Thought Bubble: The Madness of Pop! Evolve

We are in the midst of an invasion. Unless we act soon, we will be overrun with cheap legions of disposable vinyl. I am speaking, of course, of the impending scourge of Funko toys.

Let’s backtrack for a moment. Funko is the toy company that manufactures the Pop! line of bobblehead collectibles. You’ve seen them if you’ve wandered into a comic shop at any point in the past two years or so. They’re cute, they’re fun, and they must be selling like gangbusters because Funko keeps making more of them. I don’t know who would want to collect characters from The Big Bang Theory (or how you would know that’s what they’re supposed to be), but licensing one of the most popular shows on television is a pretty smart way of doing business.

However, there is a world of difference between The Big Bang Theory – a long-running network sitcom – and Evolve, a new video game from Turtle Rock Studios that still won’t be out until February 10th. So why has Funko already announced the Evolve line of Pop! collectibles?

It’s Pop! madness, and it has to stop.

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OK, maybe that’s slightly hyperbolic. But I do think the deal represents the worst aspects of modern corporate culture, which occasionally tries to monetize fans before doing anything to generate them. Funko typically avoids the problem because it licenses proven brands, but it doesn’t create its own IP and its efforts have often stretched the limits of nostalgia. Every single character is numbered like Pokemon just to remind you to collect them all, yet when you get down to it Pop! is basically just one toy. The lack of detail on the bobbleheads ensures that most of the characters look functionally identical. Outside of hair color, there’s not that much difference between Spike and Angel.

That problem is compounded when Funko churns out largely indistinguishable versions of the same character. At this exact moment, I could purchase three different versions of Frozen’s Elsa and Anna, not to mention three Jack Skellingtons, two Maleficents, three Captain Americas, and a full array of Walter Whites, Daenerys Targaryens, and Tyrion Lannisters, as well as Deadpool in red and blue and Jon Snow in two distinct shades of black. If you’re a fan of anything, chances are that there’s a Funko figure tailored to your tastes.

Then again, I can’t be too critical, because I get it. Those characters represent some of the most popular stories of their generation. The market for officially licensed products is enormous, and I’m certainly not immune to the charms. I already have Pop! Elsa sitting on my bookshelf and I’m making plans for the rest of the neighborhood.

Captain America? Yes please. I’m sure he won’t mind living next to Hannibal.

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But Captain America is one thing. Evolve is quite another. The former is an iconic character with a history that spans decades, while the latter is an as-yet-unproven attempt at big-budget multiplayer, a prospect with a worrying fail rate even under the best of circumstances. We still don’t know how many units Evolve is going to move as a video game. Is the secondary bobblehead market really going to be that lucrative?

It feels like a reversal of the way the process is supposed to work. The Pop! line developed as a response to an established demand for chintzy nostalgia. That’s why it makes sense. People like having a cute, relatively inexpensive way to display their fandom and the Pop! line serves that purpose admirably. But it only works because it’s capitalizing on people’s preexisting sentiment towards beloved content.

The Evolve line seems to be an attempt to manufacture the kind of connection that is typically fostered over the course of months or even years. Turtle Rock and Funko are basically suggesting that Evolve already has the same cachet as established brands like Star Wars and Dragon Ball Z.

Sorry, but that’s bullshit. Even if it succeeds, odds are good that Evolve will be completely forgotten before we reach the end of the current console generation. But fans are still being asked to demonstrate permanent loyalty in advance. The buildup to Evolve has focused on the evolution of pre-orders and DLC, a process that needlessly splits basic game content into smaller and smaller bundles. Turtle Rock (or maybe publisher 2K) is proud that it’s found new ways to resell the same amount material, passing it off as consumer friendly even while making it more difficult for players to access content in the game they paid for (Jim Sterling has an excellent summary of the problem).

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With that in mind, the Funko deal reeks of another cynical attempt to grab money for nothing before having to be accountable to the market, like a movie studio pushing a bad movie in the hopes that audiences will buy tickets before the critics have had their say. I’m all for nostalgia, but nostalgia generally has to be earned before it can be marketed.

So while I don’t necessarily have a problem with Funko, I do get suspicious when a company seems to be spending all of its time trying to convince me it’s made a collector’s item instead of showing me the game I’m supposed to be excited about. Maybe Evolve really is that good, in which case it won’t have any trouble selling the associated toys. But fandom is a grassroots phenomenon predicated on real attachment to fictional products. A corporate board cannot will it into existence.

That’s why the Pop! madness has to stop. I don’t mind spending money on cheap trinkets, but I do expect entertainment companies to deliver entertainment before I’ll play along.

 

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