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Nintendo Labo: the next Wonderbook?

The Switch's latest bold attempt to win over kids can't work, can it?

According to all precedent and all market research, Nintendo Labo is destined to be Switch's first high-profile failure.

The marketing video was sleek and compelling, but Labo looks decidedly like that Kickstarter app toy product you thought looked cool but nobody bought. The days of buying interactive entertainment that has been augmented by giant toys (in this case, cardboard models you build yourself) appears to have long gone. The plastic carcasses of Guitar Hero, Skylanders, UDraw, Wonderbook, and pretty much every smartphone app toy product, can probably be found buried in a desert somewhere in New Mexico.

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Nintendo Labo's two packs will cost $70 and $80

The kids market on consoles has changed drastically over the last decade. The options available to children and parents have exploded with the rise of YouTube and smartphones. Families are far more likely to let their kids play around with mum's iPad or iPhone than buy them a DS. It's why Nintendo believes it can sell 100 million Switch units, as opposed to the 150 million that the PS2 and DS managed. That young market has splintered and become far harder to please and attract.

Take Skylanders, one of the few breakout kids franchises to have seen any success in the past five years (and we all know how that ended up). The IP's initial popularity was the result of significant investment from Activision, which made sure the game and the toys were the best they could be. Kids won't settle for anything mediocre. Just ask THQ, which realised late on that it couldn't get away with selling cheap, low quality Spongebob Squarepants platformers like they did during the PS2 era.

"Today's young gamers are playing titles of the quality of FIFA. They're not going to pester mum to play a rudimentary fishing game"

Some of this comes down to target audience. If Nintendo is targeting very young children, then Labo is surely too complicated (and too prone to getting destroyed) to significantly appeal. I asked three parents this morning what they thought of the Labo video, and their immediate reactions were all variations on "it'll last a week before it gets stepped on" and "I'll end up having to build it".

If it's slightly older kids, then the software needs to offer real depth. Today's young gamers are playing titles of the quality of FIFA and (don't tell PEGI) Call of Duty. They're not going to pester mum to play a rudimentary fishing game.

The education and building elements will be part of Lobo's appeal, Nintendo expects

The education and building elements will be part of Lobo's appeal, Nintendo expects

Not that Switch necessarily has a large kids and family audience to play with, either. The machine has raced to almost 13 million consoles sold and the comparisons to Wii are being made.

But this is not the same phenomenon. The Wii's low price and bundled Wii Sports game made it a huge hit with the mainstream consumer almost immediately. Switch's initial success has been in attracting the more hardcore gamer through the likes of Zelda and Mario. Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima acknowledged as much in the firm's last financial call. He told a shareholder: "The most critical issues are increasing the number of consumers who enjoy playing Nintendo Switch, and expanding our consumer demographics. Looking ahead to the next fiscal year and beyond, we hope to bring in broader consumer demographics for Nintendo Switch much as we did for Wii, by continuing to offer new ways to play."

Labo is clearly part of that mission to bring in this broader consumer, and Switch certainly has the potential to appeal to parents and kids. The flexibility of the machine means it can fit into most family situations and locations. Yet the biggest obstacle to reaching this demographic isn't so much the software, but rather the current price point. Switch is a premium product, and its games and accessories are expensive. As the price falls, Nintendo might expect the audience to broaden out (just like it does with most games consoles). But at $70 (for the Variety Kit) or $80 (for the Robot Kit), Labo is already an expensive product, and that's before you factor in the cost of the machine.

"Labo has a certain nostalgic appeal, and for some parents, the mere act of creating the models with their children will be all part of the fun"

I may sound uncharacteristically negative over Labo's potential, but the truth is that I love it when companies do things like this. If you were in the room with me when Ubisoft announced Starlink last year (of course you've heard of it), then you'll know this to be true. The kids market is difficult and to succeed in it requires quality and innovation. So to see Nintendo try something as bold as this is something I applaud. And I must confess, Labo has a certain nostalgic appeal, and for some parents, the mere act of creating the models with their children will be all part of the fun. And that's not even talking about the potential educational benefits.

But I've also seen how rarely these things work out. Skylanders was the exception, not the rule. Wonderbook - Sony's 2012 attempt to broaden the PS3 audience - was a product where a Harry Potter book came to life on your TV screen. It should have been a licence to print money. Yet it wasn't, because it was impractical and expensive. Just like Nintendo Labo.

Yet perhaps using a PlayStation product to judge Nintendo's chances isn't the wisest thing to do. After all, based on Vita, Switch should never have worked.

That's just it with Nintendo, it continually defies logic and precedent.

So perhaps Labo will be a hit after all.

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Latest comments (6)

Kirsty Rigden Operations Director, FuturLab6 months ago
Well they've won this particular kid over :D
Worst comes to worst, at least it's a biodegradable peripheral this time.
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Richard Browne VP Production, Leyou Technologies6 months ago
The Switch became the defacto kids toy this Christmas, the Nintendo fan market got theirs at launch. Nearly every 8-10 year old kid in my kids classes got Switches under the tree, the timing for this is perfect as Nintendo grows with its main demo. The PS3 never had a kid demographic, Sony hasnít had one since PS2 which was the bigger problem for THQís kids business - the Wii and DS were the only outlets. I predict this will do very well, parents will line up for it - once. So happy we have Nintendo around to think outside the cardboard box.
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Christopher Dring Publisher, GamesIndustry.biz6 months ago
Switch is a great product for families. But at over £300, it's not quite at the right price point yet. I think this product is creatively ace, but a bit too early to really sell to the audience.

Upon saying all that, I do admire the fact that Nintendo's big H1 Switch launch is a new concept and a new IP. It's not all Smash Bros and Zelda.
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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University6 months ago
Yep you're too negative.

Ultimately its success is mostly going to depend on the product. How well it is made. HOw fun it is. Things that are unknowns. WE do know Nintendo has particular strengths in making polished fun easy to get into games and is a particularly good brand with families.

The Switch is already going to lots of households with kids as it is and so in one sense this is just another videogame for the Switch aimed at kids with a "peripheral" packed in for an extra $10-$20.

but they also hope this differentiates the Switch from tablets and sells more parents on a traditional videogame system. To that end it will be tougher. To a large degree, the appeal of tablets for kids is the dirt cheap hardware that plays free mediocre games. This would seemingly be a more upscale sell to kids/parents.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Bob Johnson on 18th January 2018 9:09pm

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Paul Jace Merchandiser 6 months ago
"can probably be found buried in a desert somewhere in New Mexico."

I think that's being a little too kind. The owners of New Mexico desert waste properties aren't about to waste precious space on the Labo. It is mostly cardboard and plastic after all and thus much more likely to end up in a recycling center somewhere.

My initial thoughts of this is that it's taking away the "pick up and play" joy that video games usually provide(barring day one updates of course). So instead of inserting a disc and immediately playing kids will instead have to insert a disc and wait while they try and construct the perfect papercraft version of whatever peripheral this particular round ask for. Could it succeed? Stranger things have happened but based off the little we've seen so far I don't see that happening.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Jace on 19th January 2018 1:46am

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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University6 months ago
@Paul Jace:

kids like to build stuff too you know. Legos do quite well. I guess if you hate putting things together then this will not be your product.
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