Had I still of been running the old site, I would have probably been in New York City this week. The US ToyFair is a trade-only event where retailers see upcoming product from toy makers for the year ahead and make their orders accordingly.
Of course amongst all the baby products are the things we geeks care about. The action figures, busts and statues of those properties close to our heart: Star Wars, Marvel, DC, Transformers, etc. I’ve often said those items aren’t toys simply due to their target demographic, but the industry has been slow to recognise this.
My mission at ToyFair was always a simple one: report on all the cool things that were there. And it was a ride. Toy Companies often brought in celebrities to help publicise a toy line or a license. It’s part of the reason that the trailers for a lot of the summer geek movies get released around this time – because if they don’t show off the designs for certain characters, you can be sure that the photos of the action figure will be over the web come ToyFair. So many a ToyFair was spent in an elevator with some actor, there were many times I ended up chatting to a wrestler or comics creator.
ToyFair was always one of those events that you enjoyed afterwards. It was probably the hardest work I’ve ever done. The day would be back to back appointments, learning about new properties and what was cool with them before rushing back to the hotel and uploading the pictures to the web until late into the night.
Of course in the original days that was hard. When I started all I had was a local dial-up and a $800 phone bill. As time moved on, so did the technology. But no matter what the improvement, the audience size used to grow. In those days, page impressions meant finance which was needed to finance the servers needed to handle the page impressions. It was a never ending cycle, which meant that aside from walking all day (by the end of the day I would physically rock from one foot to another to alleviate the pain in my feet), all the writing and all the html coding, you were also trying to stop your server from falling over.
I managed to cook at least 2 servers in the years I covered ToyFair. And by that, I mean push the CPU to 100% so much that the machines physically overheated and cooked themselves. One engineer told me you could have fried an egg on the burnt out corpse of one machine. And it’s no surprise. ToyFair traffic was through the roof.
I once got to see the traffic data for a company that created a site that was advertised during the Superbowl. They spent $6million advertising that site and were happy with the results, especially when despite load balancing across 23 servers worldwide, it still went down due to volume of traffic. That was a sign that the campaign was far more successful than they had hoped. And to be fair, they did a lot of hits. But I laid my ToyFair traffic over the top of that and it dwarfed it.
An Iron Maiden collectible was responsible for us receiving 15 million hits inside an hour. 15 million! Are there that many fans? Or did a million forgetful fans each look at it 15 times? Either way, it was not uncommon. Sites would actually hold back their Marvel coverage because they knew whichever site put the pics up first would go down hard. And it wasn’t as if we weren’t running some of the most advanced dedicated hosting in one of the world’s best data centres. This year, I see a lot of people using Flickr. Seriously, they have it so easy now!
Of course getting pictures online first was all part of the race. My site wasn’t the only one providing coverage (and the rivalries weren’t all friendly) and not all companies held events where all the collector media would be gathered at the same time. Scheduling was important. Judging before the event who would have the coolest items and arranging to be first to see them was akin to military planning.
ToyFair would last no more than 4 or 5 days but I would have been working up to it from the start of the year and carry on doing write ups solidly until Easter. It would eat up a good quarter of my year when I would be working non-stop from 6am until gone midnight. By the time Easter came around I’d be a wreck. My friend used to hold an annual film festival for his friends round his house at Easter (basically back to back DVDs) and I’d always get to this, have my first rest since Christmas and then come down with some lurgy or simple exhaustion. ToyFair pretty much killed me.
As a result, there’s a part of me that doesn’t miss those times. It really was ridiculously hard work. But you know, seeing all my friends on Facebook at this year’s event posting their picture next to the Optimus Prime truck from the Transformers movies (he has the trailer in #3) makes me miss it more than just a little.