Yacht Club Games is an independent game studio located in Valencia, California. Their debut title Shovel Knight was just released on Wii U, 3DS and PC after a more than successful Kickstarter campaign. Consisting of ex-WayForward Technologies developers, Yacht Club Games is a team consisting of roughly a half dozen employees. The game was released on June 26, 2014 but the night before its release, the team made themselves available to talk a bit about independent development, Kickstarter, designing a game that breaks the limitations of the NES, and of course Shovel Knight.
The original Kickstarter campaign for Shovel Knight began on March 14, 2013 with a goal of $75,000. By April 14, 2013 when the game’s campaign ended, the team at Yacht Club Games had earned exactly $311,502. Yacht Club Games are no strangers to game development, having experience at WayForward on games like Double Dragon Neon, Bloodrayne Betrayal, and Mighty Switch Force 2. “We worked on a bunch of different titles but with that came a bunch of licensed titles that weren’t that exciting, so we were doing all kinds of different things sort of at the whim of the company,” says Nick Wozniak, Pixel Artist for Yacht Club Games. “The teams are split up and put together for the needs of the project without necessarily matching what team works best but what team works best for right now. We wanted to drift away from that and do our own thing where we had control over the games production but also for the games marketing.” With the success of so many independent studios and other Kickstarter backed projects from independent developers, the team at Yacht Club Games saw this as the best time to start something of their own. “It would be a really big shame if in ten years we looked back and didn’t back out; we just kind of stayed on course and didn’t jump ship and try our own thing.”
The Crowd-Funded Hero
Prior to full development on Shovel Knight, the team had worked on an iOS game that never saw completion. “It was going okay but it wasn’t really hitting the team creatively. We weren’t making the game that we wanted to make,” Wozniak says in reflection on the abandoned project. It was actually Kickstarter that helped to push the team to make Shovel Knight. “Absolutely [Kickstarter] was the biggest thing that kind of propelled this into something real. We toyed with the idea of maybe going to a publisher or venture capitalist but that didn’t make sense. Kickstarter was so big so we just went for the Kickstarter route and it turned out great.” The team was sure to look at all of the Kickstarter campaigns that had been successful prior to launching their own, in order to see what worked and what didn’t, and to try to improve where others had lacked. Wozniak remembers, “What was really popular at the time was to have a big talking section as a part of the video. We recorded a bunch of audio and video, but we decided that maybe just the gameplay can speak for itself. And then we didn’t have to have our weird faces all over it.”
In an industry that is filled with multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, it can be difficult for a developer to get their game out in the public eye, but for Yacht Club Games, Kickstarter was an important advertising tool. “I think that what Kickstarter is really good at is creating a 30-day hype cycle and getting everyone really excited for the game; it’s very unique in that,” Wozniak says. “It’s a way for us to directly interact with fans and there’s a risk involved so people have the idea that it’s a cause that they can take up and kind of fight for.” One of the biggest draws for breaking out independently for Yacht Club Games was the direct interaction with fans and the creation of new fans through the Kickstarter campaign. Wozniak commented further to say: “That’s something that I think is invaluable to getting a project started or getting awareness of the project started. But it’s also very stressful- you’re making promises that you’re fully intending on keeping but during game development you know sometimes you just want to cut something because it’s just not working with the game. A brilliant idea that you had six months ago is actually just hindering the overall quality of the game.”
Building a Classic
Despite Sony’s exerting push for independent developers to join the realm of PlayStation platforms, Yacht Club Games made Nintendo’s 3DS and Wii U systems, in addition to a PC release, their primary launch platforms. “Shovel Knight is a game born of NES games,” Wozniak says, “it’s very much from that era in spirit, so we made that choice because Nintendo has a warm place in our hearts.” While Nintendo was the right choice for launch, Yacht Club Games urges that they have plans for other platforms after the launch is behind them. “We wanna be out there on all kinds of things, so we’ll be pursuing that once things shift away from the launch.”
