Hotline Miami Jacket Kickstarter Makes the Digital Physical
Last August, ESC Toys and Dennaton Games turned to Kickstarter in an attempt to bring the protagonist of Hotline Miami to life in action figure form. The hope was to turn Jacket into a sixth-scale collectible, with all manner of accessories and authentic clothing pulled from the game itself to accompany him. With a fairly modest $60,000 goal, the venture was funded in less than 24 hours, and went on to secure nearly two and a half times its target by the time all was said and done.
Since mid-September, ESC Toys' founder and lead artist Erick Scarecrow has been toiling away endlessly to perfect Jacket in the hopes that the figure lives up to not only fan expectations, but his own as well. Having been developing his own line of custom vinyl figures through ESC Toys over the course of the last decade, Scarecrow's more than capable of living up to the task. Scarecrow is no stranger to the crowdfunding model, either, having successfully created plush versions of Don't Starve's Chester in conjunction with Klei.
It's a particularly cold and snowy day in Manhattan when we meet up with Erick Scarecrow to chat about the Hotline Miami figure. He's tall and slender, and his frame seems barely capable of containing his enthusiasm and excitement for his craft. "As of late, we've been doing a lot of video game projects," Scarecrow said. "I play a lot of games myself, so mixing the two is something I always felt early on was something I wanted to do.
"I feel like they're relative to one another; games and figures kind of go hand in hand. Especially if it's a digital title and you don't really get anything physical from that, other than having that transaction of buying/playing the game, then you move onto the next title."
Before working with companies like Klei, Dennaton and Naughty Dog, ESC Toys' video game influence was already obvious. One of the signature figures in the company's portfolio is Super Maria, a cute vinyl figure decked out in some familiar plumber garb, and with a raccoon tail to boot. Available in a variety of classic and vibrant colorways, Maria is joined by homages to Atari and PlayStation, which stand along the custom, licensed creations of Uncharted's Nathan Drake or Klei'sMark of the Ninja. Whatever the project, Scarecrow tends to work in limited quantity, making each unique piece not only highly collectible, but also incredibly personal.
"I don't see anything wrong with doing mass merchandise, but I feel if you're going to do a mass quantity of 100,000 units and up, it has to be justifiable," Scarecrow explained. "It depends on what it is. What I do, yeah, I do it for several reasons. One is, the collectors get to walk away with something special."
That's partially what made doing a Kickstarter for a Hotline Miami figure so attractive--the open engagement of the people directly interested in that particular project. ESC has had success with non-Kickstarted items, such as Don't Starve blind box figures and the pin sets based on The Last of Us, but with the Jacket figure, there was a bit more risk involved in developing a high-end figure from a niche game with a very vocal following.
"When you go back to the crowd funding aspect of it, that's an invented thing. What makes it special? What's the difference between a pre-order and crowdfunding?" Scarecrow explained. "Crowdfunding... is essentially a pre-order, but the difference between the two is that with crowdfunding, there's more collector participation. I think crowdfunding is such a revolutionary thing. I don't know if this would have happened if it wasn't for that platform to release this figure."
Of course, before even attempting to test the Kickstarter waters, Scarecrow and Dennaton had to first work out the details of what Jacket would eventually become. Typically with a sixth-scale figure, most manufacturers charge between $200-300 for a fully-clothed and accessorized character. Even with a run of just 1000 figures, the crowdfunding goal would approach $200,000 or more at the onset, which may have turned potential backers away. With his knowledge of the platform, and figure creation in general, Scarecrow was able to work closely with Dennaton to develop a figure that accomplished what everyone involved wanted without being exorbitantly priced.
Initially, Dennaton's Dennis Wedin had grand aspirations for what he wanted out of the Jacket figure. While the base figure would be almost identical to what the group ended up going with, Wedin had hoped to include more than two dozen masks and weapons with Jacket. If it was used in the game, it should have been an accessory for fans to use with Jacket. Logistically though, something on that scale just wasn't practical for what ESC and Dennaton were looking to do with a crowdsourced collectible.
When asked about the original plans, Scarecrow laughs, detailing the initial ideas for all the various accoutrements. "You know how nice and big that box would be? There are a lot of logistics that come with it," Scarecrow said. "But think about it; you have a figure with all these masks and with the masks, you have to have the weapons; it's a domino effect.
"So the Carl mask, he has the drill. One thing leads to another, so how will the community feel that they just got masks and not the weapons? I felt it was putting us too much into a gray area. I was happy that they were cool with my decision to reduce the goal, and have this edition come out the way we're releasing it."
