For any company whose products happen to be popular among children, the education market has always been one of the most lucrative to target – but it's one which poses a stern challenge, too. A manufacturer has to offer something that appeals to kids and teachers alike, being helpful for the latter while keeping the the former entertained and educated. And while almost every well-known enterprise is represented in this sector in one way or another, only a handful of them score really big – and Nintendo could be one such firm once Labo hits store shelves in April this year.
Moments after the Switch-powered interactive cardboard building kit was introduced, the social space was filled with thoughts and impressions, most of which were the result of people mentally projecting Nintendo Labo into their everyday lives – the same deal happens every time Nintendo announces a new piece of hardware, to be fair. On closer inspection, however, Labo feels to me like the first Nintendo product which hasn't been designed purely to win over households, but one that also goes out of its way to be attractive to educational institutions.
It’s worth noting that Nintendo’s previous 'edutainment' efforts, as far as its history as a video game company goes, were mixed at best. Being the first and only game in the NES 'Education Series', Donkey Kong Jr. Math turned out to be so bad both as a learning tool and a piece of entertainment that Nintendo avoided making similar titles for a long time – and when it did try exploring the prospect again, it resulted in a bunch of subpar third-party Mario games which are best remembered for their downright horrific sprite work. Nintendo finally struck gold in 2005 with Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training for Nintendo DS, but the company’s focus soon shifted to motion control just few years later, and subsequent titles in the series arguably didn't get as much of a following.
On the other shore of Nintendo’s “blue ocean”, things were getting way more exciting. Wii Sports was designed to bring Nintendo’s new home console to the attention of people who would never normally play video games, and greatly succeeded in doing so, selling over 100 million units in the process. But, combined with Wii Fit released shortly afterwards, it built a brand-new image for the Wii, and (by extension) Nintendo itself. For plenty of people (not to mention health foundations) the Wii become more than just a video game console with a little bit of physical immersion added, and was instead seen as a powerful exercise tool. Nintendo’s one-two punch saw Wii installed in nursing homes, military bases and health centres, an unexpected boon for the Japanese company. While Wii Sports Resort and Wii Fit Plus were able to keep the momentum going for a while (and helped Nintendo net the American Heart Association endorsement), this health-focused fad faded away few years later.
Nevertheless, Nintendo has made it clear in the past that it's not going to focus exclusively on the traditional video game market moving forward. In 2014, it announced plans to recapture the health market with the still-mysterious 'Quality of Life' device. While most people tend to forget about that endeavour except for when Nintendo drops some tidbits about it in its corporate reports, it’s quite notable as it would mark the first time since the '70s that the company has branched out into an entirely new market. But, as we discovered a few days ago, anyone expecting a QoL announcement early in 2018 was betting on the wrong (Trojan) horse – the education market could well be what Nintendo has its sights set on right now.
To call Nintendo Labo a series of games for Switch would be doing it a huge disservice, as it has the potential to be its own platform – not entirely unlike the QoL concept, in fact. While the Switch (with its Joy-Con controllers) is the element which makes the magic possible, Labo goes a little way to distance itself from the core Switch image. Effectively splitting the marketing in half is pointless if both branches are aimed to the same audience, but, in case of Switch and Labo, it makes perfect sense - especially when you consider that the latter could be presented to school management, too. Even the bundled software has its own style of packaging, making it look like a school workbook – complete with a field to write the owner’s name.
Marketing a product the right way does not make it automatically suitable for the chosen field, but Nintendo has thankfully equipped Labo with a unique and appealing image that will draw in players and educators alike. It’s quite impressive that, even in the crowded and well-explored market of educational toys, Nintendo has found its own audience and offered a product which does not have any direct competitors – it's a capable smart construction kit which is accessible to elementary school children. The accessibility is a key part, as even the best products in this class have a tendency to be a bit too complex for kids aged 6 and up – the exact audience Nintendo wants you to bring to Nintendo Labo hands-on events.
This author distinctively remembers their first experience with LEGO Mindstorms, a robotic platform which combines LEGO blocks with micro-controllers, sensors and servo drives, at the age of 10 – the minimal recommended age for the toolkit going by LEGO’s official classification. Even in its comparatively limited first-generation iteration, it was ultimately overwhelming for a kid who had just started exploring his interest in STEM, and I’ve ultimately spent half a year in the robotics club being envious of high-schoolers’ awesome creations.
Nintendo Labo shares the cool tech aspect of LEGO Mindstorms with a focused approach of traditional construction kits. At the same time, it also captures the attention of children who are more interested in arts and crafts than science and technology, as Nintendo wants players to see the Toy-Con they’ve built as interactive canvases, encouraging them to go wild with decals, markers, and colourful sticky tapes – and then there's the Toy-Con Piano which was selected as a showcase for the Labo series, a design which will have budding musicians very excited indeed. Compared to Mindstorms – which has been popular in schools for years – Labo has a much wider remit.
Speaking of the software, as far as we can judge from early impressions and Nintendo’s own press materials, it meets the highest modern standards for interactive schoolbooks – the instructions are well-structured and filled with amazing animated 3D schematics you can zoom, rotate, and playback. If the instructions prove to be as good as they look now (and Nintendo Life Editorial Director Damien McFerran has nothing but praise for them after his hands-on experience), I’ll definitely get excited by the (unlikely) chance of Nintendo becoming a digital book publisher in the near future.
We know nothing about Nintendo’s plans on the Labo platform beyond two initial packs, but it’s clear they will continue to develop new Toy-Con – after all, a good chunk of the introduction trailer featured models not present at launch. The potential of Labo makes plenty of business interrelation scenarios possible; for example, Nintendo could provide Labo to schools as a service, giving them new Toy-Con kits the moment they launch while leasing the Switch consoles on a yearly basis. Variety Kits could be allocated so each pupil gets to work on their own Toy-Con, while the ones like Robot Kit could serve as a centrepiece of group projects. Some children might want to go beyond following the instruction and develop their own project, and there is nothing stopping them from pursuing that goal: preview footage suggests the Labo software offers some sort of scripting environment called “My Toy-Con”, which lets you assign the input methods to the hardware to create new Toy-Con routines. While we are yet to see how robust this actually is in practice, the inclusion of this mode extends the age group Nintendo Labo wants to capture way beyond the elementary school.
For all parents and older siblings out there, it’s hard not to get excited about Labo as a learning tool which might come to your child's school very soon. We can only hope Nintendo will handle the relationships well, providing schools with the consoles and a variety of Labo kits – even if that will undoubtedly make your kid beg you for several of them at home, too.
That could be another way ingenious of increasing potential revenue, come to think of it.