'Splatoon 2' Makers on Esports and Why the New Salmon Run Co-Op Mode is so Hard

'Splatoon 2' Makers on Esports and Why the New Salmon Run Co-Op Mode is so Hard

Nintendo

Producer Hisashi Nogami and programming director Shintaro Sato discuss the early 'Splatoon' prototypes and why you won't need voice chat to succeed

Producer Hisashi Nogami and programming director Shintaro Sato discuss the early 'Splatoon' prototypes and why you won't need voice chat to succeed

There's a quiet cultural shift happening at Nintendo. While it continues to give players a steady fix of classics like Zelda, Mario and Fire Emblem, it's also pushing hard to create new games that capture the competitive spirit that's been the essence of video games since the early days of the NES. Central to this is Splatoon, first released for Wii U in 2015 before going on to become the most successful new property from Nintendo since it released Wii Sports in 2006. After selling an impressive five million copies on a console that only shipped 14 million units, the sequel to Splatoon is coming to Nintendo Switch on July 21.

Splatoon 2 producer Hisashi Nogami is best known for his work on Animal Crossing, but he's been with Nintendo since 1994 when he worked on Yoshi's Island, and later on BS Zelda no Densetsu for the Super Famicom's Satellaview service and eventually as a character designer on Mario Kart 64. He's also credited as one of the creators of the Mii avatars that first appeared on the Wii.

Programming director Shintaro Sato has been with Nintendo since 2008, originally working on Wii Music before eventually leading development on Splatoon – for which he's credited with producing the first working demo.

With Splatoon 2, the pair have been able to take what they learned from the original Wii U game and double-down on what proved most popular with players. As E3 was winding down earlier this month, we were able to spend some time discussing Nintendo's newfound esports chops, how the original game was conceived, and how both of their wives have played even more Splatoon than they have.

We spoke to Reggie Fils-Aimé recently about how important competition is becoming to Nintendo. Splatoon seems to be at the heart of that – was that always the core inspiration?
Hisashi Nogami: Well, you know, competition is really important to Splatoon 2, and it's a core element of the game. Our idea of the competitive game that we're making is that we first offer a set of content to the players and give them the tools for play – the stages and the weapons – and then the players themselves determine what sort of play they're going to create using those tools. We watch that and keep an eye on it, and then make adjustments if necessary. We have a back and forth with the community.

We take a lot of care to ensure that equality and fairness – making sure that players perceive that they're all on the same fair playing field – is very important. And, you know, as we're combining all of these elements into this competitive experience, if we do it with an eye to fairness, we'll only widen that circle of people who can jump in and enjoy it.

One style of making games at Nintendo is what you can see with Super Mario Odyssey – you have a set of content that is made for a player to enjoy. That's wha we have a lot of respect for and feels very important. However, the type of play experience that we're creating with Splatoon is something that we view more as a playground. You know, players are on the playground, and it's a bit of a conversation, a back and forth, with the content we create and the reactions from the players. And that's a choice that we have to make between the Odyssey style of game creation and the competitive style of game we're making.

We spoke to Arms producer Kosuke Yabuki recently, and he mentioned that there's a real culture of prototyping at Nintendo. What was the process like for Splatoon? Were there previous ideas that you worked on and ultimately dismissed?
Hisashi Nogami: Prototyping was really important for Splatoon, and I think actually it was at the prototyping stage that we had the core gameplay that ended up surviving into the final game.

This was originally a prototype that Mr. Sato created, and the way it originally looked was you would have a grey playing field with four simple cube-like characters on each team – so, four black cubes against four white cubes. They would shoot their own color of ink at each other and compete for turf.

This doesn't mean that we had all the actions you can do in the game mapped out, or the final look of the characters as squids, but it was already possible to see where your allies were, or whether an an opponent was attacking your territory. You also had a clear idea of what you needed to do to win, and that in trying to secure victory you could be discovered by your opponent. This was all something we found really fun, and it was all discovered and implemented during that prototype stage.

