From drawing board to store shelf: The development of a Transformers toy
Hello and welcome to the first part of a multi-part article series in which I will attempt to explain the development process of a Transformers toy. As my basis for this compilation, I use various materials which have made their way into the fandom one way or another over the years, for example via Japanese sourcebooks or BotCon presentations. In addition, there are various details which have come up from Q&A rounds with Hasbro at BotCon or as part of the (discontinued) Q&A program for fan sites. In some instances, I also use information gathered from conversations with (usually former) Hasbro employees. In case I have misrepresented certain contexts and working procedures, I’d be thankful for corrections.
Hinweis: Die deutsche Fassung dieses Artikels ist leider nicht mehr verfügbar.
Part 1: The concept phase—Hasbro has got some ideas…
The development process of the Transformers toys has changed several times over the years: The initial toys from 1984-85 still mostly came from the existing stock of Japanese toymaker Takara (or were at least far ahead in their development) and were merely released by Hasbro under license, with some minor changes to some of the toys, including their coloration. The toys released in 1986 to accompany the animated The Transformers: The Movie originated as designs by Filipino artist Floro Dery, which subsequently had to be adapted into working toys by Takara’s designers—with oftentimes rather disappointing results. Ever since 1988, most Transformers have been developed in close cooperation between designers of partner companies Hasbro (more specifically, Hasbro’s subsidiary Kenner between 1995 and 1998) and Takara (TakaraTomy since 2006, simply “Tomy” outside Japan).
Hasbro’s designers are mostly responsible for the aesthetic appearance of the toys and for the inclusion of possible “gimmicks”, whereas Takara handles the adaptation of the concept into a working, convertible toy. However, this is no strict distribution of tasks, since designers of both companies closely cooperate on each step and complement and revise each other’s ideas. Typically, each toy is assigned one Hasbro and one Takara designer. Subsequently, the toys are usually adjusted for the relevant markets. Hasbro has to consider the maximum allowed budget for the respective size class, the main target audience (children) and American or European safety regulations, whereas Takara caters more to older fans and collectors, and legal regulations regarding toy safety are less rigid in Japan than they are in the West—on the other hand, Japanese Transformers toys are usually considerably more expensive than their Hasbro counterparts.
There are some Transformers toys that have been exclusively developed by one of the two companies. Usually, these toys show the missing influence of the respective partner: Pure Hasbro designs such as Energon Mega-Dinobot and High Wire, Titanium Series Megatron and Soundwave (with the engineering of the latter two being handled by Hasbro subsidiary Galoob) or Movie Ultimate Bumblebee still allow to see the intention behind the concept, but the technical execution turns out rather disappointing, or has to take a back seat to the “gimmick” (Ultimate Bumblebee is essentially built around a large battery box). Conversely, pure Takara designs such as Robot Masters Starscream, Hybrid Style G1 Convoy and Alternity Bumble are small miracles of engineering which often lack in terms of aesthetics (Hybrid Style G1 Convoy’s truck mode, Alternity Bumble’s robot mode) or play value (Robot Masters Starscream’s robot mode). Thus, the middle ground between Hasbro’s and Takara’s respective approaches, despite the occasionally necessary compromises, usually represents the safest method to ensure a toy that is satisfactory in as many ways as possible as the final result.
In case someone is still wondering whether a specific toy has been co-designed by Hasbro and Takara, or is entirely the work of one of the two companies, there are two ways to tell: All Hasbro/Takara collaborations sport both “Hasbro” and “Takara” (changed to “TOMY” from 2007 onwards) copyright markings somewhere on the toy, and the packaging of the Hasbro version features the note “Manufactured under license from Takara, Ltd.” (changed to “TOMY Company, Ltd.” from 2007 onwards). Any toy only designed by one company doesn’t acknowledge the other company in either instance.
In the following portrayal, I will therefore concentrate on the toys that are developed in cooperation between Hasbro and Taraka. The development process for toys that are exclusively designed by one company is essentially the same, except that one company is responsible for all steps of the entire process, and the end result often isn’t quite satisfactory, as illustrated above.