For the launch however, Shovel Knight really feels at home on the Nintendo 3DS and the Wii U, especially with the use of the Wii Remote in vain of the classic NES controller. The team made a conscious effort to really replicate the NES experience as best they could in modern times and for a game that is seeing a digital release with no physical counterpart. “One of the things about Nintendo games in the past- they’ve always just been a complete package,” something that Yacht Club Games wanted to continue the tradition of. “That’s why we’re doing those manuals, and a nice box with a big illustration,” Wozniak refers to the manuals that are being printed up for Kickstarter backers that donated to a specific tier. “We have a 44-page manual that we’re sending to backers and we have a box that is to the specifications of the original NES box and it’s full color and really nice.”
The little touches like the control scheme and physical manual and box keep the NES alive in spirit, but Shovel Knight too continues the classic 8-bit era 25 years later. The game draws inspiration from many of the best games on the NES while still creating an identity for itself. Within the first few minutes of gameplay, obvious influences can be seen from games like Mega Man, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and DuckTales. When the production started on Shovel Knight, the team knew the core of what they wanted in the game. “We had a village, we had a bunch of knights, and we wanted a tower at the end,” Wozniak remembers. Because of its dedication to that style of game, Shovel Knight feels like a game that was lost during the 8-bit days. Like the entire shipment fell off of a truck and someone just found the crate of games in 2014. Nick agrees that that was a focus for development, and that with those classic titles “You always get a sense that that world is really built, and that it feels like a living place with real living people, or at least interesting people even if they’re a little too unbelievable.” In regards to building the main village in Shovel Knight, the team tried to fill it with interesting characters and a uniqueness that isn’t something you’ve seen before. It was also essential to make the village likable. “It’s a place that you want to visit, and you want to fight for and it’s just a nice world to kind of explore.”
While Shovel Knight isn’t true 8-bit, it was built with the limitations of that generation in mind. This helped the team to narrow the focus and make the best NES game that was possible. Wozniak, who studied animation in college and specifically started doing pixel art during his time at WayForward, talked about the danger of overwhelming the screen with too many characters or projectiles, and how the limitations of an 8-bit game helped to shape the overall frame of the game. “But we didn’t pay attention necessarily to all of the limitations,” Wozniak laughs.” We have big character art and lots of animation frames, so it feels a lot smoother but when it hindered too much we just ignored it. It’s like a tentative embrace I guess.”
In addition to having the look and feel of an 8-bit NES game, Shovel Knight also has the sound and music of one. The music for the game was written and created by Jake Kaufman, using a program called Famitracker. Famitracker allowed Kaufman to create sounds and music that are the most authentic part of the game. “If you have the right cart and trickery, you can put [the music files] on an NES cart and it’ll play on an NES,” Wozniak says. “That said, it’s probably unlikely that it could happen because the files are so big and what not.”
“Actually, I spoke with Jake and it would be entirely possible to put the entire soundtrack on the 6MB Kirby’s Adventure cartridge,” interjects Ian Flood, Gameplay Programmer, “if you remove all the graphics and all of the game code.” While Shovel Knight wouldn’t necessarily work traditionally on the NES, the game still feels like it came out alongside the games that it draws inspiration from.
The Games That Made Shovel Knight
In order to really see the influence of other NES games on Shovel Knight, you need to focus on specific mechanics. On the whole, Shovel Knight is its own being that has a lot more influencing its design than the obvious.
“I had an NES and I had Mario and Mario 2,” Wozniak remembers. “I had a few games and I played them very often. I played Mario 3 all the time. I also had a Genesis and I played Streets of Rage constantly. Golden Axe. Those games are just burned in my memory.”
“Well, I really liked Mega Man,” says Sean Velasco, Design & Direction, through some laughter. “I got that as a kid and I really liked Zelda II. My mom got me that without me asking for it so it just appeared one day.”
“Here’s this curse,” Wozniak laughs, referring to the difficulty of Zelda II.
Velasco offers, “Here’s this impossible thing that will design your whole life. I didn’t finish it until I was like 25.” Being a kid during the days of the NES typically meant owning few games that were played repeatedly and traveling to a friend’s house to experience the games you didn’t own. Velasco remembers, “when I was a kid, I had a friend who’s older brother was good at the game, so we would just like watch him and learn. He knew all the secret paths through all the dungeons.”
