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13 Interviews

Shovel Knight: From Kickstarter to Nintendo darling

By Connor Sheridan on Tuesday 1st Jul 2014 at 11:14 AM UTC

For most developers successfully completing a Kickstarter campaign is the beginning and releasing the game is the end. But for Yacht Club, the indie developer behind Shovel Knight, getting the game in the hands of players is more like the halfway point.

Since the crowdfunding campaign blew past its original goal by more than four times, the studio plans to spend the next year adding new content to the game it managed to ship last week.

It's a good place to be for a new studio, one that didn't have a charismatic industry veteran like Tim Schafer or Chris Avellone to assure backers that their money would be well-spent.

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Nick Wozniak, Yacht Club Games

The "groundbreaking love letter to 8 bits" apparently didn't need a star name after all, as it dug up (excuse the pun) substantial praise for its retro-modern approach to hop-and-bop platforming.

We talked to Yacht Club Games' Nick Wozniak about how a strong relationship with Nintendo shaped the young team of WayForward expatriates, and how Kickstarter made the whole thing possible while imposing a few worries of its own.

We also asked when the 3DS and Wii U versions will release in the UK and Europe, but we'll give you his answer before you get your hopes up too much: "soon."


CVG: You guys came over from WayForward, and you can still feel the lineage. Why did you need to strike out on your own?

Nick Wozniak: It was the only way we could've made the game. And it was something we really wanted to do. WayForward is a big, mostly licensed games developer. So for every Shantae and Mighty Switch Force there are 20 other movie tie-ins or iCarly's or Smurfs 2: The Game.

Even the more fun ones, which were like Double Dragon Neon or BloodRayne Betrayal, those were still licensed titles. So to do our own thing and kind of own a project from conception to implementation to execution to publishing it, that couldn't have happened in the structure that WayForward had at that time.

We saw that we wanted to make this game, that we wanted to branch out on our own. We saw that it's easier than ever to do so, with tools being readily available, Nintendo and other first parties being more open to - I don't want to say partnerships because that implies some ownership roles - but they're more open to indies being able to go on their platforms.

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If we hadn't done it, it would have been a real shame. To look back in ten years and be like, "Man, it was a perfect environment. We had the will and the desire, but we just didn't do it."

So instead of facing that awkward and horrible reality we just jumped ship and struck out on our own.

When the Kickstarter first opened, you weren't sure if the game would release on Nintendo systems.

When the Kickstarter was up we had already been in talks with Nintendo, just communicating with them - emails back and forth, specifically with Dan Adelman from Nintendo, he's the indie connections guy. We didn't have final, official approval when the Kickstarter went live.

We had a a good sense that they were enthusiastic and encouraging when they were talking to us, but we didn't have the official word. We even printed stuff for PAX East and just assumed that Nintendo would like us, so we put their logos on the bottom of their banners and we anticipated that happening.

And while we were either getting ready for PAX we got the word it was OK. That was a huge bump jump for us, just to be able to say we're on Nintendo, we're official Nintendo developers, it's coming to 3DS and Wii U. That went over really well.

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Image via Yacht Club Games

Shovel Knight has had a strong presence at Nintendo press events and in marketing materials. How has your relationship with Nintendo evolved over development, and how did that shape the game?

From the beginning it's been positive and it just kept getting better. Once we had the game shown off at PAX, we worked with them and they saw it had a lot of positive reaction and they started to take notice more and more.

Eventually that led to us being in their IndieCade booth, and us being a part of some media stuff that they were doing. And that culminated in the Treehouse Live event where we were onstage live in their main livestream demoing the game and trying to show off the StreetPass.

It didn't connect because of all the interference with the thousands of people there. That was really unfortunate, because during all our rehearsals it had connected fine, taking 30 seconds or a minute to connect. It just happens on stage that it doesn't do it...

But it all culminated in that and they've been really accommodating to our weird requests, and getting stuff done to see if they can promote us better. Right now in the Nintendo World Store in New York, you can play Shovel Knight in a stand.

They have a big cardboard cutout of Shovel Knight, apparently, and you can buy the game in that store. That physical presence in the store location, that's amazing to us, and we feel really honored and special that Nintendo would be paying attention to us.

We've been treated really well by Nintendo, I'd say.

"It's not like we put feelers out to all the platforms, we just went after Nintendo directly"

It must have been particularly encouraging, considering that this game was meant to evoke NES nostalgia.

Even before we had official word, we knew we wanted to be on Nintendo. It's not like we put feelers out to all the platforms, we just went after Nintendo directly.

Because it's a game that is the heritage of that era, we made it in the style of the NES using the NES palette and using the Nintendo sound format for the music, it's an NES game at heart. There's only five of us, when we were choosing our platform we had to decide which one to go on, not necessarily which ones not to go on, if that makes any sense.

