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Gamasutra Asks: What to make of Nintendo Labo?

Real talk: What's Nintendo trying to achieve by releasing DIY cardboard accessories for the Switch? How might it shape the course of game dev? What does this mean for Switch devs outside Nintendo?

Alex Wawro, Contributor

January 22, 2018

9 Min Read

If you ever read Calvin & Hobbes, you know you can have a lot of fun with cardboard and a bit of imagination.

Nintendo seems to agree, given last week's announcement of Nintendo Labo, an assortment of "build-and-play interactive experiences" that ask players to build their own Switch peripherals (or "Toy-Cons") out of pre-cut cardboard and use them to play accompanying games.

It's an intriguing idea, one that pays homage to Nintendo's roots as a maker of paper card games. More notably, it may inspire crafty devs to try something similarly novel in their own Switch games; some of the Labo projects seem to make innovative use of the Switch Joy-Con controllers' infrared motion sensor,  for example, or their rumble motors.

It's also, in fairness, an ask of $70 or more for games that seem heavily reliant on properly-constructed cardboard shells.

On one hand, that's great news: it means the Labo peripherals are easily customized, and can be repaired with stuff you have laying around at home (Nintendo will of course also sell you some stickers and stencils). On the other hand, games requiring peripherals that can be so easily mangled may crumple in the market.

Then again, perhaps it's good that these paper peripherals won't last long enough to clutter up landfills! We have a lot of questions about these DIY toys, which launch April 20th, so we thought it might be fun to gather the staff of Gamasutra and ask: what do you think of Nintendo Labo?

Alex Wawro (@awawro), editor: So what do y'all think about the Nintendo Labo stuff? What is Nintendo trying to achieve by releasing a bunch of DIY cardboard accessories for the Switch, and how might it shape the course of the game industry? What does this mean for Switch game devs outside Nintendo?

For my part, I figure this is an interesting way to pitch the Switch to parents as a kid-friendly console. I don't know that the Switch is in a good place right now to fill in for the 2DS/3DS if parents are looking to give their kids a dedicated game machine, and something like Labo might make the console seem more appealing on that front.

I'm also super curious to see what inspired indie devs can do with this idea!

Bryant Francis (@RBryant2012), contributing editor: I’ll start by quoting my anonymous friend on Facebook who reacted to the price point ($69.99) and launch date (4/20).

“Gonna get high as hell and make a cardboard videogame robot harness. 2018 is tight!”

So uh, if your thought is that Nintendo Labo is a kid-friendly console, I have every belief there’s a class of adult-owning Switch users who will be into it as well, which is good for Nintendo!

My primary reaction to Labo is that it sort of alludes to what I’d call a “positive identity crisis” for the Switch. As I’ve stated before, depending on who you are, the Switch is either a portable adventure machine, a portable arcade machine, or an electronic toy.  I guess it’s capable of being all 3, but if you have to manage software expectations at Nintendo I’m sure that’s a tough thing to pull off!

Labo is definitely part of the “portable toy machine” endeavor, which is really cool at first blush, and indicative of surprising possibilities at second blush. Will Nintendo LET indie devs tackle this…cardboard dev kit? Will it encourage other experimentation, like using Switch components as functional devices? How many Joy-Cons can you deploy in these weird games?

What’s going to be a personal buzzkill for me is that sadly, I doubt these toys will scratch the itch I’m interested in with games, but luckily, that’s what I have every Steam developer clamboring to put their game on Switch to turn to.

(Side note, I’m seeing someone on Twitter point out that because it’s cardboard, these accessories won’t be around for 400 years after we’re done with them. Good stuff!)

Phill Cameron (@phillcameron), contributing editor: So apart from working for Gamasutra, I also teach kids, and I'm calling it right now; Labo is going to be absolutely massive.

"[I] teach kids, and I'm calling it right now; Labo is going to be absolutely massive. There's been a really noticeable trend over the past few years of children moving more into the DIY toys."

There's been a really noticeable trend over the past few years of children moving more into the DIY toys, with even something as banal as fidget spinners having a quite strong engineering bent, with them swapping out bearings and such, as well as the current (disgusting) craze of making your own slime at home.

I think Labo hits a really great sweet spot between something like Skylanders (which was huge) and Lego/Mechano. The fact that so much of the promo video was spent showing how you could color in your Labo creations makes me think that Nintendo knows that, and are leaning into it. 

