Monday, November 28, 2005

The Ultimate Transformers Costume

My friend over at Ekballō suggested I check out this link at Boing Boing. It describes (and links to) a site selling Transformers costumes that actually transform while you wear them!

Be warned. They're not cheap....

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Responses from Brian Savage

Yesterday, I sent Brian Savage of Fun Publications (henceforth referred to as "FP") my "Open Letter." He responded to my e-mail at about noon, and I sent a response, including much of the Action Master suggestion I posted yesterday. He has since responded to that as well. Although he asked that I not quote him verbatim, for fear that his comments be taken out of context, he did give me permission to paraphrase his responses in public.

When I commented that Mr. Savage is perceived as being indifferent or contemptuous of "legitimate concerns," he responded that he has not seen very many concerns he considered legitimate. No doubt he sees many more "illegitimate" comments than I do, and I will grant that I may look at the comments I read on message boards through rose-colored glasses. So I attempted to give him the example of international postage rates, which many international club fans have considered unreasonable. Savage believes that those making such statements have no basis for making them and do not have enough information to know what they are taking about. He also insists that FP has indeed checked on different options. I offered Savage several options, including SAL and EMS, while asking if First Class mail (as opposed to Priority) for USPS shipping was a possibility. Savage specifically responded to my comment regarding First Class mail, but not the international options. As to why FP uses the USPS shipping options they use, which resulted in such oddities as paying over $6 for Priority Mail shipping of a comic book (which actually happened to me), he says that to include coding for the web site that handles all of the myriad of possible shipping options (and includes options for shipping such small items) would cost over $1000, and is simply not viable for the very few such items that are currently sold at the store. Members wishing to explore other shipping options can call a customer service representative (the number is provided at the club store), but automated options are simply not considered a possibility at this time, and while phoning in an order may not be an attractive alternative, at least it is offered.

When asked about the high non-member prices, Savage explained that these were intended to persuade parents shopping for their children to buy the child a club membership. While I had expected the high non-member prices were intended to steer people toward buying a membership, I suggested to Savage that parents would respond to such marketing by going to other stores, rather than by buying the club membership. While Savage concedes that this may or may not be true, he still seems to believe that this strategy is his best option.

He brought up the issue of selling toys in bundles, something I did not even mention, but which has been an issue of concern among many fans. His basic assertion was basically that anything in a bundle was below retail for the same items. He added in the fact that we don't have to pay gas and tax to make this sound like a good deal. Gas and tax are non-issues to me (not that they're totally negligible, but the amount of gas I use and tax I pay just to get toys can't add up to much more than a dollar), and I hadn't really even intended to get into the bundle thing, but since he brought it up, I pointed out that the way that most bundled packages are put together requires that fans buy an older item with a newer one, and that this actually discourages sales. On top of that, most newer toys sold in bundles are not available separately from the club store. I pointed out that if the toys were available in bundles AND separately (say, $25 each or $45 for both), then buyers would clearly see the savings and be more likely to buy. Savage's response amounted to suggesting again that it would be easier if people phoned in their orders, and bringing up the $1000 coding cost for making the web store more versatile again. I'm not sure why that was relevant here, but there you go....

Savage once again pulled out the argument (seen often on the message boards) of listing all the things that club membership provides: 6 club newsletters in full color, 12 issues of Master Collector, up to 12 monthly 30-word ads in Master Collector for free, 6 shipping schedules with pre-order forms (found as an insert in Master Collector), the store discount compared to non-member prices, the discount on BotCon packages, the online forum (coming soon), the additional Club exclusives (also coming soon) and the "freebie" Transformers figure given to members annually.

