One of the most interesting aspects of Nintendo Labo, the company’s new line of DIY cardboard accessories for the Switch, is how it can double as an educational tool. While building things like cardboard pianos and motorcycles, players are encouraged to learn more about how these objects’ function, and there’s also a creative mode where they can learn basic programming concepts and design their own interactions. And considering one of the leads on the project, Kouichi Kawamoto, previously worked on Nintendo’s Brain Age series, the links to learning seem clear. However, according to Nintendo, it wasn’t actually something the company thought about while designing Labo. “We didn’t plan on it turning out to be educational at all,” says Kawamoto.
Instead, the initial goal with Labo was to find new ways to use the Switch’s detachable controllers, known as Joy-Con. The tiny controllers are actually filled with a surprising amount of tech: there’s an IR camera, motion sensing gyroscopes, and what Nintendo describes as “HD rumble,” which is essentially a very sensitive vibration feature. “After we finalized the specs for Nintendo Switch, we started developing Nintendo Labo based on the idea of finding some clearly defined things we could make that would only be possible with Nintendo Switch or Joy-Con,” Kawamoto explains.
The project was led by an eclectic team. In addition to Brain Age, Kawamoto also worked on more offbeat titles like the mini-game collection 1-2-Switch and the StreetPass Mii Plaza app built into the Nintendo 3DS. He also serves as the general director for the Switch as a whole. Joining him were Labo’s director, Tsubasa Sakaguchi, who was co-director on the first Splatoon game and got his start at the company as a character designer on The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Rounding out the Labo leadership team is hardware lead Yoshiyasu Ogasawara, a comparatively unknown name who is listed as an inventor for a number of Nintendo’s hardware patents.
The group prototyped a number of ideas initially, all with the goal of exploiting the unique characteristics of the Switch’s controllers. The Labo concept turned out to be a perfect fit because it made it possible to use all of the features in different ways. Early on, when the team was generating ideas for new kits, the development team was split in half. “At first, we set the software teams and hardware teams to work independently on coming up with things that could only be done with Nintendo Switch or Joy-Con, and they would proceed to prototyping from there,” says Kawamoto. “But the way things work at Nintendo is that software developers and hardware developers are always collaborating with each other, so the development teams from both groups ultimately worked together on development as the Nintendo Labo team.”
During that early prototyping phase, the team put a restriction on itself: it needed to be possible to build every Labo project without the use of tools. They figured that if a kid opened up a Labo box at home, and then realized they were missing the right screwdriver or some other tool, it would be a disappointing first impression. Internally, testing with these prototypes went well; Nintendo staff members were generally able to complete the kits with little problem. But once they began testing Labo prototypes with consumers, they realized something was wrong.
Most people struggled to build the models correctly, and this was especially true for kids. Ogasawara describes the tests as “a real disaster.” But this disaster also led to some important design changes that helped shape the Labo kits that are available today. Early prototypes didn’t have any actual printing on the cardboard, for instance, which made assembling them confusing. The team also re-designed the kits so that the final product would look more like what it was supposed to be emulating, whether that was a piano or a fishing rod. Previously they looked a lot more like cardboard boxes.
At launch, Labo will be available in two versions, a “variety kit” and a “robot kit.” The boxes for these kits are labeled “Toy-Con 01” and “Toy-Con 02,” suggesting that there’s more on the way. But Sakaguchi — who describes the Joy-Con controllers as “basically a bundle of sensors” — says that the Labo group may eventually expand beyond cardboard as well, and find other ways to exploit the unique aspects of the Switch and its controllers. “We developed Nintendo Labo this time around, which is assembled with cardboard, but that’s just one of the possibilities that we’ve actualized,” he says. “We want to continue developing products that use Nintendo Switch to surprise consumers in the best possible way.”