In a perfect world, Splatoon will wind up being an overwhelming success that changes the way we look at Nintendo for years to come. The quirky, map-control focused shooter could become the next great Nintendo IP, bringing multiplayer fans near and wide to a system that they initially shrugged off. Of course, the key to this statement is “in a perfect world,” and we all know that nothing about the current state of the Wii U is perfect.
The thing is, this perfect world almost certainly doesn’t exist. Splatoon might have made for a quirky launch title or awesome first-year experience, but the numbers don’t necessarily support its short or long-term financial viability. As much as a portion the hardcore contingent wishes that Nintendo would vault itself into first place once again with a fresh IP, there’s little chance that Splatoon will do anything other than fade off into oblivion after a month or so.
The general assumption is that the Wii U has sold a total of ten million units to date. When you take into account that the Wii U iterations of some of the most traditionally popular Nintendo franchises have sold no more than five million copies worldwide, and consider that Splatoon doesn’t have any of the clout of Nintendo’s established IP, its commercial viability has to come into question. Mario Kart 8, Super Mario 3D World and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U have sold an estimated 5 million, 4 million, and 3.65 million units each, so if absolutely everything goes right, these are the numbers Splatoon could be looking at. The thing is, those three franchises have proven themselves over numerous iterations on multiple platforms; the only thing that Splatoon has proven is that it can appear to be a unique new title that has a handful of interesting gameplay clips and trailers at its disposal.
Evolve is a multiplayer shooter that previewed well, rode a great wave of positive press, and had a great deal of advertising behind it, and appeared on three platforms (PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One) that all have much higher user bases than the Wii U. As of May 7, Evolve has less than 1,550 peak concurrent users on Steam. Granted, Splatoon is very different from Evolve, and it might wind up being much better, but multiplayer games are best compared to one another. It’s literally impossible for Splatoon to sell more than ten million copies, and the idea that it’s going to sell half as well as Super Smash Bros. seems almost foolish. At its absolute best, Splatoon might sell one million units, but even this number seems staggeringly high for a new IP on a console that isn’t widely owned. Consider that Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, a new IP that technically had the Mario franchise’s backing, only sold 590,000 units through the end of March.
Still, multiplayer shooters are a finicky thing. According to VGChartz, Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, perhaps the title most similar to Splatoon from a first impression standpoint, has sold 830,000 units through March 21 on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 combined. Is there really a massive audience out there actively seeking out family-friendly multiplayer shooters? Better yet, how much of said hypothetical audience actually owns a Wii U? It’s tough to see a world where Splatoon sells way more than 500,000 units, and when you consider the proportion of those players who drop out due to distaste, time commitments (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, possibly the most anticipated release of the year, launches ten days before Splatoon), or not being able to treat it like a social platform (remember, there’s no voice chat), the picture starts to get bleak.
Recent history has shown that new IP in the $60 multiplayer shooter realm seem to die out quickly. Look at the shooters that people are playing the most: Call of Duty, Battlefield and Counterstrike: Global Offensive; all of these games are iterations in series that have proven themselves to have legs. Games such as Evolve and Titanfall may have demonstrated unique gameplay mechanics and systems, but we often see gimmicks favored over longevity when it comes to new IP. Splatoon has been billed as a unique take on the competitive multiplayer shooter, but with the lack of voice chat capping off how much teamwork can truly be present, would it surprise anyone to see the squid-shooter fall off of a cliff after two or three weeks? Could this be the reason that Nintendo has already announced post-launch DLC support?
What’s even more terrifying is that Nintendo made the always questionable decision of announcing DLC before the launch of a new IP. Though each has received backlash for their pre-launch DLC announcements, developers like NetherRealm, Rocksteady, and CD Projekt Red will all get away scot-free due to the love surrounding Mortal Kombat, the Arkham series, and The Witcher. Though Nintendo holds the most powerful stable of IP in the industry, the general public largely doesn’t care about Splatoon as a franchise yet. Sure, there might be some interest in this unique take on the multiplayer shooter, but how much of that intrigue is going to translate to cold, hard cash? Yes, all of the add-ons will be free in this case, which in a certain light is a wonderful thing, but it could also signal a lack of in-game content. Are we sure that Splatoon is robust enough on its own to keep players around until the free DLC drops? Of course not. Until we know whether or not Splatoon is actually, you know, a good video game, it’s hard to say that people will be willing to actually spend their money on it, let alone stick around long enough to make downloadable content worth their time. Announcing DLC for a new IP before launch has two major consequences: showing the publisher is backing said IP (which is a positive) and establishing a bad taste in the consumer’s mouth before launch. Shouldn’t we find out if Splatoon is actually worth $60 dollars and our time before we even consider the prospect of DLC, free or otherwise.
After all of the doom and gloom that I’ve presented in this article, it’s weird to think that a solution to all of these problems has been staring Nintendo right in the face this entire time. Splatoon should be a free-to-play platform that eventually moves over to the NX. Rather than simply dooming it to fail on a console that only has 10 million units, it could establish itself as something that earns Nintendo money for a decade. Think about it: if Splatoon sells 500,000 copies, that means it’ll make $30 million in gross revenue before stocking fees, disc-printing fees, salaries, and other development costs. If it sells one million copies, that’s a gross revenue of $60 million before costs. While those numbers might seem impressive, those are fairly low caps on what could be a consistent stream of revenue over the course of multiple console lifespans.
Let’s say that Splatoon takes on the Dota 2 model and only sells cosmetic items to players. Nintendo has such a staggering array of IP that cosmetic skins based on its popular franchises would likely sell like gangbusters. Consumers are flocking to retailers to purchase amiibo, even though they’ve demonstrated only a slight veil of in-game functionality at best. There are people who spend hundreds of dollars on Dota 2 and League of Legends skins, so is it really that shocking to think that in-game Nintendo cosmetic items wouldn’t sell well? On top of all of this, making Splatoon a fair free-to-play platform would enable the possibility that everyone with a Wii U at least gives it a shot, something that is nowhere near a possibility with its insanely limited beta and $60 price-tag. Of course, there’s not a chance that Nintendo ever employs this strategy, but it’s still fun to think about.
The optimist in me hopes that Splatoon proves to be a wild success, changes the way we look at Nintendo and the competitive multiplayer shooter forever, and sells millions and millions of units. The realist in me believes that there’s a chance that it sees mild sales numbers, a low concurrent player count and a steep user drop-off after its novelty wears off. Regardless of how good or bad Splatoon winds up being, it’s hard to envision a world in which it has the chance to succeed, given that it’s a new IP late in a failed console’s lifespan. Then again, this is the world that Nintendo has created for itself at this point.