“I grew up in that era of the NES where Nintendo completely controlled the games and the messaging,” Velasco continues, “I think a lot of my games and nostalgia are similar to other people from that era because you really didn’t have any other choice.”
While the team might share a pool of nostalgia and influence from 8-bit games, there are influences from more modern games and games that weren’t played at the time of release. “I think though that the things that I’ve recently played probably have more influence on me just on making games,” says Wozniak. “Dark Souls and I went back and played Super Metroid and things like that. As far as my art goes, I guess Metal Slug 3 has always been a game that sticks out to me that has the craziest pixel art on the planet. The level of detail and the things moving, large objects forming and stuff. Metal Slug 3 is crazy.”
Because Shovel Knight draws so much from Mega Man among many other NES games, the team at Yacht Club Games had varying opinions on the state of the Mega Man franchise as of late. The last major release in the series was 2010’s Mega Man 10, a game that continued the series in the style of the classic 8-bit titles.
“Well they’re gonna put him in Smash,” Wozniak laughs, “but I’m not sure. There’s a lot of hopes for bringing that franchise back but I don’t know.”
“It seems like all you would need to do is take the Mega Man from Smash Bros. just visually and stylistically and just build a new game around that,” Velasco thinks. “I would love to see a classic styled Mega Man that took itself seriously but didn’t get bogged down by any of the weirdness that like the Mega Man X games did. Or even the later classic series.” As many fans of the series will lament, it seems like Capcom is more focused on big budget, gigantic games like Deep Down and Monster Hunter, and something like Mega Man wouldn’t necessarily be a strong focus point for the company. “It’s like Disney making a new Mickey Mouse movie: ‘Let’s get our 3D, CG engines fired up and make the best new Mickey Mouse movie ever.’ But is that gonna be the vehicle that you’re betting the whole company on? I would say yes- I would green light the $50 million Mega Man and say ‘We’re spending $49 million on gameplay.'”
After the reveal of the character in the upcoming Super Smash Bros., it seems like Nintendo understands what the fans want. They have included variations of the character as part of his final smash move, and it appears that Nintendo is celebrating Mega Man in the way that Capcom should be. “That would be interesting if Nintendo just started taking over but Nintendo,” Wozniak thinks for a moment, “I don’t know, maybe that would work because Nintendo just loves old franchises.”
“If Nintendo bought it and then used R&D Studio 1 to make it then year, it would be awesome,” Flood thinks, “but other than that I mean if they outsource it, I’m not sure I would be totally excited about that.”
While Capcom might not be supporting the character, its creator Keiji Inafune is trying to. Last year, Inafune launched his own Kickstarter for Mighty No. 9, a game that very much is the Mega Man game that fans have been asking for. Alongside the announcement for the game, it also showed Inafune’s commitment to independent development, and a wider acceptance for Kickstarter and crowdfunding in general in Japan. Just earlier this year, another longtime veteran in the gaming industry, Koji Igarashi announced his departure from Konami, where he was well known for his work on the Castlevania series, to work independently on the games that he knows his fans like to see from him. With big names entering the independent scene, it doesn’t make the team at Yacht Club Games feel any different, only that now there are clearly multiple levels of independent development occurring.
“I feel like Mighty No. 9 and what he’s doing there is sort of like a different sized game,” says Wozniak. “There’s so much space in the game market to put your games out there and its not like we’re actually direct competitors. But as far as results down the line as a ripple effect, I think it maybe legitimizes the idea of an independent studio a little bit.”
Velasco echoes the sentiment, “Inafune and Iga are these huge, influential figures and we’re just like this kind of aside.”
As far as legitimizing the independent developer, Flood suggests, “I think especially in Japan where like Kickstarter is not a thing. Having Mighty No. 9 be a Kickstarter that was actually active in Japan was a huge thing because it’s opening up that type of crowdfunding model to that audience. The indie revolution isn’t happening over there like it is here. I think a lot of that has to do with staying with a company, or being hesistant to ask for money.”
