Despite Hot Wheels being the number-one selling toy in the world—the average U.S. child owns 50 Hot Wheels, according the company, and 500 million of these die-cast cars were sold in 2018 alone—Mattel has spent the last four years rethinking Hot Wheels for the digital age.
This week Mattel is launching a new product called Hot Wheels ID. It’s a premium, $7 version of the $1 Hot Wheels cars you know. Nearly identical to the Hot Wheels produced for the last 50 years in every way, these vehicles sport one important update: They have been retrofitted with NFC chips, so they have a digital identity, too.
That means Hot Wheels ID vehicles—using new track designs and components that accompany the release—will connect seamlessly to the cloud, which records their vehicle and race history like a Carfax report. Using iOS and Android apps, but playing with Hot Wheels much like they always have, kids will see their top speeds, lap times, and how they stack up to the world’s Hot Wheels drivers. In one game mode, called Slingshot, you launch your vehicle on a physical Hot Wheels track, then you look to the screen as a digital copy flies through a flaming hoop like Angry Birds. Kids will also be able to race digital versions of their cars inside the apps, too, without buying die-cast vehicles at all, leveling up their performance and paying to unlock new features through micro-transactions.
What Mattel hopes it has created is a version of Hot Wheels that’s true to the last 50 years of the brand, but future-proofed for decades to come.
“We’re by far the leader in the space,” says Chris Down, chief design officer at Mattel. “But there are barbarians at the gate. I don’t want to get caught not recognizing what consumer behavior is gravitating toward with a 50-year-old brand under my watch.”
In late 2015, before Down’s promotion and when he led only Hot Wheels, Mattel was considering entering a category of toys typically called “Toys to Life” in the industry. These are usually plastic statues, like Nintendo’s Amiibo figures or Skylanders, which, using NFC chips, unlock characters and other digital experiences inside video games. For Nintendo, Amiibo alone is a business that generates more than $100 million in revenue a year. But the problem, as Mattel designers noted, was that these physical toys were mostly just a lock and key. You bought the figure, but it was built for your shelf. The game part was entirely digital.
In 2016, Hot Wheels designers began exploring the potential of putting NFC chips into the cars, like Amiibo. These chips cost a mere 10¢, but they would allow Hot Wheels to unlock digital experiences, too. The problem remained to be solved, though: If you built NFC into a Hot Wheels car, what should it do to add to the experience?
“It is important to get the tech right and the play right,” says Sven Gertis, CTO at Mattel (whose first major act at the company was to kill Aristotle, Mattel’s attempt at creating a voice assistant for children, which endured withering criticism from privacy experts). “Otherwise you’re creating a novelty experience.”