Q&A: One of the masterminds behind Hatchimals on how to get this year’s must-have Christmas toy
Christmas 1983 had Cabbage Patch Doll mania. The holiday season of 1996 was all about Tickle Me Elmo. This year will go down in history as the year of the Hatchimal, a robotic bird toy created by Toronto company Spin Master. Since launching in early October, the furry creatures (that retail for $84.99) have sold out at retailers in 50 countries, and spawned a black market where the toys sell in the quadruple digits to desperate parents. We spoke with Spin Master’s James Martin, a marketing VP who was one of the key members of Hatchimal’s development team, about what makes the toy so special, and why parents can chill out a bit.
Tell us how the Hatchimal was born.
It started about two years ago. We have a team called the “advanced concepts team,” who are always pushing the limits of what we can do. We had a robotic dog at the time called Zoomer, so we were thinking about how we could make something that’s even more real. There was talk of biomimicry, and we thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could actually make something hatch from an egg? The key question was: Will people want something they can’t see? We looked at things like trading cards where you don’t know what you’re getting, and we were aware of unboxing videos on YouTube, and that people love to watch other people open things. For us that was a validation.
Why do you think it’s been such a hit?
It feels real, and that’s what kids tell us. We wanted to blend technology and character to the point that the technology disappears. It was very important for us to have an organic play pattern from beginning to end. Everyone understands eggs and hatching. The hatch is just the beginning: as you continue to nurture the Hatchimal it will continue to evolve. It gets hungry, you have to feed it, you have to burp it. Eventually it will start to repeat what you say.
What if a kid is a crappy Hatchimal parent? Are there repercussions?
No. We wanted to make sure that the toy doesn’t know if you have to leave it alone for a while. The Hatchimal is designed so that it will go to sleep and then just wait for you to come back and play with it. It’s not like some of those games where something bad will happen, like the Tamagotchi. Our Hatchimals are magical and as such they will live forever.
Sounds like a pretty ideal substitute for a family pet. Have you heard of anyone doing that?
We’ve heard about that anecdotally. This type of toy, or any type of robot, is a natural substitute for a pet or a training device for a child before they get a pet. People say it’s so much easier—an off switch is pretty magical.
And it doesn’t pee on the rug!
A lot of great toys come and go, or just don’t take off at all. Could you tell that the Hatchimal was going to be different?
When we were doing our initial retailer meetings in September of last year, the Hatchimal was in a pretty raw state, but you could tell there was a lot of interest. And then when we showed it in January we kind of knew we had something magical. Retailers said they hadn’t seen anything like it, that this could be big. Of course at that point, “big” didn’t mean what it does today. We had inklings, but this is a whole different level.
What is the craziest thing you’ve heard of people doing to get their hands on a Hatchimal?
You hear stories of people camping out at incredibly early hours of the morning—the way you would for tickets to your favourite band.
Back during the Tickle Me Elmo frenzy, there was actual physical violence. Anything like that?
I haven’t heard that yet. I guess Black Friday is the day that the gloves really go on, so we’ll see.
What’s the most you’ve seen someone pay for a Hatchimal on eBay or Craigslist?
We’re seeing crazy prices—at first it was two hundred, three hundred and now I’ve seen into the thousands. We don’t want people to have to resort to that.
The holidays are just around the corner. What’s your advice for a parent who desperately wants to get one of these things for their kid?
Pick your favourite retailer and make a friend there. Product is flowing into stores every week, but if you’re only checking once a week, you’re probably going to miss out. We are going to continue to bring them to stores until the last minute, right up until December 25—even if we have to put them in the cockpit with the pilot.