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Toy companies analyze Nintendo’s plans for Labo

We talk with those making other build-it-yourself experimental tech toys

Labo
| Nintendo

From the subtle flick of the monstrously-successful Wiimote to the monochromatic death gaze of the doomed Virtual Boy, it’s fair to say that Nintendo is no stranger to innovation. Sometimes it pays off. Sometimes it doesn’t. And when the ancient Japanese toymaker unveiled a line of Switch peripherals known as Labo back in January, many fans cracked jokes at the contrast between Labo’s cardboard-powered approach and Sony and Microsoft’s ever-escalating race for technological supremacy. But many also celebrated its creative approach, which allows users to build their own controllers and contraptions out of cardboard and sync those with software on their Switch.

With the buzz that Nintendo’s take on build-it-your-way toys is generating even beyond the gaming sphere, we sat down with a handful of companies that have been making their own waves in the build-to-play world to see what they think about the industry giant making overtures towards their still-developing market.

For those that don’t have children, it’s easy to ignore the emerging explosion of do-it-yourself, educational-themed toys that clog the shelves of major retailers around the world. From micro-computers that you assemble yourself to controllers that can use almost anything as an input, many of these tech-flavored devices defy easy description, just like Labo’s do-it-yourself construction. But whether you call them “build-and-play,” “DIY,” or simply “creative computing” toys, Nintendo’s effort represents the highest-profile entry yet into the market. To some current players in the field — many of them boutique companies with only few dozen employees or less — Nintendo’s new initiative might represent escalating competition, but it also represents a sense of validation.

“The moment I saw it, I thought, ‘Wow, the best gaming company ever is coming into the educational space,’” says Jay Silver, founder and CEO of Joylabz, the company behind Makey Makey, a “DIY game controller” that’s gained traction with parents and teachers. “To me, that gives a boost to us. Companies like ours, we’re never trying to vie for the same ideas as competitors. We’re not trying to build the same thing as someone else, but slightly better. I got my start at MIT’s Medialab, so our goal is to always innovate past what everyone is thinking. But when I heard about Labo, I thought, ‘Wow, this space is real.’”

Makey Makey is a universal game controller that can use any physical object that can conduct current as an input.
Joylabz

Makey Makey uses a combination of alligator clips and circuits to allow users to create their own controller out of household objects that can carry the current, like bananas, tinfoil, or even your hand. Since it can work through almost any USB slot, Silver likens it to “digital duct tape.” You could set up four bananas to serve as directional keys, and then play a Dance Dance Revolution-style rhythm game, or navigate your way through a maze.

For Silver, Labo is all about possibilities, and moving the concept of play past what he calls the traditional video game model of problem-solving, such as following a prescribed path to beat a level. He contrasts the design process that goes into a hyperlinear video game with those with more open-ended definitions of play, like creating a game out of a simple ball and string, or building a house in Minecraft.

“The dopamine hits you get from video games are affordable by necessity,” he says. “I mean, let’s call it what it is, an addiction. Solving a level or beating a score might make you feel good, and that’s fine, but that’s not really what life is about. Instead of getting addicted to solving a problem that someone set up for you, how about you become addicted to your own creative ideas? That’s what games need to move towards, and I hope Labo will help do that.”

Not all of these companies are so philosophical about Nintendo entering their market — for many, it’s simply an opportunity for increased visibility, even if they feel that their product fills a different niche. For Alex Klein, CEO of Kano, a company that produces miniature computers powered by Raspberry Pis — single-board microcomputers produced by a UK-based charitable foundation dedicated to promoting computer literacy — that kids and parents assemble themselves, Labo offers more of a conventional hands-on entertainment experience rather than the more instructive efforts of his company and their competitors.

But, Klein says, the gaming industry is already moving in the direction of highly-customizable content through open-play experiences like Minecraft and Roblox. “I think that Nintendo is dead right that the next generation of play — the next iteration of play, really — has to have elements of creativity and understanding,” he says. “Minecraft isn’t just a single-player campaign like the games we had growing up, and it caught fire.”

Kano offers DIY toolkits that allow kids to assemble their own tech, like computers or cameras.
Kano

From Klein’s perspective, Labo draws direct inspiration from Kano and similar products to an almost baffling degree, but he says he’s more flattered than annoyed. “I mean, our slogan is Make, Learn, Play,” he says, laughing. “Theirs is Make, Play, Discover. I’m sure similar phrases have existed before, but it really is quite similar. If they were a smaller company and they were copying us — which people have done, by the way — I would probably be a bit angry. But this is Nintendo, and it validates exactly what we’ve been getting at for the past four years.”

Klein doesn’t view Nintendo as trying to eat up the space with its heft — rather, he thinks it’s trying to differentiate itself from its peers in the console market. For Klein and others, the big question-mark hovering just above Nintendo’s castle of cardboard is this: just how much creativity will Labo allow for? Despite the surface similarities, from a pure marketing perspective, Klein feels that Nintendo’s new initiative has far more in common than the toy behemoth Lego than more complex, teaching-oriented products like Kano. While Nintendo has gestured at the notion of Labo as a creative toolkit beyond just building the prefab kits that they provide to you, Klein views it as ultimately ephemeral, like most playthings.

“I don’t think it’s Minecraft,” he says. “I don’t think it’s, ‘Hey, take all this cardboard, play this game, and then spend hours hacking it, or building stuff in it.’ I think the model is more like, ‘Hey, look at this cool cardboard folding experience, and you have a toy you play with for a while.’ And it’ll probably end up in a drawer, or, in Lego’s case, stepped on. In Lego’s model, people get tired of Lego relatively quickly as a product, but not as a system. You build one kit, and then you want the next thing. And I think that’s the general direction of Labo, that they’ll keep coming out with new cardboard add-ons.”

