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Nintendo Labo director says VR was part of the plan from the beginning

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Software director Tsubasa Sakaguchi on designing for VR and Labo’s future

Nintendo Labo VR, the cardboard accessory kit for the Switch, is up against a lot of expectations as the company’s official foray into virtual reality. It’s the fourth installment of the Labo series, which first launched one year ago to mixed reviews. Parents and schools lauded its tactile building experience and programming features as creative educational tools for kids, while some critics dismissed it as a novelty item that lost its fun after the first few plays.

But Labo director Tsubasa Sakaguchi is unfazed by the detractors. “We’re not focused on the passive playing experience, but more of the emotion that’s evoked when you create your own controllers and play the games,” he says. “At the end of the day, you have to experience it to get it.”

Sakaguchi has overseen the Labo series from concept to production. He recalls an initial consumer test that went so disastrously that he went back to his hotel room and cried a little. “When you’re actually immersed in development, it’s really hard to realize that maybe other people might have difficulties building it,” he explains. “So it was a really good experience for us to see that and realize, ‘Oh, wait, maybe you need three arms to actually make this fold.’”

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Testing the VR kits went a lot more smoothly, as the “Make” portion of the building instructions had already been nailed down from the first three Labo kits. Nintendo had also been exploring virtual reality long before Labo, so by the time the developers came up with the Labo VR concept, the research had already been done. “We’re always looking for that one overlap of ‘technology meets familiar and accessible,’” Sakaguchi says. “When we thought about that little overlap, we thought the concept of Nintendo Labo and VR would be a great match.”

Sakaguchi started out his career at Nintendo in 2005, working as an artist on The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Since then, he’s gone on to design the UI for the Nintendo 3DS home menu, work on titles like Wii Fit, and co-direct Splatoon. “All those experiences have shaped me to where I am. I realized that I was always fond of creating interfaces,” he says. Sakaguchi’s background in interactivity resulted in a VR system that had a unique input as well as physical feedback.

For instance, the toy camera has an oversized lens that makes a clicking sound when you turn it to focus. It’s a lovely little detail that took the hardware team several attempts to perfect, but felt was necessary in order to make the best sound for the user. “In VR experience, we think that what we see on the screen is important. But what we also think is important is what we can feel physically and emotionally,” Sakaguchi says.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The development process of the six cardboard creations, or Toy-Cons, was full of trial and error. The team had a list of ideas — such as incorporating wind into the game experience — and only the ones that could be achieved through both the hardware and software made it. One potential Toy-Con was a propeller on top of the head that would create wind if you blew on a straw attached to it, which was nixed in favor of the much more straightforward wind pedal.

Just 1 million Labo kits were sold by the end of last year, a fraction of the 10 million copies of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate sold, according to Nintendo’s third quarter results. But the company says it expected this, knowing that Labo is an entirely different experience from traditional video games. Ex-Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé told The Verge last June, “Labo is the type of game, much like Brain Age for the Nintendo DS, much like Wii Fit, it’s a game that’s going to sell for a very long time at a very steady pace.”

He wasn’t kidding about the long-term vision for Labo. Sakaguchi believes that Labo is a game that can grow with kids — for example, a five-year-old can build the kits, but when it comes to actually playing, it may be a little too early (VR is recommended for kids seven and up). “But that same kid, in about three years, when they’re at a perfect age to experience gameplay, I think they’ll be able to gain something that they weren’t able to gain earlier,” he says.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Iconic video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto told Time in 2017 that watching people play virtual reality makes him worry, and spoke of the challenges of creating “an experience that’s both short enough while also fully fleshed out in virtual reality.” The mini-games included in the Labo VR software try to accomplish this by encouraging turn-based play, and it’s for this reason that the VR goggles were designed without a head strap. But with the upcoming software updates to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey that’ll make the games compatible with Labo VR, users are already creating their own makeshift straps for extended play.

All the same, creating accessories for the Labo is part of the DIY spirit, and Sakaguchi wants users to make their own decisions. He was particularly wowed by the winner of the Nintendo Labo Creators Contest, who made a solar-powered cardboard accordion, and a user who made a working Labo piano in a 3D pop-up book. “In an earlier interview, I said, ‘We came up with all the fun ideas.’ But after seeing what users created, I was really ashamed of myself,” he says, laughing.