So, you know, in our Nintendo way of making games, we wanted to layer on abilities, sets of weapons with their own characteristics, and build out from this prototype that we had. It was really important for us to make sure we protected and kept that core prototype idea, and that we didn't lose sight of it while we continued to layer on and build out the game into the final product.

So the squid came after as a way to justify the ink?
Shintaro Sato: Yeah, I think it is true to say that. If we were going to be dealing with shooting ink, one reason for going with a squid is that it fits what squids can do. There was another reason that we ended up going with squid though. In the prototyping stage there was one fundamental gameplay element of Splatoon that wasn't in there yet – the ability to swim in your own ink, and to switch back and forth between walking around and then being in a form in which you're swimming. When that was added to the game later we realized that it still supported the idea of being a squid. And, you know, this may sound overly simplistic – but there's probably only one creature in the world that can both eject and then swim through its own ink, and that's a squid. It was really important for us to have an easy to understand creature like that to latch onto as we continued our development.

One of the big differences in Splatoon 2 is the new Salmon Run co-op mode where players team up against a new species of evil fish. Was that part of the early prototype phase for the original game, but it didn't make it until now?
Hisashi Nogami: As soon as we knew that Splatoon 2 was going to be coming out on the Nintendo Switch, we immediately started thinking about the fact that it's a console you can play at home, docked in front of a television, but also that you can take with you on the go. We felt that this dual-purpose console concept was something that fit well with the activity that you were already doing in Splatoon. So – at home in front of your TV you're working on your online play, and then you can also take the game with you, gather together with friends, and continue that multiplayer experience in a local setting. We also wanted to give people who were getting together locally another option – another mode with a smaller number of players than the usual eight-player multiplayer experience – and that is sort of when we came up with Salmon Run. Our idea was that as few as just two people could get together and – without having to worry about battling a larger number of people – cooperate together and have a goal that they were gonna try and achieve.

Shintaro Sato: This wasn't an idea that was really there during our development of Splatoon 1 – it was more something we landed on when thinking about Splatoon 2. We actually tried a variety of different experiments with this before we landed on the Salmon Run concept. Actually, now I think of it, one of those was one that we tried during the development of Splatoon 1.

In our development of the original game, once we had established the multiplayer concept we wanted to do, we knew that we wanted to have a single-player experience as well. This ended up becoming the campaign that you've played, but that was actually just one idea that was among all these experiments that we did. Another one of those experiments was a single-player experience where the goal was to defend something from oncoming waves of enemies. So, while that original single-player defense experiment didn't survive first game's single-player campaign, we can still see elements of it, reimagined as a co-op experience, in Salmon Run.

the setup for it is that there's a company called Grizzco Industries run by this mysterious bear who is hiring workers to go and defeat these Salmonid creatures.

I spent some time playing it, and it's very hard. Is that intentional?
Hisashi Nogami: Yes, it was intentional.

Shintaro Sato: What percentage of difficulty did you play it on?

It was low. It was like five or ten percent or something. I felt like a real wuss.
Shintaro Sato: So far, we've only shown Salmon Run as a local multiplayer thing. One thing we're hoping for is that it will really attract players with some experience with Splatoon multiplayer, and that they'll be able to team up and offer advice. Communication will be really important in that local setting for players to inform each other about what's going on and share things that they've learned from multiplayer.

Hisashi Nogami: In the full version of the game there is an online version of Salmon Run mode but you'll need to raise your multiplayer level to level 4 before being able to participate in that.

So it's like needing to beat the Arms Grand Prix at level 4 before playing a ranked game?
Hisashi Nogami: A little, yeah. Once it does become available, the setup for it is that there's a company called Grizzco Industries run by this mysterious bear who is hiring workers to go and defeat these Salmonid creatures. When you first enter Salmon Run mode online you'll be put through his, sort of, job training. He'll teach you the basics of the mode.

