FEATURE: Third-Party Products
The mecha/robot collecting scene is pretty crowded nowadays. Manufacturers continue to dish out lots of releases, backed up by the fact that people will always buy them. These people, the target market of these companies, are often divided into two — there’s the mainstream consumers and then the collectors (the niche of the two). While the former won’t be too critical of these products and will buy them continuously, the latter will be, simply because they’re collectors. They have standards at which they hold their collection to and if these companies don’t have anything to offer of that caliber, what would they do? This is where the Third-Party Products come in. Now, the mention of “Third-Party” alone would produce immediate knee-jerk reactions that will often spark debates in one form or another. So before delving onto those clashing ideas, here are some tidbits to know about them and the gray-area nature of their releases.
For the purpose of this note, points will be restricted to the TRANSFORMERS and GUNDAM franchises.
Transformers third-party kits date back to the late 90s, mostly highlighted during Tokyo’s bi-annual Wonder Festival (ワンダーフェスティバル) where garage kit makers from all over the country gather then display and sell their creations. Most of these kits are from anime and/or science fiction franchises which are often of fine detail and produced in limited quantities, then sold at higher prices due to the nature of their production. During that time, Transformers garage kits are often comprised of upgrade parts for various existing figures.
Today, third-party Transformers have gone a long way since their early Wonder Festival days. Here’s a list of some groups/manufacturers:
They have also ventured out not only to release simple upgrade and replacement parts, but to actual full-on transforming action figures that have the complexities and engineering to rival or even surpass those from the official line. As for the designs themselves, this is where third-party Transformers have an edge over Gundam. With the myriad of works under the brand, but not in the mainstream market, these manufacturers have a lot of room to cover when taking consideration which characters to release. Add to that the fact that Hasbro/Takara-Tomy have stated that there are certain characters which they’re not considering for a main line release anytime soon due to issues in feasibility and sales — another entry point for third-party products.
With Gundams being model kits and not figures, there are many available options for customization to choose from — including garage kits. Heck, even Bandai of all companies has it’s own garage kit manufacturer, B-Club. They release a wide variety of upgrade parts as well as full-body kits from the more obscure to the simply unavailable mobile suit designs. The problem about their releases though, is that they tend to be really expensive. Take this case as an example, their unassembled, unpainted 1/144 c.o.v.e.r-kit | Turn-X costs a whopping ¥36750! That’s two Perfect Grade kits ready for purchase with that price tag.
Aside from B-Club, there are groups like G-System, NeoGrade and Vicious Project that also do resin cast kits of the popular mobile suits from various Gundam series. They are widely known in the community for producing very high quality pieces in various scales. They have offerings from the palm-top 1/144s to the 1/48 behemoths that aren’t available anywhere else. Granted that these pieces are of very high quality, they also demand high price tags like B-Club. Those who aren’t willing to shell out that much then turn to the recaster groups. From the moniker itself, they take the mold of an existing garage kit, like the ones from G-System, then they do their own cast of it to be sold at a lower price point. SMS Workshop, Hobbyfan and e2046 are the better known recasters in the community. Do take note that since they’re recasts, quality on these products can be a hit or miss.
For a while, these groups were considered to be the major players in the Gundam third-party field. Then sometime in 2010, China-based Model Comprehend (or MC Models) started releasing plastic versions of some resin casts by the aforementioned groups. This definitely came as a surprise in the community as MC Models made those expensive garage kits be available to more hobbyists that didn’t want to work with resin and pay those ridiculous prices for the original casts. And here’s a plus, given that most of these garage kits are upgrade parts to existing Bandai models (thus needing the actual model to complete the upgrade), MC Models took one step further and also included the base kits to their releases. With this, stand-alone plastic versions these designs are easier to obtain than ever before. As for quality, they’re definitely not on par with Bandai kits but they’re trying to make up for it though the bonuses that each kit comes with.
Reception & Response
There exists two fronts when talking about the general response to the third-party scene — the franchise-holders and the fandom/community — each having a different take on the matter. Ideally, this should be big NO for the companies owning the rights to these huge franchises. But surprisingly, there hasn’t been any serious legal action taken against these third-party groups. Whether its Transformers or Gundam, these third-party products are good at sticking in the gray area of the spectrum, minimizing any possibilities of instigating direct competition to the major companies. This is because third-party products often cater to the other half of the market base as mentioned previously — the collectors (the niche market). Take for instance most of third-party Transformers products, upgrade kits usually cost more than $20 and full-on transforming figures are often at the $50 to $100 price range. Looking at this perspective, a typical mainstream consumer can already purchase a Voyager Class figure for $20, which is a tad more in the value-price sense than a small upgrade kit, the same sense that parents use when children ask them to buy a figure.
However, the fandom/community of these two franchises have some disparity in response to these third-party releases. Prior to these third-party kits, the Gundam community has been exposed to a myriad of bootleg products coming from the likes of TT Hongli and Bendi. With this in mind, a stereotypical response has been established that any Gundam or Gundam-like kit from China is just a bootleg. In case of MC Models, the community is split between those who treat their kits as actual third-party items and those who simply consider them as glorified bootlegs. On the other hand, the Transformers community is receiving them better than those from the Gundam camp. A possible reason for this is that these third-party groups are filling-in the gaps that Hasbro/Takara-Tomy leave whenever they release product lines. Also, these groups have established a very fandom-friendly reputation which helps their reception for the better. Take TFC Toys as an example, when they released their HEAVY LABOR (LONG HAUL) figure as part of their HERCULES (DEVASTATOR) set, they also included replacement parts for their previous EXGRAVER (SCAVENGER) release that had some issues.
At the end of the day, it all boils down to the individual collector. Admittedly, getting third-party releases is considered a detrimental act against the franchises in question for the obvious reasons. They do cause profit loss to the companies releasing the official merchandise. In direct contrast however, third-party products might also help the franchises in the not too obvious sense. Since if they totally don’t, then legal actions should have been thrown back and forth for a while now. In hind sight, they help sustain the momentum the official products give and extend them beyond what they’re originally intended to. Collectors can either be comfortable with the idea, or just be immediately turned-off by the fact that they aren’t official. In any case, only the collectors themselves dictate what goes in or out of their collections.