History Of Set Gimmicks In Bionicle
Today the Bones Blog brings you a feature on "gimmicks" in Bionicle sets through the years. This is a common subject in debate topics, often with a "gimmick" being implied to be a bad thing, and also often portrayed as something new to Bionicle. But even the definition of "gimmick" is subjective, and the definitions usually used/implied also apply to much older sets -- so what's the actual history of gimmicks in Bionicle?
Before we start, we need to understand the word's meaning(s). First let's look at Dictionary.com. Their top definions are these:
2. a concealed, usually devious aspect or feature of something, as a plan or deal: An offer that good must have a gimmick in it somewhere.
3. a hidden mechanical device by which a magician works a trick or a gambler controls a game of chance.
4. Electronics Informal. a capacitor formed by intertwining two insulated wires.
–verb (used with object) 5. to equip or embellish with unnecessary features, esp. in order to increase salability, acceptance, etc. (often fol. by up): to gimmick up a sports car with chrome and racing stripes.
This is surprising -- their #1 definition makes gimmicks sound like a great thing, and the only one that sounds like the typical negative noun "that's just a gimmick" is listed as a verb! These definitions seem almost mutually exclusive at first glance.
Dictionary.com also quotes the New American Heritage Dictionary:
a. A device employed to cheat, deceive, or trick, especially a mechanism for the secret and dishonest control of gambling apparatus.
b. An innovative or unusual mechanical contrivance; a gadget.
c. An innovative stratagem or scheme employed especially to promote a project: an advertising gimmick.
d. A significant feature that is obscured, misrepresented, or not readily evident; a catch.
2. a. An innovative stratagem or scheme employed especially to promote a project: an advertising gimmick.
Even more confusing -- their #1 is a negative; completely opposite of Dictionary.com's own definition. To solve this problem, I asked BZPers what the word meant to them. In the Sets forum topic "What's a Gimmick?", here are seven definitions members gave:
So again, there's no clearcut meaning everybody agrees on. What is common through all these definitions is that a gimmick is an "extra", however.
Personal taste and different "standards", if you will, of whether gimmicks work to each individual are probably a big part of why the meaning varies. To those that don't like a particular gimmick, it lowers the set's quality -- those that like it say it raises it. Some don't like the idea of gimmicks at all, while others like the idea, and you get the same result.
So the differences themselves give insight into another part of the meaning -- a gimmick is highly reliant on personal taste, perhaps more so than the main, non-extra aspects of a set. It makes sense -- Bionicle targets largely the action-figure-liking roleplayers who like quick builds, which creates its own dichotomy of those who like it and don't, but within even the group that largely likes it, the chances of them all agreeing on the extras is slimmer, precisely because it's an extra. Of course, the point of this is as many BZPers said; intended to increase appeal.
Another interesting note is that Dictionary.com claims the origin of the word is unknown. That really surprised me, given that the word sounds like "gimme" -- I always assumed that the meaning was basically that, since gimmicks are "extras", the idea was that consumers would think "gimme" about it; wanting that extra thrown in as a bonus. Perhaps, perhaps not, but it would make sense.
Finally, in regards to Bionicle sets, BZPers seem to agree that gimmicks either ruin or improve the play value of the set, although it can't be limited just to play value. The dictionary and BZPer definitions also include the idea of advertisting and marketing. The basic idea of this entry's banner, for example, is an advertising gimmick used almost universally -- though ads are never that honest.
So the meaning of gimmick we'll go with is this:
Gimmick: An extra feature intended to increase appeal beyond the main point of a product, but highly dependant on personal taste, often focused on play value, and also related to marketing and advertising.
Concept can go beyond just sets, but today we're focusing on sets. Gimmicks aren't inherently bad or good; it just depends on if they work with most fans, like anything else with Bionicle sets. Also note that they're so highly dependant on taste that whether they even count as a gimmick can be disagreed on, based on whether their purpose in the set fits with what one fan sees as the main point of the product.
