Interview with John Kent

The owner of the brand Toyfinity, Mr. John Kent, current owner of properties such as Robo Force, Zeroids and Mordles; has taken the time to read and answer some of my questions regarding his company and history. Firstly, thank you for meeting with me for this interview, much appreciated. When it came to naming your company Toyfinity (toyfinity.blogspot.com) was there any specific reason you decided on it?

So, Toyfinity…conceptually, I am fascinated by cycles.

You go to the movie theater and see a movie poster that is intriguing. The image is underwater of a diving suit – but the legs are bitten off. By what, it is not evident. That’s a poster that sells me on going to the theater. Then you go down the hallway at the theater and there is a poster of Peter Weller in a diving suit pulling a girl toward the surface… Are they running from something? And then you read that James Cameron is making a movie about aliens underwater.

Why do all of these movies get made at almost the same time? Cycles run for a reason. You have an idea, you tell people about it, and it gives them inspiration – or it makes them want to do your idea, only better.

The concept of Toyfinity is just this – that toys run in a cycle. What I’m about to tell you ignores some early pioneers in toys, as my focus has been mainly on action figures, so there is always more that can be added to this idea. Basically, the beginning of action figures is Barbie. When Mattel made a lot of money on Barbie, it made other companies want Barbie-level money. Hasbro decided to do the boy version of Barbie, which was Gi Joe; Ideal also wanted to do the same thing, so they made Captain Action. Mattel wanted to get sales from a product for boys – but instead of “Soldier Steve” or something else ridiculous, they did Major Matt Mason. Again, here comes Ideal – but instead of just making a bendy human figure, they used the concept of toys that can play-along to make the Zeroids – a robot that was scaled to Matt Mason but would clearly be meant to be included in a toybox with MMM.

Colorforms also saw the money in MMM, releasing the Outer Space Men as the first concept of MMM was only going to be realistic space items. In fact, there is a direct lineage from Gi Joe to the Transformers that I have been talking about for years.

The second part of the cycle is that every ten years or so, the same concepts come back. Every ten years give or take, there is a big Dracula movie. In toys, Gi Joe was big in the 60s and they brought him back in the 80s. Are the Power Lords the 80s version of the OSM? You can look at this in a lot of different ways and make your own connections. Ideal kept going back to robots – 60s,70s, and in the 80s – and after they were out of business, other lines such as Z-Bots and Zibits use the same concept in new ways.

So, Toy Cycle + Infinity = Toyfinity.

How did you go about acquiring the Zeroids and Robo Force characters from Ideal? And, had you always intended on this?

I love toys. I’ve been collecting since my teen years. During development of an original concept which was intended to use the GLYOS System in its construction, I was made aware that the rights to the Ideal properties were available. The property I was most interested in initially was actually Rocks and Bugs and Things as my brother had collected those, but I quickly realized the potential in Robo Force and the other properties.

What had happened with the Ideal catalogue was known to people in the toy industry. One of the biggest costs in bringing a product to market is the steel tooling which makes the plastic pieces of a toy. What happens to that tooling after a toy is no longer made? A couple of companies realized way back, you could take a product which had outlived its lifespan in the United States to other countries with minimal costs. Maybe this wouldn’t work on something licenses like Alvin and the Chipmunks, but think about a board game like Kerplunk!. The rights to Ideal’s properties were held by one of these companies, and as the original tooling was all destroyed (mostly), there was little perceived value in these properties.

Was the ownership of these two properties the result of the brand you created or did you take up ownership of them only after you created Toyfinity?

The rights were acquired during the formation of Toyfinity. I would have made toys regardless, but the timing worked out perfectly.

Do you personally design any or all of the toys/collectibles that Toyfinity produces?

Generally, no. I am not a toy designer. So far, I have worked with Matt Doughty of Onell Design (the father of the GLYOS System) to design all of the characters in the Toyfinity universe that we have released. Primarily, I work on the idea of the toys – I knew the Toyfinity range of products had to start with Mordles. I wanted to redo the originals so there was very little design work there. The next product had to be Maxx himself…at the time, I had imagined something much simpler in concept along the lines of a ReAction figure, but Matt had the idea to make Maxx into a kit which would allow you to build a number of Robo Force members as well as your own creations. We used this same methodology for the Neo Zeroid figure and the Zetonian. You should check out the Instagram accounts under the Glyos hashtags – some of our fans combine pieces in ways I never could have imagined when we were designing Maxx. That’s been fun to develop – a building system with more parts in a variety of colors equals more fun.

While Maxx hasn’t changed too much from his original design, there was a transformation feature added and a renaming of Maxx Zero, was this intended to merge with the Zeroids universe or just because of legal reasons concerning Mattel’s own Max Steel?

