Have you tried to put together a Transformer lately? Without an instruction booklet, you stand a better chance of dismantling a nuclear warhead than making Optimus look like Prime, instead of a 16-wheeler with a robot head for a butt. That wasn't always the case.
In our visit to Transformers HQ in Providence, RI, we asked Senior Design Director Josh Lamb about, well, what the deal is. He nodded in agreement, acknowledging that generation by generation, the toys have become gradually harder to assemble. But when asked what the tipping point was or is, what Transformer was the single most challenging to make, and the most complicated for users, the answers were the same: the movie tie-ins.
"The reference style is so phenomenal in the movie tie-ins, we got more complicated than we had to," Lamb says. "Right now, there's a big effort to get back to simple; and more than simple, intuitive."
What was the issue, exactly? "Bay and ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) work it pretty well," Lamb says, "But they also do some magic." In the movie, a car's parts could fold into infinitely small sections. Tiny pieces of interlocking plastic? Not so much.
Take Bumblebee. In the movie, he's a 1977 Chevy Camaro, which is a licence deal agreed with Chevrolet. Meaning Hasbro not only had to deal with the normal mechanics of turning a car into a robot, and do it in a way that resembled the on-screen transformation, but it had to make sure the car was as detail-specific as possible to the original ‘77 Camaro. Not easy.
Not only that, but the team had to match that replica car to the movie's version of the robots, and find some approximation of the transformation you see in the film, which isn't always possible. "If the bumper isn't on his chest," Lamb says, "and his doors aren't back here [motioning to his shoulder blades], it isn't Bumblebee."
They figured it out. "We were definitely proud of them when it was all said and done," says Lamb. "The movie models were the most accurate and realistic we'd ever produced." In the end, the movie toys used more points of articulation and movable parts than any generation before. But they were also supremely hard to assemble. "You get back to G1 [the well loved first generation of American Transformers] Optimus Prime, and you can transform it with your eyes closed one you figured it out."
So what brought everyone back to the idea of more intuitive design? Ironically enough, the movie.
"With the movie, for the first time, Transformers wasn't about a whole line of characters, it was about two characters, Optimus and Bumblebee," Lamb says of the need for kid-friendly Transformers. "And you'd really like the billions of kids out there to be able to pick up any Transformer off the shelf and just pick it up and start playing with them." Which, hopefully, spells the end of toys abandoned in states Butt-Head-Optimus variant.