Time Ex­tend

Feel-good ink: how Nin­tendo’s on­line gam­ble kept play­ers happy and hun­gry for more


Feel-good ink: how the on­line gam­ble of Spla­toon kept play­ers hun­gry for more

Spla­toon must surely rank as one of the most un­likely hits of re­cent years. If you doubt that, try re­lay­ing a story about a favourite mul­ti­player mo­ment and con­sider how lu­di­crous you must sound to a ca­sual ob­server. Our mo­ment of tri­umph, for ex­am­ple, came dur­ing the fi­nal Splat­fest, a con­test de­signed to crown the global favourite of the two Squid Sis­ters, the game’s res­i­dent idol duo. It hap­pened at Mo­ray Tow­ers, a park­ing lot spread across two el­e­vated struc­tures, with ramps zigzag­ging down to­wards a cen­tral zone lib­er­ally coated in lurid neon ink. Wear­ing our pink T-shirt with pride, paired with a fash­ion­able snorkel and a pair of turquoise train­ers, our time came in the fi­nal 30 sec­onds of bat­tle, as we swam up a wall car­ry­ing a wash­ing-ma­chine drum, pass­ing un­seen be­hind an op­po­nent too busy gaz­ing down his scope at our hap­less team­mates be­low to no­tice us slosh­ing our colours onto the ground be­hind his perch. We fin­ished with no kills and six deaths, yet rarely have we felt so re­spon­si­ble for turn­ing cer­tain de­feat into nar­row vic­tory at the 11th hour. This was, for all in­tents and pur­poses,

Spla­toon’s last hur­rah: a 48-hour cel­e­bra­tion mark­ing the end of Nin­tendo’s sup­port for the game. It came more than a year af­ter the very first Splat­fest, dur­ing which time Spla­toon has man­aged to re­tain a ro­bust player­base. Plenty of on­line games have lasted longer, of course, but rarely with the odds stacked so heav­ily against them.

Spla­toon ar­rived in May 2015 with a range of hand­i­caps that would’ve sunk lesser games. It was, sim­ply, one heck of a gam­ble. Here was a com­pany known for lean­ing on es­tab­lished brands choos­ing to ig­nore them all in favour of some­thing com­pletely new: an on­line-fo­cused mul­ti­player game in a genre in which it had lit­tle to no ex­pe­ri­ence, and on an ail­ing con­sole to boot.

Not long af­ter its launch, Spla­toon was widely de­clared to have been a suc­cess. But the real acid test was still to come. It may have had a slen­der (al­beit en­joy­able) sin­gle­player com­po­nent, but this was a game de­signed pri­mar­ily to be played on­line, and as such couldn’t rea­son­ably be judged within its first few weeks. The months to come would be more telling. And the num­bers didn’t lie: Nin­tendo’s fi­nan­cial re­sults, pub­lished in April, showed that

Spla­toon had sold to more than one in three Wii U own­ers. Per­haps more sig­nif­i­cantly, the num­ber of Splat­fest par­tic­i­pants had risen – par­tic­u­larly in Ja­pan. The 13th Ja­panese Splat­fest might not have seemed the kind of de­bate to pro­voke fierce com­pe­ti­tion, of­fer­ing a choice be­tween tuna may­on­naise and red sal­mon to de­ter­mine the na­tion’s pre­ferred flavour of rice ball. And yet al­most 800,000 play­ers took part – more than half the in­stalled base.

