Hot Wheels made me into the car enthusiast I am. As a kid, I’d line up all of my cars in parking lots, organized by color. I’d launch them down my house’s hallway and record which traveled the farthest and the fastest. I learned the names of each car by reading the base plate. The toy cars gave me the basic skill set of identifying and talking about my favorites, which I’d nurture for two decades before starting my job here at Automobile.
Now, Mattel has upgraded its entire Hot Wheels system to bring everything I used to do as kid, physically, into the digital age. Hot Wheels ID, the next-generation version of the world’s best-selling toy, uses a chip in the base of every car to give it a unique identity, much like the VINs on real vehicles on the road.
These chips can be scanned, either via the NFC reader in a cell phone or in proprietary Hot Wheels docks called Race Portals, and uploaded into the Hot Wheels mobile game, which in turn saves car data collected via the dock.
The Race Portal connects to a new generation of track, and each section of track to one another, via USB-like connectors. The orange Smart Track parts relay their position to the app, which constructs a digital version of the physical layout. As cars travel through the circuit, the app knows how much distance each toy has traveled and logs it into a digital odometer.
Ron Friedman, director of product management and global marketing for Hot Wheels, gave us a demo of the new system. He spoke to the way the app and physical track are designed to encourage kids to split their time between the two media. “Digital is there to create engagement, to create interactivity, but not to distract from the physical play,” Friedman told us. He added that the two types of play “should reinforce each other and feed into each other to amplify and elevate the entire experience.”
The app is sectioned off three ways to drive this behavior. The first is the Garage mode, where every car scanned gets stored. Cars retain all of their data logged through the Race Portal, even when traded to another user. When scanned into another profile, all of the car’s stats go with, meaning that there can only be one occurrence of each unique vehicle in the digital world.
Next is City, which is pure video-game racing. Players work their way through race after race, meeting challengers of increasing difficulty. They play to earn digital currency called “id Coins”—Hot Wheels stylizes the entire system’s name in lowercase letters—as well as Blueprints, which must be collected to unlock new cars in the game. Players win races by tapping the sides of the screen to steer their car and tapping both sides simultaneously to boost. Although it’s simple, I demo’d a beta version of the app and had a blast. It’s a high-quality mobile game with great graphics and good sound design.
Finally, the most interesting play mode is Track. This begins what Friedman calls “mixed play.” Players are challenged to build track configurations, and then set lap times or high speeds with their cars in the real world. When the app detects that they’ve met each level’s requirements, they can continue on. It works breathtakingly well, and hybridizes toys and video games in a new, yet wholly effective way.
Hot Wheels designed ID to maintain kids’ interaction with hands-on toys. “We’re making sure that we’re sessioning the digital play and we’re driving people to playing physically and really mirroring the two together,” Friedman told us. The dock even stores data when it’s not connected to a mobile device, and then uploads the data from the last play session once a connection has been established.
Hot Wheels kept user privacy in mind in the development process, keeping its players anonymous until they create a Mattel account. At this point, a player with an account can transfer their data over to other devices, keeping their progress stored on the cloud rather than one device.
For the first time, players of a digital Hot Wheels game will also have access to cars made by real-world manufacturers. Burgeoning enthusiasm for 1:64-scale diecast versions of real cars is evident in the numerous sets of premium-grade Hot Wheels designed for collectors and multitude of mainline—meaning the cars available for $1 or $2—models of non-fantasy rides. Hot Wheels has kept that momentum going with the ID platform, including 13 OEMs in the digital game so far.
Friedman says this was a challenge for the team. “This was a monumental task, to get licensors to see the vision and trust that the experience was going to deliver on the promise, years in advance of having anything developed was not an easy endeavor,” he said, “but we knew that to get this right, we needed to have as many licenses and car manufacturers represented, so we made every effort to bring them along and get them excited.”
Hot Wheels ID gets a lot right, although some may find pricing to be a bit steep. Individual cars cost $6.99 and serve as the most accessible entry point to the new system. The “Race Portal” goes for $39.99 and is backwards compatible with the orange track that has existed for decades. The Smart Track playset retails for a pricey $179.99, but even it has adapters for play with classic playsets. The mobile app is free, however, democratizing Hot Wheels ID to an extent. Players at different levels of income can enter the new system at whichever level is affordable and can always incorporate all of their old track.
The rollout begins on Apple.com, select Apple stores, and on the Apple App store. As 2019 progresses, Hot Wheels will make the set available on Amazon, Target, and other retailers.
For now, eight cars will be available at launch, with a trickle-out of additions in the following weeks for a total of 51 cars. 2020 will see 100 new cars released. The game will also add things to stay fresh, and that will give kids a jump start learning about what adult car enthusiasts like me have made entire careers reporting and analyzing.
“We’re going start to add a lot more information here as well,” Friedman says, especially of cars made by OEMs in the physical world. The game will have “stats like the horsepower, the torque, and the zero-to-60 speed and all those things off the real vehicle.”
I may not have room for the whole Hot Wheels ID track in my one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles, but I still love collecting models of OEM cars, so I’m personally looking forward to hunting down as many of the “real” cars as I can. For both kids and adult enthusiasts, Hot Wheels ID is an exciting step for the beloved toy franchise. Now it’s up to the next generation to decide if this is how they want to keep playing and learning about cars.