Wednesday, November 20, 2013

You Deserve A Grimace Today

I hate when I’m reminded of things I’d forgotten about the Handful O’Landfill era, because then I’m reminded of things I’d forgotten about the Handful O’Landfill era.

Some people join the French Foreign Legion to forget. Me, I went into dental insurance. But only because the 401(k) was better.

The story behind this case of institutional remembering is that my lovely wife needed file folders, so I emptied out some of my voluminous chronicles of the Decline and Fall of the Trading-Card Business, mostly the stuff dealing with Collect-A-Card and its various products.

Collect-A-Card is interesting. It may not get its own chapter in the Decline and Fall etc., but it certainly merits several healthy paragraphs.

The short history of Collect-A-Card is this: It had one huge hit with Coca-Cola cards, came close with a couple other properties and bombed with the rest, and the bosses got out while the getting was good.

Put another way, if Collect-A-Card was a Cy Young Award winner it would have been Doug Drabek.

Collect-A-Card was out of Greenville, S.C., and had a whole mess of sly-foxy good-ol’-boyness about it, most of it emanating from the company’s president, Neil Connor. Neil had a swell gold pinky ring, a Sam Snead golf swing, a gold chain around his neck he got from doubling down on par-threes, and a taste for sippin’ liquor.

It was fun to watch dealers and distributors, guys who thought they knew their way around a sheepskin deal (read: fleece), think they had had really put one over on the Collect-A-Card boys, only to come away with 40 cases of Dinotopia, 10 cases of Campbell’s Soup, five cases of Coca-Cola Polar Bears, a couple of cases of metal cards, 500,000 assorted POGs, and only one case of the Coke cards they’d come for.

Connor’s right-hand man, Nelson Wheeler, was particularly sharp. He had a voice that sounded like a blue-tick hound gargling with Red Man chewing tobacco and spitting Southern Comfort, but he was nobody’s fool. He wasn’t even nobody’s court-appointed legal counsel. He could go into a knife fight with a vegetable peeler and come away with an order for a dozen more knives. The reason Collect-A-Card was able to turn one so-so property (as cardable licenses go, Coca-Cola was no Looney Tunes or Disney) into a decade of prosperity was because Neil and Nelson did a mess of deals sweeter than South Carolina iced tea.

Collect-A-Card had the original Power Rangers license (Connor still swears he did a better job with the property than Upper Deck, and that statement gets truer as the years go by), and made Corvette sets, about a dozen different varieties of Coke sets (base, POGs, premium, superpremium, superultrapremium, metal, Polar Bears, and business class), and a set of Olympic logos in addition to the aforementioned Dinotopia and Campbell’s Soup set.

And then, in a moment of weakness, Collect-A-Card did the McDonaldland 500 set.

I had remembered just about everything about Collect-A-Card except the McDonaldland 500. CAC called these “fantasy cards,” which is about right, since calling them collector cards was absolutely a flight of fancy.

Recalling now the circumstances around their creation, Connor wanted to do for McDonald’s what he had done for Coke – create a set showing old ads and memorabilia, maybe do some burger-shaped POGs, follow it up with some metal cards, and include a Fisher-Price Hamburglar in every pack.

McDonald’s either wasn’t buying the whole nostalgia trip or wanted Collect-A-Card to show its good faith, so it said, “Do a McDonaldland 500 set.”

At this point, anyone with lesser confidence in their ability to sell Bears jerseys to Packer fans would have bailed – but not Neil Connor. And this was one case where the good ol’ boy got his, because the McDonaldland 500 was a dogburger.

I’ll quote from the product description in all its grammatically incorrect glory and let you make your own conclusions: “Join the fun in this premier collection of ‘The Adventures of Ronald McDonald®’ characters in the most exciting stock car race of the year … ‘The McDonaldland® 500’!!! Hamburglar will be using every trick in the book to capture the beautiful winner’s trophy which is filled with the one thing he simply can’t resist … hamburgers! Ronald McDonald will be driving the ‘Ronald Rocket’ and pulling out the stops in an effort to overcome Hamburglars mischievous plans. Will Ronald be able to stop him? Grab a few packs and follow this exciting action adventure!”

I’m pretty sure I didn’t write that. I would have put four exclamation points after “McDonaldland® 500.”