Not to mention I'm really excited to see collaborations between the physical contraptions and indie developers. In a lot of ways there's a parallel with VR, Kinect, and the Wii here; it's putting developers in a situation where they're reconciling the physical world with the virtual, and creating interesting collaborations between the two.

Pushing the Switch's already impressive versatility in this direction is making an already unique console something altogether else. I'm not sure if this initial raft of games and experiences is that exciting for me, but the possibilities certainly are. 

Chris Kerr (@kerrblimey), contributing editor: On a personal level, I adore everything about Nintendo Labo.

I love how the cardboard doodahs make use of all the ancillary tech that's been crammed into the Switch, and watching the trailer I couldn't help but marvel at the sheer ingenuity of some of the kits. The entire project feels like it was made in the name of fun (because of course nobody NEEDS to turn their Joy-Cons into tiny robots) and that's something I fully support. 

Of course, fun doesn't pay the bills. But Nintendo needn't worry, because I agree with Phill: Labo will be huge. It's going to be like cardboard crack for kids and adults alike, and should give the Switch a firm foothold in the childrens/toy market. The console had been straddling that line so far, and I can see Labo helping the Switch win back some of those families who went mad for the WIi. 

My only worry is that, right now, it's hard to gauge how much milage customers will be able to get out of Labo, and it's unclear whether it'll be possible to incorporate the biodegradable accessories into existing titles (will we be able to use the steering wheel with Mario Kart?).

There's no doubting the project has masses of potential, and i'm sure Nintendo will answer those questions in due course, but the key to Labo's long-term success will be giving developers the freedom to innovate and iterate. 

Oh, and it's probably worth letting parents replace kits on the cheap, because lord knows they're gonna get mad when little Timmy accidentally crushes that $70 cardboard piano.

Alissa McAloon (@Gliitchy), contributing editor: So I showed the Nintendo Labo video to my dad and sister expecting them to feel the same kind of excitement I initially did, but instead both were immediately skeptical and worried about the durability of expensive cardboard toys.

That perception is going to be a major hurdle for the kits to overcome since kids are, well, kids and filled with that infamously destructive childhood energy. That $80 mock-VR robot kit is easily the most exciting Toy Con kit of the bunch but, as a former Very Clumsy Kid, I can easily understand concerns over a user tripping and crushing the entire intricate cardboard backpack. 

Durability worries aside, Labo reminds me of all the neat, interactive construction kits that I’d beg my parents for during Scholastic book fairs as a kid so I’m 100 percent in if only to scratch that childhood crafting itch. The kits are a novel way to remind devs and Switch owners alike of some of the Switch’s quirkier features like the IR sensor that didn’t get much love from the system’s early releases (outside of that sandwich-eating 1-2 Switch minigame, of course).

But really, I'm excited to see where this all leads. Nintendo’s current array of Labo Toy Cons do some really cool things, but I sincerely hope Nintendo eventually lets third-party developers dabble with Labo-style games and peripherals because I’d love to see what other developers can come up with now that this door has been opened.

Kris Graft (@krisgraft), editor-in-chief: Can we also directly address how batshit wacky, out of left field, straight-up WEIRD this is?

When Nintendo said it would have an announcement about a means of interactivity, I was thinking maybe something made of plastic and circuitry, not cardboard and rubber bands. I don't think I've seen anything so unabashedly odd come out of a game console company, and I've seen plenty of odd things.

All that said, Nintendo Labo is a wonderful concept that exudes the kind of joy that is quintessentially Nintendo. Is it terribly practical? Maybe not--durability, like Alissa said, would be a concern for me, and let's not forget that these Toy-Cons also require a $300 console.

It's also interesting to see Nintendo market this to kids, when the initial target demographic seemed to be 20-somethings and older. But as Bryant stated, I'm sure that there will be plenty of adults checking these out too.

Business-wise, the margins for a slab of perforated cardboard must be pretty damn good. If no one buys Labo (they will), a trip to the recycling center would be in order, and that would be that. In other words, this seems like a low-risk venture for the company.

So yeah, this is just a weird and fun Nintendo experiment, one that embraces gimmickry for the sake of bringing some joy to a typically high-tech-obsessed, staid game hardware market. I'm glad Nintendo is doing this.

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