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Shovel Knight Devs Discuss Co-Op, Pogo Jumping, And Beyond

by Tim Turi on Jul 29, 2014 at 11:52 AM

Yacht Club Games struck Kickstarter pay dirt with Shovel Knight, an NES throwback that combines the sensibilities of Capcom's best platformers with all the fun of digging in the dirt. The finished product is every bit as good as we hoped, and we couldn't help ourselves from geeking out over the terrific game with its creators. For this post-mortem piece we chat with Yacht Club Games' Sean Velasco and Nick Wozniak about the idea of making Shield Knight a co-op buddy, the inspiration behind the unique checkpoint system, and what's next for the studio.

Where did the idea for a game about a knight with a shovel come from?
Nick Wozniak: The inception of the idea last January happened sort of as a joke conversation over lunch that kind of got too serious. It's a serious conversion in terms that we were putting actual thought forth, but it wasn't like "Let's spend the next year and a half of our lives making a shovel game."

Sean Velasco [pictured below]: We went into lunch talking about this NES game we knew we were going to be doing. It was going to be 8-bit and sort of simple and based around one mechanic. That's all we knew.

Wozniak: We were thinking about what kind of mechanics we like a lot and the down-thrust in Zelda II came up. As far as combat goes in that game, it's very satisfying.

Velasco: It's like the quintessential attack. It's like a Mario jump, it's a stab, and also in Zelda II it's a great sword fighting maneuver.

Wozniak: That spawned the conversation of 'If you're hitting the guys from above then you're also digging through blocks and you're also maybe flipping guys over to hit their underbellies.' That motion of what we were describing didn't really fit with the theme of a sword. Eventually someone said to make it a knight with a shovel and that spawned the discussion of 'I guess if he's a shovel guy then he's like Plummet Knight or maybe he's Shovel Knight, the Shoveling Knight'.

Where did the idea for the story of Shovel Knight his lost Shield Knight partner come from?
Velasco: When we started development of the game, Shield Knight wasn't much of a character. She was a McGuffin. She was just a thing that [players] went after, but she wasn't really a thing in and of herself. In fact, she was called Princess McGuffin for a while.

Wozniak: We hadn't really thought about that part of the game other than 'We want to make a game about a knight and he runs around'.

Velasco: It was supposed to be like he has a shovel and at the end you have to bury your wife. It was like 'That's the story'. How could we make that happen? [laughs] Obviously it's changed a lot from that, but the idea of making something that was a little bit heartwarming, but a little bit sad, and a little bit melancholy sometimes. That was kind of in our brains from the beginning.

Where did the idea for the bonfire dream sequences come from?
Velasco: I don't want to say it was Dark Souls. It wasn't like 'There's a bonfire in Dark Souls, so we'll put it in this game'.

Wozniak: It's almost like a breathing time, a time to relax after the level, because after the level there's this big, intense battle.

Velasco: Another thing is in our game, and NES games in general, you have to be able to say something without saying anything. So it's like what has more charged meaning in it than a solitary knight at his campfire either reliving something that happened or just having a little moment of respite after a big battle? That was one of the key images that anchored the home game. Because before there was Shovel Knight gameplay there was Shovel Knight at the campfire.

Wozniak: So the thought to incorporate that into the story of him constantly reliving trying to save Shield Knight came about.

Velasco: The idea is that he would be reliving a nightmare over and over again. And it would be something that's playable to you as the player to get you more invested in it. So instead of watching Shovel Knight being freaked out and trying to catch Shield Knight and having these recurring nightmares, you're actually experiencing it as it happens. And also just a like a real nightmare after the stage is done you don't know what's going to happen necessarily. Am I just going to fight some guys? Am I not going to have a dream at all? We talked about Mother 3 in our Kickstarter as something we wanted to try to emotionally engage the player in some way like the way that Mother 3 does. To hear that people have had experiences with this story and have gotten a little misty eyed at the ending is really nice. We put a lot of effort into making sure the story worked and that it was everything that a big adventure should be. I'm glad that it wasn't a mess, because the stories in our other games are often a big mess. [laughs]

Is trying to make a game that sticks close to NES design conventions harder or easier than just making a modern side-scroller?
Velasco: I'd say it's a mix of both when you have a limitation like that. We never had to ask ourselves which colors we should use. Well, of course we had to ask ourselves that, but we didn't have to ask ourselves because [the NES only had] a palette with 54 usable colors.

Wozniak: Creating the palette is actually a big part of creating a game.

Velasco: On the other hand, if we had these really stringent rules those are limiting. We wanted to break out of them and we did in some cases. It was really a balance.

