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With the sun setting on Nintendo’s Splatoon 2, could the franchise’s future be as a free-to-play game?

Nintendo Switch paint ‘em up, Splatoon 2, is currently holding its final Splatfest, one of the game’s occasional themed Turf War events. Just like the final Splatfest for the original Splatoon, the stakes are high. This time the battle is between Chaos and Order, with the winning side set to influence the story for the next instalment.

The Splatfest brings to an end the two years of support Nintendo promised for the game, During that time Splatoon 2 has received a slew of content, including new maps, weapons, and gear, as well as the big single-player Octo-Expansion. The final update – bringing the game to Version 5.0 – also lets players host their own private Splatfests across all 24 Shifty Station maps.

It’s a nice parting gift to fans, but Nintendo’s decision to wind-down ongoing support for the game does seem curious. Firstly, Splatoon 2 seems in rude health. The playing community is still strong and, based on the opponents I meet in Turf War, it appears that new players are continuing to join the game.

Secondly, the Nintendo Switch Lite hits stores in a little over eight weeks. If Nintendo’s ambition to bring the Switch to a wider audience is successful, it’s likely that Splatoon 2 will be one of a number of games to receive a further influx of new players. In short, it just feels too soon for Nintendo give up on a game that has plenty of life left in it.

Blackbelly Skatepark Splatoon 2

In a recent interview with Famitsu, Splatoon 2 producer Hisashi Nogami says that plans for a follow-up are yet to take shape. So what might the future hold?

The online gaming landscape has changed considerably since Splatoon 2 was released in 2017, most evidently in the headline-grabbing explosion of AAA-level free-to-play action games. This is demonstrated by Epic’s Fortnite, of course, but also includes the continued success of PUBG, and new entrants such as Apex Legends and Dauntless. With this in mind, it’s possible that a new Splatoon could be released sooner than we’d normally expect, and – deep breath – it could go free-to-play.

The Splatoon format is ready-made for the free-to-play model. Aside from its excellent paint splatting gameplay, it has engaged a devout fan-base, nurtured through a drip-feed of new weapons, mods, and cosmetics. Mixing and matching shoes, shirts, weapons and accessories is a huge part of the game’s cult appeal. All of these elements are ripe to hook into an economic model of microtransactions, loot boxes, and battle passes.

Nintendo has historically shied away from aggressive microtransactions (they famously asked Cygames to scale them back in Dragalia Lost) but if handled carefully they could provide a steady revenue stream while still maintaining Nintendo’s family-first stance. It’s certainly not averse to implementing them in its mobile games. The success of Fortnite and others proves that a free-to-play business model, combined with the ubiquity of mobile phones while consoles are still a relatively expensive luxury, is effective in attracting a young audience. Indeed, long-term, Nintendo’s next generation of players are still more likely to be found in the thrall of mobile games rather than the Nintendo Switch.

There’s also an opportunity for Splatoon to become the first full-fledged cross-device game for Nintendo. Again, like Fortnite, it’s easy to imagine a version that can be played on Switch or a mobile device, with progress synchronised between the two.

Would the core Splatoon audience be happy with such a move? Probably not. But it’s the one franchise Nintendo has that feels like a natural fit for the F2P treatment. It feels too soon for Splatoon 2 to end, but the sooner it does, the quicker Nintendo can release its follow up. In the meantime, support for the game concludes with the franchise firmly established as one of Nintendo’s big-hitters.

And like Super Mario Maker, it’s another example of a game born from the troubled Wii U era that could pave the way for Nintendo’s future.

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