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How toy companies find out if a toy will be a hit or a dud

It's a typical Thursday night after dinner: My wife is doing every single thing that needs doing in the entire house, while I sit like a lump on the couch watching our two boys play. They're fiddling with Lego figures so small I can barely see them behind their 3- and 7-year-old fingers.

"See?" says Henry, the second grader, displaying a Star Wars Yoda about an inch tall. "Yoda comes in with his cane and turns it over and the end disappears and a lightsaber blade is in its place. Then he sees Count Dooku," a bad guy who must remain invisible because Henry doesn't own one, "and Count Dooku already extended his lightsaber, but it did not come out! Another victory for Yoda!"

Charley cheers, wearing plastic gladiator armor and Batman underpants over his long "fishy" pajamas. He is playing with a Lego knight who must enjoy long walks on the beach because, according to Charley, he has the improbable name for a knight of Sand Toes. (Santos?) "This guy was killed again," Charley says, "but he wasn't."

I'd love to know how he thinks it is possible for a knight named Sand Toes (or Santos) to be killed again and yet not, but my mind moves to questions brought on by a sad figure on the floor: a 2-foot-tall animatronic blue-and-silver T. rex with flashing eyes and gnashing teeth and loud roaring noises and a tail that swishes around when you flip the toggle switch. It lies on its side, those little T. rex forelegs looking particularly small and useless now that they're pointed toward the wall.

Henry and Charley were once infatuated with Big D, as they call him. They begged me to bring him home. He cost $30 and took almost as much time to be freed from roughly 300 twist ties as it did for them to grow tired of him. They fought over him for 10, maybe 20 minutes; a week later he was invisible. That was three months ago, and Big D hasn't moved. (Now you know how often we clean.) Rex is hardly alone — our playroom, like so many others, has seen numerous toys that didn't quite make it, and a rare few that did.

Why is it that only the occasional toy rises up out of the primordial playroom muck to achieve the status of classic — or at least long-lived? Why, in an age when toy companies employ child psychologists, focus groups, and two-way-mirrored toy-testing labs, aren't marketers consistently slugging supertoy hits out of the park?

Behind the Glassy Veil

Hasbro, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, operates a full-on toy-testing center called the Funlab. The day I visit, eight girls ages 2 1/2 to 5 are trying out various play tents.

Hasbro marketers want to test two of their own against three made by competitors. They know that kids like little places of their own to role play: pour tea, wash dishes, rock a baby, change the oil in the Chevy. Today they're also hoping to spot any accessories that would help kids do that.

In a darkened observation room fitted with loudspeakers, five people sit at a counter facing a glass window into the lab. On the other side of the glass, awkwardly close, girls are stretching their mouths like jack-o'-lanterns and sticking their tongues out at us. What rude children they have here in Pawtucket, I think, but then I remember they can't see us. They're doing what kids do in front of a mirror.

Lorrie Copeland, the stylish, fast-talking manager of Playskool, a division of Hasbro, points out two girls who came in, went to a cradle outside a play tent, picked up some very conventional dolls, and have not let them go. They are so determined to cling to those babies that they are now mixing up soufflés in the play kitchen one-handed. This is remarkable, in part because in toy-world jargon, those dolls have no "features."

Yes, they have eyes, hair, mouths, but they don't have twirling eyes, color-changing hair, or mouths that belch genuine electronic fire. Maybe, the observers wonder, there's a need for a simple doll to go with the tent?

Toy developers and designers love to add features. They're cool. But then the toys risk becoming what Playskool brand manager Sheila Khan, an incisive 20-something, refers to as "because-we-can" toys. Why make a doll that belches fire? Because we can. And because-we-can toys are far more likely to end up what Khan calls "watch-me" toys.

Watch Me Work

This, it dawns on me, is a good description of my friend Big D. He is so specific, so "closed," to use another bit of toyspeak, that he can only be an animatronic T. rex that gnashes its terrible teeth and roars its terrible roar. Rather than encourage my kids to play with it together, the way they can with their Lego figures (most of the time), Rex forces them to sit there and watch. He's a performer, not a plaything.

