How Yacht Club Games made Shovel Knight a success
With Shovel Knight, fledgling studio Yacht Club Games dug into the past and took an old-school, 80s-centric approach.
It wasn't just in the style of the game, either. The Los Angeles-based studio wanted the titular Shovel Knight to have his own branded merchandise, in the vein of videogame product launches of yesteryear.
"It was so easy to love Mario back then, because you could get Mario shampoo and Mario books and Mario cartoons and, you know, Mario in all my games," Yacht Club Games programmer David D’Angelo says. "And if I wanted to love Mario I could do it in every part of my life."
And that's just what the team wanted to do with Shovel Knight.
"Having multiple ways to get into something, it just like makes it that much more lovable," D'Angelo says.
The team’s approach is paying off: the blue knight and his trademark shovel has undoubtedly become well-known, with Yacht Club's first Shovel Knight spreading from Nintendo devices and Steam in June of 2014 to Xbox One and the PlayStation family of hardware less than a year later. Since then, Shovel Knight has become something of an independent studio success story, crossing the million sales milestone in December 2015. Expansions, a rebranded Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove edition, and even Shovel Knight books have followed, as well.
But that strategic initial release on Nintendo platforms actually helped contribute to the success of the iconic character.
"If we had gone to PlayStation first, you maybe wouldn't know what Shovel Knight was."
"I think it was very huge in helping us sell the game, like I think if we had gone to PlayStation first, you maybe wouldn't know what Shovel Knight was," D'Angelo says.
According to D'Angelo, the lack of games on the Nintendo consoles, the timing of Shovel Knight's release, and Nintendo's own promotion all helped the title gain traction.
"And I think it really helped push our game, because, you know, those people that were into those systems had something to hold on to and to be excited for," D'Angelo says.
Having Shovel Knight -- a stylistic callback to the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System -- on modern-day Nintendo systems also did something else: It helped players understand what type of game it was before they started playing it. It's something the team learned the importance of from their past working at WayForward, where other people handled the creation of the game trailers.
D'Angelo likened it to the same way that viewers would be unhappy if a movie they want to see looked like a comedy in the previews, only for it to later turn out to be a drama. Players can get certain expectations from trailers choose to show.
"I think there's a big problem in videogames where people don't spend enough time selling what the game is the right way, in order to make people happy when they're actually playing the game," D'Angelo says. "But they try to sell what the game is so people will buy it, right? But they don't do it to try to make them happy once they're in the game, which is just as important, if not moreso, right?"
As for Shovel Knight's own marketing, Yacht Club didn't rely on ads or do email blasts. Instead, it took a more specific and targeted approach. "We're going to try to find people that are excited about Shovel Knight and have them talk about it," D'Angelo says.
With that in mind, the team first showed Shovel Knight to Colin Moriarty -- who at the time worked for IGN -- after seeing the writer's past work doing GameFAQS for games like Mega Man, Castlevania, and Mario.
"We thought this was the perfect guy to be talking about Shovel Knight, to understand it, right?" D'Angelo says. "And when he talks to his community he'll talk about it the right way, in a way that's exciting and can excite people on the same level."
Yacht Club also stayed involved with its own community. During the course of Shovel Knight's Kickstarter campaign, the team held monthly Skype meetings where fans could get a look at what was being worked on, and also bring their own ideas forward, as well.
But actually bringing the retro NES-style game to life had its own set of challenges. After the initial Kickstarter demo, the team had to figure out how to take its initial idea and turn it into an entire game, while still keeping it enjoyable to play.
"We figured out what the small piece of the game was, but figuring out what the larger thing that hooked you in was what was pretty challenging," D'Angelo says.
Creating a modern game in the style of older systems, while easier than crafting games originally was back in the day, also presented complications. Making a game pixel-perfect -- something that D'Angelo added NES games actually weren't, in their heyday -- was a challenge, and while modern tools do make creating games easier, they don't allow for retro effects.
"That still almost takes writing a new engine," D'Angelo says.
This means that effects that sold the old-school vibe of the game, like when Shovel Knight flashes red when he gets hit by an enemy, are tricky to do with current hardware. Bringing the game to some systems -- like the 3DS or the Vita -- also had its own share of issues, as well.
With the multiple releases and continued expansions, Shovel Knight has continued to grow as a game fandom icon. The character has made cameo appearances in a wealth of titles, including Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, Azure Striker Gunvolt 2, and Yooka-Laylee, and also has his own amiibo figure.
"So many people think if they put something good out there, that's all it takes."
Shovel Knight's perpetual presence in other games works as an extension of both the character's brand, and is yet another way Yacht Club games has managed to leverage the character's popularity. It is also, in its own way, marketing, something that D'Angelo thinks more independent developers need to pay attention to.
"So many people think if they put something good out there, that's all it takes," D'Angelo says.
He added that it can be helpful to try to get a read on what players expect out of the game while it’s being made, and then to try to take steps to go above and beyond those expectations. But the actual spreading of the message is also important.
"You have to constantly sell your game. It's a huge amount of work," D'Angelo says.
D'Angelo mentioned that indie developers especially seem to miss this, as opposed to AAA titles, which can have large marketing budgets. He wagers that indie studios probably don't spend a third of their time on a game toward marketing, but it's something that, at Yacht Club, the team spends a surprising amount of time on.
And that marketing, in turn, also helps players better understand what the game is, meaning players are likelier to be happier with the finished product. And if the sales -- and review scores -- are anything to go by, Yacht Club Games has succeeded.
"It's good to get people to buy your game... and then while you're marketing you're also creating a space to help people better understand your game when they play it, so that they'll think it's better in the end," D'Angelo says.
And the Shovel Knight's journey isn't quite done yet, either. The King Knight campaign and battle mode are still in the pipeline, finishing off the game's Kickstarter content. And after that, well, D'Angelo added the company will be starting on a new game. And Yacht Club Games is taking suggestions on that front, too.