The Jet Power upgrade kit for Revenge of the Fallen Optimus
Prime. This type of complementary set will likely be the
most enduring niche of third party products.
Transformers are a popular sort, so much so that now everybody seems to be making them. The Transformers brand has always had a tangential relationship with products outside of it, though. Even in 1984 the robots all turned into recognizable, existing products of manufacture, including cars, jets, and tape players, to speak nothing of licensed lunch boxes, soap dispensers and sundry other things that came thereafter. The brand has also always had a plurality of origin due to Hasbro and Takara tailoring their releases to their respective markets. But now, in 2013, some products designed to scratch the collector's itch are being made by designers wholly outside of what Hasbro and Takara do. They are third party products.
But let's agree to some terms first, shall we? When I say third party product, I am referring specifically to original transforming-robot creations of companies that are not associated with Hasbro or Takara, but still dip into Transformers intellectual property (in other words, unlicensed Transformers toys, not shirts and greeting cards). To say bootleg or knockoff is to do these things injustice, as those terms carry a pejorative connotation of some cheap copy. No, the third party transformers typically meet or exceed their official counterparts by merit of quality over quantity. By virtue of developing fewer products over longer spans of time, the offerings tend to be more cohesive and less rushed (although the perception of lower quantity is skewed since so many third party manufacturers have appeared in the past two years). Fortunately, these underground products seldom overlap with current official products and tend to be far more niche-oriented. Some market cannibalism has occurred, of course — multiple Devastators and Predakings have appeared simultaneously, for instance — but it is not without precedent from Hasbro making multiple molds in the same size class as well, a prime example being the first edition and robots in disguise toys. The cost, however, is of amazing contrast. Third party figures have thus far catered to a very small market share of transformer toys, adult collectors, and in fairly low production numbers compared to normal lines, so these things cost more. So how did these things get their feet?
The City Commander set, which started a
Well, let's back up a bit. Hasbro and Takara originally started courting the collector market themselves back in late 2003 / early 2004 with the introduction of the Masterpiece and Alternator lines. Masterpiece was originally intended as a one-off product with a single toy, Optimus Prime, with Starscream following three years later after they found out that larger, more detailed, and more articulated versions of characters introduced in the 1980s were commercially viable. In retrospect, it does strike one as a daring move to pursue before the first live-action film bolstered the franchise into the juggernaut it is today. If nothing else, they had no giant banner announcing to the adult public that transformers were still here. But, it succeeded, and so the market for new, collector-focused products began in earnest. It was by no means a cohesive set of offerings to begin with, but now it seems to have basically settled into what are the Classics and Masterpiece lines. And that's where most of the third party products can be situated, either as complementary accessories or full figures. An excellent example would be the trailer for Masterpiece Convoy that came in 2005, the year between the debut of the mold and the reissue as MP-04 with an official trailer. But a gray box on wheels hardly set the spark for the myriad products now competing for shelf space...
In 2006, Hasbro released the Classics line as a filler between the end of the Cybertron line and the beginning of the movie stuff. It was small - eight individual deluxe figures and three voyagers, with some Minicons thrown in. They also released a gift set of Starscream and Optimus Prime as Skywarp and Ultra Magnus, although just as a white cab with no trailer. And no one really cared for roughly two years until a relatively small operation took on the ambitious task of making a trailer that could combine with the cab to recreate the look of the original character. Fansproject had one previous release, a kit with a new head for Classics Cliffjumper, but the City Commander set was the big leap forward in complexity for third party products. Previous items were merely heads or weapons, simple things. City Commander was the first widely marketed, relatively affordable ($80 per set for a production run of 2000 units) third party product that actually, er, transformed. And it was an $80 accessory for a figure that had to be put on clearance two years before. On paper, that sounds like a stupid gamble, but it paid off!
Hardbone, an original third party
This paved the way for a repaint, and then an accessory set for a combiner, and then new members for a different combiner, and then completely original individual figures, and then original combiners, and a general snowball effect. Most of it has been reasonably priced and specific enough that the market will bear it, although a few comically overpriced pieces have surfaced from outfits that probably peddle snake oil on the side. Case in point for the former are the voyager-sized limbs for TFC Toys' Hercules and Uranos figures, which at $100 are about twice what imported Takara figures of a similar size fetch, which is double or more of what Hasbro retail prices are (for general release figures, anyway - any Takara exclusive runs about what third party figures of the same size do). As for the latter, see anything made by CrazyDevvy.
But, how big is the market for items of illegitimate origin? The earlier successful releases definitely hit their marks by providing upgrade sets for figures that were 'incomplete' on their own, or provided stand-alone figures unlikely to be made in an official capacity. But only so many of these disparities between what a character is supposed to look like and what the product does look like are drastic enough to get people to spend money to bring them closer together. Trailer that turns into armor for Ultra Magnus? Good idea. Giant Devastator made of six members instead of a repaint of an Energon combiner? Fans might want that. A pretender shell for Generations Skullgrin? Probably not within the realm of marketable interest.
With that perspective in mind, the tidal wave of third party products within the last five years may ultimately be a passing fad. While it seems that the purchasing power of adult fans is enough to support new versions of Generation One characters up to and including full combiner sets, the interest seems to be contained within a narrow focus of characters from about 1984 to 1987, and many of those have been redone just fine by Hasbro itself. As it stands now, third party products are filling in the cracks and holes left by Hasbro in an attempt to "do Generation One all over again," and those gaps are rather large. But once those are patched up, it's entirely likely third party companies will be painted into a corner of complementary kits for whatever new look the brand has in 2017. While the company Fansprojects had some success with their own stand-alone figure Steelcore, every group releasing their own original mecha for economic survival once two different competing sets of Monstructor have been released is unlikely.
(Left) Hercules, the first fully original third party combiner, shown with the original Optimus Prime for size comparison.
We are in the heyday of third party products now. It won't last forever. Strangely, it's a shadow of the beginning of the brand itself, burning as brightly and as quickly as it can. While the Transformers as a brand are robust enough to support these supplementary products, it's just as likely to change direction again and render them irrelevant. While detail and articulation are nice to have in new forms of old characters, that's nothing that can't be improved and refined. Most of the third party products being released now are really quite good, but have nothing to suggest that a better version of something won't pop up in a few years. Given that, if you want the real version of a Transformer character, you're best to get the original and appreciate the third party products for what they really are: something that scratches an itch.
Genesis, a third party Omega Supreme. Although advertised as turning into the spaceship mode from War for