In 2014, we watched as Yacht Club Games prepared to launch an ambitious retro platformer called Shovel Knight. A lot has happened since then, including two expansions, a Smash Bros. Ultimate cameo, and a publishing deal with nifty-looking indie Cyber Shadow. At some point in the near future, Yacht Club will wrap Shovel Knight's run with King of Cards, its most ambitious expansion to date. But that won't be the end of Shovel Knight. Not by a long shot.
During PAX East, I got together with designer Sean Velasco to talk about the past and future of Shovel Knight. We discussed the launch, what Velasco would have changed about Plague of Shadows, the reason for the King of Cards delay, and other topics. We also discussed the future of Yacht Club Games and what it means to finally put a bow on a project the studio has been working on for more than six years. Here's what Velasco had to say about all of these subjects and more as we revisit the past and future of Shovel Knight in the fifth years of its development.
USG: The last Shovel Knight expansion was recently delayed. What happened with that?
Sean Velasco: Well, when Specter Knight came on the Switch and did really well, we were like "Woohoo, now we can do whatever we want with King of Cards" and so it kind of turned into a big celebration of all the Shovel Knight games and all the things that we wanted to put in. Everything that didn't make it in was because we didn't have time or for some other reason. Basically, just like every idea that we ever had, we just stuffed it all into King of Cards. And so, as a result, it became this big, giant, overblown thing with a bunch of levels. It's funny, and it's strange, and there is a giant card game minigame. But that also kind of blew the schedule out a little bit.
There are the amiibos, Shovel Knight Showdown, and King of Cards, and we decided that none of those elements were gonna come out until all of those elements were ready. So that's basically why we had a delay. We could've maybe only focused on King of Cards and gotten that out, but then we had to do Showdown, and we wanted to get the retail version of the game that has everything in the box. So we just are slowly pushing it all together, all at once, and then finally it'll be ready to go. We didn't want to get a date until we were sure, but it should be real soon.
It always seemed as if you planned something much simpler with these content drops, like palette swaps and such.
I mean, yeah, originally we were talking about doing something like a Mega Man 7 battle mode [with Shovel Knight Showdown], right? Where it is, like, you enter a cheat code, you can choose the characters, they only have their animations from the regular game, and that's it. But then Shovel Knight Showdown turned into this much larger game that's somewhere between Smash Bros., which we could never ever hit, right? Like, we could never be a Smash. There is so much complexity, it's such a huge thing, we wouldn't even want to try and compete with them.
But maybe there is something that is more complex than a simple party game. So somewhere between that is what we are trying to do, but there is a lot of content to chew on. Hopefully it's a game that people will continue to play and unlock and enjoy over a long period of time.
I hadn't even thought about it for a long time, and then I saw it and I was like, "Oh! This looks great!" I like the idea of four players fighting each other to get to rubies.
Right, yeah. That was one of the big things that we wanted to do with Showdown that made it different from a regular fighting game. It moves it more toward being a party game and makes it more true to Shovel Knight. It's cool because now you use all the boss characters that you couldn't play as before, and you can use their mobility to move around the stage in a similar fashion to the way that they do in the boss battles. So you can use Treasure Knight's anchor and glide across the room. You can double jump and hover as Propeller Knight and use your fencing foil in the air. It's neat to bring all those characters to life in a big, wacky context.
How Shovel Knight Became a Breakout Hit
Take me back five years ago. What did Shovel Knight's success mean for you guys?
Well everything changed, right? It was six years ago when we first did the Kickstarter for Shovel Knight in PAX 2013. That was six years ago almost exactly from now. So five years ago, that's when Shovel Knight was just about to come out. We were scrounging our banks accounts for our last pennies before we actually started bringing in money. But then it kept on coming in, so that was a huge change. We went from being scrappy 10x10 foot booth holders to having our own big booth that got put together for us.
We're publishing someone else's game, and that's an enormous thing for us. We already published Azure Striker Gunvolt, but now having Cyber Shadow here at PAX East, doing an unveil and having a little bit of co-development where we're helping out with level design advice and how to demo a game at a show and stuff like that. Being able to pay it forward a little bit and to have another developer with us has been a huge change as well. It's just been a journey. We've been doing this for six years and we're still working on Shovel Knight content. So now this is it. This is the last year and it is going to finally all be done. That'll be really, really huge for everybody.
