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The essence of Splatoon, and what it gets right

Gamasutra's Christian Nutt explains what makes Splatoon work -- a peek into the design of a shooter that confounds expectations by breaking genre norms and working all the better for it.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

June 12, 2015

12 Min Read

I've been playing Splatoon a fair bit these last few weeks, and I've spent just as much time watching my more-skilled husband play, too.

There's a lot of love for this game online, and to me, it's no surprise.

The only thing I could count myself truly surprised about, when it comes to Splatoon, is just how good the game actually is. It was hardly a fait accompli that Nintendo could pull a game like this off; Pikmin, Nintendo EAD's last stab at creating a new IP (14 years ago) is charming, and the games are high-quality. But they can't stand toe-to-toe with Mario and Zelda in terms of popularity.

I've been considering what makes the game good and decided it was worth spelling it out for Gamasutra's audience -- many of whom are too busy to play, might not have a Wii U, or simply hadn't paid much attention to Splatoon but are suddenly curious about it.

So here we go: What makes Splatoon work so well?

Splatoon is new, modern, and fresh

One of the things that's very striking is that Splatoon seems very now, in a way that video games typically do not. It reflects a contemporary pop sensibility through its visuals and soundtrack. The game's look comes as an embrace of what's really out there, filtered through a discerning eye. It's fresh, yet sincere.

In that way, it's reminiscent of Dreamcast-era Sega -- that brief era when the company was arguably at its best, letting its designers, artists, and musicians run wild and make whatever they dreamed up. This is far from typical. Pop sensibilities resulted in games like Space Channel 5 and Jet Set Radio.

But crucially, unlike Sega, Nintendo seems to have hit at the right moment, and the game has captured people's attention very specifically because of this -- whether they play it or not.

In fact, if there's something that sets Splatoon apart from other games, it's the volume of expression. When I say "volume" I mean "amount," of course, but I also mean "cranked up to 11." The game world is so visually alive that it feels like Nintendo's artists have come completely unglued and let fly with everything they've got, in a single joyous explosion -- fittingly.  

When it's been 14 years since your studio's last original IP there's probably a lot of pent-up creative energy there, and Splatoon amply expresses it. This, I think, goes some way toward explaining the enthusiastic uptake for the game (and its world) on social media: It's too enticingly vibrant and au courant to ignore.

Core gameplay: On point

The fact that Nintendo came out of nowhere and built a shooter that looks and feels great in a couple of years -- well, that would be a triumph for any studio. The company didn't have its own shooter-specific engine, and it certainly didn't license one; and yet, Splatoon just feels right.

But it's more than that; the developers have really embraced the game's theme and, in the process, created something that really stands out. That's because of the core ink-based gameplay, which allows for both interesting weapon design and excellent traversal options, as well as fun gameplay modes that feel specific to this game.

To set things up: the game's main mode is an online, four-on-four team battle where the goal is to cover as much of the arena's surface with ink as possible.

This is what it looks like during the middle of a match:

This is what it looks like when a match is over, from a bird's-eye view:

After playing for a while, you can kind of see how the game came together during production: Ideas begat ideas, which began to support each other and then result in… more ideas. The Iwata Asks team interview sheds light on this. The mechanics flow from (and into) one another.  

The ink is the key to this.

You're swimming in it

Central to Splatoon is the fact that the player's primary weapon is ink: They're covering the ground in it, shooting enemies with it, and swimming through it. These are simple ideas and easy for anyone to understand: A Super Soaker filled with paint is simple enough for anyone to conceptualize very concretely; everything flows from that.

This led to the game's primary multiplayer mode: Turf War, where two teams of four vie, for three minutes, to cover more ground with ink than their opponents. New ink covers up old, so it's a true tug-of-war.

Deciding that the characters can transform into squid, and that they can swim through the ink was a crucial moment for the game's design, no doubt: The squid swim much faster than the humanoids can run, and they're camouflaged, too; they can also swim up (painted) walls, which opens up a lot of interesting level design possibilities and strategic opportunities for battle.

It also just feels good. Differentiating the abilities of the squid and humans, but not too much, and in logical ways -- and making it instant and free to switch back and forth -- is a significant part of what makes Splatoon's design work.

But things do not stop there: Thanks to the ink, weaponry can take forms that are uncommon in shooters, and this is interesting for a number of reasons. Take the Splat Roller, for example -- a giant paint roller. This weapon feels totally unlike a firearm, is fun to use, and is beginner-friendly -- but it also has staying power for players who aren't novices. It's fatal up-close, but weak at a distance. During the beta, people called it "overpowered"; that consideration has disappeared post-release, because the weapons are so well-balanced.

In fact, everything in the game feels exquisitely hand-tuned, which is par for the course for Nintendo. But it's interesting to see that approach in its first shooter, and to consider the implications both from a development and player perspective. If the system is well-controlled, it remains fun for everyone, after all.

So considering the ink teaches us an important lesson: Reconsidering a fundamental aspect of a genre's design opens up a tremendous possibility space. It's much easier said than done, of course.

There are more ways it pays dividends, though: The game's sub-weapons are also just as inventive. Sure, there are grenades; paint balloons are also obvious. But a sprinkler? The "Splash Wall" -- a rain-curtain of enemy paint that briefly blocks entry into a section of the map? They change the game dramatically.

Another big, big advantage of the ink-based gameplay is that both fighting and avoiding battle are valid strategies, both in the aggregate and the moment-to-moment.