As there was no surviving pre-existing tooling for Robo Force, STAR Team, or Zeroids, we had a blank slate to build from for the new Robo Force. I had acquired the rights to all of these properties back in 2012 (as well as Manglors and RBT/Mordles), but the years that had passed had introduced some challenges to bringing them back. For one, trademarks. Trademarks expire if you don’t renew them. This is why you have a Robo Force line from Ideal in the 80s and a different Robo Force line from Galoob in the 90s. There were no rights sold to Galoob by Ideal – it was a matter of the name not being in use, so Galoob decided to use it. You have the same situation with Maxx Steele/Max Steel. It is a great name so chances were someone was going to use it. Over the years, people also used the trademarks of Zeroids and STAR Team but they never actually held the legal rights to the design copyrights.

This is actually part of the problem with bringing back old properties. Do a search on the history of ROM the Spaceknight for further reading. IP rights can be very difficult to sort out.

Have you gotten a chance to listen to my audio based interview with the robot creator Andy Shaw yet? I’m sure you’ve heard of his work before, if so are you happy to see the Zeroids go on to inspire others in their own creative endeavors?

I haven’t listened to the interview but I have corresponded with Andy over the years. I will have to check it out.

How about my own writings? I create a webcomic series that I’ve named Club S.O.T.A. after the same robot in the Robo Force Toyline. While being almost entirely different from Robo Force, this comics initial inspiration came from that name. Dare I ask, do you approve or are you at least amused by the work that’s been shared so far?

The Robo Force continues to inspire people! I have been following your comic and found it amusing.

Continuity – This version of Zeroids and Robo Force seem to co exist and work side-by-side (respectively), and yet you managed to keep a lot of the story from the original Robo Force. Did you enjoy the original’s TV film at all? And was the continuity and respect towards the original source material a huge deal in reviving the two toys?

As I had said at the start of the interview, Ideal clearly liked the robot concept…after looking deeply at the three robot-based properties I had acquired from Ideal, it was plainly evident that all three of them could actually be talking about the same planet of robots. Planet Zero as part of Zeroids – Planet Zeton as part of Robo Force – Star Team having a robot called a Zeroid – the gap of time when Nazgar returns to Zeton for revenge…there is a lot of story whcih we have been slowly revealing as part of each Toyfinity release, along with the comics we have had done from James Groman, Jerzy Drozd, Jason Ho, Robby Musso and others. Part of the eventual plan is a printed book. We’ve been sitting on a lot of artwork no one has ever seen which will fill in a lot of blanks in the Toyfinity continuity.

I liked the Robo Force special. Its a shame they didn’t get to do more with it, but Ideal was on its last legs at that time.

If you could go back and work on the original Robo Force or Zeroids, what might you have done to keep them around (keep in mind, you’d have the company Ideal’s own resources, hypothetically)?

I dont think anything is beating Transformers in 84/85.

One of the keys to understanding Robo Force is knowing that they were developed as another playalong product as the original Zeroids were. However, they were meant to play with Gi Joe and Masters of the Universe based on people I spoke to who were there at the time! If Robo Force is released in 1983, does that make a difference in the fate of Ideal? I think about this often. But putting them out the same year as Transformers, there was no way it was going to work.

Zeroids ran for multiple years originally so I don’t have much to say there.

Star Team was never intended to be a long-running franchise originally, so that would have been an interesting one to have designed a “year two” for in 1978. A fake Chewbacca with flocked bits would have been hilarious.

For any of these franchises, I think you have to look at their cores. Zeroids was about gimmicks. Star Team was just new heads (or lack of one in the case of the Zeroid Scout) to remind you of some other space property in the 70s…and Robo Force was based around suction cups and CRUSHER ARMS. So how do you extend the lifespan of lines like that? Robo Force was going to have bending waists on the robots in series two – I don’t know how you can top that. (laughs)

Any comments on the rip off of Star Wars that Ideal had made with the Zeroids as Star Team?

First off, Star Team is completely original. I don’t know what you are referring to. (laughs)

Ideal was a company that was amazing at board games. They did do fantastic business with Evel Knievel. But as I said, their robot lines were usually following a trend.

The available court documents on the Lucasfilm VS Ideal Toys legal proceedings are actually a fantastic read. The problem with the lawsuit they had was that you can’t copyright an idea. What makes “Star Wars” Star Wars is also what makes Star Team unique in retrospect. The Knight of Darkness is so far away from Darth Vader that there really isnt a comparison; the mask the Knight wears reminds me more of the Phantom of the Paradise than anything else. In the limited media that was available for Star Team, the Knight is very talkative. ZEM-21 is the leader of Zeroid scouts – could you see C-3PO being in command of anything? Just the use of the Zeroids name for Star Team tied it back to the earlier line – how can Ideal be ripping off Star Wars when the design of the Zeroid Scout is actually Commander Zogg? Granted, they did give him a dome to REMIND you of R2-D2, but they are clearly different characters.

What actually got Ideal in the most trouble on Star Team was the PAINTING on the box which depicted a space battle very similar to Star Wars. If another year of Star Team product had been made, they would have had to remove the painting based on the agreements made in the court records.

