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BlizzCon 2008: A followup with FigurePrints

Mike Schramm

Last time we talked to Ed Fries, he was a man setting out with a brand-new company, new not only in terms of age, but new in that they were doing something no one had ever tried before: bringing 3D printing to retail. FigurePrints started printing 3D figurines of WoW characters last year, and since then, they've been through good and bad (the earliest figures were plagued by quality concerns, but the company is doing well enough that they've even raised the price since they started already). So we were very curious to each up with Ed at BlizzCon and see how things were going. Was demand still up? Has the process changed at all? How's the quality thing being dealt with? And we were perhaps most curious about just what people were putting on their figures when they got them printed.

Ed answered all of our questions and more: demand is still up, quality is getting better, and people are dressing in.. tuxedos and beer steins? Click the link below to check out our second interview with Ed Fries, founder of FigurePrints, and catch up on the company that promises to bring your virtual WoW characters to real life.

WoW Insider: So how are things going? What's going on with the company?

Ed Fries, founder of FigurePrints: Things are going great. We have tons of people who want our custom figures, and we're learning a lot more all the time how to make them better and how to make more of them and growing the company. For us, quality is the most important thing, so we're trying to make sure we don't grow too fast, and we're trying to make sure that everything we do produces the highest quality. And I think we're actually improving our quality for most people.

I know you probably don't want to mention actual numbers, but in terms of expectations, are you getting more requests than you expected to get? How do expectations compare to what you're actually seeing?

I was pretty sure that we'd have a lot of demand, I mean I believe in the company and that's why we created it, right? And so, the idea of having the lottery was there from the very beginning. These machines are slow, and it's a new process, and nobody's ever applied this to producing a retail product before, so we're really the first. So I knew there'd be problems, and I wanted to control it. We still have the lottery system in place, we're producing many more a month than we used to. We did more than 1200 last month, for example, and we'll do more than that this month. The chances of winning the lottery are getting better. The lottery that we just had, about 1 in 4 people won the lottery, it's actually a little bit better than that. So it's easier to get the product, and we're making more, and it's higher quality.

Do you have a figure for how many of these are around and out there?

I haven't added it up, it's... five thousand-ish?

One of the first questions we had -- back when I first talked to you, I hadn't even seen one of these things, so a lot of the questions were about how it's made and what you're doing. But one of the first issues we've seen come out of all this is when people are recieving their figures, there have been things broken, there have been quality issues and things like that. How have you confronted those? Have there been a lot, and what have you done about it?

Sure. Like I said, we probably shipped around 5,000 of these figures, and I'd say a vast majority of these customers are elated about them. It's fun to come to a show like this and people come up and say, "oh, I got my character, and people love it." Mitchell Whitfield -- he's the voice of Donatello from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and he just contacted me, he's a fan, and said he wanted to come and hang out with us. I said sure, he's working our booth today, and he just got his character.

There have been a handful of people that have been having issues with their characters, so let me talk about some of the issues. First of all, breakage, in the mail. Every character is different, and so we ship them in a glass dome so that nothing's touching them. We can't like premanufacture a plastic thing that it lays in, because they're all different shapes. That means the character has to be self-supporting, and if the guy delivering it drops it on the side, even though it has "This Way Up" signs and all that, it can, with some figures, break at the ankles. If that happens, send mail to support, we make a new one and send it to you, we do that all the time. We've gone through every shipping company there is, and pretty much the last one we tried turned out to be the best one. FedEx is who we use now, FedEx has been a really good partner for us. Our breakage is probably half of what it was with another major carrier, who I won't get in trouble by mentioning. But by experimenting both with our packaging itself, which is different from when we started, and also with the shipping carrier, we've been able to minimize breakage.

There's a small number of people, a handful of people, who haven't liked the appearance of the character, the texture -- you guys featured one on your site. You also mentioned that we told them that we would either replace it or refund their money, and that's our policy with everyone. I don't remember, in that specific instance, whether we replaced it or refunded their money, but in every single case, if someone's not happy, we want to hear about it. But we will either replace their figure, if we think we made a mistake, we always ask for them to send us some pictures. And if they send us pictures and it's honestly the best we can do, we'll say, "That's the best we can do, would you like your money back?" And we have refunded money to a handful of people.

So you've been making these for, what, six months?

We actually started, I think, back in December, so it's coming up on a year now.

