Be gentle with me, I’ve been in purgatory. By which I mean, I’ve been playing a lot of Splatoon 3 multiplayer lately, and having unlocked level 10, the ink shooter finally let me glide my way into its quirky ranked modes. Anarchy Battles, as these competitive modes are called, are a good time — if you’re not disconnecting left and right, or failing to find a match at all.
I feel foolish even pointing this out, because we’re in the third game of this popular franchise that is currently breaking records, and it’s not like this is a new problem. I was falling out of my Splatoon matches back in 2015, and in the sequel in 2017, and by god, I’m still getting booted in the year of our lord 2022. Millions of people are playing this and somehow I don’t really hear people complaining about it en masse; we’ve gotten used to it, I guess.
But even going in fully expecting some connectivity shenanigans, I am aghast at how terrible it is and how little things have improved between games. For those who aren’t aware, if anyone at all disconnects during a Splatoon 3 match — casual or ranked — then every single person in the game experiences a communication error and is booted from the match. In ranked, the person who hopped out or disconnected first, whether intentionally or by accident, incurs a loss. Everyone else doesn’t. I guess that’s better than the alternative, but most modern games either simply continue, or try to find you a fill-in. Having to start over completely is bonkers, especially if you were well into a match.
Since Splatoon matches are pretty quick, though, you can overlook this fault somehow, as evidenced by the fact we are still buying and playing Splatoon 3 in droves, despite being a game primarily known for its multiplayer offerings. But somehow, I’ve had even worse experiences than simply disconnecting while trying out ranked.
After a ranked match ends, Splatoon asks if you’d like to stick with the team you played with. Chances are, if you had a good time, you’ll want to — competitive modes are a better experience when you play with coordinated teams. If you won a match with a group, there’s a decent chance you might fare well in the next bout.
Picking to stay on a team one night turned out to be a giant mistake that consumed an entire night of my playtime during launch week. Splatoon 3 stuck me into an absurd wait that at best clocked in at around three to five minutes, but sometimes took well over 10. Once I was waiting for so long that the timer in the corner, which denotes seconds, had run up to 999. The game didn’t stop searching after 999 seconds, the clock just couldn’t go any higher. I waited a good ten more minutes before being able to get out of that hell.
Since there is no way to back out of matchmaking once you start it in ranked, I was stuck there if I didn’t want to incur a penalty. (That I can see, at least — I’ve been told the ‘leaving’ button appears and disappears for other people.) So far, I’ve been winning about eight points per win, and it’s a couple hundred before I manage to rank up — I didn’t really want to make this grind any harder than it needs to be. Maybe the drop is small, but that’s not really the point here. I shouldn’t have to lose anything because the game itself somehow cannot connect me to another player. It’s especially ridiculous when we know there are people playing at any given moment; as of this writing, the game just launched last week!
There is nothing worse in Splatoon 3 than finishing a game, rapidly pressing A to get through the menus because you want to hop into another one, and accidentally agreeing to stay on the team. It kept happening to me over and over again, which was infuriating because I couldn’t undo the matchmaking. The only thing I could do was actively hope that the game encountered an error or crashed (!!!).
I later learned that this is a known issue that existed with Splatoon 3 prior to launch, as Nintendo gave out advice during its first Splatfest event. At the time, they told people to put their console to sleep and then try again. The replies were full of people who had been stuck in the matchmaking lobby for so long, their characters had inked up the entirety of the waiting room. I can’t.
— 銀の腕の騎士@永遠の不幸者 (@Ginnoudenokisi) August 28, 2022
That event was back in August. Clearly they haven’t fixed it, because I just experienced the endless waiting issue. “We apologise for the inconvenience,” Nintendo wrote.
Arguably, this was an exceptional but rare experience that doesn’t reflect what I normally do in Splatoon 3. But you have to remember, things “running smoothly” in context here still means that I tend to disconnect every handful of matches!
“What did you expect,” you might be thinking, “it’s a Nintendo game.” Outside of Splatoon, infamously, first-party series like Smash Bros. have never managed to fully crack online multiplayer, though in that case, the community has persisted because tournament culture is largely local. But even that scene has its limits. At one point in 2020, the Smash Bros. community got #fixultimateonline trending. I’m not sure it’s gotten particularly better, or at least, a highly voted 2021 Reddit thread from r/smashbros is titled, “Have you played a game with worse online than Smash Ultimate?” Meanwhile, when Nintendo has tried to jump into online features, it somehow always manages to make the most convoluted thing possible. With anything that connects to the web, it’s the single instance where following convention would be the preferable action for Nintendo to take.
Nintendo is using NPLN, a new in-house server system, for Splatoon 3.
Many of the new Lobby features take advantage of NPLN. They would be more difficult or impossible to add with the old system, NEX.
Note that in-game netcode is likely still peer-to-peer (pia). https://t.co/cFKexTxhP2
— OatmealDome (@OatmealDome) August 18, 2022
There was a small, though perhaps foolish, reason to have hope for Splatoon 3. In August 2022, data miners claimed that the alternative shooting game would sport an “in-house server system” that would be an upgrade, but they speculated that it would still likely be peer-to-peer. That’s not exactly the most sophisticated type of netcode out there, because usually, if anyone desyncs, the entire thing is compromised. To Nintendo’s credit, I do experience fewer instances of in-game lag while matches unfold compared to earlier games, or having the game pause outright while it tries to catch up with what’s going on. When it’s working, the action is great! But the edges are still incredibly rough.
Kotaku has contacted Nintendo to ask about Splatoon’s connectivity issues, but the company does offer a solution online. Spoilers: Security experts say it’s a terrible one. For whatever reason, the official Nintendo support page right now instructs people to open every single port on your router, which is kind of the equivalent of pulling down your firewall. Doing this very well may improve your online experience, but it also compromises your security. Nintendo’s take?
“While Nintendo provides this information for our consumers’ use, it is up to each consumer to determine what security needs they have for their own networks, and to decide how best to configure their network settings to meet those needs,” the page says.
Anyway, I can’t believe it’s been seven years of this shit. The worst part of it all, and why it can get away with it? I’m going to keep playing, because nobody else in the shooter space really offers the fashion-centric, killing-optional experience that Splatoon does.