WizKids LLC sold $90 million worth of plastic last year, with a little help from Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Incredible Hulk.
Those superheroes aren't on WizKids' payroll - although the Hulk probably would make a very effective and convincing salesman - but they are represented in the company's popular Heroclix games, where players pit teams of their favorite heroes and villains against each other in a battle for world domination.
The recent streak of hit superhero movies, including this year's X-Men sequel and the current Hulk feature, has helped WizKids' sales skyrocket. The $90 million sales total for 2002 was double that of the previous year.
That level of success attracted Topps Co. Inc., the trading card and collectible giant, which is buying Bellevue, Wash.-based WizKids for $29.5 million in a deal announced June 23.
New York-based Topps, which also makes candy and gum, plans to operate WizKids as a separate division.
``DC and Marvel [Comics] characters enjoy huge popularity,'' WizKids spokesman Dave Nieker said when explaining the firm's success in a recent telephone interview. ``They know [the characters'] superpowers and they love them. There's just something irresistible about having Superman and Lex Luthor battle it out right on your tabletop.''
The game's playing pieces are plastic figures measuring about 2 inches high. Each figure stands on a plastic base, called a Combat Dial, which reveals the characters' scores in areas such as attack and defense. Teams are selected, dice are rolled, mayhem ensues.
WizKids also produces similar games based on giant futuristic robots (Mech Warrior) and Lord of the Rings-style adventure (Mage Knight). Recent new offerings include aviation game Crimson Skies and Shadowrun, a ``cyberpunk'' adventure game that uses larger, 6- to 9-inch action figures instead of the smaller, sculpted miniatures used in the other games.
Next up: Creepy Freaks, a simpler game aimed at kids ages 6-11, which is set to hit stores in September.
The Creepy Freaks roster includes such characters as Spitty Kat, SkeleHomie and the wonderfully named Frosty the Snotman, who possesses a special Chunky Sneeze attack.
``Instead of combat, characters in Creepy Freaks will face off in `freakouts' designed to gross the other team out,'' explained Nieker. ``Instead of wielding weapons, [the characters] hurl imaginary garbage, snot, that kind of thing.''
WizKids declines to reveal which plastic resins it uses in its game figures, but did confirm that each figure is hand-painted and that the original sculpts of the figures can take 15-50 hours to create, depending on size and complexity.
The injection molding and hand-painting are done in Asia, but the sculpting work is done by WizKids staffers in Bellevue and Cincinnati. Each injection molded figure can be made up of several smaller parts, some measuring less than a half-inch in length, that are assembled before being painted.
Overall, the 3-year-old firm employs about 95. Its products have been translated into eight languages and are sold in more than 50 countries. Those sales add up to about 100 million individual figures to date.
WizKids also has made inroads into a number of mainstream retailers, which has helped move its games beyond the comic and hobby shops where they first gained a fan base. National retailers stocking Heroclix and other WizKids products include Toys R Us, Borders Books & Music, Waldenbooks and Musicland.
``We think our newest product releases - Shadowrun and Creepy Freaks - will have more mass-market appeal than some of our older games,'' Nieker said. ``We hope our distribution will expand accordingly.''
The company's games already have a rabid fan base. WizKids sponsors 8,000-10,000 gaming events per month, which consist of tournaments in which players compete against each other for prizes.
Perhaps the best and most extreme example of the firm's influence took place in February, when fans in Tampa, Fla., celebrated the launch of the Daredevil movie with a ``live-action'' Heroclix tournament at a local movie theater. Fans dressed as various Marvel characters and created huge Combat Dials, on which they stood while playing out a game.
WizKids was founded by Jordan Weisman, an award-winning game designer with 20 years of industry experience, and his wife Dawne. The couple wanted to create games that are both affordable and playable right out of the box.
In that, they apparently have been successful. Starter packs for Heroclix each retail for about $20, while ``booster packs,'' which contain four additional figures, retail for about $7.
The figures are boxed randomly, which appeals to the collecting instinct in many comic book and science-fiction fans. Completists will buy several boxes at a time in order to complete their collections.
In fact, a number of fans buy the Heroclix figures just for the renditions of their favorite heroes, without ever learning how to play the game.
WizKids rewards that type of buyer with exquisite detail in the figures, ranging from the folds of the Hulk's torn shirt to the finely rendered feathers on Hawkman's wings.
And of course it's only fitting for a plastic product to include Plastic Man on its roster. DC Comics' stretchable crimefighter is sculpted in an action pose, seconds before swinging an elongated arm at the skull of some lawbreaker.
The Combat Dial system also allows players to get right into the game without the tedious paperwork and hefty rulebooks that accompanied some earlier role-playing games.
Toy industry analyst Chris Byrne said he's impressed with how successful WizKids has been by tapping into a gaming market that's usually considered outside of the mainstream.
``It just shows how big the potential of a niche market can be,'' Byrne said. ``You've got kids growing up playing card games like Magic and Pokemon. Some of those same kinds of kids could be playing Creepy Freaks.''
Byrne also is impressed with WizKids' ability to follow up its initial successful product - Mage Knight - with other hits.
``It's one thing to come up with a Cabbage Patch Kids,'' Byrne said. ``But the key is what you follow up with. WizKids has expanded without going away from what made them successful.''
And while there may have been some luck to the timing of WizKids' licensing of the comic book characters, Byrne said there had to be some work involved as well.
``Part of it was [WizKids] reading the tea leaves, but part was also savvy marketing,'' he said. ``You have to remember that the Spider-Man movie was in the works for 18 months before it was released. But WizKids had so much momentum going that [Heroclix] would have still done well even if the [Spider-Man] movie flopped.''