Shovel Knight director Sean Velasco digs into Yacht Club Games’ past and future

Shovel Knight director Sean Velasco digs into Yacht Club Games’ past and future

Shovel Knight has been one of the biggest indie hits of all time since its 2014 release, but now its journey is nearing an end with the December 10 release of the King of Cards campaign and the Shovel Knight Showdown fighting mode.


The action sidescroller has sold over 2.65 million copies, and its continued success comes in part from developer Yacht Club Games‘ release of exceptional downloadable content. King of Cards if the third and final of three bonus campaigns that have players controlling a new character. But these experiences are more than just a slight alteration of the original game. Each new campaign, which were originally stretch goals on the title’s Kickstarter, has felt more like a sequel or standalone experience.


With King of Cards and Showdown nearing release, I was excited to have a chance to talk with Shovel Knight director Sean Velasco. I asked him about this long development journey on Shovel Knight and the future of Yacht Club Games.


Final nights


GamesBeat: How does it feel to finally be at the finish line of the Shovel Knight marathon?


Sean Velasco: It’s pretty awesome, all things considered. It’s been, what, six years since we started on Shovel Knight with our Kickstarter? We’ve made five games since then. These last two games, Shovel Knight: King of Cards and Shovel Knight Showdown, are both really good. Every time a new campaign comes out I’m like, yeah, this one is my favorite, but right now King of Cards is definitely my favorite of the campaigns. It’s so cool. I’m just excited for everyone to be able to get their hands on the game finally, after such a long development cycle. It feels great. End of an era.


GamesBeat: What about King of Cards makes it your favorite?


Velasco: Each one of those games is different in a different and interesting way. Original Shovel Knight is very tried and true. Plague Knight has that weird mobility. Specter Knight is very pared down and concise. The gameplay is really straightforward, and that’s really cool. But King Knight is the opposite of Specter Knight. It’s big and grandiose. You can just soak in it. It’s dozens of levels, and there’s so much stuff to do. You can play the Triple Triad-style card game throughout the whole game. That’s really cool. It’s bigger in scope than any of the games that have come before it. It’s totally its own thing.


Also, because it’s the last game — this and Shovel Knight Showdown — since these are the last ones, we’ve made them a sendoff for all of Shovel Knight. All of the ideas we hadn’t put in the game yet, we had to put it in now. We have to put everything in this one. As a result, it just became this big giant thing. It’s cool to soak in. It’s cool to be able to have a Shovel Knight world where you can soak in it a little bit more. That’s why I like King of Cards so much right now.


Above: King of Cards has its own card game.

Image Credit: Steam


GamesBeat: With the past games you can see some pretty clear influences, like Mega Man, Zelda 2, and Castlevania. Were there any specific influences for King of Cards?


Velasco: There’s obvious similarities to Wario, with the shoulder tackle. King Knight has a shoulder bash that’s a similar move. We thought about how Wario is a big guy that throws his weight around. We wanted King Knight to feel like a big guy who throws his weight around. He loves treasure, he’s kind of greedy. He’s sort of Wario-ish. At least that part, we were a bit initially inspired by Wario. But after that we just started iterating on the mobility of the King Knight. The mobility went through so many changes for us to get it right. As a result, I think it feels really unique. You can have more grace in this mobility even than you can with Specter Knight. It’s a bit more free-form, like Plague Knight’s gameplay. You can bash and spin around do a lot of acrobatic-looking moves. It’s really cool.


GamesBeat: How did the idea come around to make a Shovel Knight fighting game?


Velasco: It was one of our Kickstarter stretch goals, just like all these other campaigns. That was our last stretch goal, four-player battle mode. It was just like — who knew what it could have been? I guess in my brain, it might have been like Mega Man 7, that battle mode, where you enter a code and the characters barely work and you play it a couple of times and you forget about it. It’s a curiosity. But much like often happens at the Yacht Club — the way it works around here generally, if someone has a problem with something, they speak up and we all have to talk about it until we all agree on everything. So for Showdown, we — there were concerns. Hey, we don’t want to put out something that’s just going to be fun for a little bit. If we can make a really amazing multiplayer game that’s nuanced and fun and more expansive, that would be the best version of itself, that would be what we wanted to put out.


We started working on it, deciding what features you would want in a game. Because what kind of features would you want to have in a fighting game? Well, you have to have an arcade mode with a story ladder. It’s always cool when every character has a unique beginning and ending. It’s cool when you have a rival that has dialogue. It’s cool when there’s a lot of secret characters and weird items. It’s cool when the stories intertwine and they’re canonical. It’s cool when the story of a fighting game actually matters, and it’s also fun to have a billion options that you can turn on and off so you can play with your friends forever. In for a penny, in for a pound, I guess? We just wanted to make the best thing we could. When we started really thinking about what that was going to be, it ended up being something that was very high in scope.