The alternate mode: What is the toy supposed to turn into?
The very first thing to be decided on is the intended size. These days, Hasbro uses a variety of standardized size classes with a predetermined price point. The technical limitations of the toy’s intended size and the allocated budget influence things such as the degree of realism, the number of articulation joints and the maximum amount of paint operations, among other things. With the size decided on, Hasbro’s designers can start their actual work.
In the beginning of the design process, there is the idea. That can be of varying nature, depending on the intention: A Transformers toy can be a mostly unique, original creation (which has arguably become a rare occurrence in recent times), it can be a new interpretation of an existing character with varying degrees of artistic liberties for the designers, or the toy can be based directly on an existing design, be it an existing toy or even an external design (such as Floro Dery’s concepts for The Transformers: The Movie or the Dreamworks designs for Michael Bay’s live action movies).
This basic premise obviously already has a major impact on the first steps of the development process. With a completely new character, Hasbro can freely choose the alternate mode; a new interpretation of an existing character shouldn’t veer away too far from the inspiration (Classics Bumblebee would have been hard to imagine as a tank or helicopter, for example); and the adaptation of an existing design leaves the designers almost no liberty of choice anymore.
Transformers toys usually start with the alternate mode. That can be a car, a motorcycle, a truck, an airplane, a helicopter, a tank or another type of vehicle; it can be an everyday device such as a microscope, a toaster, an MP3 player or a video game console; or it can be an animal with either an “organic” or a mechanical appearance. In either case, the Hasbro designers use references. These days, the Google image search is a popular tool for this. Depending on how closely the toy is supposed to resemble its counterpart in real life, emphasis may be put on attention to detail, or the designers will be given room to live out their artistic freedom.
Licensed vehicle alternate modes are a relatively new phenomenon, not least since manufacturers have only recently begun to pursue their rights in terms of toy replicas of their designs. For the Transformers brand, this mainly applies to the Alternators line and the protagonists of the Bay movies. In this case, the manufacturer will usually directly provide Hasbro and Takara with references, and in turn, the toy companies will try to recreate the real life vehicle as accurately as possible, especially since the licensor will usually demand an adequate representation of its “brand identity”. General Motors will obviously prefer Bumblebee to look like an actual Chevrolet Camaro, not like a vague car-shaped thing that has no similarities to a Camaro aside from the color.
However, the size of the toy is also an important factor here—for a small Legends Class toy, attention to detail isn’t quite as important as for a larger Deluxe Class toy, not least due to technical constraints owed to the size (see the Bumblebee comparison below).
The intended target audience can also affect the aesthetic appearance—for example, the “Fast Action Battlers” from the first two movie toy lines, which are aimed more at younger children, were styled somewhat bulkier and more child-oriented in their alternate modes than the toys of the same characters from the “traditional” size classes.
How realistic is the alternate mode supposed to be?
If Hasbro doesn’t want to pay license fees to a vehicle manufacturer, the vehicle mode is modified compared to the inspiration in order to avoid legal problems. For example, Revenge of the Fallen Sideways, in his various toy incarnations, is not an authentic reproduction of an Audi R8 (Sideways’s vehicle mode in the movie), possibly because the same aversion against “war toys” Volkswagen is known for also applies to Audi, which belongs to the Volkswagen Group. Likewise, Cybertron Armorhide is a slightly modified first generation Volvo FH Globetrotter.
Often, Hasbro doesn’t stop at just slightly modifying an existing vehicle design, but combines elements from several inspirations into a comparably unique design. For example, Cybertron Downshift is a cross between two different trends among American muscle cars from the 1970s: The front end, including the bumper that is contoured to the pointy shape of the front grille, is based on models such as the Chevrolet Monte Carlo or the Dodge Monaco, whereas the rear portion, including the green and black coloration and the “vinyl roof”, is inspired by models such as the Dodge Challenger or the Plymouth Barracuda (see the comparison below).