So main point will be judged based on the majority preference, with mention of the minority preferences too, but also asking the question of whether the gimmick is "needed" to fulfill the main point. Balljoints are probably the biggest example of something that cannot be called a gimmick in Bionicle sets, as well as similar Technic joints, because motion is essential to action figures/roleplaying, and to Technic as well.
Gears -- Gears stand out as the prime example of a gimmick in Bionicle history. Used in the Toa Mata, they were definately an extra to the action figure roleplayers, especially now that we know they were consistently the #1 complaint so were not seen as central at all to the concept of Toa to most fans. The meaning is muddled in 2001, however, because LEGO did theorize originally that many Technic fans would be into Bionicle. A big, integral part of Technic is mechanical features, so things like that would be less gimmicky to those fans.
However, most Technic fans didn't get into Bionicle, and roleplayers turned out to love it, so we have to question whether the main point of the product is in LEGO's attempt; to appeal to Technic fans, or to the actual results. I think the question is a bit misleading, though -- because something like lightup eyes, if it worked for most fans, would be seen as part of the main point of roleplaying, so then they wouldn't be called gimmicks either by the same logic. We have to be objective in this question, or we'll get nowhere other than in circles.
So if we ask if gears are essential, they are not. In Technic, there are plenty of sets without gears; the only essential idea in Technic is something moveable, and balljoints can still qualify as that; and it was another Technic line, Slizers/Throwbots, that introduced balljoints. Perhaps in Technic some kind of mechanical feature is essential, but fact remains that Bionicle didn't work as a Technic line. Objectively, then, gears are gimmicks.
Motors? -- The Manas crabs used this gimmick, which is probably easier to identify as an extra because it was only used once in Bionicle. On the other hand, it's a lot bigger chunk of the size and price of the Manas themselves, so we can't call this one clearcut. It's arguable it was the main point of those particular sets, and that it failed altogether.
Collectible Kanohi -- Many BZPers listed this one, as it's one of the most obvious. The idea that you have to "Collect them all!" is a very old one in the toy market. In this case, what is being collected is by definition an extra to the sets, given that each set already has a Kanohi so you don't really need others to get the play value out of the ones included. Unlike collecting the actual sets themselves, which is central to the toy, but as a marketing slogan itself can be a non-physical gimmick.
Also included in this are the rarer collectibles, which act as "extras" to increase appeal of the already-extra collecting.
Bamboo Disks -- We tend to forget that projectiles existed in 2001 (and earlier in Throwbots), but Kanoka disks were inspired by these bamboo disks at the beginning. They were found in the Mctoran sets. Now, projectiles can arguably also be considered part of roleplaying, but again, are they necessary to it? No. They are extras. So they are gimmicks.
Kanohi -- Masks could arguably be considered central to Bionicle, since they have become a key part of the tradition. But there's not much evidence that sales hinges on the presence of Kanohi, especially looking at 2005 which largely took a break from masks. So even though they may be one of the two most successful gimmicks ever, they are still a gimmick.
Fall-Off-Kanohi -- In addition to the idea of masks, the idea that you knock them off easily in play is clearly a gimmick too. Generally, you'd think the idea of Kanohi would be to make them stay on well; what hero would want his mask falling off left and right? But in 2001 this idea of easily falling off masks was intended to increase the play value, forming an actual "game" that was central to the intent of the year.
Now, from what I've heard, this actually was reasonably successful in 2001. However, we saw it dropped in later years with no evidence that its loss has harmed sales in the slightest. Most likely to keep using it over and over would have been seen as repetitive, just like the Kal, so it is still an extra. Makes sense, because it is not essential to roleplaying, and may actually be more annoying than helpful, when the masks fall off when the kid wants them to stay on.
Snapping joints -- In Muaka/Kane-Ra and Tarakava especially but also in all the Rahi, these mechanical features were the second part of the Fall-Off-Kanohi game, and also part of the whole Technic mechanical functions idea. The game depended in large part on the purchase of a Rahi, which didn't sell well, so a lot of fans probably never played it in the way intended anyways.
Rubber bands -- Minor note, but these were a key part of the snapping joints of some Rahi and later the Bohrok.
