Production of games and TOYS once involved little in the way of technical sophistication. Early toys were handmade by parents or in limited quantities by artisans. Later, nineteenth-century industrial toy production benefited from technological advances in tool and die, ceramics, and paper, among others, in the same manner as other industries. Doll makers profited from gains in bisque techniques and materials, and doll clothiers used analine dye technology for their miniature couture. But unlike many other industries of the period, toy manufacturers found it unnecessary to dismantle a new machine in favor of the most recent device. Although it was hardly a craft operation, toy manufacture depended more for success on the creativity of its designers, marketing, and advertising than on technology. Toys, after all, were rather simple objects.
There were in fact only four technological innovations that affected toy manufacture–high-speed color lithography in the nineteenth century and injectable plastics, television, and the microchip in the twentieth. Color lithography enabled toymakers to produce colorful games, brightly illustrated books, and decaled toys. Even then, however, some manufacturers chose to contract their lithographic work to companies specializing in such work. The advent of plastics after World War II created the model-building sector within the toy industry and allowed the major toy manufacturers to market their products with plastic dice, counters, and in some cases, three-dimensional playing boards. At Parker Brothers, for example, plastics technology enabled the company to issue Monopoly with plastic houses and hotels rather than the wooden ones of the earlier editions. Other companies, such as Fisher Price, changed the basic material for their preschool toys from wood to plastic, and doll makers had a new material for sculpting doll bodies and creating realistic hair. TELEVISION altered toy marketing and furnished new toy concepts via licensing of television characters such as Fess Parker as Davy Crockett and program formats such as quiz show games. But it was the microchip that utterly transformed the toy industry.
Beginning in the late 1970s, the largest toy manufacturers confronted difficult business decisions with regard to their participation in the electronic toys and games market. Each company evaluated the new market in light of its corporate personality, its perception of its place within the industry, and its available resources. Board game manufacturers were a case in general and Milton Bradley a case in particular.
For Parker Brothers, maker of Monopoly and other classics, decisions about electronic games spelled short-term profits followed by sharp losses that persuaded its parent company, General Mills, to spin off its toy group as Kenner Parker, which was in turn swallowed by Tonka. For Milton Bradley, entering the electronic games market wrecked havoc with the corporate balance sheet, forcing its sale to a competitor, Hasbro, to avoid a hostile takeover. Mattel's experiment with Intellivision created financial liabilities greater than the assets of the company at one point, compelling the company to restructure entirely. Hasbro and Selchow and Righter, however, found little to attract them to electronic games and toys, and the companies avoided any obligation to microchip technology. Selchow and Righter's minimal commitment to electronic games and introduction of the popular trivia game Trivial Pursuit allowed the company to maintain its position in the industry as well as increase its market share until lack of family management forced its sale to Coleco and ultimately to Hasbro. Hasbro's caution freed the company to capitalize on the consumer's return to basic toys and augmented its bottom line. By 1991 Hasbro had absorbed Tonka, making it the largest toy manufacturer in the world. Microchip technology, in short, rearranged the toy industry, destroying some companies and turning others into titans.
Milton Bradley, a century-old firm and the successful manufacturer of such classic games as Candyland and the Checkered Game of Life, illustrated this transformation. In 1978 Milton Bradley marketed Simon, a fat, Frisbee-shaped device that proved to be the most popular game of the year. Newsweek featured the game in a December issue, and the company could not keep pace with the demand. Using the randomizing capabilities of the microprocessor, Simon was a game entirely dependent on the characteristics of the microprocessor and at the same time maintained the traditional mode of play. Players sat around Simon and attempted to repeat the game's pattern of flashing colors. Its success diverted Milton Bradley's energy away from the development of video games, and the company chose not to produce its own video console, believing that such machines and games would shortly be replaced by multiple-use home computers or entertainment centers. Management predicated its rationale on the evolution of a standardized cassette or other electronic medium. When this occurred, Milton Bradley reasoned, the company would develop toys and games to take advantage of the market.