Universe Sunstreaker is mostly based on a Lamborghini Gallardo, but the rear end is a cross between the older Murciélago and Diablo models, and some details on the side windows and doors are lifted from the McLaren F1. Reveal the Shield Windcharger, in turn, is a cross between the current models of the Ford Mustang (fifth Generation, particularly the 2010 revision) and the Chevrolet Camaro (also fifth Generation).
The same considerations also come into play for Transformers toys that turn into aircraft or military vehicles. For example, the various toys of Starscream’s movie version are licensed recreations of a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, with the technical constraints owed to the toy’s size affecting the degree of accuracy. Movie Voyager Class Starscream carries most of his robot mode underneath the plane’s fuselage, which, admittedly, doesn’t look particularly realistic. Conversely, Revenge of the Fallen Voyager Class Starscream, an entirely new approach at executing the same design, turned out considerably better by comparison. Meanwhile, Classics Starscream and Masterpiece Starscream are unlicensed recreations of a McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle… but unfortunately, I don’t have the slightest idea how Hasbro managed to get away with that. Maybe Boeing, the legal successor of McDonnell Douglas, simply doesn’t care?
The Japanese Sports Label toys, Convoy and Megatron, also have licensed alternate modes, in their case Nike Free 7.0 shoes. Conversely, Movie Fast Action Battlers Frenzy is a generic boombox, even though his movie counterpart turned into a specific model that exists in real life.
For toys with animal alternate modes, Hasbro uses the animals as references. Since license fees obviously aren’t a concern here, the degree of accuracy depends on other factors such as the size of the toy, the intended gimmicks and the general possibilities in terms of technical execution. For example, Beast Wars Cheetor is a fairly generic big cat, not a particularly realistic cheetah, and his redeco Tigatron is subsequently not a realistic tiger either. On the other hand, Universe Cheetor is a considerably more realistic reproduction of a cheetah… which would make a potential Tigatron redeco look rather unrealistic by contrast. However, both toys have in common that they represent an “organic” big cat. The “Transmetal” version of Cheetor, on the other hand, is clearly a mechanical replica. Beast Machines Cheetor, meanwhile, is supposed to represent a “technorganic” cheetah. The respective approaches are determined at the beginning of the planning stage of the respective series, subcategory or release wave so the toys follow a somewhat consistent style. Thus, Cybertron Leobreaker is a mechanical replica of a liger, because all Cybertron toys with animal alternate modes are of the mechanical variety.
Multiple transformations and alternate modes for the same toy are also possible, such as in the case of the “Triple Changers” (see for example Universe Tankor below).
In this case, the level of realism of the individual modes is of less importance compared to toys with only one alternate mode. For example, Classics Astrotrain sports noticeable gaps in his Shinkansen bullet train mode, whereas his Space Shuttle mode has obvious train parts on its sides. Likewise, the gaping hole on the rear end of Universe Tankor’s tanker truck mode is best ignored.
With the Transformers Animated series (2008), both the characters’ robot and alternate modes were designed in a heavily exaggerated “cartoon” style, which was carried over to the corresponding toys. In this case, the premise of the toy line dictated the (in this case limited) degree of realism as well.
When I say that the development of a toy usually begins with the alternate mode, it doesn’t mean that the latter is designed in its entirety with all its facets and details before anyone starts thinking about the robot mode. It simply means that the question of what the toy is supposed to turn into precedes the question of what the robot mode is supposed to look like. The specifics of both modes are gradually fleshed out over the course of the development process.
The robot mode: Shape and proportions
Once Hasbro has picked an alternate mode, the next step is to design the robot mode. Just like in the alternate mode’s case, the initial approach already depends on the intention Hasbro is pursuing with the toy. If it’s supposed to be an entirely unique design, the designers have a lot of artistic freedom, although they can deliberately choose to design a toy as an homage to an existing character. For example, Energon Downshift was conceived as an homage to Generation 1 Wheeljack.
