Nintendo eShop developer discussion: Yacht Club Games discusses Shovel Knight
Nintendo of Europe: First of all, please introduce yourself and tell us what you do at Yacht Club Games.
Sean Velasco: I’m Sean Velasco, and I do design and direction on Shovel Knight, but in addition to that I do loads of other things, because so does everybody else on the entire team. We’re a really small company, about half a dozen people, so we all have to wear a lot of hats.
NoE: You have a lot of history in developing for Nintendo consoles – what previous titles have you personally worked on that Nintendo fans might know?
SV: I used to work at WayForward, which is a company known for making licensed titles, but they’re also known for side-scrolling platformers and original games. A Boy and His Blob was one of the games that I worked on, and I also worked on some of the Mighty games: I directed Mighty Milky Way, and Mighty Switch Force! 2, but not the first one. Oh, and Batman: The Brave and the Bold on Nintendo DS! That was a licensed game, I really loved it.
So we’ve been making side-scrolling platformers for many years, so when we decided to break off and do Yacht Club, naturally this is what we wanted to do.
NoE: And that led to Shovel Knight of course – can you briefly introduce the game to anyone who’s not familiar with it?
SV: Of course. It’s a side-scrolling platformer in an 8-bit style, and it’s a bit of a nostalgia trip for anyone who’s ever played an NES or has love for those kinds of games. I know in the UK there’s not as much nostalgia around the NES as there is in the United States, but if you do have nostalgia for that kind of game, that’s what we wanted to make: an 8-bit style game that’s built around a singular mechanic.
You know, you have Metroid and the Morph Ball, Mario and the jump, and Mega Man – all he can do is jump and shoot. With those kinds of games it’s all built around something that’s so simple and because you can understand and intuit the game and what you can do, then you can start to extrapolate what you can do in the wide. And in Shovel Knight that’s the same: we wanted to make an 8-bit game that was mechanic-based, so all you can do is jump and shovel...
NoE: At the same time?!
SV: Yeah! You can jump, you can shovel, and you can do them at the same time, as well as your down thrust which is called the Shovel Drop. And since you can only do those few moves, everything else is built out of that; you look at an enemy and you think, “what are my three actions that I can do with this?”
By going around and playing with everything, not only can you have a lot of fun, but as a developer we can surprise you in interesting ways by subverting your expectations of what you think the object is going to do, because you know what you can do.
NoE: So because you have a limited array of moves, the environment can surprise you in different ways.
NoE: As you say it pays homage to a lot of those famous games from the 8-bit era, but other than the obvious thing – which is the main weapon being a shovel! – what does it do differently to those games of yesteryear?
SV: One of the things we wanted to do was make an 8-bit style game, but obviously there are so many outdated and outmoded game mechanics from the 80s that we didn’t want to carry over, so we just had to take a really close look at pretty much everything. I would say we used other games as an inspiration, but almost more as a starting point.
For instance, the way checkpoints work in our game. Originally they worked like the silent checkpoints in Mega Man, so you’d walk past one and when you died you would reappear at that checkpoint. But we wanted to do something more interesting and different, and so as Shovel Knight is all about gold and digging up money, we wanted to tie the money into the checkpoints in some way, so we thought about how we could iterate on that and make it interesting. Initially the checkpoint was something you would stand on that you’d pay 500 gold to use; you’d stand on it, and then it would lower – bink! – and it was active. It was a toll checkpoint, but it ended up doing the opposite of what our intention was, because players that were no good at the game or who were having trouble, they didn’t have any money! We racked our brains, “OK, what can we do?”, and eventually we flipped it and made it so you can pass by the checkpoint and it activates, but if you break it then gold will spill out of it.
So now it’s a bit of a risk-reward mechanic, and it’s just little things like that: our checkpoints, our story set-up I would say too is much stronger. We got rid of lives, so now instead of dying three times and being done with the game, you just lose some of your gold every time. We balanced everything a lot more so it doesn’t quite have that NES-era difficulty where you’re tearing your hair out with frustration.