In hindsight, you came in kind of at the perfect window, right? The indie space was vibrant, but not completely flooded. Nintendo was throwing money at indies and being willing to promote you guys. So you got in right before the door slammed shut.
Yeah, and Kickstarter too, right? We were right at the height of Kickstarter. We're one of the lucky ones. I think Kickstarter now is known a little bit more as rolling the dice instead of, "All these projects are going to be so perfect every time." But even we promised a game in a year and it's been quite a lot longer that. Although, the game from a scope perspective is much, much larger than we could have ever imagined.
Did you ever think that it would get to this level? You know, you're successful, you're established, you've got fricking Shovel Knight in Smash Bros.
I know, I know. I mean, those are the things that we said in the beginning, right? We want to make a Shovel Knight cereal, we want there to be blankets and pillows with Shovel Knight. We want Shovel Knight to be in Smash Bros. It's like The Simpsons joke, right? When people don't see Shovel Knight they should be like, "Where's Shovel Knight?" And we've tried to follow through on that, though not in a gross way. I mean branding and putting your stuff all over everything can feel gross sometimes but... I guess we're trying to do it from the heart and not be exploitative. But we still want to rule the world and be huge. So, I don't know, definitely we never expected that we would ever get this big, but I have no idea. We're going to keep on trying to get bigger. The sky's the limit.
I remember back then you were like four people?
Yeah, there were five or six of us. With [co-founder Jake Ladehoff], maybe you could say seven. He wasn't in the office every day. And then... yeah, now we're about... there's 17 of us. But the Shovel Knight team is still a pretty small size. We have a COO, we have a QA Lead, and QA Testers. We had to wear a lot of hats, and now a lot of different people have those hats on. It's made everyone's life a little bit easier I think.
"I Wish that Plague of Shadows Could Somehow be More Accessible to People"
So tell me about the development of Plague of Shadows
Initially it was like Richter Mode on Symphony of the Night. Like, oh yeah, it'll just be a new character and we'll redo the animations. The cutscenes will be the same and there won't be anything new. But then we were like, "Well, maybe it can be a little bit different" because we started thinking about, well, it'd be weird if Plague Knight had to run around in the village but people just said the exact same thing to him, right? Like, maybe he doesn't go into the village, or it would be a bummer if he just ran through the levels the exact same way. Even if there's new mobility, it's like, well maybe we could add a little length to the level and put some coins in there to make it so you take a different path or adjust a thing here and there. And it just grew up from that.
We approached it like, "Well here's a story we want to tell, we need to have the main pillars, and it needs to fit all in the same way that Shovel Knight fits." Designing a game story, that's what we generally do. It's like the Mega Man formula: you get a beginning, then four bosses, then a middle where there's some kind of cutscene, four more bosses, and then an end. And so, how do you slot that stuff in, and how do you tell a different story with the same beats? That was the challenge with Plague of Shadows.
It seemed a little divisive among the fans.
Definitely. Of all the things that we've put out, I wish that Plague of Shadows could somehow be more accessible to people. In Treasure Trove we're adding a quick select because no one has a touch screen game system anymore. So we're adding a quick select so you can hold the L button or the R button, almost Metal Gear-style, to switch out your fuses and your casings and your bomb stuff more easily. That's going to help a lot just because you won't have to go into the pause menu over and over again. That's really exciting because it makes a huge difference when you're playing Plague of Shadows. But yeah, being able to hold a button, do the double jump, and buffer it and everything... that's just too hard for a lot of players to do.
You guys put a ton of work into Plague of Shadows but it was totally free.
Yeah. We said, "Let's do it for the advertising." When people see Plague of Shadows, they'll go and they'll buy Shovel Knight again. Maybe people will buy it on another platform, which is something we hear on the show floor all the time, right? "Oh I love Shovel Knight, I bought on my Wii U and my Switch and my PS4 and I have it on everything." Or, "I bought it for friends."
When I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for a game that I love so much, that's what I'll do with it. When Dark Souls hit $20, I was like, "Okay. Everyone has to have Dark Souls." And I did the same thing with Command and Conquer: Red Alert in college. So I think we're getting some of the repeat purchases. Could we have made more money if we had put all those games out separately? I'm not sure. I mean, probably. But now Treasure Trove is something we can sell forever and it will be good and well-done. All the games are good, and it can be a thing that's in a box that we can be proud of forever.
