Interview: The crew at Yacht Club Games talks Shovel Knight (Part I)
Recently we got a chance to hop aboard with Yacht Club Games for a long chat about the already popular upcoming title, Shovel Knight. Along the way we discuss their origins as a team, their inspirations for the game, the Kickstarter campaign, the story, and other amazing details. Let’s take a look!
Could you say your name and what your responsibility on the team is?
Woz: My name is Nick, I go by Woz. I do everything that is not programming or music. I’m not solely responsible for that stuff, but I do contribute a lot of stuff to the game.
Sean: I am Sean Velasco, and generally I have designer, directorial duties [at WayForward.] That’s pretty much what I’m doing here, too, except since we’re a smaller group we have to wear a lot of hats. So I’ve been doing a lot of pixel work.
Ian: I’m Ian Floyd. I’m primarily a programmer or gameplay programmer on the project. But, just the same, I’m involved in various areas of the project.
Erin: I’m Erin. I do a lot of the illustrations, the graphic work, logos, and character design.
Sean: Yeah, every pixel model that we put together Erin does a sketch of it on paper first.
How did you all end up coming together on this project?
Woz: We worked as a pretty close team at WayForward. We did Double Dragon Neon recently.
Sean: We’re part of the team…
Woz: Right, not us exclusively, but a lot of us are part of the core team.
Sean: The majority of all our careers have been in WayForward. I assistant directed Contra 4, and then I directed A Boy and His Blob. Then there was BloodRayne: Betrayal, which Erin did concept designs for, and Woz did a lot of the effects for. So we’ve been working together for quite a while. That’s how we all got together.
What stage of development are you at right now? Alpha? Pre-alpha?
Woz: Way before that.
Sean: Basically we have kind of what you’ve seen in the PAX demo and what’s on the Kickstarter page. Other than that, we’re still in the very early stages of development. So…we’re maybe like ten or fifteen percent done.
Has it been hard to get back into development since your Kickstarter came to an end?
Nick: Once we’ve been in the weird pitch mode on Kickstarter for so long, it is a little bit daunting to get back into the actual production.
Sean: Just starting like that, it’s been all hands on deck doing the Kickstarter, doing promotion, getting the word out about the game, responding to comments. We’re just going start getting back into development now.
Often when you see the ‘making of’ footage it shows progressive character designs that resemble little of the final product. Did you guys go through a lot of variations before his final look?
Sean: There were a couple [designs]. We knew from the beginning that he was a diminutive knight with horns that carried a shovel.
Woz: We knew the basics of it. Sean did a basic sprite of it, and then I took a pass at it. It kinda went back and forth a little bit and finally landed on a sprite we all liked.
Sean: The sprite Shovel Knight and the Illustrated Shovel Knight are two different models, basically. So it was two different efforts. Shovel Knight also went through some revisions and you can even see that the models on the Kickstarter page are slightly different, because we were still getting the character design one hundred percent locked down.
Woz: Yeah, figuring out if we can get it to look right in-game and if it feels NES-y enough. The best example I can think of is if you look at the King Knight sprite on the front page. You can see he’s pretty detailed, but in the actual gameplay footage you can see he’s not totally rendered the same way and has a lot of simplifications. That way he feels more NES-y.
So what about the bosses? Did that go fairly quickly once you nailed down the Shovel Knight’s appearance? Did you have a pretty good idea of what you wanted them to look like?
Sean: I think the bosses went through more revisions than Shovel Knight. We spent a lot of time working with those.
Erin: Just seeing what we could what can we do with a knight mask, or how can we implement different masks for each boss was a big part of it. And then sewing on a simple, yet pixelable character was a big deal. Color choices came from what was available on the NES palette.
Sean: We wanted to make sure all the knights fit in together as a group, so we wanted to make sure we had good representations of big characters and little characters. We wanted to make sure each one felt different, so they went through a lot of revisions, and I think we ended up with a pretty solid lineup.
They look pretty fun. The Polar Knight is my favorite so far. What do you guys go to for inspiration? Have you found yourselves getting a little creative block, and if so what do you go to in order to alleviate that?
Sean: We play a lot of games together obviously. It’s like we’re embedded with each other. The whole Yacht Club is together almost all the time, so it’s a free flowing of ideas. Art is happening all the time. So I think generally if one of us is having a block, we just talk to the whole group and then you can work through it.
Woz: And that means writing down our ideas, having a brainstorm session the whiteboard, or just getting lunch together and hashing out a concept or an idea. If it’s a character creation, Erin spends time getting inspiration from various other artists. We kinda source everything, right?
Erin: Real knight helmets for the bosses in particular.
Sean: It’s just a big group effort for the most part. Now the cool part is, with Kickstarter we have the Director For a Day and Design Hangouts, so now we’re going to start bringing some of our Kickstarter backers into the fray to help come up with ideas and to implement cool stuff. We haven’t really started with that yet, but we have done a few livestreams where we have a lot of creativity and wackiness.
How many backers did you have for that?
A couple hundred actually.
