Damn, Nintendo are at it again.
It’s like if they started by trying to build a clone of Google Cardboard where the Switch takes the place of the phone, but then instead of making a VR headset they just made literally anything that isn’t a headset.
- So, a fishing rod? Yes.
- A motorbike? OK!
- What about… a piano? Sure!
- OK, but surely a remote control toy robot car isn’t an option. Why not?
One of my favourite stories about the Wii goes like this: Nintendo observed that their traditional game consoles were often hooked up to TVs in the living room by a child. The household was managed by a parent, who didn’t take kindly to the sudden disarray produced by an electronic system and various tangled cables in an otherwise neat and tidy living room, so they would stick the game console somewhere it didn’t stand out (like beneath the TV) and stash the game controllers and their associated cables in a drawer or something, out of sight. My mother did this.
Meanwhile, the TV remote was just lying on the coffee table. So Nintendo wondered: why is the TV remote allowed to be out, but the controller isn’t?
And thus exists the Wii Remote: a fantastic design in many ways due to its ergonomics and versatility, but in my opinion especially so given that its shape as a TV remote seems directly related to the company’s observation of how its products are used. Perhaps, they wondered, by making it look like a TV remote, the parent who otherwise doesn’t might engage with our devices?
Today Nintendo announced Labo, a “new way to play” with Nintendo Switch targeted at kids and “people who are kids at heart”. You can look at the site or watch the announcement trailer to get a sense of what it is. I’ll just talk about why I think it’s brilliant.
Strange as it may seem, this may be Nintendo’s VR play
For years, Miyamoto has said Nintendo are “looking at” VR, but that they would not commit to it until they solved the problem of VR being a lonely experience.
Well, guess what, in order to bring VR out of the lonely, single-player space, you need to put it in the real world. Labo is a mixed reality product; insofar as anything is virtual, it happens on the Switch screen. The rest happens in the real world. And because it happens in the real world, it can happen with other people. Putting it together is a big part of that. Playing with it too.
I‘ve always felt Nintendo were a strong contender for being the company to “solve” VR (which is still languishing), but I wouldn’t have expected this approach, which, arguably, is not VR. Maybe there’s a lesson here.
Nintendo enter the maker toys space
Numerous companies have tried for years to make engaging, accessible maker toys (also known as “DIY kits”), but so far none of them have really caught on. How do I know? Name one, that’s how. If you’re not already immersed in maker culture, you probably can’t.
I’ve always felt that however easy to set up they make them (be it using cardboard or dressing them up as actual toys), it all breaks down when they ask you to start writing Python code on your Raspberry Pi. Programming just isn’t the right next step after engaging with these things in physical space. In fact, not everyone even wants to learn to code, which is what a lot of these kits are about. There needs to be an intermediary step…
…and a software platform with a quickly maturing ecosystem of developers already incentivised to make light, engaging experiences — the Nintendo Switch — is the perfect such step.
And Nintendo are talking to people shopping in this space: the SKUs for Labo are called “Variety Kit” and “Robot Kit” and use a totally different method of pricing and releasing than Nintendo’s usual products. Instead of, for instance, shipping a $60 “Custom Robo Switch” video game that comes with a cardboard cutout addon, they’ve reversed it: buy a kit containing a bunch of different maker toys, and get a game that allows you to make those come to life.
Everything about the marketing on this is targeted right at people looking into getting maker stuff for their kids. (Or at kids looking to make cool things move.) And it’s intuitively attractive, because it’s the first maker toys platform that solves the software user experience question, ships at scale and has a quality bar few others can match.
Not only that, but Labo shows that Nintendo are keenly following trends in kids’ toys and acting on them. If you thought the Switch meant they were back in the console wars, think again — Nintendo are an entertainment and toy company.
The obvious next step for the Nintendo accessories ecosystem
From the multitude of addons for the Wii Remote (many with arguable success), to the versatility of Wii Remotes being the accessory for the Wii U, to the creation of a platform for digital gameplay enhancement with amiibo, Nintendo have experimented more than any other game platform holder with ways to extend the diversity and life of their systems.
It makes sense that they would seek out a new strategy that allows them to experiment with even more different kinds of control mechanisms, some which might rise to inform major new ways to play and others which will fall by the wayside out of disuse.
Nintendo stand to gain from such an ecosystem, and should obviously do what they can to make it easy to try lots of different approaches without suffering too much cost if they fail. Cardboard is cheap. Each kit includes a bunch of options. Within months, they’ll know how successful each of these experiments is.
Lateral thinking with seasoned technology returns
Nintendo’s hardware philosophy, created in the 80s by Game Boy creator Gunpei Yokoi, has been translated as “Lateral thinking with seasoned technology”. That philosophy has held over the years, much to many fans’ dismay, as Nintendo shipped game consoles using off the shelf components.
To some extent, the Switch has avoided the criticisms most would hold against it on this topic: being portable yet capable has afforded it the kind of respect most Nintendo platforms do not receive. But Labo is quintessentially lateral thinking with seasoned technology. The maker market has been around for over a decade. It’s matured; there isn’t much movement. Components are cheap and commoditisation is a primary feature of the ecosystem. Price wars are common between market players. This is a great time and place to enter and apply the technology in a new way.
Nintendo are sensitive to parents’ concerns
The Nintendo Switch already launched with a unique parental control feature that asked parents to be a part of their kids’ play rather than just setting time limits at a distance. That they would even come up with this angle shows some amount of self-awareness, where Nintendo can say, “Hey, we hear you, and we’re going to act on it, but we also know a lot about this topic, so here’s how we recommend you handle things.”
So it’s no surprise that they also know that an important criticism parents have about their products it that they keep kids glued to screens. How about letting kids play in the real world? The Wii was an important step in that direction, but Labo steps it up big time. Perhaps, by making a game console look like a maker toy, someone who wouldn’t otherwise will pick it up and play with it?
Nintendo are an entertainment company. They produce toys, amongst other things (they’re even calling these kits “Toy Cons”), and as described in the classic Nintendo Genre Innovation Strategy (2005) have a handcrafted, time-tested approach to entering into new markets. This is Nintendo at their best: taking a risk, daring to imagine a new way to play, but really just making a very crafty move into a market full of opportunity where no one has figured out the right way forward yet.
In other words, we’re watching Nintendo wade into a new blue ocean. It’s been time.
So what’s the next market Nintendo will come and disrupt? Look for a recent technology innovation that’s been around for a bit but with no major player emerging. Look for declining cost, a constant low buzz of press, increasing interest, and where the missing piece is a great software user experience. There’s a good chance Nintendo are looking in the same place.