Splatoon’s unorthodox demo finally was released this past weekend, giving us an chance to get our hands on Nintendo’s first major new IP since they stopped putting the word Wii in front of any noun they could find. What surprised me, among the generally positive reactions to the game, is an undercurrent of opinion that Splatoon is dead on arrival. One article even went so far as to suggest that Nintendo shut the whole thing down and turn it into a free-to-play affair, because it’s doomed at a $60 price point. This doesn’t surprise me, of course, because the simple reason for all of this doom and gloom is that it’s very hard to see the appeal of a game that is not for you, and Splatoon is a game very specifically not for the typical online multiplayer shooter fan. What’s more, that’s the game’s biggest strength, not its weakness.
There are two major complaints about Splatoon’s gameplay, from what I’ve read, and they both tend to center around the perspective of the hardcore gamer without consideration for how people who haven’t reached level 30 in Destiny might approach a multiplayer shooter. [Update: John Siracusa correctly pointed out that the level cap in Destiny is 32, not 30.] One is the motion control; the tutorial in the Splatoon demo requires you use the Wii U Gamepad to look around, and only uses the right stick for lateral view control. This is understandably jarring to anyone who’s played any first or third person perspective games on a console before; I certainly turned it off immediately and went back to using the dual sticks as I was accustomed to once the tutorial was over. This isn’t necessarily a gimmick to justify the use of the Gamepad, however. I gave the demo over to my oldest daughter, who is becoming fairly adept at games in her own right but hasn’t yet had any experience with a game like this aside from a brief excursion with Disney Infinity, which didn’t hold her interest long enough to warrant learning to control a 3D camera.
What I noticed is that she spent the entire time looking straight down and didn’t know how to look where she was going with the motion controls turned off. She started to figure it out, but not really. It hadn’t occurred to me to turn the motion controls on for her during the limited time allotted for the demo, but I think it could actually be more intuitive for people who are not used to playing this kind of game. Even games like Portal 2, which are generally very inclusive for people who aren’t adeptly skilled at games, have a high learning curve for new players because the camera control is unintuitive; using the gamepad in this way, to literally move the window on the gamepad to where you want to look, could help a lot of people who have struggled to play this sort of game before.
The other big complaint from hardcore gamers about Splatoon is the lack of voice chat. For most people not deep into that culture, the lack of voice chat isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. I’ve heard horror stories of parents who took their grade schoolers online in Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare and got a swift education in foul language. Having played the demo, I can safely state that team chat really isn’t necessary to be successful (especially since both teams are at equal disadvantage), and it’s reassuring as a parent to not have to worry about who’s on the other mics hooked up to the game. That’s not to mention a lot of the gatekeeping and harassment that happens over voice chat to women who play online multiplayer. If one is privileged enough to not ever have to experience that, not having voice chat is a flaw, but it’s a relief to many others who do have to endure that in other games.
Because this game doesn’t include the checklist of features that are assumed to be necessary to have a successful online multiplayer game, the storyline in the hardcore gaming community is that this game will struggle to sell. These arguments tend to reference Sin and Punishment and Bayonetta 2, those games being the last shooter type games that Nintendo has attempted. My feeling is the complete opposite. Honestly, I’d be concerned if Nintendo was trying to court that type of player, and skewed Splatoon toward those types of preferences. There’s a reason that Activision doesn’t port Call Of Duty games over to the Wii U anymore; that’s not the type of game that sells on the Wii U, and it would be a mistake for Nintendo to try to make something for that audience that frankly isn’t really there. It’s actually reassuring that Nintendo is willing to throw out some of the mainstay features of online shooters if they don’t serve the game they’re trying to make.
The game that Nintendo is trying to make, by the way, is rated E10. That’s important for a lot of reasons, not the least of which that it dictates who the audience of the game really is. It’s quickly reaching the point where you can count on your fingers how many major console releases are rated below T; the number drops even more dramatically when you remove sports games and toys-to-life games, especially given that even Lego games are moving into the toys to life realm with the upcoming Lego Dimensions. That’s not to say that Splatoon is a game that’s made specifically for kids, because it’s not by any stretch, but it is a game that’s built so that kids can play it. The rating is not part of the marketing message, to be sure, but publishers know what kinds of content will lead to which ratings and absolutely tailor that based on who they want their audience to be.
You can see that not only in the content of Splatoon but in how and where Nintendo is advertising it. Many AAA releases advertise on prime time network television or during sporting events because that’s where they think their audiences are; I’ve seen plenty of AAA game ads during NFL games, for instance. The other day, while watching Teen Titans Go, one of my daughters came over and told me very excitedly that she saw the game I was playing that morning on Cartoon Network. Cartoon Network is the most influential network in all major kid demographics right now, and by choosing to spend their ad dollars there, Nintendo is making a big statement about who they want to buy their game. It’s a good bet, too; I’ve spoken at length on Isometric about the lack of console games that families can play together without having to worry about exposing my kids to something they aren’t ready to see. Granted, most parents aren’t as dialed into upcoming game releases as I am, but rest assured that kids can be relentless when they see something that appeals to them advertised on shows they’re watching. That alone can move copies, and for some households, it may even sell consoles now that the rest of the software available is fairly substantial.
Ultimately, what defined Nintendo’s approach to the last console generation was a belief that there were people who wanted to play games who weren’t being served by the console market as it was. They were right, almost to a fault; there was such a market out there, and those people did want to play games, but they weren’t looking for the kinds of involved experiences that a TV-based console dictated. Those new players wanted gaming in smaller chunks, to pass five or ten minutes waiting in line, not hour long sessions in their living rooms. So while the Wii appealed to them initially, once the fad of Wii Sports wound down, they weren’t interested in buying new games to replace it, and they certainly weren’t willing to spend another $300 on another console that was still tied to their living room TV when they had a device in their pocket that served that need just fine. Worse, since Nintendo had mostly alienated the types of consumers who were still interested in buying a new console by focusing on experiences like Wii Fit and Wii Music at the expense of more traditional games, it took them a long time to win back that audience’s trust.
What’s shaping up to define Nintendo in the current console generation is a subtler variation on the same theme. While the games being made for the Xbox One and PS4 skew further and further in the direction of what they believe their audience (read: hardcore gamers) want, Nintendo is clearly betting that there is a wider audience that is already inclined to play console games but is not able to find anything that’s outside of the games that have been approved by the hardcore gaming community. While Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros were more or less expected to be what they are based on the two series’ predecessors, just by virtue of having none of the baggage of an existing franchise, Splatoon shows what Nintendo wants to make now: Games accessible to players of multiple skill levels and ages, with an emphasis on fun over competitiveness. Nintendo appears to have accepted that they’ve lost the opportunity to win over people who have never considered themselves gamers before to the mobile devices those consumers already own, and they’ve sold all the consoles that they’re going to be able to sell to anyone who’s also inclined to play Bloodborne, because no one’s expecting a truly “hardcore” experience on the Wii U anymore. To bet that there’s a middle between those two extremes, full of groups of people who are subtly or not so subtly being told that the games being made are Not For Them, seems like a really smart move, and in line with the blue ocean strategy that carried them through the Wii years.
Will it work? That remains to be seen. Nintendo’s a company that’s been known to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory more than once in the past. That said, the game, based on the demo, is good, and Nintendo appears to know who they need to market toward, so Splatoon has every chance to succeed. If you’ve looked at the current landscape of console releases and found yourself frustrated, even if you have no interest in the game itself, it’s worth keeping track of how Splatoon is received in the marketplace. Purely in terms of determining what kinds of games get made for the rest of this console generation, Splatoon could easily be the most important game released this year.