“I think the idea of an indie game over there might be too synonymous with like a visual novel or a dōjin game,” says Wozniak. The dōjin game is typically something created by Japanese hobbyists but strictly for fun and never for an actual profit.
“They have a group of people just like us,” says Flood, “but they refuse to sell the game or spend any money making it.”
“It’s not just Iga and Inafune, right? It’s everybody,” argues Velasco. “There’s so many, even from when we did a Kickstarter and I feel like we were already late to the party but it was already really going when we threw out hat into the ring. Now it’s just even more right.” Igarashi and Inafune are two big examples, but as Velasco discerns, they are not alone. Yacht Club Games is an example of a team that broke off from a company to start something smaller and take direct control over every aspect of a game’s creation. “There are so many more Kickstarter projects and so many more companies that have people breaking off and leaving. It’s a really cool but tumultuous time.”
As Yacht Club Games would agree, the independent scene is booming. On both Sony and Microsoft’s newest consoles, the marketplace is dominated by independent games, while traditional AAA titles are scarce. Unfortunately, there is a vocal minority that assumes anything that doesn’t have life-like visuals and a 1080p output isn’t worth their time or money. Something like Shovel Knight is a prime example of a game for this group to scoff at and never experience. Yet, the team had received mostly positive reactions to it up until its release on June 26th.
Velasco reenacts some of the negative feedback that the team has seen or heard: “‘I’m so sick of how this looks. 8-bit games are so played out.’ ‘Can you guys actually try and do something different?’ ‘I could make a hack like this. Why are you wasting money on this?'”
“Some people aren’t into games like this, and you can’t make them happy with a retro-inspired title,” says Flood. “You can’t just turn on polygons or throw in extra features to change it, we have to go all in on what we did. If you don’t like playing Monopoly-it’s always going to be backwards to you.”
“We knew when we started the game that we were just gonna have to be okay with alienating some people who just can’t handle pixels,” says Wozniak.
“We also thought that this would be a good starting point for people that maybe wanted to get into platformers but never tried to or like [they] kind of like pixel art but it’s not the most amazing thing in the world to them. This would be a good jumping on point,” argues Flood.
“One of the things that we’ve been hearing a lot which is cool is like ‘Oh, I’m so sick of 8-bit games,’ and ‘8-bit games are so played out, but for some reason Shovel Knight looks cool.’ I don’t get it,” says a puzzled Velasco. “‘I’m done with indie games but for some reason this is on my radar.’ We’ve seen quite a few comments like that and I think that’s kind of the coolest thing of all that if you’re going into something with a preconceived notion of [it] and you’re convinced just from a few trailers or something.”
“I think we’re getting a lot closer,” suggests Flood. “Ten years ago, what games were there? Pixel games were not represented. Middle-ish games were not represented. Everything was so homogenized- the games all cost the same amount, they were all the same size and scope. A game like Shovel Knight couldn’t happen with a team our size. The buzz has been really positive and really big so far, and it’s cool that small groups can make something that resonates with people so well. I’m happy that stuff like FTL can exist now.”
With Shovel Knight‘s release behind them, Yacht Club Games is far from finished with work on the game. Part of the Kickstarter campaign was to add specific features to the game post-launch thanks to stretch goals being met. However, the night before the game’s release, the team was filled with a combination of emotion- a lot of which seemed overwhelming but none of the member’s ever suggested such. In fact, they all seemed excited and generally happy.
“It’s getting to the point where it’s like almost behind us,” says Flood, “but the fact that it hasn’t happened yet means that we still have work to do.”
Wozniak continues, “And for whatever reason, we just got an explosion of emails over the past week. It’s more overwhelming than the Kickstarter emails and I thought that was crazy.” He laughs, “You get to sleep for like 5 hours or something and then you wake up and there’s 50 more emails you have to deal with. It’s just really intense.”
Looking toward the post launch, Velasco says, “If it sells well- that’s scary. For every few people that buy it, someone is gonna send an email, or someone is going to have problems. Anything could happen.”