If Spla­toon’s vi­brant pre­sen­ta­tion and ac­ces­si­bil­ity were what made it ap­peal­ing in the first place, Nin­tendo needed ways to hold play­ers’ at­ten­tion. It achieved that sim­ply by reg­u­larly pro­vid­ing tan­gi­ble rea­sons to keep com­ing back. It’s worth re­mem­ber­ing the mul­ti­player of­fer­ing seemed miserly at launch, with just five maps and a sin­gle game type, the de­fault Turf War mode, avail­able on day one (the King Of The Hill-like Splat Zones would un­lock once enough play­ers had reached level ten, which was achieved a mere two days af­ter launch). Tower Con­trol came later, a thrilling tug-of-war with each team at­tempt­ing to push a move­able struc­ture deeper into their op­po­nents’ ter­ri­tory. Last up was Rain­maker, which had a sim­i­lar back-and-forth feel to Tower Con­trol, but re­sem­bled a run­ning play in grid­iron, al­beit with the quar­ter­back car­ry­ing a weaponised foot­ball. Though these three were the ranked op­tions, each was built with ac­ces­si­bil­ity at its core – they can be un­der­stood with min­i­mal in­struc­tion, with a glance at the over­head map on the GamePad screen mak­ing it in­stantly ob­vi­ous where your at­ten­tion should be fo­cused.

The num­ber of stages steadily swelled from five to 16, with each new map adding pur­pose­ful va­ri­ety. Mo­ray Tow­ers was a snipers’ haven; Port Mack­erel’s multi-laned lay­out led to MOBA-like in­cur­sions; Floun­der Heights added ver­ti­cal­ity via an apart­ment com­plex; the ex­pan­sive Kelp Dome felt rather like be­ing in­vited to van­dalise the Eden Project. With later maps,

Spla­toon’s de­sign­ers be­gan to add more unique fea­tures, like Pi­ranha Pit’s con­vey­ors, Mu­seum D’Al­fon­sino’s ro­tat­ing plat­forms

and Mahi Mahi Re­sort’s re­ced­ing water level. An­cho-V Games, a level set in­side the stu­dio of a fic­tional game de­vel­oper, fea­tured fan-pro­pelled plat­forms. Some would ar­gue that these gim­micks de­tracted from the game’s im­me­di­acy, but no one could quib­ble over get­ting 11 maps over eight months for no ex­tra out­lay, even be­fore con­sid­er­ing the new wardrobe op­tions and cre­ative new weapon types. From gatling guns to buck­ets and bam­boo pipes, Nin­tendo kept giv­ing its play­ers more ways to cus­tomise their In­kling and to tailor load­outs to bet­ter fit in­di­vid­ual playstyles.

Post-launch sup­port is hardly un­prece­dented, but for a com­pany with a rel­a­tively poor rep­u­ta­tion when it comes to on­line gam­ing, and with pre­cious lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence of han­dling the ex­pec­ta­tions of an on­line shooter com­mu­nity, Nin­tendo sur­prised many in how well it kept up its end of the bar­gain. Free ex­tra con­tent was only part of the equa­tion; Splat­fests were an­other. A tan­gi­ble sense of spec­ta­cle and cer­e­mony sur­rounded these tri-weekly events, with the Spla­toon com­mu­nity en­cour­aged to swear fealty to their cho­sen side. Nin­tendo clearly com­mu­ni­cated up­com­ing events for play­ers through its on­line chan­nels and within the game it­self. In the days lead­ing up to each Splat­fest, the plaza hub would fill with other play­ers wear­ing their team’s colours, adding to the sense of an­tic­i­pa­tion. Then, on the big day, night would fall, Mi­iverse posts would be dis­played as flashy ban­ners stacked high and wide, and the Squid Sis­ters would leave their stu­dio to per­form on stages ei­ther side of the lobby – be­yond which, matches would be played un­der dark­ened skies. From a pre­sen­ta­tional point of view, Nin­tendo nailed both the sen­sa­tion of friendly ri­valry and the kind of big-match build-up that would have even Sky Sports tak­ing notes. In the gaps be­tween new stock ar­rivals at the plaza’s var­i­ous stores, Splat­fests of­fered a fur­ther in­cen­tive to log in again.

