On Wednesday Nintendo announced Labo, its cardboard-fueled festival of imagination that bridges the gap between video games and physical toys. It’s aimed at kids and “kids at heart.” The internet is abuzz with love for the concept, and understandably so. But for me, my favorite thing about Labo is that I don’t have to have it. But I mean that in a good way! I’ll explain.
Nintendo has long been telling us what they think is new and innovative, ever since the first Game & Watch. They are always pushing something different, some reason or angle why their platform is unique. And in some cases those angles were totally welcome – for example the N64’s standardization of “analog” control sticks (the stick wasn’t precisely analog, but it did set the precedent). In other cases though, Nintendo was telling you how to interact with its product, regardless of whether that was something you wanted to do. If you wanted to play Nintendo games, you just had to learn to like it, or move along.
On the Wii, you had to use the Wiimote, at least at the start. If you didn’t like “waggle,” you were kind of up a creek as a Nintendo fan of that generation. And as a developer, if you didn’t use it you weren’t going to make a big impression on the folks at Nintendo. With the DS, plenty of innovation came out of the dual screen technology, but you had to have it, both as a consumer and as a dev. On the 3DS, until the 2DS came out, 3D was the rule of law. No matter whether you wanted to use the 3D, as a consumer you had to pay for that fancy screen, and as a developer you had to take its use into consideration. Wii U? If you weren’t using that second screen, what were you doing? Everyone figured that one out pretty quickly.
This is why I truly appreciate Nintendo’s approach not only to Labo, but to the Switch itself. Yes, the Switch has the potential for motion control, but you don’t have to use it in most games. It’s also not the selling point of the system. The selling point is it’s a regular console that you can take with you, or use at home. So too with Labo – if you aren’t interested in it, you just … don’t have to buy it.
That doesn’t sound super innovative, but in a business like games, where every platform is trying to find an edge, it’s quite a surprise. Take Xbox for example – the “every Xbox One ships with Kinect” idea worked well on paper I’m sure, but turned out to be a PR disaster for the company, because Microsoft’s Call of Duty-loving core base asked: “Why do I have to pay for this motion thing I’ll never use?”
Microsoft has since stopped manufacturing the Kinect, and even stopped making the Kinect adapter for new Xboxes.
Then on the Sony side, you’ve got things like the PlayStation TV – a fantastic idea that missed the mark through lack of promotion and no movie streaming. Then there’s PlayStation VR. They didn’t force players to get it, but they also haven’t made the biggest case for why you should want it, with their own software. And that’s where the Labo promise shines again.
Nintendo’s teaser video shows not only that it’s a wacky toy and tool you can play with, but also that Nintendo themselves are releasing software for it, and there’s more to come. Nintendo’s hardware and software comes with a defacto promise of support from Nintendo’s best developer: Nintendo.
I feel like they may have learned this from the incredibly limp reaction the public and development community had to the Wii U. Whatever the reason, they stopped forcing people to play games the way they thought should be fun. Instead of chasing the newest gimmick like 3D TV or 4K, Nintendo decided to chase imagination.
It’s a great lesson for all of us: Inspire people to want your product, don’t force them to have it. And doing this with software and cardboard is such a cheap and efficient way to do that (not to mention better ecologically – when a Labo peripheral goes disused, it’s going to the recycling bin, not the trash heap).
But let me return to my initial premise. I don’t want Labo. It’s not for me. All the moms and dads on my friends lists are going nuts for it. The guy that builds robots for fun? He’s already there, mentally. For me it doesn’t have any appeal. But I don’t have to have it, and more importantly, as a game developer, I don’t have to support it, and Nintendo isn’t going to get mad at me for it, because that’s not what their console is about.
I’ve worked on Wii games that wound up being sub-par because nobody on the team was enthusiastic about the Wiimote. The DS games I’ve worked on couldn’t come to any other platform without basically being remade. All this means Nintendo’s most recent platforms have been risky bets. For the last 10-plus years, if you made a game for a Nintendo platform, you either had to do a lot of extra work to make it fit, or you had to target that platform exclusively and trust you’d make your money there, ignoring the potential of future ports.
But I can ignore Labo as a developer, unless I have a great idea that I want to execute (assuming Nintendo opens it up to third parties). I don’t have to put Nintendo’s new innovative idea into my development plan. And ultimately, that’s great for everyone, because consumers only get Labo games from the developers that are passionate about making them. And to the haters out there saying “but why isn’t this for me?” Guess what: You really, truly, don’t have to buy it.
Brandon Sheffield is creative director of indie studio Necrosoft Games, which just released their game Gunhouse for Nintendo Switch. Outside of Necrosoft, he has worked on games like Sine Mora EX, Dragon’s Crown, and Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection.