Posted Fri Aug 1, 2014 at 08:00 AM PDT by Trevor Ruben
Notes on a new classic along with teases and future possibilities for the new developer.
Editor's Note: The following feature is comprised of excerpts from a lengthy interview of two Yacht Club Games developers, Sean Velasco and Nick Wozniak, by High-Def Digest.
Simple. 'Shovel Knight' is, in many ways, a simple game, and from that simplicity a critical and commercial success. Released just recently on the PC, Wii U and 3DS, it's side-scrolling platformer in the style and admiration of NES classics. It works on many levels, from the lovingly crafted pixel art to the engaging bosses and ancillary characters, but mostly it shines in one pivotal but oft overlooked respect, focus. The gameplay is rock solid, and everything around that gameplay exists in service to the jumping, shoveling and shovel-bouncing of the titular hero.
The Roots of 'Shovel Knight'
"We wanted to make something that we knew that our little tiny studio was gonna be able to do best," states Shovel Knight's director, Sean Velasco, who, along with a core team within the prolific WayForward, split away from the developer to create Yacht Club Games. They wanted to make an 8-bit game that cut right to the core of why those NES games were so explosively popular.
"We're gonna build this character and this game around very few mechanics," Velasco says as he references 'Shovel Knight's' basic, two-button move set. "Because you know you only have those moves, you (the player) can look at everything in the world and you can extrapolate exactly how you may or may not interact with it. And a lot of the fun comes from when you have an expectation of how it's supposed to work, and then it happens in a totally different way."
The Current Norm: Bloated Controls and Boring Environments
Over the years, as games have become more complicated and often lean towards a mess of context-sensitive scenarios and environments with invisible walls and muddy textures, the very features that are supposed to immerse players in large 3D worlds have often done the opposite, robbing the player of the joy of jumping into the addictive gameplay of the NES era.
Allowing the player a consistently clear understanding of the game in front of them has too often taken a backseat to the cinema of it all. 'Shovel Knight' is a return to simple, unadulterated man vs. world, rather than man vs. game.
"You can develop an intuition of how to play the game, and I think that's part of why people so far have really enjoyed 'Shovel Knight' and felt like the world is theirs."
Velasco and the entirety of the tiny Yacht Club Games are coming off a densely-packed development schedule, innocently basking in the joviality of a finished, and now beloved, product. They haven't taken a vacation and they have a lot of work ahead of them, localizing the game for unreleased territories and living up to the stretch goals on Kickstarter, but there's a palpable haze of excitement, pride, relief, and humor between Velasco and Yacht Club Games's pixel artist, Nick Wozniak, as they talk about this thing, this game they've labored over since leaving WayForward.
Further than Forward, Into Kickstarter
Most recently, before the split from WayForward, the team worked on 'Double Dragon Neon' together, a modestly reviewed reboot of the old NES game. Though the gameplay softly mirrors the style of the original, visually it's an attempt to modernize, foregoing pixel art in favor of smoother, squishier character models and environments. It's up to you to decide if embarking upon the development of 'Shovel Knight,' an original title with a much more intense devotion to the NES era, is a coincidence, though Velasco pointed out the team had been keen to make an 8-bit game for quite some time.
When Yacht Club Games was formed, they went to Kickstarter, choosing independence and a public funding campaign over trying to obtain publisher funding. It may not be the newest story to the public, but for a group of people previously entrenched within the comfort of consistent, if not particularly free-from, work, vying for a product of your own is a novel experience.
"The way the publisher was the boss before, now it's like all the backers are the boss, and so you have to push their agenda, which is to make the game awesome," Velasco explains, "That just made so much more sense to me."
They get to make the game they want to make, because the public, in voting with their dollars on Kickstarter, wanted them to make it, something another member of Yacht Club Games appreciated. Wozniak, or "Woz," is the artist and jack of many trades team member responsible for all those monsters, environments and dazzling animations of 'Shovel Knight.'
According to Wozniak, "It's a lot more freeing and fun," being beholden to just two things: the awesomeness of the game and the expectations of the public. "Iteration, instead of conforming to the publisher's vision, iteration can come in the form of making the game more fun or interesting," he says, in contrast to the contract nature of a publisher and developer, where upcoming milestones and "notes" from the last milestone can become more central than the quality of the game. Notes to alter a character's animation can lead to endless laborious tweaking without any discernable benefit.
The Publisher Cycle - Milestone Approved?
The back and forth between publisher and developer is a part of game development in the traditonal publisher model, which isn't strictly a bad or good thing. It's just a reality of being a part of a much larger machine. The changes you're making to a game aren't always going to feel all that important. The game itself, might not feel all that important. You pitch a game, create development milestones, and work towards them until the publisher says it's done. The publishers oversight might be just the thing needed to get the game focused and shipped, but it might also tie the project to nebulous or counter-productive objectives, like making retro modern or making a platformer 2.5D.