So we chose that this was the one platform we're really going to pursue, and Nintendo has been really responsive and encouraging with that.

Kickstarter lets you avoid compromising for publisher deals, but being beholden to the crowd comes with its own concerns. How did those affect development?

What a publisher brings is a lot of money. They can bring stability and a certain level of security, and in that you sacrifice either creative freedoms or time-frame issues or just having to answer and get approvals.

What Kickstarter does, is it puts the power back in our hands. We're able to make the choices we make, make the crazy iterations on the same thing over and over and over again if we need to. So the project benefits from having that freedom of being able to experiment and try things out multiple times.

We have multiple examples in the game, one of which is on our web site actually, if you go to yachtclubgames.com you can see an article about our checkpoint system. That wasn't designed on paper for a publisher to begin with like it normally would.

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Normally you would submit a design and that design is the backbone for what's going to happen in the future. But the checkpoints started as a vague nothing, and through trial and error and through design iteration became what it is.

Now it's a system that is core to the overall gameplay. So it allows us to have freedom to make direct design decisions and game iteration, but also it's a little bit weird because having the Kickstarter and having everybody looking at it at all times, we are beholden to our word in a way that's very public.

When you work with a publisher you say this is what's going to happen and these are the expectations. When you need to revise that or change the scope, there's a dialog that can happen that's more directed toward the expectations of the finished project as opposed to the expectations that the public had when they first started dreaming of your project, if that makes sense.

The publisher wants the game to sell this many copies on 3DS with this many bullet points on the back of the box. But when you're doing a Kickstarter you're beholden to fans, you're beholden to people that are excited and truly invested in the project.

So to say we need to revise the scope or cut this, or change what we thought about this, it doesn't go over as well. And also it seems a little bit less genuine; you based the game and the funding on this promise of something great.

We have felt a little bit like if we show something off to the public as an idea we've had from the beginning, we can't remove it from the game.

One example of that is an enemy in the lava stage, and he's a big guy holding a gold staff. His initial design was loose and we didn't have a good idea of exactly what he was going to do, but the animations were made and they were kind of a big deal because he's a giant guy.

He just wasn't working out as far as the gameplay goes, and we just put it off and put it off. Eventually an image of him was released to the public and people reacted to him and thought he was cool. So we couldn't cut him, even though some of us wanted to, we had to figure out how to make him work.

So we altered the design and gave him some projectiles, and now I think he fits pretty well. But he was this boring thing that would have been on the chopping block, but because we made the promise or the implied promise of him being in the game, we followed through and put him in there.

So it's a balance of expectations, mostly from the Kickstarter.

"We're never going to have a character who says 'it's dangerous to go alone, take this'

In the last six or seven years NES/retro-inspired games have become common to the point of consumer apathy. What did you need to do to make Shovel Knight seem genuine?

The term "Nintendo hard" is something that we tried to avoid, the idea of cheap deaths that come out of nowhere. That's one of the easier ones to avoid.

The general idea we had in approaching this game wasn't to make a game that specifically referenced any of those old games. We very specifically from the start had said, "We're never going to have a character who says 'it's dangerous to go alone, take this.'" That was our mentality from the beginning.

We didn't want to make a parody game, or a spoofing game, or even a direct referencing game like that. We wanted to make sure that the game could stand on its own.

So we've played games since we were kids, we've played a bunch of NES games and Super NES games, but also we played a bunch of PlayStation 1 through 4. There's a lot of the evolution of what a game design could be, that general understanding has changed throughout the last 25 years. So we wanted to make sure that we didn't just ignore all of that evolution for the sake of being "genuine" or "authentic".

So yeah, we count a lot of NES games as our influences, but we also look to Dark Souls a lot. And we look to - maybe it doesn't have any direct correlation to Shovel Knight itself - but Sean's a big fan of Ninja Gaiden Black. There's a lot of more modern influences, those are just two examples of many.

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It would be a huge disservice to players of the modern age to present to them a game we're claiming as relevant and have it be locked into, in all aspects, a certain time period. Especially when, during those times if you played those games, sometimes they were rough, they were mean[...]

We wanted to make sure that Shovel Knight was paying attention to the era that it was in.

Shovel Knight has already been given a lot of praise. How has it been for the team?

Insanely positive. It's been really bizarre. I've never worked on a game that's been received so well. I've never worked on a game that got a nine from IGN or a 10 from certain places. That has been crazy, just absolutely crazy [laughs][...]

You get a certain tunnel vision with a game and you can't focus on anything except for it to come out. It's been really encouraging to have people vocally showing their support along the way, but this has been a really unique and insane experience. I don't know how else to say it.