Wozniack: It was a balance where you sometimes struggle against it, but sometimes it also helps you get through certain areas. I wouldn't say it was necessarily harder than other games, but it was something that was constantly on our minds throughout development.

Velasco: The challenges were different. I would never say that a game that I've worked on before like 'That one just looks too animated.' [laughs]

Wozniak: Yeah, that's a phrase that never happens.

Velasco: Like for example, [Nick Wozniak] did a six-frame [animation] for that flying dragon. I just pulled half the frames out.

Wozniak: That's right...

Velasco: Sorry. But on the other hand, Spectre Knight has extremely elaborate animation with his cloak and everything, but that still looks and feels totally natural. It was really walking a line, and it was tough sometimes. If something didn't look like NES, we asked ourselves how we could make it look more like the NES. Or parts of some dumb NES conventions are just not working, like how the HUD draws over the player or vice versa. Or how enemies would respawn or not respawn when you enter the room. We had to think a lot about taking that kind of stuff into account.

Is Yacht Club committed to making retro-style games moving forward?
Wozniak: I would say at this exact moment, yeah, because we're working on our stretch goals for Shovel Knight. But that's not necessarily something we're going to be doing forever.

Velasco: Our next game could very well not be an NES-style game. Even if we did a 2D game, maybe it would just not be within the NES restrictions. Maybe we could do a 3D game. Or maybe we would just do Shovel Knight 2, or another game that's straight-up NES style. It's something we can do.

Wozniak: It's up to the whim of the team at the point we're deciding our next game project.

Velasco: It'll be what we're excited about. What we think would be big or successful or interesting to people. Or maybe it would be something that's not on the market that we really want. I think a large part of the Shovel Knight thing was that nobody was making 2D character platformers. It was like 'Where's my Mega Man?' I want new games like this but they don't have them.'

Do you think you'd consider using Kickstarter again for a future title?
Wozniak [pictured left]: Kickstarter was a really stressful time. It's very taxing on a team, especially as small as ours, to put everything on Kickstarter. To put it all on the line.

Velasco: Doing physical rewards, obviously media and support people that are asking lots of stuff. When you're doing a Kickstarter it's all happening transparently and as you're doing it every day.

Wozniak: It's very hard to find time to work on a game at all when you're doing Kickstarter. Even just the campaign and the stuff you have to do afterwards, like the physical rewards.

Velasco: But on the other hand Kickstarter gave us access to a huge audience. There were about 15,000 people that backed the Kickstarter, and those people could be mobilized at any time. We had 15,000 fans before the game even came out.

Wozniak: The fans really believed in the project, and did so much that they put down money. That was vindicating and really uplifting to the team and getting their feedback from the beginning. There are definitely positives and there are definitely negatives that go with having a Kickstarter for a project.

How well is the game doing beyond the Kickstarter backers?
Velasco: I'd say it's doing very well. We are very pleased with where it's at, even this early in the sales time.

Wozniak: Across all platforms it's exceeding expectations.

Are you interested in porting Shovel Knight to Sony or Microsoft systems at all?
Velasco: That's definitely on our radar, as are any other platforms that we can put Shovel Knight on and it would be 100% the experience that it is. We're definitely looking to put it on any platform like that. But we don't have anything to announce yet.

Wozniak: We don't want the reason that someone doesn't play Shovel Knight to be that they just couldn't get it on their platform. It's really important to us that everyone can enjoy Shovel Knight to its fullest. That said, we don't want to put it on platforms that wouldn't support it. It would be hard to get it to run on iOS in terms of player control. Because the whole experience of what Shovel Knight is, if the controls are lacking in any way - which we definitely feel like the touch controls with the visual buttons don't work out very well - then it just ruins the whole experiences.

Velasco: And of course whatever it is we have to make sure we're doing updates, so we have to make sure whatever platform we're going on has fast and free content updates. We have to make sure it would make good business sense for us to port it and all that good stuff. So yeah, we're definitely looking into that. And now that the Nintendo SKUs are all finished up, that's definitely one of the spots we'll be putting our focus. Max and Linux versions are currently incoming. The European version was a little bit late but it's now coming. We're going to do a Japanese localization that will be coming out this year, also.

There is some debate of whether Shovel Knight's shovel jump is closer to Scrooge McDuck's pogo cane in DuckTales or Link's downward cleave in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.
Wozniak: Yeah, that debate is real just because it's a little bit of synthesis of the two. And other example of a bouncing mechanic in NES games. To me it seems more intentional than the pogo in DuckTales, because in DuckTales you're bouncing everywhere. There's never a time that you're not bouncing. I'm always on that cane. So it's more intentional. It's more combat-focused. That's sort of how it started. But we played tons of games as kids, and even now we're still playing NES games so however we arrive to a mechanic came about as us bringing together all the influences that are always in our brains.

