Sunday, May 31, 2015

Thoughts on Splatoon

Splatoon came out recently, and I know a lot of people have been pretty excited about it. I’ve had several hours to play it, so I thought I'd talk about it a little.

First, the game’s a terrific time thief. You will “one more game” yourself through a whole day if you aren’t careful. That’s usually a selling point, as far as entertainment goes.

Second, it reminds me that the hidden star of the show for video games are their sound effects. Splats and splortches abound, they make everything extra satisfying.

Third, it’s pretty and smooth and stylized. Rather enjoyable to look at, overall. Plus the use of opposing colors is such a smart way to guide the player’s eye, and the initial moment of the match (where you start spraying ink over the level) is a great moment to acclimate the player to “this is my ink” and it mentally turns into your “good” zone. This draws you mentally to the other team’s ink as the “bad” zone and so there’s clear objectives everywhere. This means you can easily keep up with the shifting lines of attack and possibility. You see a big pool of enemy ink, it’s both a target but a hazard, and you instantly know this.

But really, let’s talk about the gameplay!

The two most common complaints that I’ve heard are pretty simple; there are only 5 available maps, and there’s no voice chat. The maps one… well, I disagree. Here’s why.

Play Counter-Strike (any of its versions) and 95% of the games are on Dust2. Play TF2 and you will see 2Fort and Dustbowl. DotA, League, HoN, and for the most part they all use one map. Most fighting games don’t have meaningful differences between the levels.

Smash is the obvious game to point out here, but having played it with numerous groups of people over the years, I can say this; only a fraction of the levels get used, whether your friends are casual players or tournament players. In fact, tournament players get criticized for taking out the casual levels, but all groups of casual players spend over 80% of the time playing on one level, which is Hyrule Temple (well, for Melee). Over the games, you'll find that people mostly want to play Smashville, Battlefield, Final Destination… and most stages end up forgotten. People will dip in once in a while, then go back to their standbys.

For Splatoon, there are five maps. This is already more than most people gravitate to in any given game. If the five maps are well designed, then there isn’t actually much to complain about. So far I have a favorite level (Blackbelly Skatepark), a least favorite (Saltspray Rig, because I am awful there) and I enjoy the other three fairly equally. So I enjoy four of Splatoon’s five maps, and the fifth one I can tolerate. To me, that’s a winner. Especially since there will be more later, I’m fine just learning these and exploring them as deeply as I can.

I want to give some credence to the other perspective, however. Some people enjoy the feeling of exploration and constantly trying out new things in a game, and that is the appeal to them. The value of a game lies in how many new things it has to offer, and so the complaint goes “I can’t believe I paid $60 for five maps.” Because once somebody knows a map, the map stops being fun. So for them, fun correlates to the amount of content.

There is also a very wise reason for making numerous maps. If you don’t know which map or stage is going to be the most popular, then the shotgun approach can be the most valuable. Make twenty stages, end up with two that people play forever, and you’re golden! Conversely, if all of Splatoon’s five stages fail to become the game’s version of Dust2, people will quickly stop playing. They will feel cheated of the money and time they’ve invested. Then you’ve got a dead game. No bueno.

If somebody tells me that makes them wary about the game, then I understand. But judging the maps before playing them doesn't seem fair.

My own preference tends towards “depth in simplicity.” Or rather, include few features, but make them excellent so they last a long time on their own. Take a map that is really good and you will enjoy it for a long time, finding new strategies and tactics, then perfecting them. Take a game whose basic rules are simple but well thought out, and it creates emergent gameplay. I like when a simple idea gets expounded upon in numerous subtle ways, and I have hope Splatoon is going to do that. The fact that you can approach positions from so many angles because of the ink/movement combination means that stages feel very dynamic. The feel of the levels changed tremendously as I improved. That’s a good thing, I think.

I think this will apply to the game’s mechanics as well. First off, it’s a team game. I hope to see synergies between coordinated players as the game develops more and more. Strategies for taking different parts of maps, coordinated two person tactics, balanced team loadouts, things like that. I have a few ideas in my head for some basic tactics and the roles that various weapons might play, as well as how the stat modifiers on the equipment might influence gameplay to suit preference and strategy.

