A lot of people are bothered by the differences between Hero Factory and BIONICLE, but today I was thinking about some of the story-related decisions made by the Hero Factory creators that really did do favors for the theme and its fans.
- Unlimited Heroes: There was something poetic about BIONICLE's "Six Heroes, One Destiny" tagline in 2001, but when you think about it, it was a creative limitation on fans that later BIONICLE story arcs did well to do away with. Back in 2001, there were a lot of constraints on BIONICLE: there were only six Toa, only six Turaga, only six villages, and only six Matoran tribes. These constraints were a limitation for fan-created stories. To create characters like Voriki, Toa of Lightning, you had to actively contradict the official story at every turn, particularly if you wanted your character to interact with the official characters overtly.
Hero Factory instead encouraged fans to create their own missions and their own heroes by demonstrating that officially, there were millions of heroes far more than you'd ever get to meet in the official storyline. The online mission log, mission ticker, and testimonials even provided examples of these heroes and the variety of missions they were assigned to. This allowed fans to create their own heroes with whatever powers and personalities they could dream up.
- Many Destinies: The "One Destiny" part of the classic BIONICLE tagline can be used as a metaphor for another problem the BIONICLE storyline had. Namely, its characters' quests were part of a singular overarching saga with very few gaps. There were few mechanisms for characters to get new tools, armor, or masks except with a scripted transformation. This limited what fans could do with the official characters in their own storytelling, building, and role-play. There was no way to create new forms for official characters unless they set their stories before or after the official story, because you couldn't cram a new form between two quests. And form changes were often tied closely to the idea of "destiny" most of the time, a character could only transform if they were destined to do so, and it was not a reversible process. The "Adaptive Armor" of 2008 made the characters more adaptible, but the story didn't take great advantage of it.
In Hero Factory, "upgrade" mechanisms were in place from the beginning: first by refitting heroes with new gear, like in the Furno Bike or Bulk & Vapour sets, and later with more elaborate upgrades that completely altered the heroes' armor and equipment. Furthermore, missions didn't have strict placement on a linear timeline, allowing the characters to go on new missions of any importance at any point between the ones portrayed in the main story. They could even team up with people's original hero characters or face off against people's original villain characters on those missions: since each mission was more or less self-enclosed, there was very little danger that such missions would end up contradicting future missions in any way.
- Powers Tied to Design: I remember that back when the Toa Inika, Toa Mahri, Phantoka, and Mistika were introduced, changes to their design were often explained by fans with the idea that they weren't designed with specific characters in mind: they were created as generic characters, and identities, colors, and powers were assigned to them later. It's not clear how true this was, but it could certainly hold true with many character designs and mask powers. The Piraka's powers and personalities had no irrefutable ties to the individual set designs, nor was there an obvious connection between many most post-2003 mask designs and their powers.
Later BIONICLE waves began to improve on this: the Barraki's powers and personalities were expressly tied to the sea creature motifs they were based on, and the powers of the Makuta in 2008 were largely connected with their bat and insect motifs. The Glatorian designs also had clear elemental motifs matching the characters' tribes, though they weren't tied to powers right away since none of the characters had special powers before Mata Nui arrived.
Hero Factory likewise assigned most powers and personalities based on the character and weapon designs. But the 2.0 and 3.0 heroes, despite powers that matched their new forms, did not have obvious design ties to the heroes' previous forms and characterization, other than pretty strong consistency in their color schemes. The Breakout series changed that for good. The characters returned to using their original masks or new masks designed to resemble them, and many parts of their design paid tribute to the characters' original powers, personalities, and motifs. Stringer, the sonic-themed hero, got a guitar cannon and speakers in his shoulders, while Evo, the weapons expert, got a hefty Tank Arm. Subsequent forms, equipment, and powers for the heroes remained extremely character-driven.
- Powers Not Tied to Gender: BIONICLE definitely deserves praise for the decision to have female characters, which came as a result of pressure from franchise manager Lena Dixen. At the same time, the way it dealt with gender was somewhat lackluster. Gender was tied to the tribe or powers of a character: at first, only blue water-oriented characters were female, though later characters who didn't appear in the sets introduced new "female" elements like Lightning and Psionics. Like the constraints I mentioned at the beginning, this was very limiting. Even worse, this rule was more only ever broken to allow a male character to have a traditionally female element, never the other way around. The only female Glatorian or Agori to appear was a water-themed character.
Hero Factory thankfully didn't come up with any rules for what characters had to be like to have certain powers, not even with regard to color scheme. This meant that your custom hero could be male or female regardless of its color scheme or powers. The official story still has downright pitiful gender ratios, but fan-created characters have absolute freedom in terms of gender, powers, colors, and motifs.
Obviously I'm not trying to hold this up as evidence that Hero Factory was better than BIONICLE as a whole. I could be here all day writing up a list of ways that the BIONICLE story was well planned and well executed, or ways that the Hero Factory story has been poorly executed. But at the same time, I appreciate these kinds of differences between the two themes especially, because they are indications that a theme's design is informed by its forerunners' strengths and weaknesses alike. It's a sort of creative evolution, even when a theme is taking lessons from wildly different themes (like how BIONICLE took lessons from themes like Alpha Team and Star Wars rather than just from Roboriders and Slizer, or how Ninjago took lessons from themes like Exo-Force and BIONICLE rather than just from the previous Ninja theme).