NoE: It’s old-school, without being old-school punitive.
SV: Yes, exactly, so that was about taking a look at those old-school elements. But also you know, we have a widescreen format, multiple scrolling layers of parallax, great integration with the Nintendo 3DS via StreetPass, full-on awesome 3D, Touch Screen integration; and on Wii U we have the Miiverse Digger’s Diary where you can share messages with other players. We tried to bring forth a lot of new elements and make it feel like a modern game, or have a lot of modern design, but retain those 8-bit trappings.
NoE: You just touched on the unique features of each version – what can you tell us about the Nintendo 3DS version’s StreetPass Arena, and how it’s used?
SV: When we were making the Nintendo 3DS version of the game, we knew we wanted to do something cool with StreetPass, but quite a lot of the StreetPass games we had seen were tokens; you know, you get tokens to play the game, rather than it actually being the game. In Bravely Default you have people coming to your village, and I love the StreetPass Mii Plaza games that the rabbit sells you! And every time I come to conventions or events like this one, I get a ton of StreetPass hits, whereas where I live, I don’t usually get a lot. So we love the uniqueness of StreetPass and wanted to make something that had a bit more gameplay to it, hence the StreetPass Arena.
The way it works is you record a Shovel Knight battle, and it’s only five seconds long, but there are three, five-second rounds, that all take place on a single screen. The objective is to collect gems that are scattered around the screen, and on top of that you have to defeat the other Shovel Knight. But of course because it’s StreetPass, the thing is you haven’t met that other player yet so you don’t know what they’re going to do.
NoE: So it’s like shadow boxing!
SV: Right, and so you’re jumping around, but you know where the gems are going to be, so usually you build your strategy around that: “OK, I’ll collect the gems by going up this way,” or “I’ll take this path.” And in addition to the shovel, Shovel Knight has a lot of items he can use, called relics, that are sort of like sub-weapons; he has a fireball he can shoot, things like that. And of course that adds an extra layer of strategy to the StreetPass Arena because you can use any items or weapons you want. And that’s basically it; best two out of three wins, and when you win, you get a little bit of gold, so while it’s not an extremely important thing that you do when you’re playing, but it’s just a lot of fun.
NoE: And a very strategic and new kind of gameplay: “I’m going to go up here, then I’ll do a Shovel Drop here, hopefully there’ll be someone beneath it!”, that sort of thing.
SV: At first it feels very random, and that there’s no way any of it will ever make sense. The genesis of this idea was this input recording mechanism we had, which allowed you to play around with Shovel Knight, then play it back and watch what he does. And we thought we could maybe use that in some way, like ghost data, so that’s how it went.
And now the game’s been out in the States for a while, about a month now, and I was at San Diego Comic-Con a few weeks ago and for the first time I got to have real, live interactions with other players via StreetPass.
[Editor's note: This interview took place in August 2014.]
NoE: But the big question is: did you win?
SV: I’m at about 75% victory rate… I know, I know! But there was one guy there who said, “I’m pretty much undefeated in StreetPass Arena, I have 99 wins and one loss,” and I had to ask, “What’s your strategy?!” His strategy was to run and collect each gem totally efficiently. He doesn’t attack, he doesn’t do anything, he just runs and collects them so perfectly that the other Shovel Knight is thrashing about trying to get something, and he’s in and out like the wind.
But now that I know… well if I’d known that was his strategy, I could have countered it, but since you’re passing people you don’t know of course…
NoE: But for people you’re StreetPassing regularly, you’ll get used to their strategy and try to outdo them, like a nemesis.
SV: Apparently they’re playing it in the Nintendo of America Treehouse, and telling us that people are saying, “Who is this DireWolf that keeps beating me?!” It’s really neat. You can queue up 10 StreetPass hits, so that’s what I do. You can open it up and then see each one and watch the strategy unfold.