After some back and forth, the developers and ESC agreed Jacket would come with three different masks (Richard, Aubrey and Tony), and one bandaged "trauma" head. He'd also have his standard varsity jacket, jeans, a t-shirt, sneakers (dubbed "Air Vigilantes" by ESC), a hospital gown, and three weapons (a shotgun, baseball bat, and katana). Additional heads and weapons were offered as a stretch goal, though at an additional cost to backers. For $85, the lowest reward tier to actually obtain a Jacket figure, backers are still going to get plenty of value, especially when compared to similar offerings from contemporaries.
One of the trickier aspects of developing Jacket was rendering this character that, for the most part, is only seen from high above. Outside of a few official pieces of art, Jacket's entire physical form had yet to be really determined. "[Dennaton] gave me a lot of creative freedom with translating the character," Scarecrow said. "You don't really see Jacket other than the cover art. We had ideas for certain designs, but [Dennis] was like, 'You know what? I really want an action figure or a one-sixth scale.' I was like, all right. I did this solely on faith and was like, 'Look - let me develop the prototype on my own. I'll show you what it looks like.'"
In creating this prototype, Scarecrow had to revisit the game itself. Though he had played Hotline Miami previously, he admitted his first attempts were rather futile. After giving it another go, he became invested in the world and universe, and understood just what the developers were attempting. "I feel like I have to play the game to understand where they're coming from and to understand how it is from a players point of view," Scarecrow elaborated. "I feel like that's really important. It's cool, sometimes people can take a design and translate it, but I think when you experience the game, you have a better understanding of their universe and their mythology and what formats would work best for it."
With a firm grasp of Hotline Miami's mythos and character in mind, Scarecrow developed the figure that truly sold Dennaton on the idea. Before launching into the Kickstarter though, the collaboration continued to refine the concept to the version we ended up getting. There was a lot of back and forth between ESC and Dennaton about the minute details, from ensuring that '80s vibe in the clothing to even going as deep as the way Jacket's masks were sculpted. As Erick explained, there was a specific coldness that was needed to bring the mask to life in 3D, and he and his teamed worked diligently to ensure the grittiness felt real and unclean.
Even though Dennaton and the people at Devolver Digital needed to sign off on all the updates and iterations, both Dennis and Jonantan Soderstrom were understanding and easy to work with. "I want to hear what [Dennis and Jonatan have] to say. I'll have my feedback about what works and what doesn't work," Scarecrow said. "[They were] pretty realistic and understood; they weren't tyrants. I've been very fortunate to work with groups like this, and I think this is what adds to our brand's success."
With the Jacket figure planned to release in less than a dozen weeks, Scarecrow and his team are still finessing the final stages of production and manufacturing, all while also managing a move from New York to Las Vegas, in addition to other ongoing projects. Overseeing the process at this point though shouldn't be too difficult given how close the proposed production deadline is.
"I'm fine tuning the colors, any details now before we mass make them," Scarecrow said. "Mass making at this point, it's fast. You want to make sure what you give a green light on is accurate. [laughs] It's a lot of double checking, triple checking and it's not just the figure. You're looking at the pins, posters, lanyards; everything that's supposed to come with the individual rewards and orders. It's a lot of cross-checking, which I think, this is the part where you get very anxious, and want to make sure everything is good before we sign off."
Having now worked with fan-favorite developers from all walks of gaming, ESC Toys is in a good place with its reputation. The company does have some surprises in store for the coming year, but Scarecrow isn't afraid of turning projects down either. The company's rising stock has seen it field inquiries that weren't necessarily the best fit for either brand, but the door is always open for the right mix of something Scarecrow is passionate about and that he feels would fit right in with the rest of ESC Toys' portfolio.
He does still have a soft spot for games though, and looks forward to having the opportunity to bring some of his favorites to life. Whether that means Castlevania or Gradius get the vinyl treatment remains to be seen, but Scarecrow's respect for the medium means whatever the project may be, it will have his full attention.
"People pour hours of creativity and research into making a game; it's not easy," Scarecrow said. "People think, 'I can just download the software,' and that's what I thought. No, you can't. There's a certain skill set and intuition; these are really works of art.
"I think when you have figures and merchandise based on that, it's like a commemorative thing. You have something physical based on something digital, which I think as we go further into the future, the media and what we're playing on won't be as tangible. So why not have something physical to something digital? I think it's a good complement based on these forms of entertainment that I think are works of art."