Did you guys have like a bible at the beginning of the development where you were like, "Okay this is Plague Shadows' deal, this is Specter Knight's backstory"?
Specter Knight has a dark and mysterious past, the enchantress is keeping him alive because they made some sort of deal with the devil, right? Anyway, he's really cold but maybe he also has some kind of story in the past. That's it. That's like all we had. Then in the end of Plague of Shadows we had Specter Knight slash the chest open and realize his locket was missing and get really upset. Even then we had no idea what the locket was gonna be or anything, we were just like, "That's gonna be our McGuffin. We'll write ourselves into that corner and then in the next game we'll figure it out."
Generally we have some kind of idea of what it's gonna be, but we usually have to fill it out a lot. We love doing that goofy, "Oh yeah, did you realize that this character was actually here?" Especially with King Knight because we had to tread carefully not to go overboard with all the ways everything connects with each other, but it's definitely taken it the next level with King of Cards.
Looking back on Specter of Torment, what would you say was the most successful element? And what's one thing that you might look back on and go, "Eh that didn't work quite as well as we hoped?"
I'm really proud of the mobility in Specter of Torment, the way that we put a context sensitive move in there with the Dash Slash. It could be either up or down, and that made the difference between whether you're gonna win or lose. We iterated on that so many times, making sure that was correct, that the wall jumping felt good, that you felt like a cool ninja when you were jumping around. We designed all the levels specifically to work with that. I think as a result, it just feels really tight and good. Plague Knight is a game that's real loosey goosey, and you are jumping around going crazy, but Specter Knight is a game that rewards your precision and makes it easy for you to look cool when you're jumping around. I'm really proud of that.
I'm also proud of the story. We were trying to do something that was a little bit more serious and somber than Shovel Knight. We tried to stretch our story muscles even a little bit more. So yeah, the fact that it hit with people and that people were emotionally involved with Specter Knight and Reize and everything was really cool.
I think some people missed like the vibrancy of the overworld.
Definitely. Yeah, we wanted for Specter of Torment to make a game that was ten levels. So there's no Hall of Champs, there's no villages, there's no ... yeah there's not a lot of extraneous stuff. They sort of jump into the hub, but it's not really the same thing. I think the brevity of Specter Knight is one of its drawbacks. When you're done playing the level, there's not a lot for you to do in between, you just gotta jump into the next one. And sometimes it's nice to be able to soak in it a bit.
"Be There at Launch"
How massive was it for you guys to be basically on the ground floor for the Switch?
That's huge. So huge. If I could give a game development tip, it would be, "Be there at launch." I learned that when WayForward was making Mighty Flip Champs on DSiWare. That game sold a lot for a game that took us only a few months to make, and that's because it was the only thing that was on the store along with five other games. Just having that lack of competition makes buyers go towards your game. Unfortunately, if you rush it out, then everyone will be upset with you, so you have to make sure that you have something that's good. But being at launch, yeah it's enormous.
So now you've had success with Specter of Torment, you've got the Shovel Knight Treasure Trove, and now there's King of Cards. We've been talking about this expansion for five years at this point.
Well, even from the beginning we said, "Specter of Torment will be the dark and macabre one, and then with King of Cards we'll do something goofy like put a card game in it." And the card game kept being a thing that [programmer David D'Angelo] kept pushing and being like, "It's gotta be a card game, we've gotta have a card game in there." And I think that set the tone for what King Knight was gonna be.
Initially we thought, "Oh yeah we'll just wrap this up real quick in a few months," but then, as always happens, we expanded it and expanded it and then we were like, "Well if we're gonna play cards, you're gonna want to play cards with everybody; and then if you want to play cards with everyone, they will all have to have their own cards and you'll have to be able to win it from them." Then people have to be able to win cards from you; but if people win cards from you, you're gonna need to be able to buy them back from somewhere, and well, you should really be able to cheat the game, so you should have cheats. Some people aren't going to want to play the card game, so you should be able to beat the whole game without playing the card game even one time if you want. And you gotta play the cards somewhere, you don't want to play on a platforming level, so we need to have a house of cards that you play in. And it would feel not that good if there was only one house of cards, so there should at least be one for every world.