The Nintendo 3DS version is probably my version of choice, although it’s so difficult to choose. I really, really love how the 3D looks on this game. It’s sort of like the 3D Classics a little bit, but we have many layers of parallax. There are eight layers, and it’s all just scrolling as it goes, and all of our programmers did such an amazing job of making each enemy and each character and each thing you dig up go into the screen or go back in the screen. The implementation of it is just really, really good, and so I just want to say, I’m personally really proud of the 3D in the Nintendo 3DS version. So please give the 3D a shot when the game comes out!
NoE: What can you tell us about Digger’s Diary, the Wii U-exclusive Miiverse mode?
SV: Okay, so the Digger’s Diary is all about using Miiverse. You’ll be playing the game on the TV, and then on the Wii U GamePad there’s a tab called ‘Diary’. You tap it and then Miiverse messages from other players appear on the GamePad screen. But the cool part is, all the messages pertain to the room in which you are currently residing. So you might be in a single-screen room and there are some gems hidden up in the corner, but you don’t know how to get them – maybe somebody wrote a Miiverse post that says, “Hey, hit this rock to get the gems!”
NoE: Or they might commiserate with your exact situation!
SV: We’ve seen it where the whole screen might be scribbled over because they’re so frustrated! And we’ve seen people talking as the characters, because that’s another thing with the Diary – you can choose an avatar from the game, so you can choose Shovel Knight, or you can choose King Knight, or any of the other knights or The Enchantress, or anybody, and you can stick them up there. So what we’re seeing is people sticking the character there and then talking as if they’re the character. It all adds a little bit more fun to the game; we’ve been saying it’s a bit like the schoolyard, with tips and hints you might talk about with your friends.
NoE: Rumours passed around…
NoE: It’s nice to bring people together, as with the StreetPass Arena. There are no simultaneous multiplayer aspects to the game, but you’re still bringing people together through Shovel Knight!
SV: (laughs) That’s beautiful!
NoE: It’s the idea that there is this connectivity between players. There’s a kind of a community. It’s something that you would have had in the 8-bit days; your friends would have played a game and you would have talked about it, but you wouldn’t necessarily go to each other’s house to play it. And there’s no expensive tips helpline – you can just go to Miiverse for that hint instead!
SV: I mean, I remember the first time I got to World 8 in Super Mario Bros. 3, and I saw the enormous cannon. I wrote a letter – a handwritten letter – to my friend and ran down the street and put it in his mail box because he wasn’t there at the time. This is when I was seven or eight years old. I was so excited, “oh man I can’t believe it!” It’s a little bit of the equivalent. And we’ve also seen in the Miiverse community, not even on the Digger’s Diary, the amount of art and the effusive praise that we’ve got and everything… It’s been really, really incredible.
NoE: Can you tell us anything about Shovel Knight’s story? Who is he, and why does he have a shovel?!
SV: The story kicks off with Shovel Knight and his partner, Shield Knight.They’re both the best adventurers in the land: they were the best at getting all the gold, and they were well-known and well-respected. But that was all in the past, because at some point Shield Knight and Shovel Knight went on an adventure and bit off more than they could chew, and so Shield Knight ended up falling with an undetermined fate. (laughs)
So Shovel Knight decided to just give up and live a life of solitude. But then out of nowhere, this evil villainess, called The Enchantress, and her knights, the Order of No Quarter start wreaking havoc all over the land. And so Shovel Knight decides to pick up his shovel and do this one final quest. That’s where it all starts off.
NoE: So… why a shovel?
SV: That’s our most asked question! It really does go right back into the mechanics. We wanted to make a game that was about one main thing, and we decided that we wanted to make that a down-thrust attack, like the down-thrust from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, or a lot of people have said the pogo from DuckTales. I see it a lot like Mario’s jump, because it’s very similar.
Since we wanted to build a game around this mechanic we thought, “Okay, what can we do that’s going to be bouncing down? If we’re going to have blocks we’re digging out, maybe we’re digging them from the side! Maybe there’s an enemy and you hit him to flip him over!” And so we started thinking about what would be a good representation, and we talked about a shovel. It was just obvious. So that was the genesis of the idea, we thought, “Okay, it’ll be a shovel guy."
