Why Nintendo’s approach to Splatoon’s community may not be naïvety
Here’s a prediction: no one will be questioning Splatoon’s perceived value in three months’ time. Surprise maps Port Mackerel and Kelp Dome arrived quickly, and Nintendo has promised a rollout of free content in the coming weeks, culminating in a substantial August update, by which time we’ll have more new stages, gear, weapons and two new ranked battle modes. We’ll also have witnessed the first Splatfest, a metagame that invites players to answer an Everybody Votesstyle question and earn points for their side through online victories. Of greater interest to some will be new matchmaking functionality; we’ll finally be able to form a team with three friends, or set up eightplayer private sessions.
Naturally, questions are being asked over whether all of that should have been on the disc. Some have suggested that Splatoon was hurried out to fill a gap in Wii U’s thin release schedule, and simply wasn’t finished when it launched. Then again, those first two map additions were clearly ready to go – and of the two other confirmed locations, Bluefin Depot appears in the singleplayer campaign, while Camp Triggerfish was showcased in a recent Direct broadcast.
Ostensibly, this is counterproductive. Assuming the levels are done, why wait? Many will attribute it – along with the rest of the game’s restrictions – to Nintendo’s inexperience online. Perhaps this is a cannier move than that. This is, after all, a new kind of shooter, one designed to attract those who had previously been discouraged from playing online. Launching with just five maps and two modes – and one of those locked out until you hit level ten – suggests a keenness to not overwhelm newcomers with choice. Forming teams in private games makes sense once the community has been established, by which time those previously unfamiliar with online shooters will be comfortable enough to either ignore or take advantage of fresh options. And, of course, a regular flow of new stuff gives players an incentive to return.
That’s a generous assessment, but sometimes we grow accustomed to certain conventions without questioning them, and then the moment they’re subverted, we’re too quick to dismiss alternatives. And it would be foolish not to think other online games could learn lessons from Splatoon. Consider how quickly you start an online match: whether you walk your Inkling into the lobby or simply tap the icon on the GamePad display, you’re just two taps (three if you’re joining a friend) and a short wait from being thrust into a game with seven strangers, before being randomly assigned to a team that is shuffled after every round. Those who want to play alongside pals will see that as a negative, but this way you’re unlikely to be repeatedly paired with the expert splatter who always tops the scoreboard, or burdened by a novice who wastes time spraying the walls, thinking that they’re contributing to the score.
If Splatoon’s restrictions are less down to inexperience so much as Nintendo trying to be different, it still doesn’t get everything right. There’s no excuse for not allowing loadout changes between rounds – producer Hisashi Nogami says he wants to encourage players to learn every weapon, but there must be a better incentive. Having to view the announcement of the current maps each time you boot the game and being kicked out every time that rota changes are missteps, too.
Idealism sometimes trumps pragmatism in Nintendo’s designs. Splatoon is meant to encourage positive play habits (short sessions, friendly competition) but it doesn’t take into account how most of us experience online games, nor realise many would have expected at least some of these features at launch. Nonetheless, given the 40 hours we’ve already sunk into the apparently skeletal version 1.0, and Nintendo’s evident longterm commitment, our time with Splatoon will be anything but a fleeting fling.