Springloaded Pistons -- Used in Tarakava; they are what they sound like. Pistons with a spring around them to act like shock absorbers. Their role in the Tarakava was highly extra.
Teeth/Jaws -- Special white teeth pieces were featured in most Rahi, usually with a jaw action feature.
Canisters -- Canisters not central to action figures; another example of a gimmick. The toy inside the box is what's essential, and plenty of LEGO sets sell fine in boxes. This appears to be a gimmick that works, as long as the style varies each year so the new sets always stand out from the old ones, and canisters in general stand out from anything else on the toystore's shelves.
Powers & Attributes -- One that's only partly in the set realm is storyline "attachments" to the sets that might affect how a person sees that set, or that Kanohi, etc. Mask powers, the personality bios of each character, etc. that are very prominent in marketing does seem to influence how a person likes or dislikes a set. For example, the idea that each mask has a different power can provide motivation for a roleplayer to buy collectible masks and imagine their Toa switching masks and using those powers.
Clonism/Variety? -- I hadn't even thought of this one, but many BZPers listed it. Personally, I'm still not sure how clonism counts () but variety in a set series makes sense as it is an "extra" uniqueness to each set that makes you want to buy it seperately. I guess clonism could count on the idea that the "extra" similarities might be seen as making a team that "matches" or pieces that can be used in MOCs in different colors, etc. If I'm misunderstanding how you guys meant that, lemme know. Clonism began with the Toa Mata/Turaga/Mctoran, and technically with the two of each kind of Rahi, but the different types of Rahi showed large variety.
Overall -- As you can see, 2001 was a highly "gimmicky" year. These do not even include things like the card game, promotional tours, and marketing slogans/posters. Even the storyline itself could be viewed as a gimmick, though it quickly became central. Obviously the storyline varies from year to year, and even its seriousness and depth of quality is an "extra" when it comes down to it -- the point of it is to help sell the sets. The large number of gimmicks argues strongly against the idea that later years were somehow more gimmicky, especially when you consider how many of these were later dropped.
Krana -- These second-generation collectibles and "extras" on the Bohrok sets could function like Kanohi, like brains, or like projectiles, and they also were the first examples of rubber being used for biological components in Bionicle. (Ironic that the first robot sets used the first biological parts.) Definately a gimmick on several levels. They were quite popular this year, but that popularity was confused in 2003 with a "central" theme, along with the Bohrok design.
Ball-fold-up design -- Bohrok could fold up into a ball, which might be essential in Transformers, but to Bionicle it is an extra.
Wearable Exo-Toa suits -- One BZPer listed this, and it's a good point I hadn't thought of.
Exo-Toa rocket cannons -- Probably one of the longest-lasting gimmicks and projectiles in all of LEGO, as they've been used in tons of lines since, including pirate/castle ships and Star Wars sets.
Snappable neck -- Bohrok and bahrag both with this carryover gimmick from the Rahi. Bohrok using it in a new way with a special gear-lever that MOCers have struggled to incorporate ever since.
Collectible Krana -- Same concept as the collectible Kanohi.
Gears[b] -- Still around, mostly the same but also with the special lever-gear mentioned above, and the gears-button in the Bohrok necks.
[b]Brainpans -- Bohrok eye-triggered brainpans and poppable headshield that could turn their brains into projectiles. Very strange () but innovative gimmicks.
Teeth -- Bohrok featured white teeth, just like the Rahi, though why is still unclear given that they are robots. This was the last of the major uses of teeth until 2006.
Transformations -- A gimmick used partly to keep characters in the story, but also with the Nuva, and soon with the Kal, basically a way to repackage an old set and hope it will sell again. Seemed to work "alright" with the Nuva, but sales overall dropping, as people wanted new sets.
Overall -- Note that I'm not listing some from 2001 such as canisters or clonism that became mostly consistent ever since. 2002 was pretty equal to 2001 in gimmicks, possibly using them a little more depending on how you look at it. Both years had a lot of them.
Krana Kal, Foldup Bohrok, snappable necks, transformation, etc. -- Copies off of Bohrok used in the Kal.
