Regardless of its success over the last few years, it was never really clear how Nintendo ended up with the concept of Splatoon. It’s got children that can transform into squids fighting turf battles with ink-based weapons in skate parks, skyscrapers, and outside tropical resorts. Nothing that wild could have a boring story behind it.
“People are often surprised that our main character is a squid that can transform into a human,” said Nintendo’s Hisashi Nogami in a crowded room at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. “Our initial prototype was far more simplistic, two cubes would move around and shoot white and black ink at each other. We called it the tofu prototype.”
Nogami and his team considered using existing characters like Yoshi and Mario, but decided that only a new design could capture the feeling they were trying to establish. They eventually found themselves developing the game around a different little animal - rabbits.
The rabbit models they designed were black or white, which made them perfect for splitting into two teams and standing out while surrounded by brightly colored ink. They thought that since rabbits are also territorial they’d be right at home constantly fighting one another in turf wars. “But, then we thought ‘What would rabbits be doing shooting ink? Why would they hide themselves in ink?” Nogami said. “These are problems we ran into, there was a disconnect between gameplay and appearance.”
It became clear what the characters should be once the team figured out what the players abilities would be. They established two rules, when player character isn’t submerged in ink they could attack and if they were submerged they could move faster but couldn’t fire their weapon. They decided that they should break those abilities into two forms, one for fighting and one for moving in ink.
With that core established the team designed a bunch of characters whose appearance complimented that core mechanic. Many of them were other ocean-dwelling creatures as well as a few characters that were wearing astronaut-like suits. But once they decided that the player would swim through the ink, they knew they were going with squids. “And to further establish the two forms we decided to make the squids transform into humans, “ Nogami added. “Then our characters were finally born.”
Nogami has been at Nintendo since 1994 and is a producer for both Splatoon and Splatoon 2, he also worked on Yoshi’s Island and the Animal Crossing series. Back in early 2013 he formed a small team of ten to start brainstorming ideas. They eventually came up with more than 70 design proposals and a few software prototypes - one of them eventually leading to Splatoon.
That design process of throwing ideas around and refining them until you found what fits lives in every aspect of Splatoon. That includes building the world around the game with the Squid Sisters, Splatfests, Salmon Run, and single player campaign in both Splatoon and Splatoon 2
“The three main modes in Splatoon 2 - Salmon Run, the single player campaign, and multiplayer matches - all provide a different unique experience for the player,” Nogami said. “But they were designed as part of a single unified game cycle.”
Nintendo, while sometimes having a zeitgeist of their own, isn’t immune to growing trends in the video game industry. They wanted Splatoon to be a game that evolved as players spent more time with it, a huge goal of their stagnated release schedule of weapons, maps, and game modes was to maintain a large player base.
That decision also allowed the team to continue to flesh out the world of Splatoon. Exploring the histories of the Squid Sisters and Octolings, finding a job for the player character in Salmon Run and building lore for the city of Inkopolis. “In this way we better imagine the world by creating content that wasn’t linked to the gameplay,” Nogami said. “It was the sound team that suggested that there be songs that resonate with the youth of Inkopolis and that it should get blasted from speakers during turf war.”
Nogami believes that a single-player campaign and a believable world is still required in a multiplayer game like Splatoon, players have a much bigger reason to care about about the world with how real the fashion and music of Inkopolis feels.
Everything about Splatoon came from a philosophy of trying to create a new gameplay experience, and not just a new game. When he and his team started brainstorming ideas their main goal was trying to make something that didn’t fit into any defined category.
Even though Splatoon can be categorized as a shooter, that isn’t what they set out to make. That’s part of the reason why both Splatoon games turned out so well, loved by both players and critics. “To give an analogy it was like we started by building a big container, then we tossed all these ideas into the container filling it up and expanding what the games content would be,” Nogami said. “You might think this process is unique to Splatoon, but it’s actually a methodology for creation that Nintendo has long relied on.”