Breaking it down as a marketer would (and I do that on occasion), the McDonaldland 500 set offered the Ronald McDonald characters[1], which taken as a group had less marketing oomph than the cast of Moesha, in a racing story – all you genuine stories out there, please don’t take it personally – unsupported by any other medium, with only the most tenuous connection to a Tier-1.5 NASCAR driver (Bill Elliott). Yeah, the packs were only 79 cents and included seven cards and a sticker, but seven cards of what and a sticker of what? Seven cards of five characters, with a sticker showing one of the selfsame five characters and maybe a car, all rendered with the same precision of line exhibited by Peter Max in kindergarten. They couldn’t even have Birdie autographed cards because she’s a bird. She can’t hold a pen. She doesn’t have fingers.

There were also reports of “three special insert cards featuring the real ‘McDonald’s® Racing team driver, Bill Elliott™’ plus other fun items,” but I never stuck around to learn what the fun items were, or why “Bill Elliott” is a trademarked phrase [2], or what the quotation marks meant. 

Here’s a contemporary analogy. The McDonaldland 500 set is like redoing Criminal Minds with the cows from the Chick-Fil-A ads, and making a trading-card set of that.

(You listening, Upper Deck?)

Contractual Obligation Set that it clearly seemed to be, the McDonaldland 500 set made a quick lap around the track and was gone. On one hand, that’s a blessing. The product died before parents could get up in arms over a set of trading cards that uses cartoon characters to sell fat- and sugar-laden fast food to kids. (After seeing what public opinion did to Coors Cards, never underestimate the American public’s ability to whack down any trading-card set with a loose association to life’s milder vices. Never mind the multitudinous sports cards of tokers, dopers, intravenous drug users, aggravated assaulters, and miscellaneous misogynists.)

On the other hand, Collect-A-Card never was able to make a regular McDonald’s set, more’s the pity. Ol’ Neil and Nelson might have done something with that.

[1]  Ronald, Grimace, Hamburglar, Birdie the Early Bird, and the Fry Kids, in case you’ve forgotten.
[2] Because if I’m trademarking the name of a Tier-1.5 NASCAR driver, I’m going Coo Coo Marlin all the way.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Bored Game Theory

In the incomparable Preston Sturges screwball comedy The Palm Beach Story Claudette Colbert wants a divorce, so she hops in a cab and asks the cab driver where he’d get a divorce. (They don’t call ‘em “screwball comedies” for nothing.) The cabbie looks at her and says, “Well, most people go to Reno, Nevada, but for my money, it's Palm Beach. This time of the year you've got the track, you've got the ocean, you've got the palm trees. Three months. You leave from Penn Station.”

I was thinking of that this morning as I was framing the lede to this column. Most people who want to seriously lose their shirt go to Vegas, but for my money, you invent a game. You got copyright costs, printing costs, marketing costs, shady middlemen, the evil Wal-Mart megalith, Third World knocker-offers, Toy Fair booths, licensing fees, legal fees, sales tax, cease-and-desist orders, and in the end nobody buys games anymore anyway. Three months. You leave from Penn Station.

Throughout the Handful O’Landfill era I was connected in some way with the creation of half a dozen games, some better than others. The collectible card game I created in a morning in a construction office in San Clemente, Calif., was not so good. The APBA sports-simulation games, particularly an incredible hockey sim Baron Bedesky and I cranked out over two days in a Buffalo hotel room preparatory to eating fried-baloney sandwiches at a Bisons game, were much better. The APBA board games were okay, the game-like things we did for SkyBox and Pinnacle were game-like, and today’s subjects are right in there.

And this doesn’t even cover all the other games that made it onto the garbage truck without my help, including Marvel Overpower and DC Whatever, countless reboots of the Cadaco All-Star Baseball game, MLB playing cards, Donruss’ ill-fated Top of the Order game which wasn’t really ill-fated because it got what it deserved, and the Topps MLB collectible-figurine game that I still claim was the greatest waste of a can’t-miss license this side of Comic Ball.

The facts were that APBA and Strat-O-Matic players didn’t want the purity of their cards sullied by non-necessities like pictures, nothing was more fun than a 1968 Topps baseball card game, virtually all game play came down to rolling dice and/or walking a pawn around a board, and how can that compete with a virtually realified first-person-shooter game where you steal zombies’ cars and kill pirates with nuclear missiles you fire out of your ... uh, nostrils?