Silver -- Use of this color heavily could be considered a gimmick.
Kraata; collectible and in-Rahkshi -- Same concept as before, although not fitting on faces like Kanohi. These used both rubber, and a newer "creature" shape of slugs that turned the collectibles into actual creatures.
More joints? -- For a short time, knee joints could have been seen as gimmicks, though they quickly became essential as expectations rose among the fanbase for quality action figures. Debatable, since other joints had already been standard. But in 2003, the knees were the talk of the town, as it were.
Valuable Collectibles Beyond just rarer collectibles, there were some silver, etc. collectibles that were actually valuable in material terms. Despite this gimmick, the concept of collectibles couldn't be saved, it seemed, and so it was dropped the very next year.
Overall -- 2003 was a year of really very little innovation in terms of gimmicks. It was heavy with them, but there was not much new.
Kanoka Disks -- The moment when projectiles truly took off, not quite "replacing" collectibles yet (see below), but definately becoming a "gimmick" that's been a force to be reckoned with ever since. Also, even though projectiles had been in Mctoran small sets, Exo-Toa titans, and technically the Krana of Bohrok, true projectiles had never before been included with canister sets. This year all Vahki had them, and Toa Vakama had one as well.
Launchers -- In 2001, and 2002-3, there really was nothing like a special "launcher", except the Exo-Toa rocket. The Mctoran were supposed to just be throwing them with their arms, and similarly the Bohrok's brainpans were built-in too. This year, the launchers themselves were focused on as a gimmick more than previously (except debatably in the Vahki as those were somewhat built in too). This concet would grow more pronounced in later years.
Kanoka codes/collectibility -- The main reason Kanoka were said to be collectible; the codes that could unlock online content. Also, each Kanoka of the six Metru and of different power codes had a different power in the storyline.
Gears -- Those pesky gears are still hanging on for dear life this year, though it was their last year of almost universal use in canister sets. The Toa Metru introduced a new body shape designed specifically to house a two-arm gear system internally, unlike the external-gear Toa Mata chunk. For those that do like gears, it was an admirable attempt to save them, along with another one the next year, but it wasn't working.
Overall -- The number of gimmicks seems to have decreased in this year. Fall-Off-Kanohi are gone, as are most overly Technic features, except gears. However, innovation in the realm of gimmicks returned, with projectiles mainly. It seems that Bionicle was now learning what kinds of gimmicks work with its fanbase and what kinds don't, and adapting accordingly.
Rhotuka -- The first projectile to disavow the concept of "collectibles" almost completely. The idea of the launcher was different this time -- it actually uses a tiny gear and a pullable tab to launch, while the launcher itself is largely hidden inside the construction. So whether the launcher counts as its own gimmick is debatable; I'll simply consider it part of the Rhotuka, as without it the Rhotuka would be totally useless. Obviously, runs of the helicopter concept. Definately a gimmick, and a popular one. Only aspect of this that resembles a collectible now is the ammo packs, which I'll also count as part of Rhotuka.
Arm Gears -- the last gasp of a dying breed, the Toa Hordika featured these special arm gears in one arm. Other than this, we saw an unprecedented level of "joint purity", if you will. Innovative, but not enough to make an unpopular gimmick popular. Gears remained the #1 complaint.
Snapping jaws -- Visorak jaws could snap shut when body closed down. Obviously another gimmick. This one was also innovative.
Bending tube functions -- Many of the titans used a bending rubber tube to create a snapping function, without the use of gears. Innovative yet again, and seemed to solve the gear problem, but it was only used in 2005. Not sure whether that was because it wasn't successful or not. I don't have data on that. Could just be that they weren't re-used to avoid the repetition problem of the Kal.
"Bulb Gear" Spinning pieces -- Technically the pieces in Keetongu and Roodaka's spinning shield/claws were a new kind of gear, though they came colored and didn't look much like gears. Again, these were only used in 2005. The concept of them was to make spinning easier.
Bi-colored tools -- Much like silver in 2003, could be considered extra.
