Splatoon was a notable release in various respects for Nintendo. It was one of its biggest hits in 2015, and in addition to that it's an online-centric experience. You can spend a decent amount of time on the solo campaign, but the local multiplayer option is limited and tacked on; the action mainly happens in eight-player online battles of various kinds.
The fact it's been a success for Nintendo is intriguing in itself. It may have a third-person perspective but it's the closest Nintendo's come to releasing an online shooter - in typical style for the big N it's also unique, extremely colourful and family friendly. The development team that created and then brought together this IP seemingly struck gold - they met the company's remit of accommodating a broad audiences, yet tapped into trends and gameplay that are readily associated with more 'mature' games. Unique yet also assimilated into modern shooter norms, it ticks a lot of boxes.
Its success will also demonstrate to Nintendo a vital point - that online gaming is a fundamental mainstay in this era, with that focus only increasing each year. At present even conventionally single player adventures often have online mechanics thrown in - not always for the better - while games of various genres scale back and limit solo play in favour of online modes.
This began to truly become the case in the PS3 / Xbox 360 era, with the Wii often lagging behind in online functionality - some games on the little box did, to be fair, have strong online feature-sets, but they were in a minority. That's only continued and expanded in this generation, and Nintendo has played its own - albeit limited - part in this. It tried to boost the popularity of online play in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U by adding Tourneys, the Mario Kart 8 online play has been solid, while third-parties have done a reasonable job - Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is an online leader on 3DS.
The focus with online play continues in the download space across various platforms, too. A notable recent smash hit has been Rocket League, and we think it's fair to say that most are playing online matches rather than working through the career mode. While big-budget titles aim for immersive and evolving online components, in single- or multiplayer experiences alike, for smaller studios there's a clear desire to take simpler, fun concepts and create a compulsive online hook. This is particularly predominant in the PC scene, but is increasingly creeping into consoles.
With online gradually evolving from being the secondary to the primary part of a number of games, it raises interesting questions for Nintendo. As mentioned above, Splatoon's success has arguably been driven by its status as an online game; the question for Nintendo is whether an online focus should become a more prominent part of its overall strategy. For many years, largely taking off on the N64 and then particularly with the Wii, Nintendo has placed local multiplayer and shared fun at the core of its message. Is the reality that this part of the market is shrinking?
If you cast your mind back to E3 2012, when Nintendo fully unveiled the Wii U concept, former President Satoru Iwata showed an illustration of a family in a room, each staring at their own tablets and smartphones. Part of the vision for Wii U, with its use of the GamePad and TV, was to bring that room of people together in an experience, with the system's form factor playing into the tablet-driven trends. Nintendo Land was bundled to be the Wii Sports of this generation, unifying the living room group.
As well intentioned as that was, it hasn't paid off as much as Nintendo would have hoped. Not only has the system struggled and the GamePad been under-utilised - by the big N itself, it must be said - but the normally successful batch of party games and local multiplayer experiences have had a limited impact. Wii Party U, at the last count, squeaked into the top 10-selling games on the system with 1.58 million sales. Nintendo Land is second overall with 5 million sales, but that's under half of the Wii U hardware sales - a lot of people have picked up systems without the bundled title (launch Basic units or subsequent bundles) and evidently haven't exactly rushed to grab it in stores. Releases like Game & Wario and Mario Party 10 felt like low profile titles, while the Wii Sports Club releases (eShop and then retail) seemed poorly thought out and were received as such.
The story seems similar in the eShop space, too. Just recently developer Juicy Beast shared a postmortem on the release of Toto Temple Deluxe, a title heavily focused on local multiplayer. They shared the belief that this was a major factor in the game's struggles.
At the end of the day, we think the biggest factor is because it's a local-multiplayer game with no online play. The game is aiming at a pretty niche audience by requiring actual human friends to play, and we can't ignore the impact it has on sales. A quick look at comments on YouTube, Reddit and such, and it's obvious that a lot of people are simply not buying the game for this very reason (that along a lack of solo experience).
Other titles with a focus on local multiplayer have tried to ensure there's solo play - such as Affordable Space Adventures - or have been like Runbow, trying to cover all bases with a campaign and online support. There are exceptions to the rule, but it does seem that the online era is taking grip, and experiences reliant on local multiplayer struggle to find widespread support.
Beyond trends developed by the gaming community in general, lifestyles in the modern world probably contribute to this. The wide gaming audience is older than it once was - the expansion of the industry shows how a lot of gamer kids of the '80s and '90s are still playing now, while of course younger generations continue to get on board. A child of the 21st Century is growing up in an online world, while older gamers naturally have jobs and responsibilities; it's not always practical to meet up with friends for some shared couch gaming. It's far easier to hop online and meet there, with current-gen games like Destiny tapping into that habit.
So will we see that shift from Nintendo in the next few years? Away from party games that encourage four or five players to grab a Remote and more towards shared online experiences? It's certainly possible, even if it feels - at this stage - far removed from Nintendo's DNA. The company started to learn and improve its online efforts with early examples like Mario Kart Wii, and there have been slow and gradual additions and improvements in the past few years. We've recently argued, too, that Splatoon has taught Nintendo valuable lessons; its success as an online game is one such lesson.
For this writer, multiplayer gaming is at its most fun when shared with others in the same room. Yet it's more difficult than ever to do so, and experiences focused on local play are less prominent than ever before. Sentiment aside, though, Nintendo's future in multiplayer experience may shift more towards headsets and broadband connections. There's likely to always be a handful of local multiplayer-focused games from the big N, though, for old time's sake.