When the dead walk the earth, the future of humanity will be fought with Nerf! That's the idea behind Zombie Strike, Nerf's line of foam dart blasters designed to look like weapons from an imaginary zombie apocalypse. Due out this fall, the newest weapon in the Zombie Strike line is the Slingfire, a pump-action, post-apocalyptic, sawed-off boomstick. But, you know, for kids.
It poses a vexing design challenge for Nerf: how do you create a blaster that's appropriate for the ages of eight and up, but looks menacing enough to blow out a zombie's brains? Nerf let us peek behind the scenes of the Slingfire's development to find out, revealing how the design softened significantly over time. Such is the life of a toy weapon: whipsawed by its adult designers' vivid imaginations and the mitigating pressure to please all ages.
Located in the renovated shell of the company's original toy factory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Hasbro's headquarters are a sprawling cornucopia of some of America's favorite toy brands. Entering the security doors, visitors walk down what Hasbro calls Main Street, a bright hallway that goes off seemingly to the horizon showcasing Hasbro's most popular brands, including Mr. Potato Head, My Little Pony, Transformers, and more.
How does Nerf fit in? "There are very few toy products like Nerf that bridges generations and allows multiple age groups, whether kids or adults, to have the same amount of fun," says John Frascotti, Hasbro's chief marketing officer. "It also encourages people to engage in what we call 'active play' ... to run around and exercise. It's a unique product in that respect."
Nerf hawks products, includes blasters, Supersoakers, and sports equipment, that are designed to be appropriate for a variety of age groups, giving everyone—no matter how old—the feeling that they have just done something impossible. Something like throwing a Nerf football inside without breaking anything, or shooting your kid brother in the face without catching hell from your Mom.
The latest "impossible" thing Nerf does is help you blast zombies. Piggybacking off of the zombie zeitgeist created by films like World War Z and TV shows like The Walking Dead, Nerf's Zombie Strike line has blasters designed to resemble crossbows, double-barreled shotguns, Volcanic pistols, and more.
"The inspiration for a Nerf blaster can come from anywhere," says Brian Jablonski, a director of Design at Nerf. With a grizzled beard that could very well grace the visage of a post-apocalyptic scavenger, Jablonski picks up the Fusefire, a disc-shooting blaster with a firing mechanism that was inspired by the coin slot on a washing machine. "But for the Zombie Strike line," he says, "a blaster really has to feel appropriate to the setting."
A battered Winchester-style rifle with a wooden stock and green and range barrel held together with stained bandages, the Slingfire certainly looks like it survived Z-Day. The design's initial inspiration was to make a blaster with a firing mechanism that relied upon a lever-action mechanism for reloading, perhaps most famously used by Bruce Campbell's cult-favorite zombie killer Ash in Army of Darkness. Throughout the design process, all renders and prototypes of the Slingfire depicted a short-barreled rifle with a lever-action reloading mechanism, right to the final copy.
Even so, it's amazing how different many of these versions were from one another. The earliest versions of the Slingfire looked oddly realistic. Sure, they featured an orange barrel and trigger (this is a requirement of U.S. laws and part of Nerf's self-imposed safety regulations). But it was more military-themed than zombie-themed. Nerf wanted to better play up the fantasy angle. So designers tried something else: a blaster with features such as fake tape wrapped around the handle and barrel, as well as spiked knuckles on the outside of the reloading lever. The latter design ultimately won out, but it still had to undergo a series of revisions before it could feel like a zombie killer that's also appropriate for kids.
According to Nerf, a number of factors contribute to the perceived "softening" of a blaster design. Price plays a considerable part: the detail of the fake wood grain and bandage texturing on the Slingfire models looks cool, but would be impossible to mass-produce at an MSRP of $29.99. In addition, the colors used in the product change based on focus group testing, marketers' concerns like how it appears on the shelf, safety issues such as whether or not a blaster might be mistaken for a real gun and so on.
In the Slingfire's case, there were experiments to make the blaster look more toy-like with a blue and red color scheme, but if you look closely, this seems to have had the effect of making some of the ornamental splatters on the blaster's stained bandages look a little like blood. Nerf decided against the colors, choosing green-and-orange instead. After deliberation, Nerf opted to lighten the color of the Slingfire from a military olive to a fluorescent "nuke" green. Similarly, Nerf dropped the spiked knuckles on the lever-action mechanism, after they were deemed too aggressive.
At the end of the day, Jablonski takes these changes in stride: it's all part of the process of designing a blaster that he wants to reach as many people as he can. "Sometimes there are compromises, and as a designer, you always strive to do it better next time," Jablonski says.
Looking over the design process of the Slingfire, it may seem striking how detailed and even realistic the early prototypes are. They don't look like toys for kids as much as they look like wish-fulfillment blasters for adults. Which, considering the fact that Nerf's designers are also Nerf fans, is exactly what they are. By the time a Nerf blaster reaches store shelves, though, it has to be for everyone, no matter how many zombies you're going to kill with it.