CHASING THE DRAGON
The Evolving Face of 1:6 Collecting

Last modified: Sunday, February 17, 2002 4:49 PM

hmmmm...this sucker has some entertaining possibilities...

In recent months I'd slacked off on the continuous Dragon buying binge and now try to play catch-up on some of Dragon's WWII offerings. That's pretty hopeless these days because they put out so much stuff and if you don't keep up with it-- like turn it into a fulltime obsession-- stuff becomes scarce and tres expensive in the secondary market. That's especially true of the infamous "Cyberhobby Exclusives" where new figure offerings sell out within hours of being announced on the grapevine. But even some non-exclusive figures of fairly recent vintage are commanding hefty prices on eBay and at some retailers... that is, if you can find them in-stock. Dragon must be doing something right (from their perspective) to have created this feeding frenzy. The eBay phenomenon is inspiring people to purchase multiples of figures as they're released, since the right figure can generate a pretty generous profit for a short term investment.

I hate paying OTA as much as anyone else, but as an American, it's hard to condemn this entrepreneurial supply and demand mechanism. Investment is at the heart of good ol' Capitalism: "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em." This isn't some sleazy practice reserved for slimeballs; some people are just more proactive in their search for profit. Through the trickle down effect of our workplace wages, even the most noble-minded among us compete through the relative value placed on their work. This happens locally in the workplace and globally as our product or service sends its subtle ripple through the economy. We invest our time and efforts in our career for the payoff it brings. We don't bargain for a raise wondering how it will ripple out to erode Joe Blow's buying power. Our charitable contributions are tax-deductible, so they're not exactly selfless acts of generosity either. The government frequently steps in to save us from our natural self-centered tendencies, but equal access to toys isn't a hugely important issue in the grand scheme of things. So while I'd rather live in Fufuland where everyone receives everything they ever wanted, they ain't issuing visas.

(<-click for a humongous 400k picture)

It has been noted that Dragon doesn't see any of these profits generated by the secondary market, so why not produce to meet demand? The profit made from the markups isn't something that Dragon would be able to see anyway and still remain competitive with the likes of BBI: In this case, what you don't have doesn't hurt you. But having inventory that you've paid to produce but can't sell can hurt you (think 21C). And there's been a tangible benefit for them: The feeding frenzy helps them sell product quickly so they can move on. Despite all the ill will created from people having to buy on the secondary market, the result is probably just grumbling-- few people are going to pass on a really kewl offering, just on principle. For every person who's publicly sworn to give up chasing the exclusives, there's someone else thinking, 'Cool... more for me...' The limited availability of their releases probably prompts more collectors to buy now, before it's gone. Sideshow Toy seems to have learned this lesson and seems to be thriving now that they've abandoned the mass market distribution model. Ultimately, what's good for the fiscal health of the manufacturer is good for us. It doesn't do us any good if they produce more than enough for all of us and then go out of business (think Resaurus, who never had the chance).

In contrast to this, one only has to look at Cotswold which perpetually stocks their product offerings. This has been great for collectors-- we deeply owe Cotswold for sustaining the hobby through the lean years. But this practice probably results in moribund sales, which dictates few new releases and high prices, just to stay afloat. Cotswold is hardly anywhere near the top of the 1:6 food chain, in quantity, quality, innovation or pricing. They're just there-- old reliable, offering what they've always offered, with an occasional new thing. It's hard not to feel affection for this crusty old world way of doing things, but how often does that override our desire to get a better deal from the asshole cutthroat corporations? One only has to look at the success of Walmart to see how much we as a society care about sentimentality and the little guy when our $$ are at stake. It's a lesson which Cotwold presumably is learning, judging by their recent alliance with Gearbox toys.

Given the history of most collectibles, I don't think anyone is under the illusion that this will last forever. As Dragon tears through the list of WWII figure set possibilities, our display space diminishes. So there's a reasonable physical limit to how much product we can absorb. Buying bigger houses and erecting storage sheds is only a stopgap measure, and not really a rational way to deal with the situation. This reality probably inspires a "blitzkrieg" marketing mentality with most producers: Strike now, while there's some dwindling shelf space available for your stuff. Even though I'm really stoked about news of 21C's upcoming Panzer, I really, really don't have room for it. For real this time. If only they'd released it sooner...