While Milton Bradley executives were traveling to the company's European subsidiaries in the late 1960s and early 1970s, other men were on their way to the moon. Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari Corporation, had perceived a less scientific application for microchips and, in partnership with another engineer, designed a game called Pong in 1972. Pong in turn spawned a host of imitators, a novel toy producer–the video game company (Nintendo, Sega, and Xbox among the best known), and an entirely different market sector. With Pong's success and the subsequent popularity of the Atari 2600 game console, established game manufacturers saw that there was money–a great deal of money–to be made in video games. Among those watching Atari's mounting profits were the executives at Milton Bradley, and the company entered the video game market with its own game console, Vectrex. By mid-1983 it was clear that Milton Bradley had badly miscalculated; its foray into the video hardware and games market had incurred heavy losses, endangering the financial well-being of the firm. In 1985 Hasbro absorbed Milton Bradley, and Milton Bradley became a division of the larger company, represented only by its "MB" logo on Hasbro's game products.
"I think," said one retailer in 1982 before the toy companies sustained their losses, "it's clear that the video market scared the daylights out of the board game manufacturers. It was just the shot in the arm they needed to begin promoting their products." Some manufacturers and many consumers returned to familiar, staple products, but for several large, established manufacturers the "shot in the arm" had come too late and had not saved the patient. Milton Bradley discovered that neither adding electronic play features to an already existing game nor buying licenses guaranteed success in the video game scramble. Major game manufacturers, moreover, had failed to exploit the full scope of microchip capabilities; rather, they elected to apply electronic technology to traditional game design–an instance of "add microchips and stir." The mode of play remained generally the same; the board was identical to the nonelectronic board, but the board could do certain tasks for the player. Microchip technology in the 1980s, in short, altered the toy industry—once a group of many small manufacturers–into an oligopoly–a small group of large manufacturers who dominated the industry.
While microchip technology vexed the traditional producers, it created an entirely new breed of toy and game manufacturers. These newcomers, literally the children of the electronic age, were not bound by traditional concepts of toy design. They provided the leadership in the technological revolution in toys and games and also expanded the toy industry by creating a new toy category in much the same way that Edwin Land did with the Polaroid camera and instant pictures. Of those in the forefront of electronic design, Electronic Arts, manufacturer of sports, sci-fi, and fantasy games, and Cyan Worlds, creator of Myst and Riven (marketed by Ubi Soft), illustrated the differences between traditional manufacturers, who adapted microchip technology to existing designs, and ingénue manufacturers, who designed toys and games in a wholly electronic milieu. Electronic Arts and its counterparts capitalized on the intrinsic capabilities of the microchip and computer: randomizing, speed, and mass storage. Because computer game creators operated out of very small shops, as microchip and computer technology grew more sophisticated, they were able to take advantage of the advances almost immediately. Some electronic game firms became marketing firms, advertising and vending products from dozens of small designers in addition to their own wares. The microchip not only underpinned a new genre of toys and games but also altered the nature of play for a stratum of the American population. While microchips allowed toys and games to be more interactive, three-dimensional, and complex, play became more solitary and gender-specific. With a few notable exceptions, adolescent boys, rather than girls, were more likely to play electronic toys and computer games.
For computer game companies, the advent of the Internet and broadband technology promised an entirely new game format, the multiplayer online game–a prospect that in the early twenty-first century is only beginning to be fully realized. In multiplayer games thousands of players from across the globe compete as individuals or in groups in combat or puzzle solving. Several large firms have adapted traditional games as well as successful single-player computer games to the multiplayer format. As broadband reaches more households, however, several "native" Internet multiplayer games have appeared. Probably the most famous of these was a game designed as a marketing tie-in with the film A.I. Known informally as The Beast, the game attracted thousands of players, spawned an extensive website, and garnered national press attention.
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