How Nintendo made shooting squids a success with Splatoon
Splatoon and Splatoon 2 have been a huge success for Nintendo. As the company’s first brand-new IP in years, the ink-based shooter has become a key part of Nintendo’s lineup, pushing the Japanese developer and publisher into the sphere of competitive gaming, live music events and adding yet another bow to its repertoire of pop-culture icons.
Looking at the success of Splatoon now, it would be easy to say that this was a carefully planned production and marketing campaign, specifically designed to gain traction with new audiences. However, speaking at GDC 2018, series producer Hisashi Nogami revealed that Splatoon’s success was more a pleasant surprise rather than a Cambridge Analytica-fuelled campaign in targeted design. In fact, when the project began, they didn’t even know what sort of game they were going to make.
“In early 2013 we formed a team of 10 developers with the goal of creating a new type of game that wouldn’t fit easily into pre-existing categories,” Nogami explained to a packed room. “We discussed our ideas together every day until, after half a year, we had over 70 different design proposals and a number of software prototypes.”
After having found a base for Splatoon in a prototype of “tofu” blocks squirting ink at one another, it was time to evolve the concept into an actual game. It wasn’t until the team locked themselves into the idea of two forms of play – running and inking or hiding away in the ink – that they even knew there was a product where people would actually want to play.
Interestingly one of Splatoon’s greatest charms, the Inklings, didn’t come along until much later in development. The humanoid squids you’ll find in the released game actually started out as rabbits. “We had all sorts of different design ideas,” Nogami continued, revealing that there were even early ideas to use Mario, Yoshi and others in the world.
“Squids were one of the original design options, but we couldn’t find a reason to pick one particular design over another. But, once we thought of moving through ink as ‘swimming’, it became obvious squid should become our characters.”
Despite its rather odd appearance, Splatoon is intended to take place within a world not too dissimilar to our own. In fact, Nogami even explained that the game’s timeline runs in parallel to our own, but in a different dimension… The team went to great efforts to ground the entire world of Splatoon’s Inkopolis to help it feel like a living universe; something players could actually connect to.
“The sound staff on our team suggested the game music should consist of tunes popular to the inkling youth of this world and the songs should blare out of speakers during turf war battles. They envisioned fictional bands that created this music and used that concept to create tracks in a variety of styles.
“[By building the universe] in this way, we propped up our world and made it more convincing by imagining and creating content not directly linked to the game’s core content.”Early concept art for Splatoon’s Inklings
How Splatoon created and kept an entirely new player base
With Splatoon’s world building and gameplay settled, the development team still had one mighty hurdle to climb – getting people to play the damn thing. “We had to face a number of challenges in having to make Splatoon a product we could send out into the world,” explained Nogami. “As this is a new IP with no established history, we weren’t sure how many people would pick up the game and play it.”
For Splatoon, this could be a big problem. If an online multiplayer game can’t create and maintain a player base, it might as well not be a game in the first place. As you can imagine, bringing a new IP to market means it could be relatively tricky to get people playing in the first place, and then you have to ensure they keep coming back for more.
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It’s here we see the beginnings of Splatoon’s content trickle approach, slowly releasing new maps and weapons into the world for free every few months. Initially, this process started as a way to ensure players became accustomed with Splatoon’s unique gameplay mechanics, but it turned out to be a smart way to keep bringing people back for new challenges.
“Because Splatoon featured a new mechanic of shooting ink onto the ground, we felt releasing all the weapons and stages at once would prevent players from discovering all their unique traits before moving on and forgetting them.
“By adding new weapons, stages and modes as player familiarity with the game increased and the game’s community evolved, we hoped to keep the game fresh for players and create an environment they wanted to stay engaged with.”
Looking at Splatoon and Splatoon 2’s graph of daily active users since their respective launches, it’s clear to see this approach worked well. There’s a clear sustained level of engagement across both title’s lifetimes with peaks every weekend and boosts when new content arrives.
Huge spikes in play occur when Splatoon’s competitive ‘Splatfests’ occur. These 24-hour events see players backing two sides of an inconsequential argument as they fight to secure victory for their preference. Past Splatfests have revolved around what the best condiment is (ketchup or mayonnaise); the correct way to put toilet roll onto a holder (front roll or back roll), and even if gherkins have a rightful place in a burger.
“Splatfests are designed to give people a reason to play the game, but we hope they’re effective in getting those who aren’t actually playing involved in the conversation so Splatoon is something that’s being discussed beyond the bounds of the game itself.
“It’s our hope that family members, friends and those on social media use these events to get into seriously silly debates about present topics like if ketchup is a better condiment than mayonnaise.”
Splatoon as a cultural phenomenon
Outside of the game itself, Splatoon’s characters have been appearing at real-world events around the globe. In Japan, the game’s singing duo, the Squid Sisters, have teamed up with Splatoon 2’s ‘Off the Hook’ DJ duo to perform live gigs in front of hundreds of people.
“It might seem a bit strange to you, but as developers, nothing makes us happier than seeing the characters we’ve created mean this much to people,” Nogami explained. “For us, it was like watching these kids we’ve raised grow up and go on to succeed in the world on their own.
“As developers, we took care to review every last detail of the concert to make sure it connected to and reflected the content of our games.”
As far as Nogami, his team and Nintendo are concerned, everything that happens both inside and outside of Splatoon has a direct impact on how fans perceive and interact with the game. Instead of simply building a title for people to play, they’re building an experience for people to enjoy.
“As someone who enjoyed playing games myself as a kid, some of my best memories are of the excited discussions I had with my friends about games. In my mind, drawing fan art or going to game-related events are part and parcel of enjoying the world of a game itself.”