My responses when he suggested that he thought all that was a lot for $40 (I feel safe in quoting my own side of the conversation):
I don't. The Master Collectors are (as I've already said) totally worthless to me. Transformers fans simply don't use classifieds in that way. We use online message boards. There simply aren't that many Transformers fans who don't have some form of online access. The average age of the Transformers fan is in their 20s. If we don't have computers of our own (which we usually do), we tend to be in college and can access library computers. By extension, the ads (which I have attempted to use on a couple of occasions) are worthless. I have not yet gotten any responses to an ad placed in Master Collector. The shipping schedules don't mean much, because we've already had that information from our other online sources. The discount on store items only brings the cost of the toys back down to about the same (or only slightly lower at best) as other online stores. Those of us who don't/can't go to BotCon (and by almost any definition this has to be a large number of the club membership) can't use the convention discount.

That leaves the 6 full color newsletters (which I do appreciate), the online forum, the club exclusives, and the annual freebie. 2 of these 4 don't yet exist. That said, I think the opportunity to buy club exclusives will, in and of itself, make an enormous difference.
Savage insisted that there are fans who do not have online access who like the ads. I can't outright accuse him of being wrong here, as I don't have contact with fans who aren't online, but I simply don't believe it. The consensus of the online fandom is pretty much universal that Master Collector is a waste of paper (I mean, seriously, I haven't found one fan who has mentioned finding this useful!). And given the average age of the Transformers fan (usually under 30), we're pretty much all able to get online, save for an unfortunate few, who probably can't afford the club in the first place! Savage also notes, however, that Master Collector is the "packaging" by which the postal service can send the TF club magazine, and insists that it would cost FP more to remove it. Whatever. I'll chalk that up to another suggestion he won't consider.

In a comment unrelated to anything I consciously brought up, Savage also talked about the concerns regarding the change in art categories at BotCon. Anything in 3D is considered to them to be in the "diorama" category. While this is simply not how Transformers fans look at these things (and I attempted to clarify by specifying the lack of a background), this basically boils down to a difference in how we define our terms.

Savage also suggested in his first letter that complaints aren't very specific, and that there's not much he can glean from them to improve matters. I've seen this argument before, and think that a lot of fans have been plenty specific, but somehow he doesn't see it. So I took that opportunity to toss out my idea for Action Master exclusives. His response was that one member of the council (a group of well-respected Transformers fans, most with prior convention experience, who serve as advisors to FP) suggested something similar to this already, and another rejected it (Savage's words were far more emphatic, but I agreed not to quote him verbatim....). He commented that what a customizer can do is very different than what FP could economically do (which indicates to me that he didn't really understand my proposal. Perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned www.custommasters.com at all). Basically, the idea was summarily dismissed as "too expensive," which I think is patently ridiculous compared to the exclusives they actually do produce.

Throughout the whole letter, especially in regard to the lack of club exclusives this year, Savage kept repeating how much FP had to do in such a short time this year, implying that we fans couldn't possibly understand what they've been through (he never did respond to my suggestion that FP could have made an extra recolor of one of the BotCon toys while they were having those made). Perhaps, but having worked on publishing a literary magazine once upon a time, and having a fair bit of responsibility for event planning in the past and in my current job, I expect I understand more than he thinks I do. Another phrase repeated several times (both in the replies and often in message board responses, which I feel enables me to use quotes just this once) was "we can't do everything everyone wants," which I'm starting to take as code for "we won't even try to do things that people want if we didn't think of it first," but that may just be me getting bitter.

So there you have it. I've tried to be fair, but yet again, all the suggestions were rejected and I'm left with several indications that I wasn't even heard properly. Ah, well. I'm done with this for now. Time to think about more positive things, like the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. I won't be blogging for a few days in order to visit family and enjoy my time off from work. See you on Monday!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

In Defense of Action Masters

I admit it. I like Action Masters.

This statement puts me in the minority of long-time Transformers fans (newer ones won't even know what I'm talking about). Those with really long memories will know that I've already "come out" on this subject, and that I used to host a web page featuring this often maligned segment of Transformers history.

