Is Toy/Game Innovation Declining?


Radio_flyer wagon TIME magazine recently released its list of the All-TIME 100 Greatest Toys. They ranged from the Radio Flyer wagon of 1923 to the Zhu Zhu  Pets of today. Interestingly, it was also their most read story that week on the web garnering over 6 million page views and nearly 14,000 ‘likes’ on facebook.

I am wondering why there were so few Zhu-zhu 2 toys and games selected from the past 10 years. The 2000’s have only 3 products on the list, and the past twenty years account for only 12 of the hundred. The 70’s and 80’s account for 29 and the two decades before those, 40! (Well, actually 39 if you discount the fake vomit.)

Is innovation declining?

I don’t know the answer, but it seems that the big manufacturer’s focus on their core brands more and more over the past years might be, at least partly, responsible. 

Another factor might be that it might be too early to determine whether or not some of today’s hits will stand the test of time. Bakugan? Silly Bandz? Pictureka?

It does seem to me that the Toy Fairs of years ago had a lot more buzz about the hot companies and the hot toys.

That aside, I was honored to be a presenter at the TOTY Awards thisSingamajigs  month, accompanied by the winners of our ChiTAG Young Inventor Challenge, Nick Metzler and Adrik Herbert. We presented the award for the Most Innovative Toy of the year.  Sing-A-Ma-Jigs won in this category as well as for top Preschool toy and for overall Toy of the Year. Mattel acknowledged the inventor, Ron Magers of M Design, in their acceptance speech. Sing-A-Ma-Jigs was at or near the top of every on-line favorite toy list last year proving that innovation and a new brand can pay off. I suspect that Time will have this toy on its list before long.

Are Sing-A-Ma-Jigs the exception that proves the rule that there is less innovation or innovative products being licensed in our industry lately? Just wondering.

Scrabble flash Hasbro’s Scrabble Flash won Game of the Year. It was invented internally by Bob Driscoll, also acknowledged that evening.  Should Time (or the public) consider old brands with new twists as new innovative products worthy of making the list (doesn't seem to be the case now)? Just wondering.

Two interesting questions.

17 thoughts

  1. All of the above are great insights and all very true by some very sharp people. A big problem these days also is there are two types of retailers. One is the Mom and Pops (God bless them) that get out there and do the real training and selling and taking the chances. The other retailers are the big boys. They do not sell… they are demand fulfillment outlets. They have much more efficient supply chains and buying power that make it hard (or impossible) for the Mom and Pops to compete with; once a product does break out. I don’t have all (or any) of the answers but my new product meets resistance even where it should excel. The Mom and Pops need to find a way not to compete with the big boys but prioritize on the markets where chains can’t. Small stores need do a better job of scouring and embracing the new stuff and develop the reputation of the place to go for the “good” or unique stuff not the cheaper stuff. The Mom and Pops need to quit trying to compete with the big boys and instead embrace the innovative even if seems a little expensive. If the M & P’s push developers to beat the price down it really translates into forcing the developers into the bigger stores and many of us would be happy to make a living outside of “corporate” America.

  2. I see innovation today in toymakers that invent eco-friendly toys that encourage thoughtful and/or creative play, like P’Kolino’s Multi-Solution Shape Puzzles or Tegu’s magnetic wooden blocks. I would hope that such toys will stand the test of time and pop up on future lists over one-trick fad electronic toys.

  3. Dear Mary,
    I can testify, as the CEO of a new start-up in the toy industry, that convicing distributors and retailers to adopt a radically new product is kind of… mmh… impossible mission!
    When there is no existing category, no existing market, no existing licence, no TV advertising… but just innovation… very few stores would take the risk, even if end-customers like the product.
    By chance, we can now sell direct on the Web, and it’s a great opportunity for innovators. 🙂

  4. It used to be that toys were triggers for imagination. Media (video games, tv, YouTube, iPod) are in direct competition.
    Games were triggers for social interaction. Again, online gaming, texting, social media are now direct competition.
    Even toys designed for physical activity are now being challenged by video games like Tony Hawk Ride, Wii, and the Wii copycat products.
    Corporate “Innovation” seems to try to out-electronic the electronic competition right now, which I do not believe is a winning strategy.
    So now what are the differentiators? Toys still have an advantage in physical touch, active play, hands on experimental science (think Hot Wheels Criss Cross Crash), and nostalgia.
    The merger and acquisition bonanza since the early 90’s is largely about brand ownership which I would argue sells due to nostalgia. The question for the innovator is not what sells – brands and licensed product do that, but what sells that will be played with for months or years once it gets home. The great toy innovation will do both.
    Simple manipulation of kids and parents with branding only guarantees it will move off the shelf. In the long run that is a losers game because every weak product diminishes the brand of the parent company to the point where eventually being a Hasbro product, a Mattel Product, a Jakks Product, a MGA Product, or whatever else will be a liability, even if the underlying brand might have had legs. It is dangerous to have your customers buy and not enjoy.
    Innovation must have an impact on the kid that plays with it or it is just a marketing ploy playing to Toy Fair to get media buzz in November and December.

  5. And those companies are the first to “use” the bright ideas of those small but brilliant inventors after they have seen the possibilities on sales of it’s products…
    inventions are still done… but nobody is willing to pay for them… it’s easier and cheaper to “use” them…

  6. I totally agree no one will dare to be different. Retailers take the safe option which will attract regular sales. We need more James Dyson types. Go against tradition and try something new. Nothing ventured nothing gained as they say. Speaking for Toy Inventors everywhere.

  7. Mary My Darling,
    The big reason we see little innovation is the major retailers are loath to pionner the new and groundbreaking. They hit up the computer and stick to what sells. There used to be so many different retailers who didn’t want to look like the other guy. Now it’s like the mall, they are all the same.