One possibility is simply two players trying to attack over a hill or ramp; one hides in ink, the other fires a line of ink up the hill, and his/her teammate swims up the ink trail to surprise whoever is holding the position. Another is the use of various subweapons and super weapons in conjunction to control large amounts of space. Those are just the ones unique to the game; any squad based shooter should always have elements of flanking, angle control, and target diversion for teammates to make plays. Splatoon, when players get better at it, should have that as well. I feel like the game is going to evolve in a very interesting fashion, as long as the players push it intelligently.

So moving on, this is also why I have to agree with the voice chat criticism. Nintendo’s philosophy on the subject is “people will be mean to you and ruin your fun, so we won’t let them.” That’s entirely understandable; after growing up on a variety of online games, I know too well how that goes.

But the real solution to that is just have voice chat disabled by default (for the kids), and let players activate it if they’re interested. Then let them mute each other if somebody is being a twerp. This lets the communicators communicate while avoiding trolls and jackasses.

I have another few criticisms, most of which involve menus and how the game handles lobbies. You have to leave the lobby you're in if you want to change any settings. If you’re having fun matches with a lobby full of equally skilled players, but you’re tired of using your current loadout? You have to leave, or just play with the same setup. You can’t even change things like aim sensitivity or axis inversion. This turned out to be a source of hilarity when I was swapping the controller with my friends, since I use X-Axis inversion and they don’t. So to change one thing meant going through multiple menus and leaving the lobby. That was irritating.

I think having the ability to save loadouts would be useful as well. The clothes you wear offer stat bonuses, and one outfit might be tailored more for a given weapon. So if you want to switch weapons, you not only need to leave your lobby, but also individually select each part of the outfit. Saved loadouts would be unbelievably convenient, and it saddens me not to see them.

Menu annoyance continues. You can’t cancel from joining a game; once you’ve said “yes I’m joining the lobby,” you’re stuck. These criticisms aren’t part of the gameplay per se, but they still can inhibit it and annoy the player. If the annoyance comes before the fun, then you’ve done the fun a disservice.

Because, as it turns out, I find the gameplay incredibly fun! I enjoy using the ink and squid form to navigate and attack from surprising angles, I like predicting enemies, I like setting up positional traps with teammates, and I like camping a tiny splotch of ink around a blind spot then popping up and getting a double splat. I look forward to playing with buddies and setting up team tactics (of course, this necessitates me actually getting a Wii U somehow, rather than just playing it at my friends’ place).

I noticed a tremendous difference between how the game felt when I was new compared to when I’d practiced a few basic maneuvers. Being better at the game makes it feel more and more fun, which is always a good sign. Hopefully this trend continues and the game will be worth playing for months to come.

Some other thoughts:

  • I like that you claim territory with your weapon. This means that while camping ink in squid form has power as a surprise attack, it’s not an unstoppable strategy . It also means you can cut off people’s escape by claiming the ink behind them, and that puts them in awful position.
  • Again, I cannot wait to see how people manage team synergy. I’ve got some pictures in my head of different setups and purposes for various weapons, I hope a couple pan out as viable tactics.
  • A few of the duels I’ve had in areas with relatively even ink-spread (constantly switching to squid form, trying to predict their position, all that) have been pretty fast paced and intense. Hopefully this continues to be true as average player skill rises.
  • I’m glad that splatting happens so quickly, considering the power of squid form as an escape. If you lived too long then it would be too easy to escape and counter-claim territory and the gameplay would go nowhere fast.
  • The sniper squiffer guns seem pretty weak. Aerosprays are very strong and prevalent among high level players. The roller is amazing when everybody in the room is bad; once they become good at dealing with you, you suddenly require some finesse and intelligence. Splattershots (Jr. and otherwise) all seem solid and have various purposes. Weapon balance seems mostly decent, for now.
  • Being efficient at covering territory is a darn useful skill. Time is the resource you consume to spread ink; wasting even one extra second in every place you spread ink adds up to tremendous loss over the course of the game. The same is true with hunting for splats; they’re fun to get, but they only matter if it means denying the opponent territory. Chasing somebody for six seconds while their teammate paints half the map is no good.
  • Using the walls well is amazingly fun. I’ve gotten out of some awful situations by wall riding to safety, and also done some tricky ambushes. Squid form is 85% of what makes this game interesting, so getting good at maneuvering in it is key.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading. Hopefully I’ll be able to play with some of you soon!