It sounds huge.
It takes longer to complete than any other Shovel Knight. There are secret exits like Super Mario World in a lot of the stages. King Knight jumps on like a golden ring that is propelled by rats and flies away to the next stage. If you find the red ring then you go to a bonus area and there are secret paths everywhere. In King Knight, you don't have to finish. You can probably finish the game and only beat 55% of the stages. So it's kind of like Mario World in that respect, where you could take a straight shot and miss a lot of the content but still see the end. That also means that there are weird offshoot levels just like in Mario World. It's like, "What is this weird new gameplay that I only saw for one level and then it's gone?"
Every character in Shovel Knight has their own distinct style. How would you characterize King Knight's style?
Well, King Knight is an over the top and decadent dandy, right? So his style is "stylish." He jumps around and does bashes and twirls, but he's also a greedy mofo, so you spend a lot of time gathering treasure and digging through secret dirt, gathering up everything, building your empire, getting other people to join your cause, gathering everyone up on your airship. Then it's, like, you have a big airship full of people that you're taking around with you.
I detect a bit of a Wario 3 vibe in finding the treasure.
Definitely, yeah. We definitely said he's gotta do some Wario stuff. He's got a Wario-esque shoulder bash that's his core move. But when you bash into a wall or into an enemy, then you start twirling, and you can like twirl sort of like Shovel Knight's Shovel Drop, bounce on enemies, and get your combo going.
It must be pretty bittersweet to be kind of finishing up Shovel Knight.
I don't think we're there at that like emotional point yet because we're still in the meat of trying to just get it out the door. Once it's done and, you know, it's like the nest is empty and we don't have another thing to work on, then I imagine it'll be really emotional. We're all gonna take a lot of time off and just kind of rejigger ourselves before we jump into the next thing.
How much have you grown personally as a designer?
I would say a lot. Everyone has. When I was in college, I was like, only white boxes and black backgrounds, right? Like you should be able to make a great game with no visual elements or with no sound, and now I can appreciate the role that tone, story, and variety play. It's like those human elements, those are the things that people really attach to when they're playing a game, in addition to like jumping around and getting the coins. So I feel like all of us as a team have been able to meld those together a lot more, getting the player and the character wanting to do the same thing. It's like as King Knight you're like, "I want to be rich and get treasure and be a doof." That's what King Knight wants, and that's what the player wants, and so having those be aligned is cool in a game, I think.
People put such a premium on big franchises and everything. Putting aside the big franchise and moving onto something else feels like a risk, doesn't it?
Well, yeah, but you can't work on the same thing forever. You've gotta make a new thing. Everybody does. Even if everytime a dev makes a new thing, it always ends up being like the old thing a little bit anyway? I hope that we can make something like Cyber Shadow is, in a different place, and fulfills a different kind of need than Shovel Knight does. And Shovel Knight's not done either, right? I want to keep on making Shovel Knight stuff, or have third-party Shovel Knight games, or just continuing to keep that thing going. It's really what we want to keep doing.
Looking back on the original Shovel Knight, is there anything where you're like, "Oh man, I've learned so much and I would change this, this, this, this"?
Oh yeah, everything. But we have a rule: we won't change anything in any of the games unless it's a really bad game-breaking bug. If it's a glitch where a speedrunner can get out of the world by going over here and then work to the end, that's fine, but if it was something where you fell in a pit and you didn't die, then we would fix that.
There are so many rooms where it's like, oh, if only we had moved that block a little bit, or this section just sucks so we should just redo this section. That happens all the time. I've thought many times, "Well now Shovel Knight's done, we've gotta make Shovel Knight HD, do like a Wonder Boy style draw-over of all the art. Redo everything. Add a bunch of features like co-op in all the campaigns and, I don't know, five other cool bullet points on the box and develop that."
But maybe another studio could help out with that, and it could be a slow burn. But yeah, wouldn't that be cool? Shovel Knight HD?
[laughing] You're always like, "Oh we could do that!" And then five years later...
Yeah right? But yeah I mean we'll keep on keeping on. But Shovel Knight is not done. We've got a lot of weird ideas to make.