Fans of all kinds


GamesBeat: Speedrunning, that community has been a big part of the game. Is that anything you gave consideration to when you made King of Cards, or is it better to just make the game and let them figure out how they’re going to mess with it?


Velasco: Yeah, speedrunners are definitely considered at some point in the development of all of our games here. For King of Cards it was the same thing. We have speedrunners on our beta key list on Steam. Cameron is a record holder — well, the records always switch around, who’s the record holder for all the campaigns, but he’s a speedrunner, and he works here every day. He’s finding speedrunner techniques as well. The things that speedrunners have a problem with the most are things that are RNG (random number generator) based. Oh, this gem appears, and sometimes it’ll move in my way, and sometimes it won’t. If it moves in my way my run is ruined, and it’s nothing to do with me, it’s just that the gem is moving in my path. I’m talking about a gem encounter on the world map. And so a speedrunner might say, well, if you play very quickly, could you make it so the gem won’t get in the way? A regular player would never notice that. That’s not supposed to be a gameplay mechanic. But it means that a speedrunner would be able to get through there without worrying about it. Removing the RNG. Or we might say, well, that’s kind of unreasonable, because that disturbs the randomness that we want to have in the game.


What else? Things like syncing up the movement of platforms to make sure that if you’re jamming through the game at optimum speed, the platform will be there when you land. You don’t have to wait for it to go all the way back and then come all the way forward again. If you’re playing at optimum speed, then you should be able to not have to wait for anything. So yeah, there’s a lot of considerations. Speedrunners are also great at finding ways to get out of the world, escape the boundaries of the collision, so that’s helpful as well.


Above: Shovel Knight Showdown is more Super Smash Bros. than Mega Man.

Image Credit: Steam


GamesBeat: You guys have established this great relationship with Nintendo, with the Shovel Knight Amiibo and then the trophy character in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. How did that relationship start and develop?


Velasco: I guess it all started when — I used to work at a company called WayForward, which makes Shantae and Mighty Switch Force and a lot of licensed games. They made the DuckTales game. They just put out River City Girls. Anyway, when I was working there, we had a relationship with Nintendo when we were working on the Mighty games. There was a guy named Dan Adelman who worked — he’s worked all over the place. He’s an independent publisher now. But he was the Nintendo indie third party guy. I just called him when we started Yacht Club and said, hey, remember me from WayForward, we love Nintendo and we want to make Nintendo games, how about it? He said, yeah, sounds great. He took a chance on us and gave us kits. Since then — I think because Shovel Knight looks like a Nintendo game, because we’re so reverent towards Nintendo, and because we hit the Wii U and the 3DS as our primary SKUs besides PC. It just started to associate us more and more with Nintendo. During the Wii U years we put everything out and put a lot of work into making cool stuff on the Wii U, like the Miiverse. We did a Street Pass minigame. We worked really hard to make all the stuff on Nintendo for the reasons Nintendo thinks it’s cool too. I hope, anyway. That’s my hope, that we make it look like a cool 3D planar thing, and they’re like, oh, yeah, Yacht Club is doing a good job using that tech we have and trying to make it fulfill its potential. It’s like mutual love, you know? Everyone at Nintendo has been really cool. They published us in Japan. The Amiibo was amazing. Because we were like, oh, yeah, we’d love to put Street Pass in there. We’d love to do Miiverse in there. We’d love to bring out an Amiibo. Of course we want to do something like that.


But the same is also true — we did that with Sony. We put Vita back touch in the game. We put Kratos from God of War in the Sony version. The Battletoads were in the Xbox version. We tried to make every SKU special. When PlayStation 4, the controller color–it really changes depending on what level you’re in. It changes colors when you’re in the alchemy lab. It flashes all of Plague Knight’s crazy jars that are green and teal. That kind of stuff. We try to pour our hearts and souls into everything we’re making. That’s why Nintendo likes us, I hope.


GamesBeat: Nintendo has had a good relationship with indies in general. They let the Crypt of the Necrodancer folks make a Zelda game. Would you want to work on a Nintendo franchise? Or would you rather keep doing your own things?


Velasco: That Zelda game is interesting, right? It’s a game set in the setting of Zelda using the gameplay of Necrodancer. But the gameplay of Shovel Knight is very classic. It’s like Mario already. I’m not really sure what would be analogous to it. It’s like Mega Man, it’s like Mario, but that’s what Shovel Knight is already like. I guess what you’re asking is if we would want to make a licensed Nintendo game. I don’t know. That would be — I don’t know, man. That’s a big question. I guess it would depend on what it was. If they said, hey, Yacht Club, we believe in what you guys do, and we want you to make something that’s the truest expression of what you think it is, then I think I would be much more likely to want to do it, if it was like, we want you guys to make a game to spec. If we got to have more creative freedom. It seems like Cadence of Hyrule got a lot of leeway to do cool stuff. Who knows? Maybe? Shovel Knight and Link, or Mario and Shovel Knight together, like Rabbids in Mario? I don’t know. That could be fun.