Let me explain: Painting is vital. So even if you don't engage in combat, you're doing something that's not just helpful to your team, but necessary for a win. That much is obvious. And the game incentivizes painting, not killing: It fills your special meter and determines the points you earn after a battle.

But it also means that, on a micro-scale, encounters can break either to combat or painting. I've run into enemies in situations where we both decided discretion was the better part of valor, and broken off the fight to head opposite directions! The decisions you make revolve around not just how to attack someone, but whether it's even worth it. In the right circumstances, encountering an opponent is almost like a split-second rock-scissors-paper match.

And of course, fighting the other team doesn't just keep them from killing your team; it keeps them from painting the ground, too. But if you can control them, it forces them towards their spawn point -- all but locking them from getting further into the map and painting the parts they'd need to, to stand a chance at winning.

(Of course, that could have opened up another can of worms, but there's a built in super-jump system that allows players to join and aid allies who make it behind enemy lines. It's an argument for thorough playtesting, and for considering the implications of design decisions through to their logical conclusions, and then formulating and testing remedies, too.)

Fine-tuned gameplay focus

The fact of the matter is that Nintendo has tuned the gameplay, at a core level, exquisitely. This relates to everything from match length, to damage, to movement, to understanding who's getting hit when.

On that note, a good example is the game's sound design: Since opponents can be invisible if they hide, you'll get an audio splat if you manage to hit one. This allows you to ferret out someone who'd otherwise have an absolute advantage; it keeps the matches fast-paced, which is a cornerstone of the game.

In fact, for the first week or so after launch, there was just one match type -- the aforementioned Turf War. Turf War is a three-minute match, and a lot about the game's design, and even its UI, is calculated toward making that satisfying.

One of the most idiosyncratic things about the game is its lobby experience: You simply pop into an online game, and that's about it. There are two modes (ranked and non-ranked), a set number of players, and no options. At any given time, Splatoon offers up two maps to play on, selected at random before each match; these swap out every four hours. A single game fills up fast, and off you go.

And beyond that: There's no ability to talk to your team, or even pick teams; players drop in and drop out frequently between matches, and the teams are shuffled even if they don't. After a round, the game asks "play again?" with "yeah!" as the default option. Add that to a short match-time and the fact that you never feel "stuck" with underperformers means that the game is like popcorn: You want to keep eating more, and so you do. It's compulsive.

And all that tactical depth I alluded to above? It's not wasted, even with the three-minute matches. That's because -- as we all know -- it takes long-term satisfaction to keep people playing a game after a few sessions. But the three-minute limitation also means that new players don't get too overwhelmed, too soon.

Contrast it against something like League of Legends. League has a lot of complexities that aren't apparent when players first begin, nor are they taught by the game; yet it also has a very strong meta-game that they must understand if they want to keep playing. But each match has a long time investment, and there's not much feedback from the game about what works and what doesn't. You need to be told. That all works well, for the audience the game has and is looking for (in fact, it's arguably a community-building function).

But you can easily flip that on its head; we must then examine Splatoon through the audience Nintendo imagines the game will have. Splatoon doesn't do everything a modern, triple-A shooter, in the era of Destiny, would be expected to.

The interesting intellectual exercise is to think about why that might be. Nintendo's inexperience with online games is the go-to, but it's unhelpful as a lens to examine the game's design. It's more helpful to flip it. I'd put it this way: "Nintendo's disinterest in doing what's expected." It can obviously bite the company in the butt, and has consistently done so; but it's also a boon to creating games and hardware that flouts expectations.

In other words: Splatoon is, in fact, a polished and deep game that continues to hold onto its appeal in the long run, because it supports scrutiny and mastery; but its developers have also very carefully considered what it means to release a game like this to an audience who could, in fact, never have encountered or enjoyed one like it before.

Does it need a complicated progression system or piles of loot? No. It has simple level and rank systems. Gear choices come down to player preference, not min-maxing. Does it need voice chat? No. It makes the game more welcoming. But here's something that's not often discussed: the design (of the weapons, of the maps, and of the modes) also leads players toward the right strategy, negating the need for communication.

Here's something else to consider: The game has a really fun single-player mode that warps the shooter into an action-platformer, which is Nintendo's wheelhouse. It's not remarkable that this would be good; what's notable is that the mechanics still function perfectly in this context, which underlines their robustness and adaptability.

The game is also in a constant state of evolution; two maps and two weapons have been added since its release. The maps, in particular, highlight that adaptability, too: Each, so far, feels unique. Each works well. Each could be someone's favorite.

I think that Splatoon turns the shooter genre on its head by carefully examining its boundaries and then selecting what to keep and what to ignore. Even if you don't agree with Nintendo's take on the genre, it's food for thought about how to approach game design.  

I keep coming back to Splatoon simply because I enjoy it. I can turn on the Wii U and play for an hour, and I'll be happy. It's welcoming, yet satisfying.

To create a great game, it often takes a mindset of not delivering what's expected in order to deliver what's actually needed. Splatoon keeps me (and so many others) coming back because of both what it is -- a fun, well-crafted shooter created by platforming geniuses -- and what it is not -- an intimidating or grind-heavy experience; a major commitment; or the same-old, same-old with a fresh coat of paint.  

And if you've got the time and you're curious to understand more, it's worth watching the Nintendo Direct presentation. It serves (unintentionally, I'd guess) as a breakdown of the game's design, so it's worth a peek.

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