini-comics etc… so that each year felt like a nice package and more importantly that we had strong characters to anchor each year. There were also some characters that checked-off multiple boxes. Catra, for example, was a POP figure, a Horde figure and a female. So she covered a lot of ground as a slot.

I also made sure to note all of the requests online (at the time). This is exactly why Optikk, for example, showed up as the first NA figure. At the time (late 2008), he was the most requested NA character on the boards. So while we still read fan requests, the ones that actually helped shape the line were those posted in late 2008. After that, requests were nice, but didn’t really affect the lineup since it was locked in. (A great example of this is requests for Blonde Bikini Teela. She was locked into the line as a spring 2011 figure from Day 1. But it was very cool that fans started “demanding” her pretty early on, not aware – and how could they be – that she was already in the line for eventual release in 2011! So this was a case of fans demanding a figure that was already coming. Pretty neat.)

It is also neat to look back and see how “right on” we tended to be with fan demand. If you look at the lists posted on sites, with the exception of Ram Man who has been a perpetual fan request (and one harder to do because of the one time use 100% tool) we tend to be hitting the figures in the order fans want. Everyone wanted Trap Jaw and we got to him. After Trap Jaw came out everyone wanted Hsss and Fisto and so on. It is neat to see that for the most part (not always) the #1 requested figure tends to be coming up rather soon. I think this is a good sign that the roll out was put together well. Heck, a few months ago Frosta and Spikor were the top requests and we just revealed them as coming later this year! I see this as a sign we did things right.

Anyway, after weeks of poring over the list at home in my off hours (Mattel did provide adequate time to do this at work, but I chose to take my time and go slow, bringing my work home), I finally brought it in and presented the list to Terry and his team. Surprisingly, Terry had almost zero comments and thought my rollout hit it just right.

Next step was running this by the Horsemen for their input. And much like the Mattel design team, the Horsemen also had very little to change. They did ask me to move Clawful up (he was originally a 2013 figure) due to it being one of Eric’s favorites. They also asked me to swap Whiplash and Buzz Off in my rollout as they wanted to logistically figure out the tail connector first before figuring out the wing attachment. Bow and Tytus/Megator were also characters CB wanted to get to, so I made sure to put them earlier in the line for them.

But other than that, my roll out was pretty much approved by all parties.

The next step was bringing the first year’s worth of figures to management for approval to continue the line past Mer-Man and Hordak. Even though we had (and have) the line thought-out for several years, we still bring it for approval one year at a time and just lift the next year’s figures from the master rollout doc and present at each year’s annual review meetings with management.

Based on the sales of the previous four figures and the brand equity in supporting our own intellectual property, management loved the idea of doing a full year of figures to “see how it goes.” All of the figures in Year 1 needed to be very minimal tooling since we spent so much tooling on the three main bodies (human, beast and reptile). We pretty much put all the rest of the tooling into the Teela figure so we would have a female buck to work with. (it is much easier to get fully tool’d figures approved if the tool is reusable) After that we were down to heads and armor only for the remaining figures. This is part of why there were so many “core” characters in Year 1. We simply did not have the tooling for more extravagant figures that year.
When we presented the line up to management, I do remember in particular one of the managers looking at Scareglow (the proposed October figure, until the Mer-Man slip moved him to November) and saying “Scareglow? Really? He was one of the cheap-outs back in the day.” Which is interesting because if you look at the vintage Scareglow wave (Randor, Clamp Champ, Ninjor and Scareglow) they were all pretty much “weapon and a head only” figures. It seemed that with the popularity of the line back in 1985/1986, the team back then needed to rush some new figures to market and just as it is today, the cheapest and easiest way to rush figures to market is to use minimal tooling and redeco option.

So while management members who were around for the vintage line thought of Scareglow as one of the “cheap-out figures, we did to keep fresh product out there,” Terry and I knew he was actually one of the most demanded figures in the line, having been one of the few vintage figures to not make it into the 200X line or Staction line.

Either way, management was fine with our selections and trusted us that including a character like Scareglow was the right way to go. (Although management still thought we were a bit loony for including him. Oh well.)

Okay, wow. For a blog about Stratos, I’ve gone on and on. The rollout strategy just took up a lot of space. I’ll hit the bio creation subject next time and talk about how we took a look at the bios as a long-term story idea and why we wrote them all at once to avoid making it feel like we were making this up as we went along.

The line was officially a hit after Stratos. But there was still a lot of work to do, and Terry and I were both busy with our fulltime gigs on retail lines. Luckily my wife didn’t seem to mind me staying up every night pouring over MOTU comics and rollout sheets. While I never intended MOTUC to be an “outside of work” hobby, it was an enjoyable one and I hoped the customers would support it.

Until next time!


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