If the toy is deliberately intended as a new interpretation of an existing character, Hasbro will make sure to stay true to the character’s “identity”, just like with the choice of the alternate mode. In addition to the head (more on that below), this also includes characteristic elements of the robot body which Hasbro wants to pay tribute to one way or another. For example, modern toys of Optimus Prime typically transform in a way that allows the truck mode’s windshield to form the robot’s chest, because this was a characteristic attribute of the original Generation 1 Optimus Prime toy.
If the toy is supposed to be directly based on an existing design (such as the toys for the Michael Bay movies), Hasbro’s designers, just like in the case of licensed vehicle modes, have few artistic liberties, and their job is essentially limited to adapting the existing design into a toy as accurately as possible under the respective constraints (size, budget, inclusion of gimmicks etc.). However, because of the long lead time of the toy development process, it’s possible that the look of the original design (like in the case of the movie-based toys) is revised again, and thus the toys are ultimately based on outdated designs by the time they are released.
With the first conceptions of the robot mode, the basic shape of the body is determined—is the robot supposed to look bulky and powerful, slim and agile or small and frail? Should the robot mode even be based on human proportions at all, or is it supposed to be resemble an (occasionally even multi-legged) animal instead? The next step is to determine whether certain parts of the alternate mode are supposed to make up specific portions of the robot mode (also known as “kibble” among fans) and thereby create a characteristic appearance. Lastly, the designers decide which weapons and other accessories and which gimmicks the toy is supposed to be equipped with. In the case of Cybertron Evac, for example, the first drafts bore little similarity to the final toy, and it took many revisions until the design started to resemble the final version (see the comparison below).
Gimmicks, weapons and other accessories
The “gimmicks” can be individualized, but there are also gimmicks that are applied to an entire toy line: In the case of the Armada line (2002-2003), those were the “Mini-Cons”, small (transformable) robots that could be plugged onto specific spots on the larger robots and thereby trigger additional features. Since the Mini-Con docking ports were standardized, any Mini-Con was compatible with any larger Armada Transformer. The Cybertron line (2005-2006) replaced the Mini-Cons with the “Cyber Keys”, which essentially fulfilled the same function. The gimmick for the toy line to the 2007 Transformers movie, in turn, was named “Automorph Technology” and consisted of mechanisms (executed through gears, levers and/or springs) that caused parts to be “automatically” moved during the transformation when other parts were moved.
Gimmicks that span multiple lines are also possible, such as the standardized “C-clips” introduced with the second half of the Revenge of the Fallen line, which allow to freely swap accessories such as weapons and tools between compatible toys. The intended play pattern can also be considered a gimmick: On the one hand, the small “Cyberverse” toys, which replace the “Legends Class” starting with the Dark of the Moon line, are equipped with weapons that can be freely swapped between the toys thanks to standardized hands (and which are compatible with the larger toys’ C-clip accessories on top of that). On the other hand, the “Cyberverse” play pattern also includes vehicles that can be converted into bases and battle stations, which in turn can be connected to form a larger playset.
Individualized gimmicks are also not a rare occurrence. The most common one are weapons that can fire plastic missiles via spring-loaded mechanisms. However, the missiles are still not standardized to this day, which is why they usually cannot be swapped between the toys. Another popular gimmick are electronic light and sound effects, which are mostly used for larger toys (since the toy needs to allow for enough space to incorporate the battery box). A more cost-effective method are light piping effects, which consist of translucent plastic parts leading through the head that cause “glowing” eyes when the back of the head is held against an external light source. Other gimmicks are spring-loaded punching mechanisms in the arms, multiple transformations and alternate modes for the same toy (the most well-known examples are the aforementioned “Triple Changers”) and the ability to combine two or more toys, be it into a larger vehicle, into a larger super-robot or even just using one vehicle as a means to transport another, smaller vehicle.