Sean: We probably won’t be bringing in each person individually. Instead, we’ll do like a Twitch TV stream or Google Hangout style of thing. Everyone will be in the channel, we’re going to talk through the problems, maybe we’ll be at the whiteboard, maybe we’ll be typing it into the [design] document, and then people can throw in ideas, and we can have a dialogue with the whole group.
Woz: Yeah, we want to make it feel as organic as it does when we’re actually designing stuff as a group together. If somebody has an idea and other people latch onto it, then we’ll talk about that idea. It’s not just people observing what we’re doing, it’s a lot of interaction and getting ideas from the group.
Sean: Whatever makes us laugh the loudest.
So you’re kinda pushing the record for largest indie team with that number.
Sean: Yeah. [Laughter]
Let’s talk about the story. What kind of format are you presenting it in? Is it going to be cut-scenes? Are we going to meet characters mid-level? What can you tell us about that?
Sean: That’s something we’ve been talking about a lot recently. We’re really big on story, and theme, and tone, but we hate it when it gets bogged down with too much narrative. So imagine you’re playing a game and you stop and all your momentum is lost because you have to have a cut-scene interaction with a character. That’s something we definitely want to avoid. So we’re looking for ways to make it so we’re not stopping the action. Maybe we’ll do, like you were saying, conversations or talking heads, but it would be in a pretty limited capacity. Like maybe before boss battles, or if we were to do a town or a merchant I imagine you would have some dialogue lines there where we could inject some more personality.
Woz: But a lot of the story is going to be situational. In gameplay, what you see in the background, how we decorate certain things, you’re going to get a sense of what’s happening without being overtly told that you’re going to the last boss of the game, or whatever.
Sean: Like in Super Metroid, right before you fight Kraid, there’s a dead space marine that looks sort of similar to you. I feel like that one sprite just sitting there tells more story than a lot of other games. That type of thing. Or if you’ve played A Boy and His Blob, that’s another game that I directed that some of us worked on, that game does a lot with story without too many cut-scenes. There’s actually no written dialogue in the entire game. We want to go more that direction. That’s our approach to story.
Aside from the bosses, the level design is so neat to watch because it’s nostalgia, it’s excitement for what’s coming and what we get to do again. It hearkens to all the great things that made gaming awesome growing up. When you were designing levels, how many different games did you reference as far as your inspiration for what you wanted to do?
Woz: For the level design specifically…how did that work out?
Sean: We had a brainstorming session and the only level we’ve really gone through is the King Knight’s level from the PAX demo. We went through a ton of different gameplay objects, the falling chandeliers and the book that makes the pages appear. And even enemies, like the wizard that shoots at you that you can reflect back, the knight that you have more of an actual dual with. We planned out how the flow of the stage was going to be, so we said in the beginning that you’re going to be outside the castle, then you’ll be sort of storming the interior, and then you’ll go down into the abyss like into the actual proper interior of the castle which is the library room, and then you’ll come out of it get to the throne room where King Knight is.
We thought about it in the context of a story, and we thought about how these gameplay objects would all interact with each other and with enemies. Then we just started putting it together and iterating.
Woz: The level design comes from games we played in the past like Mega Man, or other Capcom titles like Duck Tales.
Sean: The screen transitions are entirely Mega Man.
Woz: It feels very solid. You have a good sense of what a room is, and where you can actually go. There’s not a lot of weird camera movement. That’s captured pretty well in Mega Man, and we wanted to retain that. A lot of the combat ideas we’ve been talking about have come after playing Zelda II a lot. There’s a little bit of Dark Souls in there, how we deal with the player’s value systems and how death incorporates into that so you want to keep the things you have because dying makes you lose a lot of it.
Sean: That sense of fear…
Woz: The tension, yeah. So, it is a lot of games but it is starting to feel unique. We definitely are obviously referencing Nintendo games. Nintendo is who we are, it’s in our blood, and it’s where we’re going with this game. It’s an NES palette, so it feels like it’s on the NES.
What makes it feel like its classic is that it’s done design first. How is the fun going to work, how will the interactions work, and what is the gameplay going to be like? We built everything around that. So because we did that, it’s a more abstract sense of fun, and that’s what you generally find in Nintendo. Not just ones from the past, but modern day ones.
It’s really cool to see the way that this project has spread out. It got the attention of the original Mega Man composer (Manami Matsumae), who is contributing two songs. Where will those songs appear, and how will you be collaborating?
Woz: That was a really random thing for us, too. Like you said, she reached out to us. She was working with these guys over at Koopa Soundworks. He saw Shovel Knight and wanted to support it, so he looked us up. She’s real excited about it. She wants to get back into the Western Market, and be relevant to the current gamespace. It’s pretty cool to be able to facilitate that.
Basically they are doing chip tune album with a lot of notable composers on it, and she was one of them. So that’s how we got hooked up.
Woz: We don’t really know where she’s going to fit as far as like what songs specifically in the game. We’re hoping she does a couple level tracks.
And perhaps a collaboration with Jake. Kind of like a dueling banjos sort of thing, where they are contributing to a single song.
Erin: That’s going to awesome.
Woz: Yes! I want the soundtrack so bad.
Thanks guys! Next up we’ll talk about Kickstarter rewards, Director For A Day, future game designers, and recapturing the glory of the NES days! Tune in next week for Part Two!