There have been a lot of posts on our Kickstarter page that have been emotional, they've almost brought me to tears. They're talking about how they're playing with their kids or being brought back to a state of childhood innocence!

I can't believe that that thing we did, that the half dozen of us spent time working on for the past year and a half - I can't believe that thing we put all of our passion into is resonating so well with people.

It's exciting, it's emotional, it's a rollercoaster of very positive feelings. It's been really cool to see people's reactions.

What's next for Yacht Club Games?

There's still Shovel Knight to do, actually. With our Kickstarter we had a large number of stretch goals that were hit, as you can imagine. We hit the initial Kickstarter goal at $75,000 and we got to $300,000. So throughout that whole process we were hitting pretty large and major content updates.

A couple of those stretch goals are rolled into Shovel Knight 1.0 because they're core; there are achievements in there, those are stretch goals and part of the main game.

There's a music player, that's a very key part of the main game. There was a promise of challenge mode, which is a bunch of levels that are focused on a certain very skilled set of challenges. That's something that's not part of the core game that we're going to be working on.

We're also going to be working on three playable Boss Knights that you can play as. Those were up for vote for the backers, and they voted for Specter Knight, Plague Knight, and King Knight.

Those guys are going to have their own campaigns where it's 95 percent the same game but the play styles of those characters is completely different. And for a game like Shovel Knight, that makes all the difference in the world.

There's a Gender Swap mode, where you're going to be able to choose the genders of the characters. I kind of want the full, perfect implementation of that with a giant list with the name of the character and a male or female box next to it, so you can customize the look and feel of the game. That's really just an art update, but it's a way for us to show that we love these characters.

The big, giant, major one is our battle mode. And that's going to be four-player battle mode, couch multiplayer with all the playable boss knights. That was the last stretch goal we hit.

"We're not so in love with the NES era that we would only stick to that"

So there are these major, giant things that are going to make Shovel Knight bigger and bigger in content and feeling full. So that's what we're doing for the next year. We're still working on Shovel Knight 1, maybe 1.5 or 1.8 or whatever.

Then after that, at this point it's only musings. We throw out a joke every now and then that we want to do Shovel Knight X or Super Shovel Knight. Or maybe we'll do a Shovel Knight 64 and do basic polygons. Those are just silly ideas but maybe we'll do that.

Or maybe we'll do something totally different. There's countless reasons to just do whatever, and we're not so in love with the NES era that we would only stick to that.

One of the things that we've talked about is possibly just focusing on a small project afterwards, doing a relatively small one that helps build our tech.

Let's say it's online multiplayer, and we just figure that out as a company. Then that results in a game that is mostly an online multiplayer game that we spent six months on or whatever, and we can use that to reset ourselves and rebuffer our expectations for moving on to Shovel Knight 2 or whatever it is.

It could be anything. It's still up in the air.

All of that post-launch content is going to be free for the backers?

It's going to be free for everybody. Sort of our mentality behind that is we see Steam Sales and we see the sales of the Humble Bundle, and they get the markdown so low, so we're going to try do this the opposite way.

When you reduce the price for the same game, you're changing the value proposition. You're making it so the little money you spend is more valuable. We're going to do the opposite, where the money stays the same and we just add stuff to it. So in the end, the value proposition increases the same way, but you get more for that same $15.

What are your European release plans?

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It's been a little bit of confusion, because the communication as far as when the EU version is coming out hasn't been totally clear. We sent out an email that said, "Surprise, your game is ready!" But unless you're in America it doesn't actually work for you.

So it's been a learning process just in how we set up expectations for backers. We are really sad that people have not been able to play the game, but for a long time we've said it's going to be delayed as far we need to finish the first release and then move on to the EU region.

That's our path and we're working on it as hard as we can to make that happen, but there's no word on that. There's no official release on that yet, but we'll let you guys know.

It will be soon, for sure. And right now the game is available on PC and Steam, so even though it's not on 3DS or Wii U you can play it on Steam and it works just as well. It's the same game, it just doesn't have the Miiverse or the StreetPass, but for the most part it's the same game[...]

Then eventually a worldwide release and moving on to other platforms. One of the things that I mentioned before is that we never said we don't want to be on these platforms. It was just an issue of where we could focus to start with. So our initial focus to start with was Nintendo platforms. But that's not to say we want to be exclusive forever.

I want to see the game on Vita really bad. I want to see the game running on PS3 or PS4 on that big screen. I want to see the game even with the new Xbox controller being played. The Xbox One controller apparently is a lot better than the Xbox 360 controller, which is great because the Xbox 360 controller was terrible.

At least the D-Pad was, yeah.

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