I can understand why some fans dislike Action Masters so much. They are, after all, "Transformers that don't transform." And while I concede that the gimmick of transformation was originally what "Transformers" were all about, I would suggest that the reason that the toy line has continued to exist (and even thrive) for so long is because the characters are so interesting. Even non-Transformers fans have some idea who Optimus Prime is. Most will remember Bumblebee as "the one that hung around with Spike" (the main human character) even if they can't remember the character's name, because his character was so heavily featured in the 1980's cartoon.

Action Masters are, at their core, representations of the Transformer characters in action figure form. Since the designers did not have to worry about engineering transformation schemes into these figures, they were able to create figures that actually more closely resembled the characters as they appeared in the cartoon and the comics. Also, being just a figure and small transformable weapon, most were much more affordable than many of the other Transformers toys available up to that time. (Of course, that didn't help the line sell well. In fact, much of my current Action Master collection was picked up from the clearance aisle at Kay-Bee toys [nowadays, they tend to go by "K-B"] for about 99 cents each.)

Although I don't expect that this idea is likely to be picked up by Fun Productions (and therefore don't intend to include it in the letter I'll be sending owner Brian Savage), I would go so far as to suggest that Action Masters would make excellent club exclusives. Mr. Savage has often commented that, compared to the G.I. Joe exclusives he does for their club, Transformers are much more expensive and limited. While one can create a "new" character by mixing and matching different parts of G.I. Joe figure molds (i.e., the head from one character, with the torso of another, on top of legs from yet another), you really can't do that with Transformers. All you can really do with Transformers is recolor the figure, and maybe attach a new head (which usually has to be molded from scratch, increasing the costs). The Action Masters, on the other hand, have more or less interchangable parts. This has been ably demonstrated by the Custom Masters web site, which features new characters made out of the parts of many different Action Master toys. And since we already know that Joe Toscano (the Custom Masters creator) has done work for some of the folks currently involved in the club (see the G2 Breakdown featured on the site), it seems like it wouldn't be too difficult to hire his creative talent to work on something new and special for a club exclusive.

One potential obstacle to this would be the question of whether or not the original Action Masters molds even still exist. However, we do know that the Optimus Prime mold was used as recently as 2002 by Takara. This would imply that the others may well be out there yet.

I don't think that anyone at Hasbro or Takara thinks that there's much money to be made on the Action Masters in your average toy store. But they would be ideal as club exclusives, intended specifically for collectors. And they would be far less costly to produce than any of the transformable exclusives the club is likely to be planning. If the molds are out there, it seems to make sense to make use of them in the market most likely to appreciate them.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Open Letter to Fun Productions re: The Official Transformers Club

In recent times, I've failed to post pretty much anything related to Transformers. I have been remiss. Hopefully, this will go toward rectifying that error. For some background to this open letter (which I intend to actually send to Fun Productions after it has sat public for a little bit, so as to generate comments that will enable me to add/edit/delete comments and make the letter as effective as it can be), I encourage folks to read my other comments on the subject. However, I should emphasize that my comments here will be dedicated to the club, and not the convention, as those comments were.
To: Brian Savage, owner of Fun Publications
Re: Suggestions for The Official Transformers Collectors' Club

It has been almost a year since the announcement that Fun Publications would be the new licensee of the Transformers collectors' club. In that time, we have gotten a club that has largely met its deadlines, and delivered on most of its promises. This is in stark contrast to the previous owners of the club who, while having grand dreams, made a lot promises that they were not able to keep. As I'm sure you're aware, this has caused a fair bit of frustration in the Transformers fan community. I recognize that you have already gotten a fair amount of mail from fans who would like to see things done differently, and can speak from personal experience that, when I myself have sent such mail, you have been diligent to respond to each letter personally. This is greatly appreciated. Likewise, the efforts of Pete Sinclair to respond to threads on some of the more popular message boards is appreciated.