So you're a squid, employed by a bear. OK.
Hisashi Nogami: And so, you know, whether it's playing with some experienced players in a local setting, or getting your tips from this bear character in the online version, we're hoping that the level of difficulty will appropriate for players to tackle if they have the right set of players with them.

You know, this is true for Salmon Run but also for multiplayer – we're trying to design a game that won't just keep you at the same level of interest the entire time, but will have these peaks of really cool events happening and something that makes everybody sort of become surprised at once. We've designed the game to encourage situations where when you're in a random match with people you may not know, and and it looks like everything is proceeding one particular way, then suddenly there's a turn of events and the losing team is able to turn the tide and surprise everyone.

Shintaro Sato: Multiplayer in Splatoon is multi-layered. There are teams, but there are individuals, and they're all building a knowledge base on how to most effectively fight back against the enemy. They're thinking about what types of strategies are effective, but this is not necessarily the type of play that will also work in Salmon Run. In Salmon Run, you are sharing information, and that's necessary for survival. If you're going to defeat the boss salmon that appear, we really feel that it's this sense of cooperation that is going to see people through the experience.

In the same way that multiplayer will see these moments of surprise where one team turns the tide, in Salmon Run, those moments we're hoping will come when that cooperation really gels. You'll think the group is about to go down but then the team comes together to defeat the waves of enemies.

In comparison to multiplayer, Salmon Run may have a lot of things that you have to keep in mind going in. Things you have to remember about the way it works, but we're hoping that will actually make the rewards that much more enjoyable when you succeed. Honestly, if you can build the confidence to take on the highest difficulty level and succeed at it, the rewards will be that much greater.

Can you beat it on the highest difficulty?
Shintaro Sato: Yes.

Hisashi Nogami: We can do it at the studio but, you know, the people on the development team have been playing the game a long time. It's not an easy thing. To clear the hardest possible difficulty, we really need to get the best members from the development team. Unfortunately, I'm not able to join that.

You have to really talk and coordinate, right? Online it's going to need the headset, people are really going to need to cooperate to play, right?
Hisashi Nogami: Well, you know, we've tried to design the mode in such a way that even in an online setting it won't be necessary to have voice chat. To compensate we've added in a series of signals players will need to send to each other to indicate the locations of enemies. For example, as soon as the boss salmon appears, whoever's closest starts banging on that "Come on" button to call everybody over to defeat it quickly. If you get taken down, that command will change to "Help" and you hit that and players can see your location and know that they need to come and back you up.

Shintaro Sato: I think it's important to underline that we've made Salmon Run a mode where direct communication isn't necessary. However, for those teams that want to challenge the higher difficulty levels, or people who are already friends or know each other, voice chat will be available.

being an esport wasn't something that we were ever really considering or aiming for when developing the game.

Hisashi Nogami: There are two ways to match up and play Salmon Run online. One is where you're just by yourself and you jump in and you'll be placed with three other random players. The other way is to group up with either one other friend to make a pair or three people to make a group ahead of time, and then go in and challenge the mode. Of course, that means if you go in as two or three players, the remaining players will be made up of people you don't know. Whatever the size of your group – two, three, or four – if you're grouped up as friends you'll be able to use voice chat. You won't be able to voice chat with those remaining players who aren't a part of your friend group.

A lot of people have talked about the real potential for this as an international esport. Was that ever on your mind when you were making it, or was it something that emerged later with the first game, and was it something that was considered while making the sequel?
Hisashi Nogami: Well, I think "esports" is a term that actually encapsulates a lot of different meanings. You know, it could be something as simple as friends getting together to play a tournament online or it could be a tournament where prizes are involved, where sponsors jump in and you actually have pro game players involved. That said, being an esport wasn't something that we were ever really considering or aiming for when developing the game. We want to strongly encourage that sense of competition among players – we really want to make a game for players who are seriously interested in competition. After the release of Splatoon 1 we were definitely aware of a community that rose up, people who put together serious teams that were interested in a competitive tournament. And so we've included some systems in Splatoon 2 that acknowledge and encourage that type of competitive play among that more serious group of players.