Overall 2005 saw a move away from the less-successful gimmicks of 2004 and before, such as gears and collectibles, and featured a lot of innovation. It began the new tradition of projectiles, and also the ushered in the new age of Bionicle success after a downward slide in 2002-2003 (2004 being on the up but still down after 2003). Gimmicks alone were not the cause of this success, but they illustrate the active attempts to move more in line with the fanbase's majority tastes that was the cause.
Zamor Spheres -- Spherical projectiles with a unique intangible water-balloon style story-power. Also with ammo packs. Continued the new tradition begun with Kanoka and established with Rhotuka, but fired in a new way, relying on back-pressure that makes the sphere pop out and fly far. And begin with a "Z".
Zamor Launchers -- Like Kanoka launchers, these were highly visible as weapons. The last of the launchers so far that was constructed out of pieces (like Rhotuka and Bohrok brainpans), it resembled a mix between a crossbow and a hi-tech gun.
Zamor Ammo clips -- Attached to the top of the launchers in the Toa Inika and some other sets; an extra to the extra that launches extras. Allowed multiple Zamor to be fired rapidly, using gravity to reload the firing area on its own.
Lightup Eyes -- First use of lightup pieces in Bionicle, and something a lot of people on here including me had been asking for, given that Bionicle characters have always been shown in marketing with lit eyes. Piraka eyes had actual story powers too, so technically they were not the existing lit eyes -- storywise their eyes would be already glowing, but then they would flash brighter when they activate their powers; really when you press the button. Batteries weren't replaceable.
Lightup Swords -- Same idea as Piraka eyes; used in Toa Inika swords, this time with replaceable batteries. Both kinds of lightup concepts were dropped after research showed that while most fans didn't mind them, they didn't increase the sets' value.
Organic Kanohi -- First, and last so far, of the rubber Kanohi used in the Toa Inika and attaching to special featureless "heads" by snapping to the sides. Helped create a biomechanical look that previous sets lacked, another thing many including me argued for given that it was already in the story since the beginning, and in this case, in the sets with small examples like Krana.
Piraka Spines? -- I'm counting this as a gimmick mainly because it was the first rubber piece used so prominently, and no sets since have featured something quite that ambitious. Could be argued they don't count since they were such a major part of the sets, on the same grounds that the Manas motors might not count. Also note that both examples of rubber were more prominent in 2006 than 2007, so this may have been another example like 2005's rubber actions features that might have been dropped due to unpopularity, or might simply have been trying to stay away from repetitiveness. Note that the biomechanical look itself remained popular in 2007, and some rubber parts remained too; but rubber itself wasn't used quite as much.
Leg pistons -- Used in some of the Titans, this is somewhat like the Tarakava pistons, except from what I hear, it does help support the weight of the titan. So it's somewhat functional, but not necessary as other titans have existed without it.
Piraka Teeth -- A new kind of teeth, similar to Bohrok in that they lack a functional jaw; they are for appearance only. They also glowed in the dark. They gave the Piraka a unique grin that has set them apart from all villains before and after. Unlike the Bohrok, though, and like the Rahi, the teeth made storyline sense because the Piraka are biomechanical.
Axonn's fingers -- Self-explanatory; I'm considering these gimmicks because such fingers are unique to titans to far. I suppose UD's fingers could count too in 2004.
Nonclonism? -- One the same principle mentioned in the 2001 section, nonclonism as begun to be really emphasized in 2006 was a major reason to buy more sets. Debatable whether it's "extra" or not, though.
Overall -- 2006 had an increase in gimmicks, roughly back to the 2001 levels, but better focused on what most fans wanted, with some apparent exceptions. Featured a lot of innovation yet again. The style was heavily into "cool" (as I define it, anyways), perhaps more than the next year (depending on what you focus on; overall, that's debatable).
Squids -- The first true rubber projectile, with Bohrok Krana being the closest previously, these actually rely on the snapping power of their stretchable tails to fire. Unfortunately for many, they are difficult to fire properly, to the point that many never did master it. They can attach to holders on the Barraki in various places for storage, and can stand on their own in storyline though their main use is as a projectile, with their lifesucking power. They're single pieces, unlike Zamor, but like Kanoka launchers.