Nonetheless, there persists a sentiment in the Transformers fan community that, when legitimate concerns have been articulated, the response received has been one of indifference at best or outright contempt at worst. I'm confident that this has not been your intention. But the point remains that fans seem to feel that concerns are being dismissed without adequate attention or reflection. It is my hope that this perception may be overcome as positive changes are seen in the coming year.

I recognize that some of the things fans would like to see are simply not economically feasible. We are all very aware of the economic failings of the previous license holder, and no one wants to see a return to that situation. Nevertheless, I feel that there are a few aspects of the club that can be improved without detriment to Fun Publications. I should also make clear that I will keep my comments confined to the collectors' club, and not the convention, which I see as a separate entity.

With regard to potential improvements to the club, I would like to address the following issues:
  1. Shipping for items from the club store;
  2. Cost of merchandise at the club store;
  3. The Master Collector magazine; and
  4. Club exclusives.
1. Shipping for items from the club store: When I recently ordered the 2005 Botcon program from the club store, I paid over $6 for Priority Mail postage. This is an item that could have safely been shipped in a "Flat Rate" Priority Mail envelope for only $3.85. An option for First Class shipping would have been even cheaper. Since that time, I note that you have changed the option on your web site to encourage buyers to telephone a customer service representative to get a more reasonable shipping rate. But this is something that should be encoded into the web site itself, rather than causing potential buyers the inconvenience of having to telephone a representative after having already visited the web site. I am under the impression that other members have found shipping prices to be unreasonable, as well. I cannot speak personally with regard to international shipping, but have read several posts on the message boards that international rates are well above what it actually costs to ship the items being sent. It seems to me that, if Fun Publications actually is having to pay these higher shipping costs, then it is incumbent upon Fun Publications to explore other shipping options. If lower-cost shipping options risk lower quality shipping, Fun Publications can make these risks clear to the consumer. However, the consumer should be given the option of taking such risks.

2. Cost of merchandise at the club store: I do not expect Fun Publications to "take a loss" in selling merchandise on their site. It is to be expected that prices for toys purchased from the club store will be, at best, only slightly less than purchasing from another online source, even for club members. But the non-member prices are simply absurd. Rather than pay the membership fee or the exhorbitant non-member prices, non-members will simply spend their money at another online site, and that means lost revenue for Fun Publications. I'm curious as to whether any items have ever been sold from the club store at non-member prices, the prices are so high! To at least some extent, purchasing merchandise at a reasonable price should be one of the benefits of club membership, but when members are almost as well off to buy from another store, and non-members are definitely better off to do so, there is little incentive to become a club member or to shop at the club store.

3. The Master Collector magazine: This is highlighted as one of the benefits of club membership. But the magazine is basically just a collection of classified ads, and I don't know of any fans that find it valuable. In fact, I have read many comments on message boards that consider it a waste of paper. If Transformers fans wish to sell something, we tend to find we are better off using the message boards, or even eBay (despite the costs involved in using that particular service). Although Master Collector is the featured publication of Fun Publications, I would suggest that fans would be served just as well if they were only sent the bi-monthly Transformers Club magazine. This would result in saved shipping costs to club members (only having to send every other month) and presumably lowered printing costs (as you wouldn't have to print so many Master Collector magazines), thereby freeing up funds for other club benefits without damaging Fun Publications financially.

4. Club exclusives: I have saved this for last because I feel that it is the most easily dealt with, and in fact might be taken care of anyway now that Fun Publications has dealt with the struggles of the first year of running the club. However, I have been extremely disappointed not to be given the opportunity to purchase any club exclusives this year (besides the "freebie" exclusive I got for joining, which I am very happy with). While I am aware that creating an exclusive is a costly endeavor, it seems to me that Fun Publications could have made one more recolor out of one of the molds already being used for the Botcon exclusives and set that recolor aside as a club exclusive. This would have satisfied my own desire to see at least one exclusive this year, while costing Fun Publications far less than if the exclusive had been made out of a mold not already being used. Ideally, I would hope to see two or three exclusives per year (again, not counting the annual "freebie"), but I would be satisfied with one annually.