Shintaro Sato: We definitely recommend getting eight people together in a local wireless setting, and you can play to your heart's content that way. But for those players that want to make sure that there is no lag we've also included the ability to connect eight Nintendo Switches via LAN play.

We also added a spectator mode so that players can have someone who is controlling the camera during their match from a variety of different perspectives, and then that match play can be recorded, potentially, and posted online to be shared with the wider community.

There's also a new mode in Splatoon 2 called League Battle. This will be a mode that players can play either in groups of two or four, and it will present you with a two-hour period in which your group competes with other groups to see how many points you can earn. Because the results of that League Battle play will be displayed in a ranking at the end of every two-hour period, we can give players goals to strive for, and hope to encourage them to keep competing and pushing.

Hisashi Nogami: And, you know, hopefully even players who aren't participating in that top level will find these developments interesting and enjoy viewing them from the outside.

So, part of your question was whether we had been thinking about esports or competitive gaming from the time of Splatoon 1 – well, while we had the confidence that we were making a game that would answer the needs of the more competitive player, we also realized that if we were going to have competitive play, it would need to be supported by a great community. We're really grateful that we've had a good response from that community, and after seeing it grow, that gave us the confidence we needed to add these additional elements that encourage competitive play in Splatoon 2.

And I think the World Splatoon Invitational that we held at E3 was basically the result and evidence of the community engagement that we've been so grateful to get. So, with all of the support that we've gotten from those players, that serves as fuel for us going forward, and encourages us to make sure we can answer the needs that they have.

Tell me a little bit about you guys. What have you worked on before? Is Splatoon your favorite game that you've made?
Hisashi Nogami: I entered Nintendo as an artist, actually, and one of my first projects was Yoshi's Island, and also doing work like enemy design, designing the specs for enemies in different games. After that I made my way to the Animal Crossing series as the director, and I spent 10 years working on that. I still participate in it as a producer.

I'm often asked, "Wow, can somebody who was that involved in Animal Crossing really make a competitive game?" But, you know, I'm a gamer and I really enjoy fighting games, actually, and so I really understand the desire people have to compete with one another and enjoy games that way.

I wouldn't want to tell my son or daughter this but... I love this game almost as one of my own children. I think that's a feeling we share often about the games we work on.

Shintaro Sato: I joined Nintendo as a programmer but I've not been involved in that many titles so far. I was involved in New Super Mario Bros. U f and I've been involved in Splatoon 1 and Splatoon 2. Just those three titles.

I dabbled in making games while I was a student, but after joining Nintendo I made tech demos and a variety of pieces of software that didn't really become games, but were ideas that took development in a different direction. One of the examples is that I made a museum guide for DS. You bring your DS system with you to the museum – this is actually still available at the Louvre right now – and it would give you an interactive guide of the displays.

But among the games that I have worked on, Splatoon is certainly my favorite. I wouldn't want to tell my son or daughter this but... I love this game almost as one of my own children. I think that's a feeling we share often about the games we work on. We treat them almost like family members or friends, dear friends.

Do your children play?
Shintaro Sato: She's just three-years-old, but my daughter still likes to touch the gamepad screen and do things like that, and also to look at the octopus Octarian characters that are in the game. My wife is actually a pretty good Splatoon player too, and has an S rank, which is the top rank in multiplayer. Our kids see her playing and say, "I want to be like mom."

Hisashi Nogami: My wife is actually an S rank player too. I'm a dedicated Splatoon player – I've probably put in 1,000 hours or more to that original game, but my wife has probably played at least twice as much as I have.

So she's better than you?
[Laughter.]

This interview has been edited and condensed.