Future nights


GamesBeat: This is the last campaign you’re making for the game. If you were to make one more, which character would want to see star in it?


Velasco: If somebody else would make it, if it could just exist? That’s a good question. How about you? Do you have dreams of another campaign?


GamesBeat: Tinker Knight would be fun. I wonder how that would work.


Velasco: Well, you would build stuff, right? You would have, I don’t know — you’d lean toward engineering. Or I think Tinker Knight would have to have a base. Or you’d have to collect stuff. You’d make a generator and upgrade it and have to run clockwork gears to somewhere else in your base. Have you seen Oxygen Not Included? Maybe it could have some elements of that, where there’s a side-scrolling base that you’re building and you have to link things up together. You have to actually tinker with stuff, right? That could be part of it. You could go out and do mission, or go to different levels and collect stuff. I have to go get more ore, go get gears. I’d have to think about what you’d get. Then you could go home and craft and make your tinker base. And all your stuff would be stuff that you would use as you go out. You could make your mobile gear, or your equipment, so you could go out further and further and get more stuff. It could be like Tinker of Torment, right?


Above: Not every Shovel Knight character got their own campaign.

Image Credit: Steam


GamesBeat: Are you sure you’re not making this game? Because it seems like you’ve put some thought into it.


Velasco: No, that’s all just made up. It would be fun to do a Treasure Knight game. I really like deep underwater scary stuff. It would be fun to make something that was deep underwater. You’re sailing around in the Iron Whale, going to scary — have you played Subnautica? It’s so scary. But I love that kind of stuff. It would be fun to do something where you have to go down into progressively deeper, scarier territory to get better and better treasure and upgrade your ship, do stuff like that. If we were to make those games, we would lean on whatever that character’s personality is and try to move it in a different direction.


With King Knight, we have Joustice, which is a whole game within a game. It’s this expansive card game that you can play throughout the whole thing. Between that and the way the level map works, having many more levels, but they’re shorter, almost like Mario levels, so you can plot your path on the map a lot more. The way it expands on the gameplay, I think we would do the same thing with every character. But we’re not going to do that. We promised ourselves we weren’t going to make any other games in the Treasure Trove. But who knows? I would love to see any of those. Maybe other companies will make those, or maybe somebody will do them later. We have to do something besides Shovel Knight next. We can’t just keep on Shovel Knighting forever.


GamesBeat: Talking about what’s next, last week it was going around that Yacht Club games had job postings for 3D game designers. What’s that for?


Velasco: We’ve talked a lot about wanting to make a 3D game. It’s a logical step for us, right? We’ve experimented a lot and done a lot with 2D stuff. We love games like Mario 64. We love 3D action games. We want to make a big 3D game at some point. But in order to make a big 3D game, I think first you have to make a small 3D game. Or just something that’s smaller, some kind of in-between. We want to expand and do some different tech. Who knows if we’ll actually put anything out in 3D, or maybe it’ll be a hybrid or something, but there’s no project set in stone at all. We’re going to have meetings about that tomorrow. We’re just finishing up everything with Treasure Trove. It comes out next week? December 10. Seven frickin’ days from now. That’s crazy. We’re just getting everything done, and then we’ll think about the next game. Well, we’re already thinking about it, obviously, but nothing is set in stone. It’s set in butter.


GamesBeat: Now that you’re end of the Shovel Knight journey again, what’s your biggest takeaway from the experience?


Velasco: It’s been a long road. Everyone really went crazy working on Shovel Knight in the beginning. During that time we’ve learned to mellow out a lot. We’re passionate people. We love making this stuff. But it has to be a balance. In that time we’ve learned to calm down around overworking. That’s a big takeaway. Another takeaway is, all of the effort that we’ve put into making something that we thought was the best it could be was worth it. It’s always been — I think we’ve been lucky. We’ve been real lucky.


But everything we’ve made has been really well-received. Because we thought through it all, because we listened to what people were saying, and because we tried to make the best thing possible without letting anything else get in the way. Being committed to making something that everyone agrees is good, that’s another good takeaway. I feel lucky, just really lucky to have been able to work on a game for six years. There’s been real rough spots, but overall, we got to do so much cool stuff. We got to fly to Japan and go to Nintendo and talk to them. We got to have an Amiibo. We got to have Manami Matsumae make these songs. We got to meet all our favorite game developers and go to shows. The game’s been a success. It’s been amazing.


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