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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.

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

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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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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