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Imagine being tasked with bringing the world’s best-selling toy into the digital world. A toy so popular that more than 7 billion units have been produced in just over 50 years on sale. A toy, in fact, that is more than just a toy to many of its fans, but a collectors’ item – and a potentially valuable one at that, with the highest amount paid for a single example standing at a whopping $72,000.
That toy is, of course, Hot Wheels, those small metal cars that’ll almost certainly have crashed into your skirting board at one time or another. Created in 1968 by Mattel toys in California, the original premise behind Hot Wheels was to create the fastest 1:64-scale toy cars around, complete with distinctive designs so that they would stand out from the competition. It was an idea so perfect it has required only subtle evolution over five decades of play.
EMBRACING THE SHIFT TO DIGITAL
Indeed, so fundamentally sound is the premise of Hot Wheels that it has been far more resistant than most to the slow shift away from analogue toys into digital ones, helped by a collectability factor that extends its appeal far beyond the typically younger audience of most other toys. But that’s not to say Mattel hasn’t already experimented with pushing Hot Wheels into the digital world, whether through video games, DVDs, or in a sort of radio-controlled guise as part of the Ai series.
Common to all of these, however, has been a sense that it is the Hot Wheels brand that is being adapted to fit the digital world, rather than the core toy itself (that being 1:64-scale cars and the corresponding track). All that changes with the introduction of Hot Wheels id, which brings analogue and digital together in what Mattel says represents the biggest product launch in the past 50 years of Hot Wheels.
Termed as a ‘Mixed Play’ experience, id is designed to keep the physical toy front and centre, but incorporate digital enhancements to extend the possibilities of play. To find out more, we caught up with Rob Friedman (pictured above), who as Director, Product Management and Global Marketing at Hot Wheels, has been instrumental in bringing id to market.
“Hot Wheels id did not come about in a single shot or even a straight line, it was an organic idea that was informed by observable consumer behaviours – the increased adoption of mobile and digital platforms – and many different ideas of how to engage with a new generation of children,” says Friedman, who has been working at Mattel for six years, and on id for the past three. “We didn’t start with the technology and didn’t really know how the final product would look, and instead embarked on a discovery journey that helped us develop a product that would fit user needs and expectations more organically.”
Crucial to the team, says Friedman, was the notion that any new technology should enhance the playing experience of the core product, rather than push players into learning new behaviours. It had to still feel like Hot Wheels.
WHAT IS HOT WHEELS ID?
So what is id and how does it work? “Id is a true evolution of our core play, taking the number one selling toy in the world and adding a new dimension of play that didn’t exist before – to collect their digital twins in our virtual garage, the ability to measure their performance, complete challenges, and race in an outrageous digital world,” explains Friedman.
To do this id uses a combination of cars that are equipped with wireless transponders (they still don’t have motors, however), smart track (including a new, more powerful booster) and a Race Portal that all feed into an app. This allows players access to information never before available in the world of Hot Wheels, such as lap records, races won, speed, distance travelled, and number of laps completed, as well as undertaking more than 600 digital challenges set in the app itself using a digital representation of the player’s own car. Parents fretting about having to replace existing Hot Wheels sets will be relieved to hear that id is backwards compatible with older track too.
Mattel’s research shows that children as young as six are already starting to experience play in the digital world, but that is at around the age of 8 that the real move into gaming and digital-first experiences begins. The introduction of id is designed to hold the attention of this audience – those who still love to play with ‘proper’ toys but who also seek some form of digital overlay in that experience.
IS HOT WHEELS ID DIFFERENT TO HOT WHEELS AI?
The shift into digital is a challenge Mattel has tried to address in the past with the launch of its Ai race system, which Friedman describes as an attempt to mimic a video game racing experience in an analogue way (Ai featured larger, remote control cars and a completely different track system). Id, he says, is not only a completely different concept to Ai, but also ‘on a whole different level’.
In addition to the physical play, id allows users to scan their cars into the app and see (and play with) them in a digital world. This includes not only undertaking the aforementioned challenges, but also storing the cars and their stats in a digital garage – a feature that Friedman says is one of his favourite aspects of id: “I love the measurability of every car and its performance – I’m into stats and love to go into the garage to see what every one of my cars has accomplished, from their top seeds and miles driven, to races won and car level, but also all the car meta-data that makes each car unique. I think these give each car a personality and can in a way let them speak – telling you their stories and what they’ve done in this incredible world.”
It is this concept of mixed play that Friedman describes as the ‘special sauce’ of Hot Wheels id: “We knew we needed to deliver a vastly different play experience that still celebrated the die-cast car as what it has always been: a toy. But we also knew that to remain relevant and maintain engagement with generation alpha and future generations of consumers into the next 50 years, we needed to add a new dimension of play with an interactive digital layer.”
ARE HOT WHEELS ID CARS COLLECTIBLE?
But what about that other layer of appeal for the Hot Wheels brand: will id models still be collectable? Absolutely, says Friedman: “The Hot Wheels id range is all collector-worthy. They all feature increased level of decorations, our metallic, nickel-based Spectraflame paint finish (which is what we use on our Treasure Hunts), and a unique direct inkjet print on every wheel that communicates each car’s corresponding mini-collection.”
The construction of the cars themselves is also different, in that they use what Mattel calls an ‘ABS chassis’ for the wireless chip. Unlike some collectibles, the id cars also have high-performance wheels rather than rubber in order to maximise on-track performance. This, says Friedman, arguably makes them “a perfect hybrid of track-compatible play cars and our collector targeted vehicles”.
“Also, Hot Wheels id cars will all start out as much more limited runs than our basic car lines, so these will be highly collectible,” he adds.
Hot Wheels id is on sale now as vehicles (RRP £6.99), Race Portal (RRP £49.99) and Smart Track Kit (RRP £159.99). The Hot Wheels id app is free-to-play and available from the Apple app store here.
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