Back in 2015, Splatoon woke up the world of shooters with a cold splash of ink to the face. Nintendo’s bright, neon-colored take on arena shooters was an instant phenomenon. Despite only appearing on the much-maligned WiiU, Splatoon was a massive success. That popularity can be easily traced to the game’s remarkable accessibility. In a genre where competition is everything, Splatoon made even amatuer players feel like core parts of a winning team.
Since that day, the world of competitive shooters has changed – largely because of one name. Overwatch. Blizzard’s mega-hit FPS is the defining new IP of this generation, birthing a global fanbase in just over a year. Like Splatoon, Overwatch is all about making players feel good. Even though the two are fundamentally different games, their similarities are striking. The sense of positivity. The focus on cooperation over competition. Even the vibrant, colorful aesthetics that can be picked out from a mile away.
So when Splatoon 2 hits the Switch later this month, it will be entering a space that has been shaped by Overwatch. Nintendo’s colorful sequel is setting itself up to be a grand time, but there are a few lessons we hope it’s learned from the rest of the genre.
Everyone’s A Winner
In the world of first person shooters, one’s reputation is often boiled down to a simple fraction. The Kill/Death Ratio. A staple of most multiplayer shooters, it’s a simple equation – how many people you killed over how many times you died. A ratio of less than 1 is a brand of shame – evidence that you’re more of a boon to the team than an asset. Even when you achieve a positive ratio, there’s always the pressure to be better.
But in Splatoon success is not defined in kills. It’s defined in paint. Eliminating opponents is helpful, but not the deciding factor between victory and defeat. As a result, a player can contribute to success – even if they can’t land a headshot to save their life. It’s reminiscent of Overwatch’s various support and defense classes that value smart character movement over perfect aim. Great players can contribute in all manner of ways, and Overwatch is brilliant about communicating that fact to its’ players.
The screen that ends every round of Overwatch is a work of design brilliance. Rather than exclusively tracking kills and deaths, Overwatch pays attention to every contribution a player makes to the team. Block a boatload of damage? It’s recorded. Heal every player on the team? Points on the board. Place the perfect turret? You’re golden. No matter how you play, Overwatch can acknowledge you for positive play. Whether than means starring in the Play Of The Game, or just getting a card on the final screen – it’s positive reinforcement. Then, personal stats are compared against one’s own past performance – rather than against the rest of the team. In seemingly every match, Overwatch finds a way to pat the player on the back.
Comparatively, Splatoon’s splash screen doesn’t do enough to encourage improvement. Seeing the breakdown of the map is interesting, revealing a team’s points of focus during the last moments of the match. But what if Splatoon 2 highlighted the moments where a player made the biggest strides, and turned the tide of battle? How might players improve if they didn’t have to worry about bottoming out on the team leaderboard? The stats are clearly there – it’s just a matter of Nintendo drawing attention to the right places.
Right Mode, Right Time
When most people think of Splatoon, they think of Turf War. The 4v4 painting duel is the definitive game mode – but it isn’t the only one. Nintendo has packed their unique shooter with other ways to play. Unfortunately, they haven’t caught on in quite the same way. Splat Zones, Tower Control, and Rainmaker resemble more traditional multiplayer shooter modes – but aren’t as beloved as Turf War. So how can Nintendo convince more players to try something different from the vanilla experience?
Overwatch’s Arcade has provided plenty of memorable twists to the game’s tight balance. Intense 1-on-1 duels, small-team showdowns in Antarctica, and even the odd round of Lucioball. All outside the norm, and all able to siphon a generous portion away from the game’s core competitive modes. The secret to this is twofold – exclusivity, and loot boxes. New modes enter the arcade on a rotation, and offer a quicker path to Overwatch’s cosmetic unlocks than other options.
Currently, Splatoon 2 is set to make its’ three alternative modes a regular part of its’ ranked multiplayer. But this feels like integration by force, rather than cultivation of something more. If Nintendo wants Splatoon to be more than Turf War, they need to make players want to try these alternate game types. The arcade may offer a solution, if the team is willing to integrate it.
The multiplayer space is more diverse than ever before, and we have games like Splatoon and Overwatch to thank. Their focus on player positivity has opened the genre up to new audiences, and have given us countless hours of play that can’t be found anywhere else. So it’s hopeful that the games can learn from one another, improving themselves by the merits of the competition.