Squid Launchers -- The first launcher to also be rubber, presumably to soften the wear and tear on the squids. BTW, these and the Zamor launchers were designed so they could be fired in a kid's hand, seperate from the sets, and to a degree the same could be said of the Metruan and Vakama's Kanoka launchers. With this one, there's cleary a finger-sized gripping loop, so we are starting to see the launchers move a little away towards the fiction of it, and towards the toy aspect.
Bendable Jaws -- The Barraki's buglike jaws could be pressed in on the sides. Not with a rubber band like the Visorak jaws; just bendable plastic, more like the Mctoran arms of 2001.
Cordak -- Ammo for the first gatling-style Bionicle weapon, and the first to clearly resemble a gun, which seems to resonate quite well with most fans (apparently despite the launcher's lack of cool styling). Ammo can be stored in sockets for plus bars anywhere on a set. Also colored red to be easier to see.
Cordak Launcher -- Features pumping action and rotating barrel. Also can be held on its own, with a large button on the back clearly designed more for the toy than the fictional concept of the hero. Introduces a strange-looking but functional ball joint sticking off one side so it can attach directly to things like shoulder mounts.
Various Barraki specials -- Nonclonism being emphasized even more this year, we also got things like Carapar's claws that are simply action features. His claws are just a joint, for example. Another big example is Kalmah's rubber tentacles.
Color-mixing -- Had been used in 2003-04 but not as much as in the Barraki this year.
Tubes -- Mentioned a lot by BZPers in that topic, they are an "extra" to the Toa Mahri and some other 2007 sets.
Kongu's brain -- Jokes aside, the System pieces in the Toa Mahri like his head or in Nuparu are another good example.
Jaller's crab -- Literally an extra; an extra set included with Toa Jaller.
Kongu's guns -- Having two guns is a gimmick that a lot of fans love, as guns basically = fun fun fun to them. Of course, it's a downside to fans of swords/staves.
Hahli's wings -- Same idea. These kinds of things can also be lumped in one "Mahri specials" category like the Barraki ones, but they're a little more distinctive than the Barraki's.
Overall -- The trend of gimmicks in 2007 is the same as with the sets themselves; a move away from clonism as the main focus. Overall there may be a little less new gimmicks this year, however, if the unique ones are lumped into groups like "Barraki specials" and "Mahri specials", compared to 2006. Perhaps most noticeable is that there are two seperate projectiles this year; one for villains, one for heroes.
Just some brief notes on 2008 since it hasn't arrived; the level of gimmicks seems to be, again, much like 2006 and 2007. The styles seem to be like 2007 with unique group-member gimmicks and a split between villains and heroes. There's also the flight theme that is shown especially in the "gimmicks" like the wings or the helicopter claws, although that might be more "central" to the theme of the spring sets than extra. In total, depending on how you look at it, as far as we know the number of gimmicks is lower since 2006; more like 2007.
The levels of "gimmickyness" in Bionicle have varied, with the most examples in 2001, 2002, and 2006, 2007. Lately in terms of number it has roughly stabilized at about 2001 levels again. No clear trend of increase can be identified as it varies, but a general trend of a downgrading in innovation around 2003 and then innovation going back up afterwards does seem to match the sales trends, roughly.
Gimmicks are not inherently bad; only if they do not please most fans do they harm the toy's sales, though individually they are disagreed about much more unpredictably than the main aspects of the sets themselves. The styles of the gimmicks have shifted over the years, generally closer to what most fans like best, and focusing better on improving play value.
There are two familiar, distinctive trends; the past one matching the "Technicism" style of the original sets, and the new one fitting roleplaying better. In fact, since these trends in gimmicks match the time periods of the same styles in the sets, they are generally lumped in with the other aspects of the sets. Those who like the gimmicks of gears are often into mechanical styles of "Technicism", and those who like the gimmicks of projectiles are often into roleplaying and the more biomechanical style of newer sets. The latter being the majority, generally.