NoE: How many hours of “research” did you do in the office with various shovels?
SV: Well, we did buy a bunch of shovels… (laughs) But time-wise, not nearly as much as you’d imagine!
NoE: Was there any motion capture with shovels?
SV: (laughs) No, I would wait for Shovel Knight 3D before we do any real motion capture! I’ve been thinking about that. HD motion-captured shovelling – you could put that right on the box!
We’ve thought about doing a 3D Shovel Knight game, a 3D platformer like Super Mario 64 that sounds so incredibly appealing and interesting, but the technology required to pull that off is very different to the technology we currently use. We’d need a lot more people. We could also do it with a small team, as a long burn. Now that Shovel Knight has come out and has been such a resounding success, we have that flexibility to take on a few more people if we wanted to, to bring the game to other territories more easily, to have that marketing muscle.
NoE: What’s the reception been like so far for the game?
SV: It’s been incredible, and wonderful, and beyond anything we could have expected. It’s been amazing. The reviews have been almost universally positive, all the buzz on the internet has been really huge. People have accepted the game into their hearts and they feel like it’s theirs. I’ve had people who have played the game come up to me and they’re so… well, it makes you a little misty eyed! It’s crazy.
NoE: The idea that such a small team can create something that affects so many people must be a bit overwhelming sometimes.
SV: Overwhelming, I think, is a really good way to put it.
NoE: When can European players play Shovel Knight?
SV: It’s really, really soon. We’ve been doing the localisation and working to get it all perfect. We didn’t want to do an English version and then add in the other languages later; we made the decision to do all languages, all at once, it’s going to come out like that. One of the things with Shovel Knight – I mean, as you can see with the StreetPass mode and with the Miiverse integration – is that whatever platform it’s on, and whatever territory it’s in, we want to make sure that you feel like it’s your own, like it’s a game that was made specifically for you.
And so that was a big part of it. We wanted to make sure that we got the localisation right, so you can play Shovel Knight in your language, you can play it on the platform that you love. That’s the main reason we decided to go about it like this. It’s going to be in English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, and we’ll probably be adding in more languages through patches.
NoE: Are there any plans for add-on content?
SV: Add-on content is already being planned; that was from the crowd funding campaign. Here’s what’s happening with all the update content! Every three to four months, we want to drop a new update after the initial release of the game: we’re going to have playable campaigns featuring Plague Knight, King Knight and Spectre Knight, in their own campaign with their own story. The gameplay will be 95% the same, but it’s going to be a big thing.
Then we have a challenge mode, which is going to be a series of small challenges that are very difficult, or that ramp up in difficulty so that when you finish them you’re like, “I’m the best Shovel Knight player ever!” We’re going to do a gender-swap mode, so all the male characters will become female and vice versa; we’ll probably have checkmarks where you can just tick what you want. Last but not least, we’re going to do a four-player couch battle mode. That’s only on Wii U! It’ll feature Shovel Knight, all the Order of No Quarter, all the bosses, all the characters…
NoE: Are you thinking of doing some kind of asymmetric play with that using the GamePad?
SV: One thing we were thinking about having was not having asymmetric gameplay, but you would use the GamePad as another screen. So you could look at the television, and then look at the GamePad screen and you’d see the basement. Your character could fall down into it!
NoE: Like The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures?
SV: Yes! That’s one of my favourite games, I love it so much. So we were thinking about calling it Shove Knight, because you’d have to shove your friend out of the way so you could see what’s going on!
NoE: You could have a mode where everybody’s feet are tied together and it’s Shuffle Knight.
SV: (laughs) Let’s keep going. We can develop this right now! You’ll be so excited when the game comes out, we have so many puns in that game it’s ridiculous!
NoE: Any games with puns are welcome with us – thank you for your time!
Shovel Knight will be available from Nintendo eShop for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U in November.