In the case of Cybertron Optimus Prime and Leobreaker, the initial ideas for some of the gimmicks were that Optimus was supposed to be equipped with a jet pack that allows him to fly (in the fictional context of the series, that is); furthermore, the idea that his robot mode could combine with additional parts of the vehicle mode into a “hyper mode”; and lastly, the idea that a “partner” figure (which gained the working name “super lion” over the course of the development process) could turn into some sort of “gauntlet” that provides Optimus with special powers. Just like in Evac’s case, the final result only bears little resemblance to the first drafts anymore (see the comparison below).
The weapons and accessories for a toy are usually individualized, but many of them can be freely swapped between toys due to the frequent use of standardized 5 millimeter handles (the same size as the Mini-Con docking posts) or the new C-clips. Whereas the weapons were still conceived as mere accessories during the Generation 1 era, and the best case scenario would merely allow them to be attached to the alternate mode (still as weapons), Hasbro has shifted more and more towards integrating the weapons and accessories into the alternate mode over the years. “Pretender” Grimlock from 1989 already had the weapon of the main robot double as the tail for his dinosaur mode. Alternators Grimlock from 2005, meanwhile, had his weapon convert into the engine block for the vehicle mode, whereas the sword could be attached to the undersize of the car and thereby be “hidden”. In the case of Universe Tankor, in turn, the blasters of the robot mode could be used as smokestacks on the sides of his vehicle mode as a modified M978 tanker truck (which was ignored by the instructions), whereas his melee blade formed the outer hull of the tank. In more recent times, some toys additionally also allow unused weapons to be stored at designated places in robot mode.
The gimmicks can also be integrated into the weapons. For example, Cybertron Override’s spoiler accessory could only be converted into a weapon by plugging a Cyber Key into it. In the case of the Dark of the Moon line, the weapons themselves are the gimmick and can be converted into larger weapons by using the “MechTech” concept. On the other hand, the MechTech weapons are not integrated into the alternate mode.
In the case of Generations Scourge, the gimmicks are the ability to extend his head while in alternate mode (which had already been possible with his Generation 1 predecessor), the ability to store the weapons inside his wings which can be opened, and the ability to connect the weapons into a larger weapon (see the image below).
This example also shows that Hasbro’s designers use whatever reference materials they can get their hands on. Up until recently, Hasbro has had no internal reference database, so their designers had to rely on an internet search. Scourge’s combined weapon, for example, is based on Fracas, his 1987 “Targetmaster” version’s weapon. Specifically, the reference image is taken from Targetmaster Scourge’s profile from Dreamwave Productions’ More Than Meets the Eye series of profile books. The same image is used as the main image of TFWiki.net’s Generation 1 Scourge article. A coincidence? I don’t think so! I haven’t identified the source for the photo of the original 1986 Scourge toy’s gun yet, however. Maybe it came from an eBay auction?
Planning ahead saves money down the road
For reasons of cost efficiency, Hasbro usually doesn’t stop at releasing a newly developed toy just once, but instead often releases the same basic toy several times in different colors under different names (even if it’s merely a prefix such as “Stealth Bumblebee“). In order to distinguish these “redecos” further from the initial iterations, Hasbro and Takara often also make use of physical alterations (known as “retools” among fans, even though that term only covers a partial aspect as far as Hasbro is concerned).
The most well-known and simple form of a retool is a new head sculpt. In more recent times, Hasbro and Takara have come to conceive retools often as early as the first concept phase of the initial version of the toy. That way, it’s even possible to achieve an altered transformation scheme. The modifications are not always limited to the robot mode either, but can also include parts of the alternate mode. This was common during the Alternators line.
A more recent example are Generations Wheeljack and Reveal the Shield Turbo Tracks (which were ultimately released in reverse order). Between them, the car shell sports differences, the transformation is not identical due to the use of different parts, the robot mode looks different as a result, the head sculpt is different, and some of the accessories have been replaced as well. In this case, the differences had been planned since the very beginning (see the image below).
This example once again shows that Hasbro’s designers like to take their references from fan sites: The photos of the Generation 1 Wheeljack and Tracks toys’ vehicle modes are from Seibertron.com, the originals can be found here and here.