In a larger development setting, a company would already be onto the next game by the time one ships, leaving a smaller team behind to deal with bug fixes or post-launch content. A small team like Yacht Club Games doesn’t have that luxury, and will instead be dealing with everything themselves.
“We have a bunch of stretch goals for the Kickstarter to work on,” says Wozniak, “those are going to be developed over the course of the next year or so. Shovel Knight is not done, and we’re not done with it, but in terms of like the next game, it’s a conversation that we’re going to be having over the next year or so and then taking it seriously way down the line.”
“This is the 1.0 version of Shovel Knight,” says Velasco, “and then a lot of the stretch goal content that we unlock through the Kickstarter is going to become available-all for free of course- so it’s like whenever you beat the regular game and you’ve been playing for four months and you’re getting bored of it, all of a sudden a new pack comes out with a playable Plague Knight, with a different story and maybe a different boss battle and totally different mechanics but the game is 95% the same as the regular game with just a different spin on it. We’re hoping we can just drop in cool updates to kind of keep everyone’s interest in Shovel Knight stoked until we can finish developing it. And of course having it on different platforms, having it localized for other regions- it’s all gonna be good.”
“I wanna play Monster Hunter 4. I got into Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate,” says Wozniak, “looking forward to that next iteration.”
“I wanna play Alien: Isolation on an Oculus Rift. Anything on Oculus really,” laughs Flood. “I’m really interested in that. I don’t have any game ideas for it or anything but all the VR stuff is exciting. There isn’t really anything I’m specifically excited for but I just am”
“Really excited for no expectations!” exclaims Wozniak. “I also like the idea behind Evolve a lot. The four-person squad versus one big monster.”
Velasco shouts in the most serious tone: “You’d really like Big Game Hunter.”
No Better Time Than Now, No Better Place Than Here
The idea that a team could just start from scratch and get a game to market is one that maybe existed in the early days of the industry but for most of video game history, there has been a traditional model for game development. Yacht Club Games and others like them have proven within the last five years that it is completely possible to break out and create something.
“It’s never been easier by my estimation to make a game before,” says Wozniak. “There’s a ton of resources out there that you can learn that have millions-I’m sure that’s hyperbole- of internet videos that help you learn Unity or learn GameMaker.”
“Whatever kind of thing you wanna learn, you can find a resource on it,” suggests Velasco. “If you wanna make Unreal 4 games, you wanna make a Shovel Knight game that is 8-bit and super low res.”
“The only limitation at this point is your ability to learn,” continues Wozniak, “which is very unique. In the past there’s been the gatekeepers that decide which games go on what consoles and all that but now you can self-publish a game. Maybe you make an iOS game or maybe you make something in Unity and go on Steam. The best thing to do to become a game developer is to make games.”
“Don’t be afraid to move between different projects,” insists Flood, “don’t be afraid to finish a game. Get on a team. Learn to communicate about games and learn to communicate with team members. While single-man self-publishing is possible, that’s not an ideal solution given how big your game can get. Be able to talk about your game without being angry or defensive [toward criticism], especially at the very beginnings of a game.”
“Also, develop a skill,” Velasco encourages. “If you’re going to be an artist, then do a lot of art. If you’re gonna be a programmer then do a lot of programming. And do it. Actually program games. Get involved and just do a project- especially with other people.”
“Start small too. Pong or Breakout,” suggests Wozniak.
Flood echoes, “Don’t be afraid to emulate a game in style that you feel very strongly about because then you can focus on your sense of personal quality and less so about the ambiguity of the game’s design. Then, take it from there and expand upon it to see where you can go.”
“People call Shovel Knight a rip-off and this game had an inordinate amount of design work that went into it,” says Velasco. “The amount of work that went into making the game that looks like Mario 3 or Mega Man was just so enormous, so I would say that’s such a big scope of a thing to make. If you’re gonna be making art then it might be better to have the design already figured out. Or if you’re gonna be a designer then have the art and maybe the programming isn’t as big for you so you don’t learn it that much. Get something made.”
You can find more on Yacht Club Games at their website.