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The problem of rarity

The problem of rarity

A few years ago, I purchased Skylanders for my son… well, mostly for my son. He was 3 years old and starting to show an interest in video games, so I thought it was the perfect starting point. The statues could be used in game, in an online sim, came with pieces for a card game, and were going to be compatible with future releases. What’s not to like? Even if he didn’t take to the game, he’d have a $15 toy to play with. As it so happened, he loved the game and was soon addicted.

Included with each statue was a small sticker that could be affixed to a poster detailing all available Skylanders. This was clever marketing – a way to show kids exactly what was needed to complete the collection, and it wasn’t long before my son was saving his pocket money to try and collect them all.

This was going well, until I realised that not all Skylander statues were readily available. Some had a purposefully low distribution quota, which meant they were rare and usually only available on sites like eBay at an inflated price. This annoyed me considerably. I’d been trying to teach my son about saving only to find that the things that he wanted were selling out within a couple of weeks. It encouraged impulse buying and created disappointment when he later discovered a purchase he’d made wasn’t rare – in effect, he’d chosen poorly.

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I believe the marketing principle behind rare collectibles is put in place to incentivise people to take more of an interest in something that they otherwise may not. By appealing to that “must have them all” nature and throwing in a time limit, people are encouraged to buy big and buy early. The recent Amiibo craze is a perfect example – I doubt that the Wii Fit Trainer Amiibo would be selling out as fast as she is if she weren’t a known rarity!

I guess my main issue with rarity is when the target audience is young kids and the exclusiveness isn’t clearly explained. Opportunists swarm, purchase, and resell rare units fairly quickly, which changes the nature and intended function of these statues entirely. An enjoyable feature becomes a commodity that’s ripe for exploitation. This feeds an unhealthy culture of completionists that must own everything, and punishes those who aren’t early adopters.

I don’t normally have an issue with this type of thing; you don’t HAVE to collect them all so frustration is often borne of a completionist’s desire to “own the set”. As Nintendo themselves stated:

We will aim for certain Amiibo to always be available. These will be for our most popular characters like Mario and Link. Due to shelf space constraints, other figures likely will not return to the market once they have sold through their initial shipment.

However, let’s be frank – this is just a clever marketing ploy intended to draw people’s attention to the fact that some will be limited release. If you’re able to sell something, you wouldn’t concern yourself with the supplier’s capacity to store/display your product.

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Another big issue I have with this type of endeavour is when the marketing doesn’t align with function. Amiibos are a perfect example of this. “Tap, Connect, Collect” is the Nintendo tagline, with advertising indicating that Amiibos are a fun extension to your gaming experience – place them on your controller and “bring them to life,” offering new in-game experiences. Nintendo are obviously playing on the success of Disney Infinity and Skylanders, but make no mistake, Amiibos offer little besides unlockable costumes and stat games. This may change in the future as Nintendo expands the usability of their system, but for now it makes the “bring them to life” line a bit hard to swallow.

Again, this isn’t really an issue. Adults are perfectly capable of researching products and learning what they are before making a purchase. Kids, on the other hand, are not. I understand that the real target audience is adults with expendable income, however, you can’t deny that much of the marketing is targeted at children. Combine the kid’s desire to play with their parents’ well developed OCD and you have a recipe for big bucks.

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I should point out, though, that things haven’t changed much from when I was younger. I used to collect all sorts of things, from The Garbage Gang to Muscle Men, and Mad Balls to Matchbox cars. I got a paper route to feed this addiction, and still remember my disappointment and frustration when something I wanted wasn’t available when I finally had the money to buy it. Cards or blind packs didn’t pose much of a problem as there was clearly a luck element going in. When you’re told that something is available and you simply can’t get the pieces you want, it’s a different story. And it’s important to note that these statues aren’t just standalone pieces. With a focus on in-game function, most require a game or system for their intended purpose, so you’re up for a significant investment before you even begin.