I trust that you will find these comments to be reasonable as well as to represent the kind of changes that may be implemented without damaging Fun Publications' bottom line. I truly do wish the club to be a success. However, if changes are not implemented, it is difficult to state that I am getting $40 worth of value out of the club in a year's time, and I would therefore be reticent to renew my membership in the future. I'm quite confident that I am not alone in my opinion.

Thank you for your time.

Wednesday, November 2, 2005

RIP Michael Piller

Unless you're a fairly avid follower of Star Trek, you've probably never heard of Michael Piller, nor have heard that he lost his struggle with cancer yesterday. Piller is credited with breathing new life into the Trek franchise after the first couple of years of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and co-created both of the Trek's that followed (Deep Space Nine and Voyager). Oddly enough, my reason for remembering him on my blog here has little to do with Star Trek, but rather because of another show Piller was involved in, which provided the venue for my very first foray into web page design.

If you read the obituary carefully, you'll see a quick mention of a show called Legend that Piller co-created with a man named Bill Dial (although the obituary doesn't mention Dial). Legend was a short-lived series that aired on UPN back in 1995 (UPN's first year of existence, a time when very few parts of the country even had UPN programs on a dedicated UPN station). Legend was a Western drama with a Sci-Fi edge, starring Richard Dean Anderson (formerly of MacGyver, more recently known for Stargate SG-1) and John DeLancie (best known as "Q" from the modern versions of Star Trek).

The series told the tale of Ernest Pratt (played by Anderson), a dime novelist who often has to portray his novel character, Nicodemus Legend, in real life to appease the publicity needs of his publisher. This is often a struggle, as Legend is the stereotypical hero: doesn't drink, gamble, or have illicit relations with women, while the very human Pratt enjoys all these things. When the character of Legend is accused of illegally changing the course of a river, denying water rights to a wealthy landowner in Colorado, Pratt must go to clear his name. He soon learns that Hungarian scientist Janos Bartok (DeLancie) has achieved this feat by scientific means, in order to help some poor farmers who were being denied rights by this landowner. Bartok has used the identity of the fictional hero Legend in order to protect his own identity so that he might continue his scientific research undisturbed. Faced with the reality that his actions may cause Pratt to face legal difficulty, Bartok agrees to help Pratt to clear his name. But faced with the prospect of denying the poor farmers their livelihood, Pratt decides to accept the responsibility for changing the course of the river, and he and Bartok start to work together against the landowner, who has been trying to drive farmers away from the nearby land they legally own so that she might profit from illegal contracts that would bring a railroad into town, leading to huge profits to those in on the deal. To this end, Pratt accepts the identity of his fictional hero, Nicodemus Legend, for real. After the landowner is brought to justice, Bartok convinces Pratt to stay in town and be a hero on a more permanent basis. As the series progresses, Pratt continues to struggle to maintain his bohemian lifestyle while being called to the higher ideals of the hero he is forced to portray, partly by his publisher, but also by the fact that, deep down, he really does want to help people.

Faced with low ratings (caused by the fact that, at the time, few people knew the difference between UPN and UPS, a paraphrase from DeLancie) and a corporate shake-up at UPN, Legend was cancelled after only 12 episodes (along with all of UPN's first year of programming, with the exception of Star Trek: Voyager, which had been guaranteed a two-year commitment.). About a year later, I opened "The Unofficial Nicodemus Legend Page," which I ran for over five years, and am pleased to be able to say was regarded as the foremost Legend page in existence at the time. I stopped working on the page as I took on other commitments, but if you go to the Wayback Machine and search for "http://NicodemusLegend.web.com," you should still be able to find some of what I had done a few years ago.

I invite you to have a look, and see Michael Piller's other legacy.
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