Velasco: The Ducktales pogo jump is different from Shovel Knight's jump in a couple ways. Number one you can't just pogo anywhere [in Shovel Knight]. Number two, when you pogo as Scrooge you can cancel out of your pogo and it stops your velocity at any time. In Shovel Knight you can't do that. If you bounce and there's spikes above you, then you're going to get hit and die.

Why did you decide to let players purchase items rather than acquire them from bosses, Mega Man style?
Velasco: We didn't want all the items to necessarily be the representative items of the [boss] knights. I didn't have to think about 'Oh, Polar Knight since you get the booming horn from him, how is [Shovel Knight] going to use that in battle?' It's kind of more like a Zelda dungeon where you get the item earlier, then sometimes the item is really useful against the boss.

Did you ever consider having Shield Knight as a playable character?
Velasco: Because Shield Knight wasn't really conceived of until halfway through development, then no. But as soon as she was conceived of, of course we did.

Wozniak: I had in my brain an ability that I'd love to see her use where she dashes forward and dashes downward using her shield as a projectile. I've always imagined a way that she could be really useful.

Velasco: And especially the way that her and Shovel Knight are supposed to work together. That's what would excite me about doing a co-op game that would have Shovel Knight and Shield Knight playable. It's like how it's described in the story, she's the defender or up in close range and she's protecting Shovel Knight who is coming in raining hell from above with the shovel drop.

Wozniak: I can already see the Saturday morning cartoon opening of them working together.

Velasco: It's like a black screen and a really bright "Shing!" goes down the center and it opens up and the Shovel Knight logo comes forward. *Sings regal music*

You guys need to make that happen and take a page from Mighty Number 9.
Velasco: Yeah, I can't believe Mighty Number 9 beat us to the punch with a frickin' TV show.

Wozniak: Now we just need to call that company and tell them to do Shovel Knight shows. [laughs]

Tell me more about the infamous Butt Mode, where many nouns in the game's text are replaced with "butt".
Wozniak: Butt mode came about during our final day of the Kickstarter. We had just been knocking out stretch goals left and right and were not prepared with another stretch goal.

Velasco: Our top stretch goal was [originally] 200,000. We ended up doing 315,000. It was like 'At this one then we'll add this, then at this one we'll add this.' It just got to the point to where if we added anything else we were never going to be able to finish the game. So everyone was like 'What's next?'

Wozniak: So Sean or somebody just said 'Butt mode is the next stretch goal'. And everyone asked what it was and they said it was a secret. We didn't really have an idea of what it could be, and then it became an in-joke later, and then it became more than it should've been. [laughs]

Velasco: It was like 'Do you want to unlock Butt mode?'

Wozniak: Yeah, 'Are you guys sure?'

Velasco: We didn't even know what it was going to be in the beginning. But we thought that no matter what it was we had to put in Butt mode. Then one day, Dan D'Angelo, our programmer, said 'Butt mode is in.' Truly inspiring.

Are you happy with how difficult people are finding the game to be? Do you wish that folks had an easier or harder time with the game?
Velasco: We were so worried. At the last levels, like the tower levels and the Polar Knight stage, and all that stuff. The game is pretty hard. There are a lot of moments that we're like "oh god". We did work on Bloodrayne Betrayal, which was an extremely difficult 2D platformer that had really hard combat and people just hated it. They just hated it, 'cuz it was way too hard and so I was having like Bloodrayne flashbacks the whole time - no one's going to finish it - if they don't finish it they're not going to see the ending, and if they don't see the ending, they're not going to like it, and everyone's going to hate it, and what're we gonna do?

Wozniak: There was just a lotta back and forth with discussing the difficulty and another thing that happens when you're making a game is that you become the expert at that game. So there's no reason why - it's hard to see where it's too difficult because it's not hard for you.

The checkpoint system in Shovel Knight is great. I love how you're rewarded with cash for destroying checkpoints, but at the risk of losing progress. How did you land on that design?
Velasco: Thanks we're so proud of those. I think it feels like genius now, but it didn't feel like genius when we were developing it, right?

Wozniak: Yeah it seemed like just a simple easy idea that was awesome, but it was...

