OPINION: Why toys need stories

Starlight Runner CEO and consultant Jeff Gomez talks about the need for narrative in today's toys, in the age of multi-platform.
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With the exception of a couple of Aurora models (which quickly smashed after a bit of rough play), there were no Japanese monster toys to be found in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1969. 

The sole exception was Aron, a snaggle-toothed Godzilla lookalike my mum bought me for Christmas that I treasure to this day. 

Around Aron I built my Monsters League of the World: a one-armed Captain Action, a rubber turtle with a broken shell, a stuffed baby alligator missing its two front legs, and a tattered wash cloth. Their epic adventures were informed by the serious themes, ever-shifting alliances, and mind-boggling destruction I thrilled to in dozens of Toho giant monster films. The 4:30 movie may have set the tone, but my soaring five-year-old mind took care of the rest.

Flash forward to the year 2002, where in El Segundo, California, I’m pitching to Mattel on creating a story world around their Hot Wheels brand. A concerned executive cut me off, telling me that this was a risky idea. “Who are you,” he asked, “to impose a narrative over these toys? It could interfere with the boy’s own concept of the cars. It could interfere with established play patterns, and that would be a disaster.”

These were valid concerns, but as far as I was concerned, the transmedia revolution had already begun. The internet was becoming a powerful presence in the lives of children. Gadgets such as smart phones and tablets that would change the way we behave and interact were right around the corner. In just a few years, social media would become the pervasive form of sharing what we like and how we feel.

So I told that executive something that has since become even more vital and true. If your brand is going to stand out amongst all competitors, you are going to have to give the child something to start with – story. You’re going to need to develop a compelling story world around your toy. It has to be a story that uses the essence, values and archetype of the brand as building blocks. It also must tap the foundational tenets of narrative to engage, surprise and delight millions of kids. 

This is no easy feat, but my words were proven by the fact that the Hot Wheels story world has persisted for nearly ten years now (in the form of World Race, Acceleracers, and most recently Battle Force 5). When well executed, story can be quite lucrative and lead to multiple revenue streams. More importantly, it can allow for your toy to reach millions of kids across an array of media platforms. As such, story becomes your brand ambassador. It can manifest in an app, an e-book, a digital comic, or even through traditional platforms like TV and films. A rich story world provides portals – points of entry – through which a child can make contact with a toy from any of a dozen directions. 

That takes us to 2012, and the advent of the age of pervasive communications. Kids aren’t just absorbing narratives, as illustrated by tens of thousands of homemade Littlest Pet Shop videos, they’re creating them on their own and posting them on YouTube. If I were five or six years old today, I might have my own Monsters League social media channel. 

When you build a story world around your toy, you are giving kids the clay with which they can express their own imaginations. It’s not important that they adhere to the canon of your tales – after all, how many of us made up wildly contradictory scenarios with our Star Wars figures – it just matters that the stories are well told and that they convey the distinct themes, ethos and meaning of your brand. Anything less will ring hollow and fall flat.

I also realise that I’m talking to toy designers and manufacturers, and your specialty is not necessarily in weaving enchanting or action-packed narratives. Some of you may be makers of teddy bears, baby dolls or bubble blowers, which don’t seem to lend themselves to rich worlds of adventure. I say you must strongly consider it. 

Even the most modest brands need to reach kids, and the attention of young people is being divided across a greater number of screens and sources. You don’t have to have TV and feature film ambitions to know you now need better reach. Story will do that for you, and if you’re not a savvy professional writer, then it might serve you well to go out and find one. Mattel and Spin Master are doing this wonderfully with such brands as Barbie and Bakugan. Microsoft is busy extending its Halo brand into a global transmedia franchise by teaming with novelists and expert scripters. 

On scales from small to grand, you can do the same.

About the author

Jeff Gomez is CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, the world’s leading producer of transmedia entertainment franchises. He has consulted on such properties as Pirates of the Caribbean, Avatar, Hot Wheels, Men in Black and Transformers, maximising their value by helping to extend their story worlds across multiple media platforms. He recently addressed members of the Toy Industry Association at Toy Design Con 2012. You can follow him on Twitter @Jeff_Gomez.

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