I noticed you’ve also brought back their version of Vader for the Zeroids/Robo Force toylines, The Knight of Darkness. This being said is their original knock-off droid planning to make a comeback also?

We do have plans for ZEM – and the Zeroid Scout as well.

The designs of your toys are very different in the way they’re shaped, specifically the Zeroids, compared to their original forms was this always planned or is it simply a benefit for production cost/efficiency?

For anyone who has ever thought about making toys, you really need a toy designer if the intention of your toys is playability. I think back to the 90s when we switched over from Kenner and Hasbro being the kings of toys to McFarlane Toys coming on the scene because of his interaction with Mattel when trying to make Spawn toys.

The first wave of Spawn toys is indicative of how a Mattel Spawn line might have looked. The articulation is standard. The figure is made to be tooled in a certain way along the lines of hundreds of other action figures – and also to be played with by children. But if a collector is just going to put it on a shelf in a very specific pose with a cape that is dynamic looking but difficult/impossible to articulate, then why do you need 100 pts of articulation on THAT figure? Years of McFarlane figures show how this approach can play out. The design on a mostly-statue figure is no joke. But conceptually, the figure doesn’t have to be reused. You make the figure, it sells, and then it never has to be made again.

What we were looking to do was make a building system that would give people options. So the work of a toy designer along those lines is to break down the designs and evaluate them for long-term use. Take a look at the Robo Force designs on the vintage line with a critical eye. You can break down the figures by body type – square body, rectangle body, cylinder body. A figure might be a cylinder on the bottom, square on the top. Now, tooling ten figures who are almost the same as each other would make no sense – tooling being one of the biggest costs in making toys as previously mentioned.

If the difference in Enemy’s shoulder vs Coptor’s shoulder is square with angle edge vs square with rounded edge, you have to really make the call on what piece makes the most sense to put into the tooling. Can that shoulder also be a foot? I don’t personally have the vision on these types of things – the designer makes the presentation to me and I decide to move forward with it. You can see how well it works – with just adding a head into the mix, we could make NAZGAR out of the existing pieces.

My personal favorite mind-blowing design work was on the Sentinel/Enemy head that Matt designed. I wanted the initial kit to make a lot of characters but we were running out of tooling space. And then I saw this sculpted piece that was both heads – AND a new chest for Hun-Dred. It was really something.

The original Zeroids are fantastic, but they are very 60s in their design aesthetic. I usually refer to it as “a car of the time built into a humanoid robot form”. We wanted to tie the Zeroids to Maxx more, as well as expand the building potential, so we made them more of a hardcore sci-fi robot instead. It also leaves us the ability to do the original Zeroids in more of a sculptural ReAction style without interfering with the figures we’ve already made.

Are there any plans to expand and bring back other toys from discarded toylines? Is this just what you do? Are you passionately reviving toys that have been lost to the great toy bin of obscurity?

If I had my way, there are other vintage properties I would add into the Toyfinity family – but I have my hands full with the existing properties. I think there is a lot more to do with Manglors and Star Team before I could entertain the idea of any other properties. We haven’t even made Mark Fury yet! That’s a big one on my list.

Why do you suppose most people aren’t paying much attention to Robo Force or the Zeroids these days?

I think people are paying attention to them!

What you have to think about is how massive media properties are these days. Whatever has the most advertising is going to be front and center in the minds of collectors and the general public. Even with a movie grossing a billion dollars, Star Wars wasn’t moving tons of merchandise off the shelves for Rise of Skywalker – but the Mandalorian has people hot for figures. What is the difference? There is a combination of so many factors – the hottest toy one year is Cabbage Patch Kids, the next year it’s a Nintendo, and so on.

Robo Force is accessible to the public through Toyfinity’s social media but there isn’t the content for daily updates. Even Marvel with their films doesn’t have that level of new information on a daily basis. Watch how they release information though – new information about casting and trailers is timed in a very specific way so that it remains on your radar.

So many things have fallen into a niche, but I think that is the nature of how modern society is. We’re living in permanent fast forward. People love Stranger Things, they release all the episodes on one day, where is it the next week? Everything is disposable, even quicker than ever. New Transformers are released, Instagram pics for a few days, likes, onto the next thing. I see a movie on streaming that I didnt even realize was already at the end of its theatrical run. Star Trek was a massive juggernaut of moving product – but the newest incarnations are locked behind a paywall so CBS can sell you an app subscription. And that is a major property! Outside of a giant movie, what is going to make the general public think about Robo Force every day? And you can ask John Carter, the Shadow, the Phantom, and so on how easy it is to make a hit movie…

What you will see with Toyfinity is a burst of activity around a release time – images, maybe some new vintage information, things along those lines. But discussion of why millions of people want more content from any franchise versus another could be an entirely different interview.

Thanks for joining me today John. It’s been a pleasure to get to know the man behind Toyfinity a bit better. We here at Planet Robot look forward to seeing what you produce next. And don’t you know it, when something new emerges from Toyfinity, we’ll be right there to cover it first.

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