Breaking Bad figures were pulled from Toys R Us in the US last year, but they never even made it onto the shelves of the retail giant here in the UK. While the ‘games for Badults’ movement is thriving, crowdfunding remains its main route to consumers. Billy Langsworthy asks is there a place for adult toys and games in the current UK retail landscape?
Back in 2014, Breaking Bad’s teacher-turned-drug kingpin Heisenberg (aka Walter White) finally met his match.
It wasn’t Tuco the psychopathic Mexican druglord or the calm but deadly Gus Fring. It wasn’t even his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank Schrader.
It was the toy retail giant, Toys R Us.
Yes, back in October, the US chain of Toys R Us pulled its line of Breaking Bad action figures following a petition from a mum who claimed they were a ‘dangerous deviation’ from the store’s family friendly values.
This in spite of the fact the toys were housed in the adult collectors section of the store alongside figures of Freddy Krueger, Friday the 13th’s Jason Vorhees and zombies from The Walking Dead.
“Let’s just say, the action figures have taken an ‘indefinite sabbatical’,” said Toys R Us spokeswoman Kathleen Waugh of the Breaking Bad figures.
The UK Toys R Us has never dabbled in stocking toys for adults, but the whole ordeal has raised the question of whether toy shops should stock adult action figures and ‘games for badults’ in the first place. The majority of toy stores in the UK shun the sector, not through any moral repulsion but due to being a specialist in other, more child-friendly areas.
One such is When I Was a Kid, a toy shop as traditional as they come. While all for specialists in adult toys and games, owner Paul Warner believes the problems arise when stores try to mix and match.
“You’ve got to set your stall out,” Warner tells ToyNews. “Where it goes wrong is when people see a trend, start selling Breaking Bad figures off the back of that story, and latch onto it.
“That’s great if you can ride a wave with it, but the problem with that is shops start stocking all sorts and forget what their core values were and what they initially set out to sell.
“You may sell a few but you lose your identity, your direction and you become known for nothing at all. We’ve been successful because we’ve never got wrapped up in those kinds of things. We’ve stuck to our thing and stayed with it.”
And while the majority of toy shops stay clear of adult toys and games, this doesn’t mean the sector isn’t thriving, as demonstrated by the success of Cards Against Humanity which spearheaded the ‘games for badults’ movement.
Equal parts odd, offensive and very, very funny, the game, sold exclusively at Amazon in the UK, has spent over a year in Amazon’s Top 100 bestselling toys. The company won’t reveal sales figures, but as of May 2013, over 500,000 copies had been sold, generating at least $12 million in revenue.
It also happens to be one of the most popular regulars at Lesley Singleton’s Board Game Club.
“Adult games are nothing new – it’s just that the past couple of years has seen growth in this area, thanks to boundary-pushing indies and the rise of crowdfunding,” Singleton tells ToyNews.
“Although some are clearly designed to be offensive – aiming to replicate the success of the mighty Cards Against Humanity – the key thing here is that the games are only ever as offensive as you want to make them.
“In the same way that you can switch TV channels if you see something you don’t like, you don’t have to play the card that makes you nervous. Chances are, though, if you’re playing with a like-minded bunch of grown-ups and having a laugh, you will.
“These games are an escape, designed to cause gasps and giggles in equal amounts. They’re about stepping outside your comfort zone, making you do or say silly things you wouldn’t normally consider.
“Consumers are embracing them in their thousands, so I really do think retailers should be sitting up and taking notice. In-store, it’s about locating these games in an appropriate place, away from the cutesier table-tops aimed at the wholesome family market.”
As Singleton states, it’s an area being championed by crowdfunding and one of the latest to utilise the likes of Kickstarter is game firm Big Potato.
The creators are the same team behind Linkee, but the trio have moved out of the family friendly arena with latest game, Bucket of Doom. Aimed at over 18s (the tagline is ‘When the shit hits the fan, you need a plan’), Bucket of Doom sees a player choose a deadly scenario from a Doom Card, and then all other players choose one of the eight useless object cards in their hand to hatch an escape.
But like a TV presenter moving from Blue Peter to Babestation, is the transition from Linkee to Bucket of Doom a risky one?
“Hopefully people will appreciate that we all have a naughty side,” said Big Potato’s Tris Hyatt-Williams.
“That’s the beauty of ‘badult’ games, they allow normal sensible people to be outrageous and blame it on the game. It never fails to amaze us how the most demure person can come out with the most outrageous and filthy escape plan, usually involving a butt plug.”
But while the game hit its crowdfunding goal, has there been any interest from toy stores in stocking it? And are the stores that championed Linkee as enthusiastic about Bucket of Doom?
“It’s early days on that front,” adds Hyatt-Williams.
“Amazon and Firebox are big fans of both games, but we’re also hoping to convert some High Street retailers into Bucket of Doom fans. We don’t see why they should have a problem with it; after all they stock Grand Theft Auto and games like that which are pretty X-rated.”
So should Toys R Us get on board with Bucket of Doom? Big Potato isn’t optimistic following it’s treatment of Breaking Bad.
“Really those Breaking Bad action figures were aimed at adults, and adults shouldn’t be wandering around Toys R Us unaccompanied by a child,” Hyatt-Williams adds, dryly.
One store that is proudly stocking adult action figures is AutoMattic Comics and Toys.
The independent shop has enjoyed years of success selling the kind of products not welcome on the shelves of Toys R Us stores across the UK.
“I only stock product I like,” owner Matt Booker tells ToyNews.
“I stock what sells but I also stock what I want to stock. Every shop should stock what they want. Independents are independent for a reason; they stock what they want to. I’m a very different shop from your regular toy shop, but I’ve been doing it for 20 years and I’m still going, so it works.”
Booker also believes the consumer that goes for adult action figures, while a niche audience, is one to
He continues: “Adult collectors don’t buy everything. I have a customer that just buys Yoda stuff, another just buys Alien products. They may choose a £300 piece and not buy anything else for another three months.Being a geek isn’t a dirty word anymore. The biggest show on TV used to be Friends, now it’s The Big Bang Theory.”
Booker also believes that the news of Toys R Us in the US removing Breaking Bad toys is nothing new at all. He feels that it just goes to prove adult action figures and games for badults do have a home in toy shops, as long as it’s in independents.
“Toys R Us has done it 100 times,” adds Booker.
“They did it in the 1970s with the Alien action figure from Kenner. All it did was push the demand for that toy up. I had people coming into the store asking if they could get that Breaking Bad figure.
“It’s all about product knowledge. The independents sell this stuff and we do this because we love it. Some indies just sell wooden toys or traditional toys and they do it because they know their stuff and they love it.
“Independents don’t sell stuff they don’t know about. It’s where the independents are thriving.”
So there we go. While the ‘edgy’ nature of ‘badult’ games and action figures based on hit adult shows is enough to send some of the biggest toy retailers running for the hills, they are proving a perfect match for the entrepreneurial spirit of the independent toy retail scene.
Walter White would be proud.
Thanks to Danny Neumann for use of the main image.