When MAKE told me this issue’s theme was toys and games, I realized I was going to have to take my work home with me. My wife, Alice Taylor (a former pro gamer who played Quake on the English national team), is running MakieLab (makielab.com), a startup whose goal is to deliver games and tools where kids will create virtual toys. Players will be able to press a button and have those toys printed on a nearby 3D printer and delivered to them. I picked Alice’s brain for everything she’s learned about toys. Here’s the lowdown.
Toys don’t have to be complex, and the market doesn’t often value quality (McDonald’sis the world’s biggest toy maker, in the form of fall-apart Happy Meal toys). One stick makes a good toy, as my 3-year-old daughter can attest. Two sticks make an awesome toy. Throw in various bits of paper, cardboard, and plastic, and you’ve got play for days.
More than 95% of the world’s commercial toys are made in China, often in the country’s lowest-grade factories.
Non-Chinese toy making is a difficult business: between the high regulatory hurdlesset by safety agencies and the razor-thin margins, mom-and-pop toymakers often go under or go offshore. Alice and I are sentimental bourgeois who love the idea of well-made wooden toys, and the brand we favored, Melissa and Doug, began sporting “Made in China” stickers not long after we discovered them. True to form, the last thing we got from them, a toy piano, had such poor build quality that it disintegrated in the first hour of play.
It’s a funny example of the law of unintended consequences: the regulatory costs of ensuring that toys are safe have pretty much guaranteed that toys will also be junk. Alice is hoping 3D printing will be able to reverse that. She believes there’ll be at least two markets for printed toys: first, the market for toys printed on high-end, expensive, patent-encumbered devices from Eos and Z Corp., which will require an intermediary like hers to produce, but which will also be well situated to go through the regulatory stuff necessary to get toys approved.
At the other end of the market are the maker-ish households where someone’s built a DIY 3D printer. These are, generally speaking, lower-res than anything you’d see in a toy shop today (though I recently got a preview of the next generation and, hoo-boy, it’s pretty tastily high-res!), but they have the advantage of being present in homes where parents might print the toys themselves, assuming (Alice hopes) any safety liability.
Alice has been thinking hard about how to make a game that uses mecha-like toy parts you print yourself and also trying to figure out how she’d make any money off it. I’m pretty sure there’s an opportunity there somewhere, and it’s awfully fun watching Alice and her business partners try to find it.
For an extended version of this column, visit makezine.com/28/doctorow.