Thursday, May 15, 2008

Discontinuing a 28 year legacy of Magnets

There is no model of the day today - I didn't pick one out beforehand and I'm in no mood to look through models after the insulting announcement from this morning.

The LEGO company is discontinuing the standard magnets that they've been making since 1980, and they've announced it in a disturbing and unreasonable way.

Let me start at the beginning - a certain awful off-brand that makes a knock-off of LEGO bricks decided to go after another brand a few years ago. The MEGABLOKS equivalent of the magnetic toy line they were knocking off is called "Magnetix". Magnetix is a toy system that features a variety of magnetic rods and shapes made with very strong magnets, and those magnets can be connected to each other directly or through little metal balls. The toy system is surpisingly robust considering MEGABRANDS' history of making lousy products - the magnets are extremely strong and the pieces are fairly sturdy. This past weekend, while out in search of used LEGO sets at yard sales, I came across a Magnetix collection, and not realizing that it was manufactured by The Evil One, I decided to buy it. I was disappointed that the polarities weren't marked, but I was impressed by the sheer strength of the magnets - when positioned the wrong way, they would repel so strongly as to fling parts off of the table. I always look up my purchases online to look for interesting ways to use things I'm not familiar with - and not surprisingly, there are a few sites discussing things patient adults can make with Magnetix toys. Since the MEGABLOX MAGNETIX magnets are super strong and the toy is recommended for three-year-olds, it's little wonder that the things were recalled last year. Sure, occasionally very young children will choke on or swallow things that they shouldn't put in their mouths - but with such strong connections between parts, it's also possible that many older children will try to disconnect the parts with their teeth and wind up in an awful situation. With Magnetix parts being as strong as they are, you could probably rip out your insides just standing in the same room as another Magnetix part after swallowing one.

Toy recalls inevitably lead to paranoia among parents, and that leads to stronger child-safety laws in toys. The EU is famously overzealous with their CE laws, and the US (particularly the state of California) is actively working to be just as over-the-top in banning toys and plastics.

The LEGO company is generally a pretty smart company. Their lawyers know a thing or two about staying ahead of child safety laws, and it's perfectly understandable that they would react to the Magnetix toy recall the way that they did.

This is 2008, though. The LEGO company has spent most of the last 10 years trying to prove that they are an enlightened company that appeals to educators, adults, and hobbyists. There's been tons of buzz in the LEGO adult fan community recently about Jake McKee's presentation about LEGO changing, and BrickJournal magazine going into print, and the new phase of the LEGO Ambassador program. Apparently none of that matters, because they're not going to use these new channels of communication anyway.

There is of course, no need to discontue the old parts - they are perfectly safe, and the company is clearly just preparing itself to better survive the onslaught of paranoia on both sides of the Atlantic. The magnets LEGO makes have never been particularly strong, they've always been easy to seperate, and they've been used for nearly 30 years without any publicized complaints. They've added immense play value and hobby value in a large variety of sets. I can't vouch for the refridgerator magnets (they sold out before I could buy some), but there is no reason to worry about the magnets sold in M:Tron, Trains, Spyrius, Exploriens, Star Wars, UFO, Insectoids, Aquaraiders, Aquasharks, Hydronauts, Stingrays, Ice Planet 2002, Aquanauts, etc. sets.

I really thought that the company had learned after bungling the new colors in 2003 - that they would notify people in advance of these things. In 2003, we were at least able to purchase extra gray pieces and build a stockpile while the new sets with the new bluish-gray pieces were phased in at stores. We don't have that luxury now, because the first sign that something might be changing was the sudden removal of the older parts. Rather than be proactive and explain the situation, the company kept ambassadors in the dark as fans complained. Now that the LEGO company has finally come clean about the changes happening, they've published an announcement that is insulting to those of us who have been active fans of magnet-based Space and Aquazone lines.

They're mixing the remaining magnets in with sets being packaged through August. It apparently hadn't occured to them that those sets could end up in stores after a law was passed, or that those magnets might be in demand by fans. They've announced a new solution for the train fans, but for those of us who like other magnet-heavy themes, there's nothing.

I was born in 1987. When I was little, stores were full of M:Tron and Train sets. Most kids my age and younger love the magnet components. As someone who shops at yard sales frequently, I've noticed that M:Tron are disproportionately likely to show up the toy boxes of younger kids - little kids can't resist the opportunity to play with their older relatives awesome space-and-magnets kits. I've grown up seeing these magnets used in a variety of exciting ways.

The magnets have been appearing in train sets since 1980. They were largely used for trains until 1990 (and it wasn't until the early 90's that the higher-end train sets started appearing in stores anyway). There have also been a number of magnet accessory packs over the years.

1991 brought us the M:Tron line, a series of red-black-and-trans-yellow astronauts sold with the tagline "The power of magnets". The magnets were used for holding a variety of containers and were the focus point of the line.

1993 brought us the Ice Planet 2002 line, where the magnets were used for giant robotic arms that moved rockets back and forth from launching bays. We also saw more small ships held magnetically in larger sets that year.

In 1994 the Spyrius theme introduced small boxes for magnetic arms to lift.

In 1995 nearly all of the Aquanaut sets and Aquashark sets had magnetic arms and boxes - they were essential to the crystal-gathering storyline of the series.

1996 brought the Exploriens line, which features the magnets alongside new magnetic sticker elements - this made it possible for small magnetic arms to pick up tiny 2x2 tiles with a "decoder" theme.

The UFO line in 1997 used magnets to allow parts of ships to seperate - like in Star Trek.

1998's Insectoids took magnetic stickers a step further by attaching them to small energy orbs, which could be picked up directly.

A newly redone Aquazone line that same year also used magnets heavily for modularity and crystal-searching.

Also in 1998, we saw an Adventurers kit use it to hold treasure in place.

The largest Rock Raiders set used magnets to transport materials and vehicles.

The MINDSTORMS robotics line got magnets in 2000.

In 2002, the magnets appeared in the Star Wars line, holding boxes, holding together large sets, and allowing for removable prison chambers.

Magnets were being introduced in new sets for arms and boxes as late as 2007.

Post-9V train sets use magnets too, and all supplemental train car sets have used the magnets as a universal way of connecting to larger train sets.

Today marks the end of an era, and it's a shame that the last accessory pack to feature magnets is already sold out. The younger adult LEGO fans of today are very much the kids of the past few decades, and you can bet many of us would love to introduce these sets to our kids if we were able to make sure extra parts would be available if a magnet got lost. The company owes it to the fans to warn us of these sorts of changes and to allow us to purchase extra parts to go with our existing sets while the parts are still around. At least, that's what all of their "communication" efforts of the past few years seemed to be promising.

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