"The way that that works is you're going towards a milestone every time," Velasco remarks, "….you don't know what direction you're supposed to be headed in at that point."
"Yeah the end goal isn't necessarily the game itself," Wozniak says, continuing the thought. "It's the next milestone, it's: get paid."
With 'Shovel Knight' and Kickstarter, things were different.
"Being stuck in a situation where you're just beholden to a bigger company or outside forces for too long, yeah you feel stuck and you cant get out of it. So being able to take charge and make our own direction has been really freeing, for sure," Wozniak states.
"It's had its own complete crazy stress levels also," recalls Velasco, "in ways that we've never had to deal with at any other company, but I feel like it's really, really been worth it."
According to Velasco though, "nothing can compare to the power of being able to do it yourself," Wozniak, meanwhile, agrees that it "feels a lot more genuine," but neither of them discount their time at WayForward. Velasco openly related how he tried building his own studio before going to WayForward. It failed, and yet Yacht Club Games is a success. A major difference between the two endeavors is the lessons he learned in the middle, that having a good idea isn't enough. Velasco recalls his first attempt light-heartedly.
"I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Now, from working at WayForward, from working with these publishers, from seeing how our practices work, from seeing how to make a game under a budget, within a time period. Those are skills that we've picked up that a lot of, I feel like, indie developers haven’t done that kind of thing before, and so they'll get mired in development."
Wozniak had similar thoughts on the matter.
"We definitely have experience with one side of the coin, and now we’re experiencing the other, but I think both sides really help to inform the other." And more pointedly, "being able to say something is done is a task that's really hard to do."
Efficiency and Simplicity
Yacht Club Games developed 'Shovel Knight' in just 16 months, a duration of time that would stun may indie developers aspiring for a similar quality level. This was partly managed by Yacht Club Games employing a bug-tracking level of organization from the very beginning of the project. Their project management meant creating and logging tasks for each aspect of the game (levels, features, art assets, etc.). For instance, animating an enemy sprite was an assigned task that came with a value relative to how long it might take to accomplish (maybe that sprite is a three, whereas a simpler task might be a one). The tasks were tallied up, assigned, and eventually scored. It turns out they were pretty consistent, accomplishing 25 points or so a week, and so it went. (Note that crunch time was still required, and was considered just part of the process necessary for shipping the game._
There was an efficiency to the development of 'Shovel Knight.' It became, without the publisher and like its end product, simple. Straightforward.
As a matter of fact, there's an efficiency to just about every part of 'Shovel Knight.' Every level ends in a satisfying boss fight and every dot on the over world map is filled in with purpose and charm, like The Trouple King, a dancing red whale, inhabitant of his own pond, granter of powerful elixirs. The pixel art, along with all those NES design principles, naturally gave the 'Shovel Knight' character an open-ended vibe, according to Velasco.
"Shovel Knight is so many things to so many different people, because that little sprite can look very cute to some people, it can look like a badass Dark Souls knight to people. The kind of almost deliberate vagueness of that I think makes it even more inclusive."
It was actually a design principle over the course of development for 'Shovel Knight' that the team should accomplish tasks using assets they already had. Using as few animations as possible is one example, simplifying 'Shovel Knight' and, therefore, the overall playability of the game. A few exceptions existed of course, like the ludicrous golden armor that saw Shovel Knight flipping and somersaulting his way through brutal level design. Mostly, though, he always maintained the same hitbox, and he was always using his shovel.
It's a part of a philosophy on games that Wozniak and Velasco, inspired by the NES greats, felt compelled to uphold, at least in their first game as an independent studio.
'Shovel Knight' and the Future of Yacht Club Games
While the team is still busy with 'Shovel Knight,' be it updates. a European release, or even lending him out for 'Aegis Defenders,' it's hard to avoid wanting to know what the new developers second major project will be. In the face of questions like just how integral is 'Shovel Knight' with the future of Yacht Club Games? What's really coming next? The answers paint a wide open picture.
"I think Shovel Knight is character based, and I think that pretty much every game that we would make would probably be character based," ponders Velasco.
Wozniak, the kind of guy who laughs for everybody at the table and tends to make a joke better for it, has to add, "also, it's got a lot of humor in it, we definitely let ourselves have fun."
From there, the two begin to rattle off a multitude of game ideas for Yacht Club's future, from a 2D or 3D horror game in the style of 'Resident Evil' or even something along the lines of 'Animal Crossing,' as the team had a lot of fun crafting the village in 'Shovel Knight.'
They almost seem boyish in their tone. They're throwing out random ideas, perhaps emboldened by the simple fact that they have actual control over what they can do next, and that their first independent endeavor is turning out to be such a success. Velasco ultimately comes to a pretty solid conclusion.
"Gameplay will probably be the driving factor in all of the games that we make." Simple enough.
The latest news on all things 4K Ultra HD, blu-ray and Gear.