There's also competition, and it's playing catch-up too. Formative International is now producing accessory sets which show a heavy Dragon influence. Although the production quality in the molding is slightly inferior, it's quite good. They're clearly aiming to match the standard of detail and scale accuracy (pic) which Dragon established. Hasbro has also taken a clue and is producing pieces with Dragon-inspired detail; Helmets with molded liner detail? Pistols with removeable magazines and a painted round? Who'da thunk it from the company which brought us 1:5 scale pistols for our 1:6 scale figures (with 1:5 scale hands)? As of Toyfair 2002, BBI has also entered the fray and will be releasing their line of WWII figure sets. Maybe they'll bring us their versions of Hans and Klaus for folks who missed them the first time around?

Will this diminish the feeding frenzy for Dragon figures? Probably, but not immediately and to the extent one might expect based simply on price/availability competition. Dragon figures sets are more than just an amalgam of detail, quality, and price-- there's a consistency in packaging and looks which has been maintained from the beginning across their product line. There's the cachet of collectibility which has kept many figure sets neatly tucked away in their "Never Removed From Box" condition. There's the momentum of the built-up feeding frenzy which won't be stopped in its tracks just because another company releases a product of similar quality for a better price. Dragon has a pretty loyal fan base and constituents rarely abandon ship en masse just because another opportunity presents itself. The glut of players and merchandise in the 1:6 WWII market might diminish the profitability of the market as a whole. It's unlikely that everyone who owns the Dragon version of the German grunt is going to buy the BBI version, just because it's new or cheaper -- it has to offer something really special in the way of detailing, production technology or accessories.


As for my catch-up undertaking; Hit & miss. Some of the Dragon stuff was exciting and fresh, some of it was dull. The Cyberhobby Joachim Peiper figure, while a good looking figure (which is why I had to have it), certainly isn't anything really special-- nice headsculpt, flocked crusher cap with pink piping, so-so "leather" pants. On par with and not too different from the Wittman figure... but wait, that's now an expensive eBay figure too! (Wish I'd bought 10 of 'em last year.) Well, it's not all that special compared to the currently available (and much cheaper) LAH Sturmbannfuhrer "Kurt" (which will probably be a good aftermarket seller). This guy's loaded with stuff which he can wear all at the same time. The expression, while goofy, doesn't look that goofy. Or maybe it just grows on you? On the other hand, the US 30th Infantry "Hank" (not shown in the pic above) offers nothing really exciting. The highlight of the figure-- the coat --is rather poor-wearing and you end up with lots of stuff that you can't display on the figure all at one time (the hat doesn't wear well under the helmet and the sweater doesn't wear well under the coat... plus a shitload of stripper clips). I thought his rifle seemed cheesy and unspecial. I wasn't very impressed with the web gear & belt-- it looks funky with all the elastic and seems like they leave you hanging with regards to getting the scabbard onto it. At least they get you 90% of the way there, unlike 21C's first offering of a bunch of confusing elastic and no instructions. Shame though about the set... it looked much better not in person. The others-- the Hartmann pilot (which has become a little scarce) & U-Boat captain "Herbert" are okay-- they're unique because they're from different service branches, so the mix of provided accessories is more of a stretch. Pilot's leather jacket and life preserver are very well done; flare gun... ho hum. A flight helmet would have been nice. The U-Boat captain probably didn't have much potential for cool weaponry, so you get a spare clean shaven head and extra pair of shoes. The jacket is okay, even though it has the look of a home-upholstered vinyl seat. Don't know why they decided to give ol' Herbert the undereye eyeliner... it doesn't make him look effeminate, but it does make him look sorta Cotswold-like. Ugh. They've done this to several other figures (even Peiper), but it's especially bad with Herbie. I was surprised at how cool the carded SS camouflaged smock accessory sets are-- the quality of Dragon's medals can't be beat. In the newer sets you get a belt with the round officer's buckle and a flocked crusher cap. The flocking is a nice innovation from Dragon, and it looks much better than their plain molded hats. Unfortunately, the carded uniform sets (which didn't give you boots and belt) aren't available now, so unless you've got spare tunics, you'll need to scavenge for a tunic for the figure to wear under the smock. Whew... many buck poorer and I haven't even begun to tackle the Afrika Corps or numerous fallschirmjaeger offerings!

(BTW, my current fave distributors for this stuff: War-Toys (Las Vegas, NV) and Atlantic Toys (Fairfield, CA). Both have reasonable prices, secure online order systems and ship very quickly (even on Saturdays) via USPS Priority. Fastest turnaround: ordered on Friday PM, received on Monday. Damn!)

--02/17/02

 

The author has never sold a Dragon figure on eBay, but has generously donated to the profit fund of a Dragon figure seller.