In the remainder of 2016 we'll re-share some of our favourite feature articles from the year. This article from 4th August reflects on the end of an era after the final Splatoon Splatfest, and how the colourful shooter established a DLC model for Nintendo that's sure to return in the future.
Recently we had the end of an era, of sorts, for Splatoon. Though minor updates and fixes could still potentially come in the future, the final Splatfest and related events and buzz - which included the release of new amiibo figures - signalled a conclusion for the fresh IP. After over a year of regular content additions and events the game will now just tick along, with a hardy group of veterans splatting each other in paint / ink in online matches.
Rather like we see with the Monster Hunter games on 3DS, there are entirely reasonable limits to how far freebies and new updates go. Unlike Capcom's series, however, Splatoon really needed a lot of additions in the months after it launched. When it landed in May 2015 its feature set and online modes were so limited that we had quite a debate behind the scenes over our review score. This writer, for one, questioned whether there was enough content on day one.
In the end updates rolled thick and fast, introducing multiple options for the online component that were absolutely essential in keeping players active. At one point it seemed that every week brought new stages, weapons, modes or a mix of both. It became a regular treat, seeing which new arrivals we could experiment with in the game.
Splatfests were another key component. Though they mostly varied per region - aside from a few unified events - they kept a competitive edge to the game months after release. Choosing between Team Pineapple or Team No Pineapple on pizzas, or something equally unmemorable, was a low, but there were also winners. SpongeBob SquarePants brought one high-profile brand crossover, while gamers in PAL territories were likely green with envy over the Transformers showdown in North America. As regular events with useful in-game pay-offs, Splatfests were a brilliant idea.
It was all free, too, which was the best part of all this content. It was a case of a game becoming a self-contained platform, of sorts, constantly iterating and evolving. A similar model - albeit less frequent in its updates - was seen in Super Mario Maker, as Nintendo rolled out a number of new items and regular outfits and stages at no extra cost. With both games it felt like having a season pass lite, and all without coughing up extra money.
As we reflect on what Splatoon in particular offered, it's tempting to consider that its success could make that DLC strategy more common. It's an approach best suited to games with a heavy focus of online play, as slim early pickings can be offset by the quality of the - essentially - endless gameplay. Splatting opponents can be fun for hours on end even when mode types and stages are limited in number, so as a result Splatoon could come out a little ahead of a conventional release schedule. The mechanics were solid, there was a short single-player campaign, and free additions could be pitched as exciting extras to look forward to.
It's a strategy employed by plenty of online-centric games, albeit most charge for the extras. For Splatoon, locking its post-launch content behind payments could have been disastrous, however - combine limited content on day one with the fact it was a new IP on an under-selling console, and nickel-and-diming gamers was clearly not advisable. In any case the roll-out of free additions served multiple purposes - it got the game to a 'complete' state, and it gave Nintendo frequent material with which to promote the game. From the Splatoon Tumblr site to other social media, there were weekly posts highlighting the latest additions, spreading the word further and keeping it in gamers' minds.
This isn't to suggest that all Nintendo games should have a continual roll-out of free DLC, as that's not practical or realistic. Up until the most recent financial quarter Nintendo highlighted paid DLC for Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS as a key driver of improved download revenues, with Mario Kart 8 packs also proving a success. The latter case represented terrific value, we'd suggest, while Smash Bros. extras like characters and stages came with relatively premium prices considering the content on offer. As established IPs with a lot of day one content they could leverage popularity to make us pay more, albeit some freebies were also thrown in via updates.
Yet if you're talking about IPs that command impressive sales regardless of a platform's fortunes, Smash Bros. and Mario Kart are right up there with the likes of The Legend of Zelda, Pokémon and Super Mario. What's been pleasing with Splatoon is that Nintendo not only backed the project, defying some critics in producing a new IP in a genre it typically avoids, but that it found the best way to sell the idea to Nintendo gamers. As of 30th June 2016 Splatoon was the 6th best selling Wii U game at 4.42 million units, and we know that a decent portion of those sales were accumulated steadily after the launch rush. As of 30th September 2015 Splatoon had sold 2.42 million units, so after that initial four months on the market it added another two million sales in the following nine months.
'Evergreen' is a term Nintendo uses a lot when referencing major titles that sell well beyond their launch, and there's little doubt that the company will look at how it can boost that pattern with content updates and DLC. When it comes to new IPs, or perhaps those a tier below the big-hitters like Smash Bros. and Mario Kart, some projects could be perfectly suited to the slow and steady DLC approach. Small to medium-sized games can stay in the minds of gamers for months after release as they become full-on blockbuster titles, all through a drip-feed of content additions and events.
The Splatoon model may ultimately work best for the colourful shooter and its inevitable sequel, but there's scope to take it further. Nintendo could certainly employ the weekly / monthly approach of new content with a mix of both free and paid-DLC in some titles, like a Super Mario Maker: NX Edition that releases 'New Super Mario Bros.' and other 'packs' of levels. Like the coin rush packs of New Super Mario Bros. 2, but actual sets of Worlds that form mini 2D Mario games. The key is frequency - making games platforms in their own right with a consistent flow of extras.
For Nintendo, it's a strategy that - with the right games - can be extremely effective. Its rivals in the hardware space don't have the same heavy reliance on first-party titles to sell systems; for Nintendo, though, that can be an opportunity. If the NX is what the reports suggest, a single platform that's a portable but also a home console played on the TV, then Nintendo can fill gaps easier with just one console on its development plate.
Combine evergreen content updates in games like Splatoon 2 - Spla2oon? - with regular new blockbusters, and Nintendo fans may never be bored again.