Nintendo Labo: Thinking outside the box (or with the box?)

When Nintendo released the Switch last year I was very surprised by what they had been able to achieve, take the gaming industry on a spin (again). Once again they proved that they can innovate in a crowded space with deep pocket rivals. They were able to achieve something fun, flexible and that meets our new lifestyle not by thinking of specs but thinking of use cases. They understand people still want to play but they don’t do it just in a living room, so they would meet them where they are by providing play flexibility (great article about that here). Now, with Labo they have done something I consider priceless: enable kids to imagine, play and dream by connecting both the physical world and the digital one.

I have to be honest, I did not buy the Switch right away and when I did I played it and then returned it. Sometimes there is a price for innovation. To me, the Switch has two big drawbacks. First it is the lack of games. I could care less for Zelda (yeah yeah hate me) and some of the other games are just “meh”. However, it was the release of Mario Odyssey that finally made me get it. I loved it, it was fun, I could play at home and take it with me. I bought my Switch just before my holiday trip and took it on the road with me. This meant playing with the Joy-Cons inserted to make a huge Gameboy. I’m a big guy and I am very jumpy and move around when playing. Towards the end of the trip my Switch started to break. My gameplay would stop every minute because they would get disconnected (guess I can’t be that excited while playing). Turned out that the price to pay for the hardware flexibility was ruggedness. So when it was time to return, I could exchange or return and decided for the former due to lack of games.

I thought that would be the end of my Switch journey but this week Nintendo announced Labo. Nintendo has always been great at thinking outside the box. Some of these product work (Wii, Amiibos) and some don’t (VirtualBoy, Wii U) and that is the price to pay to try new things. What amazes me is Nintendo’s relentless pursuit of not thinking about what is the next big technology push they can do, but how to enable new ways to bring playfulness into our lives.

Video games didn’t come into my life until about 10 years old (dating myself here). Before video games I had to rely on my imagination to play. I would make things or I would play with action figures and other physical toys. There was a show on TV I remember very well: Espacio de Cositas (translates bad so don’t try :P). This show was about building things with things any Mexican kid could get (cardboard, paper, colors, etc.). Cheesy as it is, it really helped kids get tactile and bring crafting and imagination into their life.

Turn the clock 30 years, and now we live in a world where technology has creeped into all our lives. This technology immerses us into a world of wonder that is crafted for us. Unfortunately it doesn’t make us wonder, it just makes us want more. There are some games out there like Minecraft that are great at helping us think, dream and build but they are all in the digital world. Digital where things are not real. Technology has been focused on how we can bring things from digital to physical (2D/3D printing, VR haptic) but these technologies are expensive and out of reach for most. Nintendo is turning the table and providing a way of bringing real things into our digital worlds. They started with the release of Amiibos but you can’t really play with them as you play with your action figures. Nintendo Labo changes all that, in a great way.

First, it makes you build your game. I believe they were heavily inspired from Google Cardbox but elevated it. The concept is straightforward: take a cardbox, build a structure and use your device to make a new way of interacting with it. What is great about Labo (more than Google Cardbox) is that this is a game you interact with. For a kid out there it brings curiosity and excitement. You get to go hands on (just like my kids show!) and dream about the possibilities of what you can do with it.

Second, it uses capabilities on an existing device in new ways. Innovation is not just about creating new things but about finding new uses for existing things. This requires to be extremely creative and just keep asking “how can we use this in other ways”. It might seem easy but this is incredibly difficult, specially to do it well. Labo’s piano game is awesome, you can build the piano and press actual keys which are recognized by the Joy-Con camera as you hit them. Who knew a Joy-Con could do that!

Last, it brings real life into digital in an accessible manner. When you get to touch and play, you connect both worlds. Kids can play and dream. Labo’s cost is not prohibitive ($69.99 and $79.99) and allows kids to have an immersive experience. For example their Robot Kit is awesome, you become a Robot (just like how you would in VR) but in a way that you see AND feel. Kids will get the best of the two worlds.

I hope this project is commercially successful and that it works as advertised. Nintendo continues to amaze me with their way of thinking and strategy. It is clear they are winning and bringing playfulness (not just gaming) to millions of people.

Last note, as a product manager I like taking a step back and think about how I can build a framework to apply on my day to day work. Here are the key aspects I take from Nintendo:

  • When being the underdog, don’t attack head on, find your competitor’s weakness and build your strength to attack that vulnerability. Sony and Microsoft are deep in “gamers” and have deep pockets, Nintendo goes for the players in all of us.
  • It’s ok to find inspiration in others. Labo takes from others and ups it. It’s ok to inspire great ideas by looking at what others do and apply it to your world.
  • Don’t just think about new but re-use, there is great value on building new things but also on reusing existing ones in new ways. Nintendo reuses tech and keeps finding new applications for it.
  • Know your users (what they need) and their behaviors (how they need it) – If you don’t know what your users want, you can’t give them what they need. Its important to understand that behaviors change specially when technology changes. So meet your customers where they are. Nintendo knows people habits changed (they are mobile) but they still want the same: to play.
  • Take time to play and dream – this one is so underrated, in particular when dealing with deadlines and dealing with the real world. However, taking time to play is important as it opens the mind and provides the ability to dream (or get new ideas) in a safe environment. This is what Labo brings to kids (and adults?) lives and it’s great!

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Images via Nintendo and Nintendolife.com

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