Shows how close attention I've been paying. So how has the process changed since you first started making them? Software, hardware, how has it changed?

We have more machines. Probably the biggest thing is that people operating the machines are more skilled -- you couldn't go out and find people with experience running 3D printing machines, they just don't exist. So we've got a team now working on the factory floor that's got a lot of experience. We now run the factory 24 hours a day, we have three shifts of people who are constantly rotating to take care of these machines. You can see some of that in the video that we're showing, actually, it's fun to watch that. We're going to be releasing this with some additional copy and stuff as a video online, so that'll be out in a few weeks, and give some insight into the actual process as it happens on the floor.

We've also experimented a lot with the technology itself -- the powder that we use and the glue that we use is being updated. We're right in the process of switching to a new glue that actually has a little better color quality than what we had before, brings out the color a little better. So that's the kind of stuff we're constantly experimenting with. We hear there's a new printer coming out, and we're curious to see that. So the base technology is evolving, too -- Dan, our printer guy, is going to be in Vegas in a couple weeks seeing these new printers for the first time.

That'll be exciting.


Before we started here at BlizzCon, we asked our readers what they wanted to know from you all at the convention here, and someone asked about FigurePrints -- they asked if you'd be able to print mounts.

One of the fun things we've done here at the show is that we're giving away a grand prize of King Magni on a [griffon] mount. Kind of why I wanted to do that is to show people yeah, we can do that. The reason why I've been holding off on doing that is that they're bigger. And if I print anything bigger it means there's less normal characters I can print. I know there's a lot of people who've been waiting, some people have been really patient, who want to get their figures printed, and if start printing really big things for a few people, there's a lot of people who won't get their character. So we're kind of holding off until we get more caught up on demand until we offer mounts. There's no technical reason we can't do it. Also, we've printed a Hunter and pet to kind of tease the Hunters. And also, we wanted to get feedback from people -- I've actually talked to at least a dozen Hunters here, and I just want to ask them, how do they want it? We printed a Hunter with the pet in front of them, but I was talking to people yesterday, and most of them actually want that pet on their side, they kind of have that affectionate relationship to the character and the pet. So that was a learning experience to me, I don't play a Hunter in the game.

I was going to say, that's the way the pet is in the game most of the time, is on the side.

It makes sense, that's why I wanted to have some of this stuff at the show, to give feedback. Another thing that we have -- this idea came up from Blizzard. They said, "we have this crazy idea -- we know you let the customer choose from a selection of different bases. What if you used like, a dead character as the base, like a character could be standing on top of a dead character." So we have a Gnome sitting on top of a dead Tauren.

I saw you have noncombat pets as well, too.

Yeah. Again, not a product. Although they've had an amazing reaction from people. The story behind those is that we put these custom 3D printed badges in every goodie bag -- we had to make 23,000 of these, which we believe is a record for the most 3D printed objects ever produced. And before we did these, the original idea was to give everyone a little 3D printed pet.

Oh man.

Which I thought would be really cool. But at some point, one of my partners did the math, and said, you know, we're going to be printing 'till the cows come home, so we had to switch to something thinner. But because we had been experimenting with printing pets, that's why all of these pets are out. We had them, said hey let's put them out, see what people think.

Is there anything else that people are interested in, that they want you to print, that you haven't been able to at the moment?

Mounts. Mounts and pets. Hunter pets, Warlock pets, noncombat pets on the side of the character. Those are the things we get requested in the most. We get a lot of wedding requests, which we've done. We've done probably twenty different sets of wedding toppers.

Is that in a Tuxedo suit?

Some are in a tuxedo, and the girl is in a white dress with the flowers in her hand, and some are just in their gear. We had our first wedding request right when we launched the company, and I thought oh this is a crazy thing. And then we get more and more and more, and I've actually talked to two couples here at the show who wanted wedding toppers.

Have you ever printed a character in like low-level gear? Is there anyone who doesn't dress up to get printed?

People dress up in all kinds of things. It's not all Tier 6 for sure. People will be sitting around with a beer stein, or a pimp hat, or whatever. It's just whatever they think looks cool. And we'll print whatever. I ran into a guy earlier today who said he has his character all printed out in Pirate gear with a Pirate hat and a wheel and all this stuff and I was like all right, that's awesome.

You didn't miss our BlizzCon coverage last weekend, did you? If you did, catch up -- even if you didn't make it to Anaheim, we'll make you feel like you saw everything anyway.

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