The head: Recognition value welcome
The final part of the concept phase is the head. Once again, the first question is whether the toy is supposed to be an entirely new character, a new interpretation of an existing character or a mere adaptation of an existing design. However, just like in the case of the robot designs, the heads can also be subject to revisions. For example, one of the first Cybertron toys was initially conceived as a new interpretation of or homage to Generation 1 Trailbreaker, and all the various concepts for the head intended for Trailbreaker’s characteristic force field projector (located above the head in the original toy’s case) to be incorporated into the head design. In the end, however, those plans were never realized for various reasons, one of them being the fact that the name “Trailbreaker” was unavailable to Hasbro for trademark reasons. Thus, the concept ultimately ended up as an entirely different character, Cybertron Overhaul, and the final toy’s head sculpt bears no similarity to the earlier “Trailbreaker” concepts anymore (see the comparison below).
The movie characters and their toys were also subject to some revisions prior to their release: For example, Megatron’s head was changed (allegedly due to massive fan protests). While the Leader Class and Voyager Class toys and the “Fast Action Battlers” version use the final movie design’s head, the head sculpt of Legends Class Megatron is still based on the outdated design. Leader Class Megatron and Deluxe Class “Protoform” Starscream were also initially planned with older head designs (as can be seen in the stock photos on the back of the toys’ packaging, which use early prototypes).
In general, the designers have many options when designing the head, just like in the case of the general body shape: The toy can have a human-like face including a mouth and a nose, or it may have a faceplate (similar to a surgical mask); the eyes can be separated, connected or covered by a visor; and the helmet may be equipped with antennas, “earmuffs” and/or a ridge resembling a mohawk. Alternatively, it’s also possible for the head to be based on an animal instead of a human, or it may not even have an inspiration from nature at all, such as Shockwave with his cyclops eye and the hexagonal head. The face of Cybertron Vector Prime, in turn, was based on the classic Autobot insignia.
With new interpretations of existing characters, the heads can often diverge from the original designs. Among other things, this may be because the designers alternatively base them more closely on the Generation 1 toys or on their cartoon counterparts (which often differed from the toys they were based on). For example, the heads of Alternators Side Swipe and Universe Sideswipe are very different interpretations of Generation 1 Sideswipe and his cartoon version. Likewise, the head of Alternators Hound is a (very liberal) reinterpretation of the Generation 1 toy’s head; the head of Universe Legends Class Hound is a comparably faithful recreation of the original toy’s head (considering the technical limitations due to the toy’s small size); and the head of Universe Deluxe Class Hound is much more closely inspired by the animation model. The heads of Alternators Swindle (whose toy was originally intended as a new version of Generation 1 Trailbreaker) and Reveal the Shield Legends Class Trailcutter, meanwhile, are both a cross between the Generation 1 Trailbreaker toy’s helmet (in the Reveal the Shield toy’s case even including the force field projector) and the animation model’s face (see the comparison below for all the above examples).
Not even Optimus Prime is safe from such variations: The head of Alternators Optimus Prime from 2006, for example, is inspired by the head of “Powermaster” Optimus Prime from 1988, whereas the entire Reveal the Shield Deluxe Class Optimus Prime toy from 2011, including the head, is based on Generation 2 “Laser” Optimus Prime from 1995.
Hasbro’s designers have done their share of duty for the time being. The alternate mode has been selected, the basic look of the robot mode has been decided on, the gimmicks have been chosen, the head may have already been designed as well… but what’s still missing is the transformation. To turn the Hasbro concept into a working, convertible toy, the Japanese have to get to work. Enter the Takara engineers!
Thanks to Steve Mapes (Transformers @ The Moon), Remy Rodis (TFKenkon.com), Anthony Brucale (TFU.info), Philip Schwersensky (Transformers-Universe.com), SydneyY and Hook (TFW2005.com), Steve-o Stonebraker (Steve-o’s Transformers Site), Adam Pawlus (16bit.com) and Steve (ActionFigs.com) for their permission to use the respective images!