When K.C. Miller got her seven grandchildren together for the holidays, things got a little messy in the kitchen.
They weren’t cooking some elaborate recipe: They were playing Pie Face, a game in which a dollop of whipped cream is served up from a plastic “throwing arm” to someone who has positioned his face in its path. As everyone tried to remain stoic while getting bopped with a white blob, Miller took photos and videos on her iPhone.
“We’d play these videos and we’d just howl at how funny they were,” said Miller, a 62-year-old resident of Gilbert, Ariz. And then she posted some of them on Facebook, wanting to share the hijinks with others.
Pie Face, made by Hasbro, was the single best-selling item in the games category in 2016 and the fourth best-selling toy overall, according to market research firm NPD Group. And Miller was hardly alone in sharing her family’s laughs online: Hasbro’s customer research found that over 50 percent of people who buy Pie Face make and share a video of themselves playing it.
Pie Face is a symbol of a new era in toymaking, one in which social media is allowing the industry to marshal you, the everyday shopper, to become a product’s most powerful advertiser. And its mega-popularity has helped fuel a flurry of action from toymakers to create games that offer a “shareable moment” — a brief visual morsel that parents and grandparents will post on Instagram or Facebook and that teens will put on Snapchat or YouTube.
It’s a new breed of toy that can’t just be fun for players in real time. It has to be demonstrative. Performative, even.
The desire to strike social gold is shaping the game business in a variety of ways: Toymakers are mining viral social clips for inspiration for new products. They are scrambling to crank out new games faster than ever to ride digital waves before they crest. And they are approaching their marketing campaigns differently, knowing that your shared clips might do a fair amount of the lifting.
Pie Face, in fact, first came on Hasbro’s radar thanks to social sharing. In 2015, the team there spotted a viral clip of a grandfather and grandson playing the game, which was originally produced in limited numbers by a small company in Britain. Hasbro moved aggressively to buy the rights to manufacture and distribute the game.
Other companies, too, are looking to social phenomena for cues. This summer, Buffalo Games & Puzzles is set to release a game called Flip Tricks, a riff on the cadre of “bottle flip challenge” videos that have sprung up on YouTube. In the clips, people toss plastic bottles in the air, trying to make them somersault midflight but land right side up. Flip Tricks attempts to codify the phenomenon a bit, providing more durable bottles and spelling out head-to-head or solo challenges.
“If something’s already gone viral, and you’re building a product around that, then you already have this built-in marketing that is stronger than any traditional advertising,” said Ben Jamesson, a vice president at Buffalo Games.
Social trends go boom and bust at warp speed, and so toymakers say that they have to move at a breakneck pace to capitalize on them. Such was the case with Speak Out, another Hasbro creation. In this game, players wear a mouthguard-like plastic mold that stretches their faces to look cartoonish and makes it hard to talk. Players must say a phrase to a partner and get them to guess their garbled words.
Hasbro typically takes 12 to 18 months to conceptualize and manufacture a game from scratch. With Speak Out, the process was compressed to 11 weeks. The idea for it was sparked by Web videos of people putting in dental mouthpieces and getting the giggles when they tried to speak clearly, and Hasbro didn’t want to be late to the social-sharing party.
“Everything has changed. The mind-set is the biggest thing — we have to act like entrepreneurs,” said Jonathan Berkowitz, senior vice president of Hasbro Gaming. “We just have to run when we see an opportunity.”
Making a game into an Instagram or Facebook lodestone doesn’t necessarily mean the idea for it starts on social media.
Josh Loerzel, vice president of sales and marketing at Zing Toys, says there’s a particular aesthetic that lends itself to a grabby, share-worthy bit: There’s got to be some “visual eye candy,” Loerzel said, and a goofy sense of humor.
A Zing product called Wet Head is an example of this: In the game, one player wears a yellow helmet equipped with a water chamber. Others take turns pulling pegs out of the helmet, and eventually, one of those pulls ends up soaking the wearer with water.
A version of the game was released about a decade ago, but was sent to the dustbin because it didn’t catch on. But when Zing acquired the company that originally made it, executives decided to revive it, betting it would take off this time thanks to social media sharing. They’ve now sold over a million of them in North America.
“You look really funny with the hat on,” Loerzel said. “And then there’s that reaction moment when you get wet and everyone’s laughing at you. It’s really funny to watch.”
Hasbro is counting on similar, social-friendly laughs with Egged On, a game to be released later this year in which players take a set of rubberized eggs and fill some of them with water. You take turns breaking them on your head, and eventually, someone gets soaked.
Juli Lennett, toy industry analyst at NPD Group, says toymakers are smart to capitalize on a shopper mind-set that her firm is seeing apply to a variety of consumer goods.
“The way we look at it is that, enabled by social media, today’s consumer doesn’t want to follow the stars — she wants to BE a star,” Lennett said in an email. “He doesn’t covet status brands — he wants to build HIS OWN brand.”
Put another way: We want an approving audience for whatever we’re doing.
That is why toymakers are not just thinking about how these principles apply specifically to games, but to a wide variety of products. Take Stikbots, a line of brightly-colored, plastic stick people made by Zing that are designed to be the stars of homemade stop-motion animation videos. Stikbots cost about $5, and a related app enables kids to make short movies with the figures that can be posted on Instagram or YouTube.
“It connects to the core of where kids are today,” Loerzel said. “Back in the day, I’d get a new pair of Nike Jordans to look cool and get people liking me at school. Now it’s, ‘I want to post cool stuff on YouTube.’ ”
At Zing’s headquarters, executives have moved out of their offices to convert those spaces into tiny movie studios. They’ve hired 15 people — stop-motion animators, video editors and others — to feed the social media beast with new content.
If they want kids to share their own videos, they theorize, there’s got to be a rich well of content out there carrying the Stikbots hashtag. And there’s got to be a reason to share: Stikbots scours YouTube and Facebook for these posts each day, and reposts especially strong ones.
“They’re becoming the advertisers for us,” Loerzel said. “It gets them likes, it gets them follows. And it just raises the awareness of the product.”
And that means Zing can think differently about marketing these products: With Stikbots, it is moving away from TV advertising in the United States to an entirely digital campaign. Buffalo Games, too, said that it might allocate a marketing budget quite differently for a social-inspired game such as Flip Tricks or Watch Ya Mouth, a game from Buffalo similar to Speak Out.
“Once these things really go viral and hit that tipping point,” Jamesson said, “you may be better off not spending that money on anything traditional.”