To summarise; whilst I understand that rare collectibles are the result of clever marketing and have their place, I don’t believe that place is in the video game world… not in its current form. They take an enjoyable game feature and turn it into a commodity that’s ripe for exploitation – and all at the expense of those who just want to play the game. The current Disney Infinity and Skylanders model works perfectly in my opinion. The core set is readily available, whilst rare variants (glow in the dark, black armor, etc.) are rare. This satisfies both the completionists and those just wanting to experience all the characters. Hopefully Nintendo takes a leaf from their book and adjusts for future releases.

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There are two things I love in life… playing games and my family. I work three jobs; one to pay the bills, another as a video game designer at C117 Games, and, of course, here – at Another Dungeon.

I own almost every console since the Atari 7800 and am proud of my extensive collection of games. I’m more of a single or coop player but I do dabble in multiplayer on the odd occasion. Tabletop wise I prefer strategic games like Five Tribes or Small World. If you want to have a game or just chat feel free to add me, PM me or email me.

  • Dave C Haldane

    After writing this article I was purchasing some traps as gifts for the kids. When I got home a friend commented that the Kaos trap I bought was rare. Checked online and, sure enough, my $6 trap was selling for over $30 a pop! Typical stuff with people snatching up as many as they can and using words like “ULTRA RARE” in the titles of their eBay posts. }:[ So maybe Skylanders isn’t as exempt as I thought!

  • Jason Marquis

    You snooze you lose. Your just angry because others are getting to it first and making money. if you could sell a marth for $1500 are you saying you wouldn’t?
    http://www.ebay.com/itm/251758631111

    • Dave C Haldane

      I think you may have missed the point of what I’m saying. In my opinion this isn’t clever marketing as they’re restricting sales of something that is key to an experience. They could quite easily mix the collectible aspect in with the game experience (e.g. Crystal or Legendary editions) without affecting base user experience. My kids are a great example; gone from wanting to collect them all to not caring about it and just having whatever as collecting them is too much effort. They’re not making extra money from rarity either as they one’s selling for 3 times the price on eBay only benefit second hand sellers, not the original distributors.

      Also that Marth is ASKING for $1500. Click the little button on the left to only show those have sold and you’ll see a much more realistic indication of what they’re worth. I could fart and put it on eBay for $1000 but that doesn’t mean that’s what it’s worth 🙂

    • Just because they have it for sale for $1500 doesn’t mean it has sold for $1500.

  • Chris Clarke

    I agree with how these “rare Amiibo” are being handled. Restricting one product to make it “rare” is ridiculous. Other things I can understand why they would be rare and not sold in bulk. The Resident Evil 4 Chainsaw controller is a good example. You don’t see many of them, because they were expensive to make. Only die hard RE fans bought it. It’s rare because it was hard and expensive to actually produce.

    • Dave C Haldane

      So… I’m confused. Do you agree or disagree with how they make rare Amiibo? Lol

      • Chris Clarke

        I guess I should clarify. I disagree with Nintendo making some Amiibo rare for the sake of them being rare. I guess they could justify it by saying that they’re from obscure franchises, but that’s not good enough for me. Everyone should have the chance to be able to purchase the one they want, at least at first.

        • Dave C Haldane

          This thing needs a “like” button 🙂

  • Nintendo will always make rare stuff – specifically their Nintendo Club stuff. They’ll say, oh precious shelf space, oh we’ll manufacture more popular ones; but, they did what they needed to do which was create a market for an item at a time that Nintendo need to make money. Release the big new thing near Christmas and people will buy them for their kids even if they don’t have a Wii U. Regardless of rarity of the Amiibo’s, they’re all ridiculously hard to find.

    I understand the frustration of the rare Skylanders or Disney Infinity characters as they have no need to be rare as they’re designed for each latest game release. But with Amiibo’s, I accept the rareness of them as they’re going to be rolling figures with a new series of figures coming out every two months or so. The frustrating aspect is that if feels like Nintendo feel like they’re onto a good thing and are swamping the market with all these figures without truly giving them a practical use and also giving collectors a chance to breath. By releasing so many figures in such a short time it makes it so damn expensive. They’re shooting themselves in the foot by not giving them a practical use.

  • Here’s a picture with an idea of how these stupid Amiibo’s are being distributed and what their values are on Amazon – a fairly good idea for ‘aftermarket’ prices.

    • Dave C Haldane

      You forgot to add a picture 🙂

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