  8. I believe there are lots of creative toy inventors still out there but there are very very few companies willing to open their doors to these people. Companies no longer seem to work on a risk and reward basis. They don’t want to chance taking on a new idea unless almost certain it is going to be a major hit. Innovation particularly in toys is being restricted and slowed by a cautious industry.

  9. I would hesitate to take a list put out by Time as authoritative. Sure, its a good news source, but how do you actually pick the 100 greatest toys? Is it nostalgia? Sales? Hype? Bratz is one of three toys picked for the 2000s? They certainly wouldn’t make my list.
    Maybe innovation has been a little lacking lately. Maybe the designers are just adapting to a new time? Digital technology has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. I think soon, though, there’s going to be a push-back to more simple toys and a push-forward for more innovative, sustainable solutions.
    Toy culture has changed so dramatically. It used to be that kids had, maybe 5 toys. Now its the norm to get 15, 20, or more new toys at every holiday. How to innovate when excess is the norm?
    All that being said, if you’re looking for innovation, why not check out Boon? They’re making beautiful products. There’s also Melissa & Doug, Skip Hop, and a whole slew of brands who are doing really good things. You just have to look in the right places.

  10. I agree that we have seen very few innovative, break-out toy products in the past decade +. There are a host of factors. I think one is that a lot of creative talent has moved to the digital & consumer electronics arena. Now we have a new gold rush in mobile apps. What I have also noticed over the past decade is that the big guys, Hasbro, Mattel, and even now Jakks and Mega Brands, continue to buy up smaller companies and consolidate the brands in house for the sake of efficiencies. But what they have been losing in the process is much of the creative talent behind great brands & products. Case in point is Hasbro’s consolidation of once creative powerhouses like Galoob, OddzOn, Cap Toys, Wizards of the Coast, Tiger Electronics, and others. Where are the market leading brands today that sprung from these companies? I rest my case…

  11. Great questions. I wish I knew the answers. I do know this, twenty, thirty or forty years ago there was more young talent eager to carve a niche in the toy industry. Based on the electronic games show that was in San Francisco this week it seems that the old trade show buzz is alive and well, it has just shifted its focus (and moved to where the money is.

  12. It is worth noting, too, that the notion of ‘play’ has changed over the years. The twenties and thirties allowed children to play more than ever possible in decades before – and toys became an industry. The fifties through the seventies might be considered the ‘golden age’ of toys, as the industry and appetite for playthings exploded. And then, the digital age arrived. Hand held video games, console games, even the ipad have changed how children play – and with what. None of these items made the list, but certainly changed and revolutionized the world of play as much or more as Barbie and GI Joe did when they were introduced. God knows I love traditional toys and games, but perhaps the list is too narrow to reflect the ‘play’ of the times and what the true innovations have been.

  13. I fear that a trend that has persisted the last 20 years or so is to blame for the lack of “recent” great toys. Manufacturer’s, tho aware of the fact that the big hits generally come from the outside are reluctant to take a chance. Instead the “plan” or lack thereof, is to rehash the same old stuff or develop toys based on a concept that already has “market exposure” ignoring whether that concept has any kid appeal to begin with. Greatness has always come with risk. No guts – No glory.

  14. Your analysis is probably correct, Mary. A lot of it may have to do with new products not known or not trusted for their staying power. And the economy has probably made a lot of manufacturers more conservative, adding to existing lines and relying heavily on licensing rather than taking a risk on all the truly innovative ideas that are always popping up. We saw the same thing in the movie industry where we get expansions of a single plot idea (Bourne, Oceans) or treatments of TV shows (Bewitched, Brady Bunch), but still a core of small film makers who continue to take risks on new scripts and unknown actors.

  15. No conclusions can be drawn from this. Just somebody’s list. Not a toy expert, or play expert, nor an innovation expert. Just a journalist making a list. Only a study based on some predetermined metrics of innovation could address the question.
    Off the cuff, I would say that the level of innovation is greater, and accelerating, but I might be biased in that observation.

  16. As your article notes, toy innovation (=block busters) have been few and far between in recent years. In retrospect the toy business has seen its share of struggles since Y2K. And, when times are tough, companies (toy or otherwise) tend to shy away from “innovative” products. Truly new to the world products tend to be more expensive to develop, promote, and sell thus increasing the risk if they fail. This risk is shared by the retail gatekeepers who tend to judge a product’s merit (and its place on their shelves) based on relative success rather than product uniqueness. As a result companies prefer to deal in more familiar territories choosing to maintain and promote their core competencies rather than take the risk on unproven goods.
    However I fear there is another factor perhaps that goes hand in hand with the dearth of innovation in toys. Gone too are the entrepreneurs with sufficient capital and gristmill determination to forgo the risks and bring a new idea to market. You need only look at the companies associated with those chosen 100 landmark toys to realize that they no longer exist aside from their legacy. Nearly all of the companies associated with those brands are either gone or adulterated through acquisition.
    The good new is those of us responsible for scouring the field for new ideas in toys can attest to the fact that they do exist. Inventors abound with innovation. But in this risk adverse world where it is easier and safer to market fifty-year-old ideas, innovations unfortunately remain no more than an idea on a drawing board at least for now.

  17. Interesting observations and great questions, Mary. Wish I knew the answers, but what I will offer is that it seems ‘in the good old days’ before there had been so much careful analysis of ‘the market’, invention was more purely inspired. What I mean by that is, that creativity was not necessarily chasing the perceived market, but came more purely ‘out of the box’ because ‘the box’ didn’t yet dictate product.

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