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
NINTENDO NAILED THE KIND OF BIGMATCH BUILD-UP THAT WOULD HAVE EVEN SKY SPORTS TAKING NOTES
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