Cast your mind back to launch day Splatoon. Single player campaign? Check. Slightly mediocre local multiplayer mode? Check. Online modes? Well, some of them.
Back when we were publishing our Splatoon review, its writer and our video man Alex was gushing in his praise, yet some debate was had within our team about the content included. With the single player story being enjoyable but not quite enticing enough to form the core of the experience - part of our description said it was effectively "an extended tutorial" - and with the local multiplayer being rather basic, the bulk of playtime was spent online. Nintendo was promoting it primarily as an online multiplayer game, let's not forget - E3 and expo booths were all LAN versions of Turf Wars, and the Splatoon Testfire demo was designed to give potential fans a taste and to stress-test the servers. Yes, the campaign is cool and has some great moments, but Splatoon is really about the online play.
Yet when it comes to online content, there wasn't much of it, at least not in the areas that mattered. At launch there were just five maps and two modes - Turf War in Regular Battle and Splat Zones in Ranked Battle, with the latter being unlocked a few days after launch. What we had was a lot of fun, but there wasn't much of it.
What happened next, of course, was the gradual roll-out of content over the course of around eight months, ending in January 2016. Some additions were quick and others were slow, with weapons being the most common weekly arrivals. What really made the game, though, were new stages and then new modes. Maps and modes are the core of any online shooter, even super-colourful third-person titles from Nintendo.
Let's break down, as best we can, the arrivals - following the late May release of the game - of major features, new maps and modes per month (allowing for time zone differences in the dates):
- Squad Battles (5th / 6th August)
- Private Battles (5th / 6th August)
- Level caps increased - Ranked and Regular (5th / 6th August)
- Patch 2.2.0 with a lengthy changelist across stages, weapons and balancing (20th / 21st October)
- Patch 2.4.0 provided another hefty list of tweaks to balancing across the game (17th / 18th December)
Ranked Battle Modes
- Tower Control (1st / 2nd July)
- Rainmaker (14th / 15th August)
- Port Mackerel (2nd/3rd June)
- Kelp Dome (10th/11th June)
- Bluefin Depot (19th / 20th June)
- Moray Towers (10th / 11th July)
- Camp Triggerfish (24th / 25th July)
- Flounder Heights (20th / 21st August)
- Hammerhead Bridge (17th / 18th September)
- Museum D'Alfonsino (12th / 13th November)
- Mahi Mahi Resort (3rd / 4th December)
- Piranha Pit (28th / 29th December)
- Ancho-V Games (21st / 22nd January)
That's not every update, and we've not gone to the lengths of listing all of the weapons and outfits that were added, but this gives an idea of the general passage of the key updates - all of which were free, remember.
So how much of this content was ready from the off but held back, and how much was part of continual post-launch development? Data mining shortly after release pointed to 10 maps on the disc (the game launched with five available on rotation, remember) with Rainmaker information also found. It would seem, based on that digging from last Summer, that the basic outline for a fair amount of content was ready, or near-ready, by that late May launch. As we can see from the roll-out of maps, in particular, releases became a little slower and inconsistent after an initial glut, with the gap between Hammerhead Bridge and Museum D'Alfonsino being the most notable. August was a particularly big month (around two and half months after release) with Rainmaker, Squad Battles, Private Battles, increased level caps and a lot of outfits arriving.
Right from the start those behind the game spoke about this roll-out as a deliberate strategy - producer Hisashi Nogami told us this back in early June last year:
First, we put a lot of effort into every inch of the online stages, so by playing them over and over again users can get a better feel for the terrain, giving the gameplay more breadth and depth. The characteristics of the weapons and the strategies for using them vary with each weapon, and of course these will vary depending on the stage you use them in and even what combination of equipment your teammates and opponents are using. We want users to enjoy each and every single piece of content we've prepared, so rather than provide a lot at once, we're going to be adding them a little at a time.
Second, is that while we've paid a lot of attention to the balancing the game, the flip-side of this is that we feel the game needs weapons with a lot of variety as well as stages with complex layouts to really expand the gameplay.
The problem there is that these can sometimes disrupt the overall balance of the game.
The real fun of Splatoon comes when players are comfortable with the game, and are able to play to their full potential with other players they meet in the online matches.
We'll be adding more stages and weapons as we see how the community matures. We'll also do something similar with further game modes too.
Based on the evidence from data mining, and the relatively consistent roll-out of content, from major additions to weapons, it's clear that a decent chunk of this additional content was in a fairly advanced state of development by the time the game landed by late May. What we don't know, and what is only known by those that worked on the game, is how much of the update content could have been included as finalised work on launch day. Perhaps not much, as we should remember that even with regular additions in mind the launch line-up in the online part of the game was particularly thin. We had more maps, yes, but they were stuck on the rotation - we had to wait until July and then August for more lobby options and match types.
What Nintendo did do, though, is work fast. We used the term 'early access' in our headline as Splatoon reminds us of the practice when done very well, albeit turbo-charged in terms of turnaround compared to typical PC releases, for example. The point is that early-access games that earn praise on platforms like Steam typically launch with the key gameplay and mechanics nailed down. The game is already great to play, it's just light on the volume of content we'd typically expect with a purchase.
We accept it's a stretch of the term, but let's think about it. Nintendo's updates weren't just adding new maps, modes, weapons and clothes, they were also making fairly key changes to fix issues that only a sizeable userbase would expose. A number of the maps have had tweaks or noticeable changes due to exploits and shortcuts that were found, for example, while update changenotes have included plenty of re-balanced weapons. Nintendo often likes to release a near-final game and only roll-out a handful of updates, whereas Splatoon has combined multiple updates with near-weekly content unlocks. In terms of pure content the Splatoon we have now is a much bigger beast that the launch title.
It's distinct from the DLC approach seen in the likes of this generation's Smash Bros., as one example, simply because we're talking about free updates; though the brawler has also had its share of free content additions, too. For early adopters a Splatoon build relatively light on content gradually evolved and became more feature rich - we still have some changes on our wishlist, such as actual map selection instead of the four hour rotations, but we can't have everything we want.
It does raise the question, though, of whether Nintendo will adopt similar approaches in future releases. It's perhaps only applicable - in the big N's case - with games that have a heavy online focus; titles that are largely single-player experiences still need to be finished at launch to truly satisfy their audience. Yet with Splatoon its enjoyable gameplay kept fans going, and regular updates and additions gave the title an 'event' feel, as we looked ahead to what was still to come. Checking out new weapons or maps on a near weekly basis became an excuse to keep playing, to keep logging in.
The success of Splatoon will likely have prompted some important discussions within Nintendo's hierarchy. First, it's a new IP that's likely to become a regular part of the landscape, as its success - in sales and in its impact with the media, social media and more - surely makes an eventual sequel inevitable. It'll also have the company thinking about online-centric games in a new light, considering experiences that have a single player component but, nevertheless, become regarded as online games. The shooter is an obvious genre for this, but we have little doubt that Nintendo will be looking at other ideas that can replicate the Splatoon release model.
The gradual roll-out of content in Splatoon gave Nintendo time to wrap up extra content and focus on improving the core game; over two million buyers have been providing real-time testing that's enabled the development team to tweak and improve almost all aspects of the title.
We suspect the Shigeru Miyamoto mantra of "a delayed game is eventually good; a bad game is bad forever" will stand at the company. Perhaps, though, Splatoon will see the philosophy change for some games, where delayed content need not slow down a great game's release.