History has a way of repeating itself. I’m not talking about the Virtual Boy here, Nintendo’s oft mistreated gamble with inspired but ultimately flawed technology, but rather Google Cardboard. Today sees the worldwide rollout of Nintendo’s latest Labo set, the Nintendo Labo: VR Kit. It’s what we all expected would happen at some point – Nintendo diving back into virtual reality (VR) via the Nintendo Switch – but not exactly as we expected it.
We can all make assumptions as to what Nintendo Labo: VR Kit will be capable of doing, both commercially and by way of quality VR software (with two of the Switch’s best titles getting a free compatibility update, one would think it’s off to a good start). However that’s not what I want to discuss today. Instead, I want to tackle the difficult subject of third-party access: will Nintendo allow you to make your own games for the VR Kit, and if so, will they allow you to sell them?
How Many Labo Games are There?
So we have to begin by looking at the precedent that has been set. Nintendo has previously released three official Nintendo Labo sets, the Variety Kit, Robot Kit and Vehicle Kit. A number of additional third-party releases have been made (without Nintendo’s endorsement) on the hardware side, but what about software? Where’s Ubisoft with Labo Rabbids or EA SPORTS’ Labo FIFA? With big guys like these seemingly unable to deliver content, there’s seemingly little hope of independent developers being given the greenlight.
Google Cardboard’s Massive Audience
Google Cardboard, though very much on it’s backfoot here in 2019, is still the largest install base of any VR headset. One of the many reasons for this is the huge variety of games and experiences available for it given the openness of the development platform. Maybe, reading between the lines, you might be thinking that Nintendo has seen the light and will follow in Google’s footsteps? This could very well be true, however if that were the case it would’ve been wise for Nintendo to reveal this to developers prior to launch. Google made a big splash with Google Cardboard back in 2014, announcing it at the annual Google I/O and handing out free packages to all attendees. The subsequent rollout of the cheap, flexible phone holders in all shapes and sizes was enough to leapfrog the upcoming launches of expensive high-end devices such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and encourage many developers to develop their own experiences. Nintendo Switch’s install base may not be as huge as Android smartphones, but it’s certainly larger than any of the high-end VR headsets available today.
Google Play Store <> Nintendo eShop
If Nintendo were planning on opening up Nintendo Labo as a platform for other developers there’s not much that would stand in their way. There’s even a digital storefront already in place in the form of the Nintendo eShop. Both large publishers and independent developers are able to launch content via the Nintendo eShop – though not on the scale of the Google Play Store – either as free downloads or with a regionally variable monetary value. The channel for distribution is already in place, so that’s at least one aspect of the chain that needs little thought.
What Software is Already Available?
In addition to the aforementioned updates for Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nintendo has already made a number of VR experiences for the Nintendo Labo: VR Kit; some of which look all-too familiar. Shooting aliens in your city or challenging yourself with ball puzzles are pretty generic, but then there’s also a The Blu style underwater experience; a Tiltbrush inspired 3D art studio. Nintendo has obviously been paying attention to the VR space – who’s to say the company hasn’t already noticed your studio’s efforts?
You Want Me to Make My Own Cardboard Kits?!
Well, no. This was most likely the first conclusion the naysayers jumped to when clicking through to this article. Yeah, making your own kits would be cool, but how would you get them out to potential customers? Instead, Nintendo already has a variety of options already available: a blaster, a camera, a duck’s behind (?). Most importantly however, it has a standard Google Cardboard style headset, complete with attached JoyCon controllers for directional headtracking. That’s more than enough for any Google Cardboard developer to base ports of their existing titles upon.
Of course, we can’t round up this article without offering a brief mention of ‘ToyCon Garage’. A new mode for Nintendo Labo arriving with the VR Kit allows players to create their own experiences with a series of simple object placement and ruleset construction tools. It’s quick and efficient and the results are wonderful; good enough even to inspire young designers to create something for real. But, this isn’t a place where you as developers want to get too hung-up. The results will obviously be limited and monetisation? Don’t even think about it.
Ultimately, Nintendo Labo: VR Kit may be a hard sell for VR aficionados, but then it’s not intended for you. Even more so than Google Cardboard, this entry-level taste of VR is designed for children, and as such we can only hope that it will prime their hunger for more deep, richer VR experiences beyond. And that can only be a good thing for us all.