SHADOW OF THE DRAGON

Last modified: Saturday, January 6, 2001 6:20 PM

 

Yes, I whine, bitch & moan about the woes of the pitiful customizer now that Dragon and 21st Century Toys are stomping the hell outa Customizerville. Maybe it's more correct to say that they're leaving the imprint of their soles in a big way, because it depends on what type of customizing you do. If you solely kit/outfit bash figures, their imprint is a fully positive thing. If you compete with them for dollars, it's not such a great thing. For the Sunday customizer, it's a mixed bag-- love their cool stuff, but it's kind of annoying to sweat blood over a figure and have them turn around and do a better version of it. Sigh. You can't fight it. But it is possible live in the shadow of the Dragon, feeding off the little scraps that fall by the wayside. And you can learn lots by looking at what they do and why they do it that way.

 

THE PLAYERS

This could very easily have turned into a long essay about all the different players and their styles and contributions. However, Dragon and 21st Century Toys are distinct in their impact because they're relatively news to the scene, and they've taken the hobby in a more modelling-oriented direction. In this, their goals coincide with the goals of customizing.

In their figure line, 21st Century Toys seem to be a direct offshoot of customizing. It's customizing at mass-market prices. This isn't surprising since many of the company's prototypes come from the legendary customizer, Mike Maceda. It's interesting to note that these customizing roots are visible in the way a lot of their products are presented to the customer. To put it bluntly, many of the outfits are rough-edged and a bitch to put together (and it doesn't help that they don't provide instructions). Like modelling, most of the effort goes into creating the realistic outward appearance. The products aren't optimized to "snap together", like many toys are, and there are a lot of rough edges left in, but hidden. The payoff for being patient and struggling through the assembly is a complex & good-looking figure, loaded with detail.

Dragon Model's approach is slightly different-- it's slicker and the assembly isn't as tortuous. They design a more accessible product from the ground up, which benefits from their willingness to innovate and look long and hard for solutions. Dragon seems to be more concerned with a totally finished product, with a more "snap together" quality. It would seem that they tend to simplify design to make the product more user-friendly and feature-laden. This sometimes results in less authenticity.

These are gross generalizations based on a few items in their product line. There are a lot of similarities in their products, but you can see these "signatures" in the way they approach some designs. For example, Dragon puts an actual liner & strap on a helmet-- 21st Century Toys is more apt to sculpt the strap on and create the appearance of a liner. Dragon seems more likely to figure out a way to make an opening pouch, whereas 21st Century Toys seems satisfied to create the appearance of an opening pouch.

This relates back to the old debate between the toy-like qualities of some vintage gear versus the realistic appearance of custom resin work. Some people prefer the less realistic cloth covered canteen instead of the sculpted-with-folds version simply because it's "neater", and offers a depth of interaction beyond the surface appearance. Getting stuff to look realistic and be functional is difficult and both companies seem to have come to the conclusion that in a mass production setting, you do it through rubber.

 

PRODUCTION

The Big Boys have some major advantages when it comes to production. In the design phase, their deep pockets give them access to the best reference materials possible (in theory). They're capable of hiring the best sculptors & designers. They have access to CAD/CAM and 3D pantography. They're able to use mass production processes and materials which are unavailable to most individuals. In addition, by hiring overseas factories and labor, they're able to do it much more economically than an individual can. Talk about a juggernaut!

Still, there are some opportunities for the little guy. Mass production is optimized to produce lots of uniform stuff, quickly and cheaply. They may have an extremely detailed prototype and develop very high-quality, efficient processes, but they don't have the time to lavish on each individual unit that's produced. Dollars and cents are the bottom line. So where are some of the chinks in the armor? I've listed some areas of opportunity below, in order of declining feasibility. (This means that the stuff at the end are areas where you would be hard pressed to compete with the mass-market producers.)

This concludes the (incomplete) inventory of production issues and techniques. As you can see, there are a lot of things you can recycle from the Big Boys. But there are some things specific to their situation that you may want to avoid if you want to produce a superior custom.

 

SUBJECT MATTER

So... you've got a great idea for a unique historical or licenseable figure, eh? Not that you shouldn't do it if you enjoy the challenge, but as more stuff gets produced from the shrinking pool of historical material, it may be only a matter of time before a company with big jangles is gonna produce your beloved "Joe-- The Spud Shucker" (With an accessory set to turn him into "Joe-- The Latrine Scrubber". If you think your idea is unique and cool, chances are very good that thousands of others have already had the same thought. The safest ideas are those that nobody wants (and are therefore not profitable for companies to produce). Woo Hoo!

There's plenty of room for your own imaginative creations. Sci-fi and fantasy are obvious choices since companies don't have a monopoly (or any innate advantage) in matters of creativity. Quasi-historical or interpretive figures are another area that is relatively safe. Instead of relying on a backstory created by someone else, make up your own and populate it with your own characters. (Just be sure to legally protect it so you can sue the pants off of anyone who steals your idea.)

The third area relies on the constraints that public opinion puts on the mass market. There are certain areas that are considered too controversial to be offered for public consumption. Most large businesses don't like the attention that controversy attracts. This is shifting sand though. Things that were once considered taboo are now being produced for mass markets and specialized markets (like McFarlane's stuff). Sometimes producers misjudge the acceptability of their offerings in the mass market (21C's Villain). It's unlikely that we will ever see a Walmart "Bible-bashing Jesse Ventura", a Target exclusive Hitler, or a Hasbro Silicone Beach Babes series, but that doesn't rule out the possibility of these things being produced by someone, somewhere. Dragon's SS figures are potentially controversial, but they avoid this by not distributing them at retail chains.

 

 

SUMMARY

The arrival of these big producers has a big impact on the commercial customizing scene: If you're competing in the same niche and your work isn't as good as theirs, you're going to have a hard time selling at the price it takes you to produce. Small producers who don't have a "safe" unique product might consider targeting the well-monied collector with "artist-quality" work. That's not a novel idea, since original artwork is expensive, and is not marketed to the beer & pretzels crowd. This would probably be a relief to some customizers. It might be wise to concentrate on a few high quality pieces instead of being a mini production line working at near or below minimum wage. It's the "Art Joe" concept; originals sold for +$1000 to serious patrons of the art. I suppose the big question is, are there any of these fabled patrons out there?

For the kit/outfit bashers, Dragon and 21st Century are a wet dream. At the rate these guys are producing, you may never have to consider taking up sewing. Customizing techniques can be used to make up for the fact that they rarely package their components in the quantities that you may require.

For the rest of us, they're a great benchmark to show us what we can do to hone our own skills and to motivate us to try harder. Despite the frustration of their making previous areas of opportunity seem less inviting, it just means that we have to look harder. It's all part of that grand existentialist modelling tradition thang.