Klein prefaces all this with a disclaimer that this is speculation on his part. Still, he cites some quick statistics to back it up: sales of Lego have slid in recent years for the first time in decades due to increased screen-time among young children, and Lego hasn’t been able to build software that keeps up with the scrappy upstarts in the toy industry. When you can access a world of infinite constructive possibility through a computer screen, the quaint tactility of Legos might seem a bit primitive in contrast.

Bloxels is an educational tool that lets you build your own video games by placing multicolored blocks on a physical gameboard.
Pixel Press

Then there’s the matter of cardboard as a medium in itself. On social media and elsewhere, some consumers have expressed concerns that a peripheral made out of a material that they associate with flimsiness might not represent the best investment. For Robin Rath, CEO of Pixel Press, the team behind the physical programming toolset known as Bloxels, in which users place cubes on a playfield to create platforming stages, a la Mario Maker, the consumer response to Nintendo embracing the supposedly inferior material in lieu of plastic has been a bit trying. Rath believes that customers simply have the wrong idea about it — in his words, once the kids get their hands on Labo, they’ll realize that the cardboard is a lot sturdier than you might expect, and that it brings a whole new set of advantages that the parents haven’t considered. “When you have a really nice piece of plastic, that reads as a complete thing in itself,” he says. “It snaps together in so many possible combinations. That limits things. Cardboard might seem flimsy, but it’s an open platform. It doesn’t have to fit together perfectly. You can color it, customize it. It allows for a lot of creativity.”

Mark Pavlyukovskyy, the founder of Piper, Inc., largely echoes Rath’s take on Labo’s material of choice. Piper produces a DIY computer-kit similar to Kano that teaches kids the basics of programming, primarily through software similar to Minecraft. “It might sound silly, but when I look at the cardboard, I think of the open-source software movement and the maker movement, which is basically open-source hardware,” he says. “For one thing, it’s a brilliant business move, because they probably sell the Switch at a loss, or at least a very thin profit, but they’re selling this cardboard at probably a 10x markup. That adds up. [Editor’s note: Nintendo has said that it sells Switch at a profit.] Also there [are] different grades of cardboard. iPhones ship in cardboard boxes and they’re very stable. I’m not saying it’s going to be an A-plus product experience similar to Legos out of the gate, because the cardboard might rip. But they’re banking on the customization piece being the saving grace. You can’t do that on Xbox or PlayStation, and that’s exactly why they’re doing it.”

Like some others, Pavlyukovskyy is skeptical that Nintendo is trying to trudge onto the turf of the build-and-play space, but he doesn’t think that the industry titan is trying to usurp Legos’ decades-long reign as the ruler of toys either. Rather, he views Labo as a way for Nintendo to capitalize on the success of Switch by assuaging the concerns of skeptical parents worried about their kids rotting their brains on too much Breath of the Wild — simply another bullet point on its feature list. “They’re worried that their kids are on the screen too much at a young age,” Pavlyukovskyy says. “So Nintendo steps in and tries to provide a constructive, hands-on activity that kids need to develop properly.”

Piper is a build-your-own computing kit that teaches kids the basics of coding through custom challenges in Minecraft. It also teaches electronic skills, like how to build a basic circuit.
Piper

Rath concurs with Pavlyukovskyy’s analysis, noting that if Labo’s primary purpose is to move Switches off the rack, then it’s captured at least one sale, because he’s planning to buy one as soon as he can.

“Look,” he says, laughing, “I’m a 37-year-old with a 5-year-old, and I’m a huge Nintendo lover. I don’t have a Switch, because I didn’t feel like it was quite enough. Now, as I go to my partner and try to validate that expense, I feel like I have a little more ammo. Considering the NES came out in the ‘80s, you have to figure that the 30-to-40 demographic is very important for Nintendo, and people in that range have kids. By adding something that’s like this, even if it isn’t some incredible innovation, it definitely adds to the value proposition of the Switch. Plus, I finally get to play Mario Odyssey, which is a huge plus for me.”

For Silver at Joylabz, however, Labo represents a trend in the marketplace that conjures a complex mixture of emotions. Throughout our conversation, he continually references what he calls a spectrum for educational products — on one side, there are solutions that focus on building skills and knowledge in themselves, encompassing everything from building blocks to dusty textbooks. In Silver’s view, these aren’t necessarily deficient tools that need to be swept out into the dustbin of history — rather, he simply feels that these modes are overrepresented in our current school system, both in the classroom and without. Instead, Joylabz is trying to teach what Silver calls “invention literacy” — essentially, learning how to learn. To him, both Labo and Lego might provide a lot of value to kids, but his company was founded with a completely different mission in mind — one that he intends to embody through a soon-to-be-announced gaming project that addresses coding intuition at a very basic level. As such, he’s holding back judgment on Labo until he can get the product in his hand — and he encourages his competitors in this still-inchoate market to do the same.

“I’m trying to make products that teach kids how to make relationships, how to innovate,” he says. I want to teach them a pedagogy of questions, not answers. The spectrum runs from creativity to multiple-choice, from divergence to convergence, from generativity to predictability. Where does Labo fall on that spectrum? You make the piano, and you play it. But then what do you do? Once you get these in people’s hands, will the outcome surprise even Nintendo? For me, that’s really the question. Nintendo makes good products, and they’re getting their toes wet here. The classic thing for Nintendo is entertainment. They could get to educational eventually, but I’m not convinced that Labo is it.”

He laughs, shrugs. “But I could be wrong.”