It is into that environment that we chuck today’s game contestants, Spellcast and the Jim Thome Baseball Game.

We got to know the creators of Spellcast at the New York International Toy Fair. We were booth neighbors, back in the part of the exhibit hall otherwise inhabited by goldbricking janitors, union stewards, intravenous drug users, and our client’s accountant, who liked to hit on women. The exhibitionists didn’t even go back there because, hey, they’re not doing this just for their own gratification, you know.

Two Manitoban sisters, Nicole Rondeau and Karen Laboissoie, created the game as an alternative to knitting curling stones. (The nights get long and boring in Winnipeg, and yarn is cheap.) Spellcast deals with magic and witches and spells, obviously, it’s ostensibly for girls without being hopelessly girly, it’s designed beautifully but totally unprofessionally, in a way that torches as much money as possible, and it plays in a delightfully roundabout way. It also includes stones, which makes it pretty much unusable for anyone under the age of four, and all boys.

Its few flaws aside – nothing that couldn’t have been corrected by a major manufacturer with a little want-to – Spellcast is a fine game totally deserving of a larger audience, yet the game’s chances of going big were about as great as the accountant’s chances of getting to first base with the sisters. Dice and stones and want-to can only take you so far.

It was quite a trip to New York for Karen and Nicole nonetheless. They came to the city with a gross of sellsheets and a handful of clips from the Winnipeg Free Press and the Vicki Gabareau Show. They came away with a gross of sellsheets minus 17, a couple of presumptive wholesalers who were extremely excited but obviously worthless, and the memories of a mugging at the World Trade Center. (Pre-9/11, obviously.) I tried to help on all fronts but there wasn’t much to be done.

I lost track of Nicole several years ago, and Karen long before that. The printers were not being kind to Nicole, the sisters had split, and she was trying to go it alone. She was slowly, reluctantly coming around to the realization that despite all her best efforts, it wasn’t going to happen.

The part of the business that sucks the most is when good people with big dreams get whacked. It happened to Nicole and Karen, and it also happened to the people behind the Jim Thome Baseball Game.

“Nice” doesn’t begin to describe the JTBG people. They’re the people who would stop their car on a screaming freeway to free a butterfly from their windshield wipers, and they wouldn’t care if it wasn’t a butterfly anymore but a collection of butterfly parts. If they were soup they’d be homemade chicken dumpling, if they were power tools they would be an electric chainsaw with no chain, and if they were a TV show they would be Teletubbies.

And Jim Thome! Name a nicer 600-home-run hitter not named Henry Aaron. Name a nicer nearly active 500-home-run hitter who doesn’t walk around with a chemical cloud over his head. Name a nicer 400-home-run hitter who actually hit 600 home runs.

Naturally the JTBG people were from Wisconsin, some quaintly named southern-Wisconsin hamlet like Roche-A-Cri or Montello. They were led by a retired businessman named Bob Montminy, who had assembled an army of local investors around a concept that was going to revolutionize tabletop baseball games. There are these dice, you see, and these pawns that you move around the board, and this part of the box stands up so it looks like a stadium wall, and when you roll snake eyes it’s actually a “big double,” and that means everyone on base scores, and –

Listen: I’m not trying to mock these guys because they’re so doggone nice, and I know Bob Montminy dumped all his financial and personal capital into the project, but the Jim Thome Baseball Game is just another baseball game, no more or less playable than a score of similar games.[1] It is, however, the best baseball-simulation game with the picture of a really nice 600-home-run hitter on its box.

Not content with one unnecessary cash outlay, the JTBG folks quickly reskinned the game as “Ebbets Field Baseball,” and switched the JTBG’s generic wall for the legendary ballpark’s legendary wall, with similar results. The resale shops and five-and-dimes of south-central Wisconsin teem with these games the way Buzzfeed teems with literary Pixy Stix. It’s not an accident.

I wish I could write about how games were the Yellow Brick Road for Karen and Nicole and Bob Montminy, how they were better than a Palm Beach divorce for a screwball heroine. They weren’t, and we’re all a little worse off for that.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to dry my tears and fire a few more rounds out of my … nostrils. I love the smell of cordite in the morning.

[1] The rule of thumb with baseball board games is: The more realistic the game the more painful it is to play. The extreme example of this is Pursue the Pennant, which has been linked to more than 7,400 cases of OxyContin abuse.