Velasco: Well I was going to say almost the opposite. When we were developing it we started with silent, invisible checkpoints, like what Mega Man. We wanted to have a checkpoint that was more physical. We also didn't wanna have a billion checkpoints. And so that was the way we were mitigating the difficulty at first. We'd have like eight checkpoints in the level but there were just too many checkpoints, it was too easy, and so we decided well if we're going to have a lot of checkpoints then maybe we should charge the player for the checkpoints. Because money is such a big part of the game that it's like if you have to have the player pay for the checkpoint, then that adds even more value, and then the player can make a decision about when they wanna save their progress or not.

Wozniak: The problem with that, though, is when you charge money for a checkpoint you kind of have to guarantee that the player is able to get the money required to get the checkpoint in the first place.

Velasco: If you're a bad player, then you aren't going to be able to buy the checkpoint anyway and so the very person that we were trying to save ending up getting punished.

Wozniak: Yeah, so like if it's a $500 checkpoint, and there's like 850 in the first part of the level... the bad player isn't going to get all 850, the bad player might only get 200 and then they're screwed out of a checkpoint.

Velasco: We want to help the player that doesn't know exactly what's going on yet or is still learning or is having trouble. That's who the checkpoints are for. And then the next part is where the insight happened. Up until then we were just digging around in the dirt. [Editor's Note: Hah!] But then it was like 'oh!' How about, instead of making it so you pay to activate the checkpoint, you get money to deactivate the checkpoint. And after that, everyone was like Oh! Yeah that'll totally work.

Wozniak: Shifting focus sometimes like that helps to get an idea into a spot that works.

Velasco: Yeah so after we knew that it was going to be a money-earning checkpoint when you break it, after that it was just down to the visual design, how many things we wanted to have, making sure you couldn't break the checkpoint just from walking, so that's why the checkpoint is above you, so you can't just shovel and hit it as you're walking by. Just little details like that.

You said there are other modes on the way. What are the other modes? They're all going to be free updates that unlock new modes?
Wozniak: Yeah, there are three playable boss knights. During our Kickstarter we had three separate stretch goals of another playable boss knight before the main campaign with their own play styles. We put that up to a vote to the Kickstarter backers and they voted in Plague Knight, Specter Knight, and King Knight. Those are coming in.

Velasco: So it's like a campaign of each of those characters. It's going to be 95% the same level.

Wozniak: But it's more than just like a skin of Shovel Knight.

Velasco: Totally new mobility. Probably totally different story, even though the story will be the same. It'll be the same people that you're talking to, maybe we'll have one new boss battle, something like that, just to make it feel a little bit different. But it should be like a whole new way to play through the game. That should be the exciting part. Now as Plague Knight, you have a whole new move set and you see the world in a whole different way because of how you interact with it.

Wozniak: Maybe King Knight - you get to the castle that's like the last stage. He ascends his throne and that's the final moment and then Shovel Knight walks in. There's also challenge mode which is like - we don't totally know what it's going to be, but we're imagining like a set of specific challenges that really test the skills of the player.

Velasco: We pitched it in the Kickstarter similar to the other challenge modes that what we've done in other games. So there are 40 little stages and each one of them is only a couple of screens long and there's some ridiculous challenge that you have to do. Or if you've played like Mega Man Powered Up's challenge levels, something a little like that.

Wozniak: Not too dissimilar from the actual relic stages that we have in the game.

Velasco: Now I kind of feel like I don't want to make all those stages. I don't want to make 50 [Mega Man] Powered-Up stages. I want it to be something else. More like different or more fun. Something different but have the same spirit. I don't know exactly. I don't want to do just a big mess of 50 levels.

Wozniak: Yeah, we don't know. We're going to figure that out as we approach that. There's also gender swap, which is a big art swap that we get to do that redesigns the characters and makes them the gender that they're not. That'll be fun. And then the last one, which is the big one, which is an arena battle mode - four-player, couch competitive multiplayer. The final stretch goal was all the playable boss knights. That's going to be a big giant crazy fun time. That's going to be a lot of fun, actually.

Velasco: It's going to be pretty wild. It's not going to be the most advanced thing. It's like Smash Brothers/this game. But we're going to have a cool game mode that has like a dozen characters? There'll be four-player couch co-op and I imagine it'll be things like beat each other up, collect, a bunch of coins, don't fall off on platforms as they're going and you're knocking the other guys around and trying to get up to the top or whatever.

Wozniak: Something in between the Mario 3 battle mode where you can suck in the other player and in between Smash.

Velasco: Somewhere between original Mario Brothers and the new Smash Brothers. That's what our new battle mode is going to be like.

Wozniak: Exactly. That gives us some leeway [laughs].