Not to men­tion putting an ad­di­tional map in the ro­ta­tion. One of Nin­tendo’s can­ni­est tricks of re­cent years was to make a ran­dom se­lec­tion of three feel like a spe­cial treat. Yet the per­ceived weak­ness of hav­ing only two maps avail­able in each game mode at any given time ( and lim­it­ing ranked matches to a spe­cific game mode) played to

Spla­toon’s strengths. On hard­ware with a com­par­a­tively small in­stalled base, these re­stric­tions en­sured waits were kept to a min­i­mum: even now, it rarely takes more than a minute from load­ing Spla­toon up be­fore you’re in a game. It’s a de­ci­sion typ­i­cal of a com­pany that’s al­ways sought to curb down­time, and even on the oc­ca­sions you find your­self idling in a lobby, you’ve got a choice of sim­ple GamePad minigames with which to busy your thumbs.

If these choices in­vari­ably led to oc­ca­sions where you’d find your­self on the same map sev­eral times in suc­ces­sion, they en­cour­aged most play­ers to dip in and out of


Spla­toon rather than play for hours on end. And by re­fresh­ing the maps ev­ery four hours, it avoided the fate of many other on­line shoot­ers where a hand­ful of maps would dom­i­nate the vot­ing process. It was clear Nin­tendo didn’t ex­pect peo­ple to play

Spla­toon for long ses­sions when co-di­rec­tor Tsub­asa Sak­aguchi ex­pressed his sur­prise at how quickly play­ers had hit the early level cap of 20. Three months af­ter launch that was raised to 50, with rank­ing up de­pen­dent on wins as well as points scored. It’s a tes­ta­ment to Spla­toon’s longevity that even with Nin­tendo ex­po­nen­tially slow­ing progress, you’ll still en­counter play­ers who’ve hit the new cap.

The re­stric­tions un­doubt­edly turned some play­ers off. And there’s an ar­gu­ment that Nin­tendo’s hasty aban­don­ment of Wii U helped give Spla­toon a bit of a free run, cer­tainly for those Wii U own­ers who didn’t also own other hard­ware. With gaps be­tween new re­leases get­ting wider, a game that gave play­ers some­thing dif­fer­ent ev­ery time they logged in was ob­vi­ously a good rea­son to keep the con­sole plugged in.

As such, it’s hard to say what lessons other on­line games could learn from

Spla­toon. Some of the choices Nin­tendo made may have suited the game, but wouldn’t fly else­where: imag­ine if EA took voice chat out of the next Bat­tle­field, or Ac­tivi­sion waited three months af­ter Call

Of Duty’s launch be­fore adding an op­tion to cre­ate pri­vate matches for friends. Which isn’t to say that other com­pa­nies shouldn’t take note. Ev­ery­thing Nin­tendo added af­ter

Spla­toon’s launch was in ser­vice of a con­sis­tent, fo­cused cen­tral vi­sion. While it did re­spond to user feed­back, mak­ing mi­nor ad­just­ments to stages and re­bal­anc­ing weapons, it did so in ways that never com­pro­mised the core. Ev­ery new weapon or map felt like it had a place in that world. There was noth­ing to mas­sively un­bal­ance the game, and Ami­ibo aside, there were no mi­cro­trans­ac­tions to worry about.

These some­times un­ortho­dox choices have en­sured that Spla­toon still feels im­me­di­ate and wel­com­ing, and that isn’t al­ways true of com­pet­i­tive mul­ti­player games. Even so, it’s a mi­nor mir­a­cle that

Spla­toon has re­mained on trend for a year on such un­fash­ion­able hard­ware. A re­vival on NX seems as­sured. Next time, it may stay fresh for even longer.

Nin­tendo made some mi­nor tweaks to maps, but Urchin Underpass un­der­went a more ex­ten­sive ren­o­va­tion

It wasn’t al­ways the case, but it’s rare to find two In­klings with iden­ti­cal gear and weapon sets as part of the same team

Not all of Turf Wars’ fea­tures cross to ranked modes: Port Mack­erel’s fork­lifts are re­moved

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