One thing that can be said about Nintendo as a company is that they always do the unexpected. Whether this is to their benefit, like the success of the Switch, or to their detriment, like the failure of the Wii U, is another matter. And yet, despite this fact, despite the Nintendo fanbase being top in its class for crazy speculation and conspiracy theories, the toy-maker turned game developer has managed to arguably deliver its biggest curve-ball yet with Nintendo Labo.
The imaginative DIY project has you creating all manner of contraptions and mechanisms utilizing cardboard cutouts, such as a fully functioning thirteen key piano or a little RC car controlled by the Switch tablet. You won’t find a bit of plastic or the like for reinforcements here. This is a 98% cardboard product with a bit of string here and an infrared sticker there. You can get more details on this zany idea from Nintendo’s own press release.
Prior to this announcement, Nintendo was pitching a new product “specially crafted for kids and those who are kids at heart”. After seeing Nintendo Labo in action, it’s easy to tell what they meant. It captures the same childlike sense of imagination and creativity that staples like LEGOs and Lincoln Logs bring to the table, but delivers it in an entirely novel way.
The fact that the material is cardboard, though, is a sticking point for many, one that is only compounded by the kits’ price tags of $70-$80 USD. This preconception will prove an obstacle for Nintendo to overcome, but the complications extend further than the cardboard mental barrier.
Nintendo Labo is clearly being marketed towards parents and their kids as an experience that can be enjoyed together, and for the new product to take off it will need to gain the approval of both sides of that equation. Each side presents its own unique challenges that Nintendo Labo will need to clear in order to meet success.
The Parent Phase
A big advantage Nintendo Labo has going for it is that there isn’t anything else quite like it on the market. The closest comparison that can be made in terms of material would perhaps be Google Cardboard, but even that isn’t something you would find on the shelf of your everyday toy or video game store. To the uninformed parent, the Nintendo Labo box would certainly be eye-catching, but that may not be enough to distract from tried and true creative classics like LEGOs. For this reason, exposure will be paramount to convince this audience.
Nintendo is already taking steps towards creating this exposure with their Nintendo Labo Studio events in New York City and San Francisco. However, with only two locations on opposite ends of the country and limited space, it’s unlikely to get into the hands of many. Not to mention the events are only being telegraphed through gaming outlets, which means the parents who do attend an event most likely already follow gaming news in some shape or form. This doesn’t help bring in the uninitiated user base Nintendo Labo needs, or the “people who barely touch game consoles” that Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima mentioned in a recent interview.
Fortunately, Nintendo seems to already be aware of this. Of the three news outlets that have reported hands-on impressions with the Nintendo Labo, only one of them, Nintendo Life, is dedicated to video game coverage. The other two, The Guardian and The Telegraph, are both highly respected general news outlets that pull in swaths of readers of all kinds every day.
Nintendo Labo needs more of this sort of general coverage in order to reach the broad audience it’s aiming to capture. There doesn’t need to a multi-million dollar Super Bowl commercial like its parent console had, but more articles in more local papers such as LA Times and the like will go far in conveying Nintendo Labo’s purpose, especially given how outlandish its concept is.
Marketing and coverage need to clearly communicate that Nintendo Labo is more than sheets of cardboard you can pick up at any old FedEx store. One of the many reasons for the Wii U’s historical failure is that this line of communication wasn’t there and the casual consumer saw no difference between it and the original Wii. Nintendo Labo is a teaching tool as much as it is a creative tool with (hopefully) fun games and activities attached to boot; the better Nintendo conveys this message the better chance they have of convincing a parent of putting their $70 towards a Nintendo Labo kit rather than the LEGO set sitting right next to it.
The Child Phase
So Mr. Smith has decided to buy a Nintendo Labo for Little Johnny. Great, we’re past the first step! What next? While the parents will most likely be the determining factor of whether this DIY project lifts off the ground, it’s the kids who will ultimately determine how long it stays in the air. There are a number of aspects that will factor into this, the primary of which is the cardboard dilemma.
The number one concern by many currently is the durability of these cardboard creations, and that’s a totally reasonable worry to have. After shelling out $70-$80 on a kit, a parent wouldn’t want their kid to destroy it the moment they get their hands on it. Cardboard can be made to be pretty sturdy, but not sturdy enough to withstand the full might of a ten-year-old amped up on Kool-Aid and Skittles.
However, that may be giving children too little credit, as odd as that may sound. What seems to be getting overlooked is the sense of ownership that comes with building something yourself, something even kids can feel.
The aforementioned news outlets reported that the simplest Toy-Con to put together, the RC car, took them 10-15 minutes to complete. On the other end of the spectrum is the mini-piano, which has been reported by Nintendo to take approximately two whole hours to construct. That is no small amount of time and, judging by the complexity we saw in the Nintendo Labo video, no small amount of effort, either.
If a child dedicates that much of their attention to their personal DIY arts-and-crafts project, chances are they will have a greater understanding of its functions and limitations. More importantly, it will instill a sense a pride from creating a, what seems to be, quite intricate and elegant piece of hardware with their own hands, rather than simply being given one. A child won’t be so quick to get rough with something they are proud to have created, especially if they’ve gained a deeper structural understanding of the building process itself.
Granted, some kids are rowdier than others, and broken Toy-Cons are guaranteed to happen. Even so, the number of those cases may not run as rampant as many are predicting and for the ones that do happen, Nintendo has already announced they will provide replacement parts for cheap (although just how cheap has yet to be specified). These aren’t toddlers we’re dealing with here; young children are perfectly capable of learning and appreciating something given that something interests them, and Nintendo Labo is nothing if not attention-grabbing.
On Your Marks At The Starting Line
While price and material are the primary concerns that have come to light since Nintendo Labo’s reveal, there are a number of other factors to take into account as well, such as will kids “get it”? Will they understand these sheets of cardboard will actually become a fully interactable toy? Will a child willingly forgo playing Splatoon 2 or Mario Kart 8 Deluxe to dedicate the sizeable amount of time necessary for constructing a Toy-Con? Will the final products even be worth it to the kid who put that effort into creating them?
These are questions we most likely won’t have answers for until more hands-on impressions start coming out, particularly those of the parent-child combos that attend the upcoming Studio events. If Nintendo Labo can win over both parent and child, though, then this crazy new idea has the potential to take off like a wildfire. The social networking of parent circles and virality of playground talk at schools are not to be underestimated. Combining the two together is like a warm and cold front colliding into each other. A storm will ensue, the severity of which is yet to be seen.