Of course, some watch-me toys have become classics; Tickle Me Elmo, for instance. Generally speaking, though, if you want to make a recipe for a classic toy, a key ingredient would be open-endedness. A lump of clay can be a flower or a roaring dinosaur. Those Lego blocks my kids love can be a spaceship to Henry, a knight to Charley, a carpet of chaos to their mother. By providing less, an open-ended toy allows kids to use their imagination more. "We want the child to drive the play," says Copeland, "not the toy to drive the child."

Another half hour into the testing session, Copeland asks Khan, "These girls don't know each other, do they?" No, they don't. This intrigues her because while a couple of the girls are playing in parallel, the rest are interacting, playing cozily with strangers. They're pouring tea, tending to those featureless dolls, using the window in one playhouse like a lemonade stand.

"In role play they're more likely to play together," explains Copeland, "because they're playing the way they see grown-ups 'play.' It's a shared experience they have in their lives. So even if they don't know each other, they all know that kind of play." Whether stirring over a bowl or pulling a blanket over a doll, "they're reenacting. That's what role play is: They're practicing life."

And therein lies another key ingredient of a classic toy: hitting on a basic play pattern. "Something like stacking and building," says Copeland. The venerated Rock-a-Stack from Fisher-Price, with its graduated-size, rainbow-colored doughnuts that fit over an obelisk on a wobbly base, is the holy grail of toy designs; this simple plaything has sold more than 40 million units since its creation in 1960. I'll wager you played with it, your kids play with it, even your mother might have played with it.

Like stacking, says Copeland, "nurturing is a play pattern. Little girls like to hold something, whether it's a doll or a stuffed animal or a real live kitten, and pretend to be its mommy." From what we're seeing in the Funlab today, social and pretend play is a major play pattern. Kids, particularly 4- to 5-year-olds, love to play out what they see their parents do — unless it involves sitting quietly and eating broccoli.

Khan, meanwhile, points out two girls leaving a bus-shaped tent. The school bus didn't last long, did it?

"No," says Copeland. "There wasn't much to do."

"And it's too open," Khan adds, her eyes still locked on the kids. "Too many windows. It doesn't feel like their own space." The way a newborn calms down when its arms and legs are tucked in tight? "Yes," says Khan. "It's kind of the preschool equivalent of swaddling."

Toys that help children mimic adult behavior, such as caring for a baby doll, engage kids' imaginations. And a toy with a long life will appeal to kids not for minutes, but for years. My 3-year-old loves Lego blocks, but so does his 13-year-old cousin. I think they're pretty fun myself, and I'm old enough to be your grandfather.

Think of the humble wooden block, says Copeland. "You start with a very young child fingering the block and getting a sensory reaction. When he gets a bit older he might begin to identify colors and shapes. Then he's gonna stack them and see how high he can go, and then he's gonna knock them down and learn cause and effect." Elementary school kids use them to create sets for their pretend play. The longer they play with a toy, Copeland says, the more kids learn and the more likely it is to become a classic.

So if the recipe for a classic toy is simple — make it open-ended, connected to some major play pattern, and long-lived — why are there so few classics and so many also-rans?

And while a raft of classics sustains a company (Hasbro's Mr. Potato Head is 55, Play-Doh turned 50 last year, Tonka is 60), "they're not," says Copeland, "going to get you a lot of PR. They're not going to be hot hot hot, something a retailer puts in the front of his store that season." So while a toy that flies off shelves but doesn't last a week in kids' playrooms may never be a classic, it could well be a success. "You can't test with every kid in America," says Copeland.

And if you did, it would make your head spin. Big D bored my kids. But he sold enough units that he's back this year with a new, animatronic dino buddy. Now at least Rex will have someone to play with.

This Season's Hot Toys?

We asked the experts what toys would rock this holiday, then tested their faves. Here's what we're going out to buy:

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CeReality: 5 Families, 5 Stories, 1 Critical Meal

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