Here is our interview with David Deangelo (DD from here forward), a programmer at Yacht Club Games, the creators of Shovel Knight. We tried to keep the text interview spoiler free, but for anyone looking to hear all of David's detailed thoughts we have the full 2 hour interview on our podcast feed, as well. 

Download the interview here (Right click and save as)

EB:  Who are the members of Yacht Club Games, and what are their responsibilities?

DD: I should start off saying we’re all on equal footing, like taking on every task possible. My main responsibility is programming, but that said, I’m part of the design, like when art comes out I’m like “that looks terrible,” so we all have a part in everything. I’m also handling the quick books for the company, so our roles are not very concrete. We take pride in the fact that everyone participates in everything. That said, I (David Deangelo) do programming, Ian Flood is the other programmer of the company, Eric Pellon does the illustration and concept art, we have Sean Valasco who does the design and direction, Nick Wozniak does all the pixel art, and finally there is Jake Kaufman who doesn’t work for us but he did the music and sound effects for us, but he works for Wayforward full time.

EB: His soundtrack is amazing.

DD: Yeah, Jake pretty much knocks it out of the park every time, he’s really unbelievable. He’s super-fast, and he only delivers gold. The rate at which he’s improving is amazing, it’s like every soundtrack he puts out is even better than the last one, and it’s like, "That’s not possible."

EB: Bouncing off of that, you guys also had the Mega Man composer Manami Matsumae. How did you guys get involved with her working on your game?

DD: So we had a random e-mail in the first weekend of our Kickstarter maybe. And it’s like,"Hi, I work for Brave Wave, and I’m interested in this project and want to back it, but I’m in contact with Manami Matsumae, would you be interested instead of me backing it, I pay her to write some songs for you?" And we were like that sounds amazing, but this sounds like an offer from a Nigerian King. So we were like that can’t be true, and she’s a legend, so why would she work for our crappy Kickstarter? But, he actually knew her, and we said yes, and that’s how that came about.

EB: Were any of you in a room with her when she was composing the music?

DD: No, we never met her. We basically made a theme page document, and they said “Oh, she can write two songs for you.” We sent very early descriptions of what would be in the stage, like an outline, to give her an idea of what to expect, so she got this document, and she delivered these 2 perfect songs for us.

EB: How is working at Yacht Club different from working at Wayforward?

DD: In a lot of ways, it’s the same. The way we are structured and work is very similar is to Wayforward, because the way Wayforward works is that 10 people work on a single project, so the studio could have 10 projects going on, but all being done by these smaller teams. So the actual feel of developing a game is similar, because all of us came off working on Double Dragon Neon together. So it felt like we were doing the same thing all over again, but what is different is the marketing, the business, responding to all the e-mails we get, the merchandise for Shovel Knight, and all the support for Shovel Knight. Usually at Wayforward a game comes out, and since they are usually licensed titles you’re done, you’re job’s over. And usually you finish a game and it comes out 6 months later, and now we finish a game and it’s out right after. We are patching things right away, so the actual development is all the same, but the initial stuff the publisher usually handles is a new feeling.

EB: What made Yacht Club Games go with Kickstarter initially?

DD: There were a lot of reasons, and one of them was I don’t think we would have gotten funding for this game. If you are pitching retro NES-style game to publishers or people in general they would say it wouldn’t sell. Because there is no market or example that says a NES-style game sells in today’s market. Retro graphics and pixel art are one thing, but we were talking about an experience that is trying to pull you back to what you got on the original Nintendo system. That doesn’t really exist. So Kickstarter was better, because if we had funded the game from our own pocket we might have gotten financed, but we didn’t get that opportunity. And another thing we had just come off Wayforward and we wanted to do our own thing, we wanted to handle the business, we wanted to handle the marketing for once. The interesting thing about Kickstarter is that it’s this built-in community already, so we could bring Shovel Knight into IGN but they wouldn’t care, but they would care after seeing there are 15,000 people in love with it and behind it. It’s really hard to break into typical marketing channels, but Kickstarter is this channel where people are excited about new ideas, and want to talk about them, and tell their friends about it.

EB: How uplifting is it to see such overwhelming praise for your project?

DD: It’s still shocking. It’s still so unbelievable, and it’s totally overwhelming. I was saying this the other day and I went to a Billy Joel concert, and it’s in a giant stadium with 50, 000 people. And it was like, "More people bought our game than the amount of people at this Billy Joel concert." And that’s a lot of people, and to think we’re on the same level as that... We’re just so honored and grateful, and it’s such a wonderful feeling, but it’s hard to grasp how wonderful that feeling is.

EB: In what ways did the project expand in scope from its initial concept?

DD: I would say it didn’t get bigger, except for like our initial Kickstarter was 75,000, so the initial idea was to be smaller. But once it was successful, and once it became 300,000 we planned it to be a 300,000 dollar game.  So it didn’t get bigger over the course of development, but more like it got smaller. Things would get cut, but not like it does for a bigger game where it gets cut because of money or a lack of time, but more the game would feel better if this wasn’t here. Basically the scope stayed the same after we knew how much money we had and how much time we wanted to spend on something.

EB: So you guys are in a unique position where you are a successful indie developer, but working largely on Nintendo consoles. What’s it like to work with Nintendo?

DD: It’s been great, they’ve been really supportive of us. They’ve brought Shovel Knight to every convention they went to, they did a press release for us, and they put us on the front page of their e-shop, when they did their E3 live event and Comic Con live event they brought us. You know, making sure our game got promoted correctly. Behind the scenes they’ve listened to our crazy wild ideas, and they’ve helped us with any technical thing we’ve needed. Overall, they’ve been fantastic to work with.

EB: Plus, for you guys, it was important to be on a Nintendo platform with the aesthetic standpoint.

DD: Yeah, definitely I would say that’s one of the major reasons, but there were like a lot of reasons to pick the platforms we did. But you know, when we start talking about what we wanted the game to be it was weird for that game to be on anything other than a Nintendo platform. Beyond that. though, from a marketing standpoint they are the only people pushing NES games. They are making NES Remix and how crazy is that? So this is like January last year when we made this decision, and at that point the PS4 and Xbox One weren’t revealed at that point. And we knew the 3DS and Wii U, and what they do, and we knew those systems needed games and people would be starved for new games.

EB: What made Yacht Club Games want to share their sales information with the public?

DD: Yeah, it was really scary to do that kind of thing, and we were shocked how well people responded to it. I expected people to scoff at “You people expected to make $30, 000 a year” or like the opposite where “Oh, you didn’t sell 2 million? You should be embarrassed.” Basically we are making how well is our business doing available to the public, so when we are making deals people know where we are coming from. So from our perspective there is so little information on the internet or publicly that you can attain that gives you an understanding of what to expect when making an indie game. So it was important to us so people and future independent developers can know how to structure their games. And from the standpoint of the public, every Kickstarter is like “Qhy do you need this much money?” The general public doesn’t have an idea of how much a game can cost, so it was important to us to provide a sort of formula that makes them go “Oh, this makes sense, I can figure this out”.

EB: What was the most difficult aspect of developing Shovel Knight? Was there ever a day where you get that doubt of “I don’t know if this is going to happen?”

DD: There are a lot of difficult things, because making a game is always scary. A lot of the worries for us were - so we made this PAX demo, and we had this one level, it was pretty basic and it was exactly what we wanted, but when you’re thinking about extending it out for a 6 hour game - it’s like, this might be fun for 30 minutes, but when you are playing for an hour that stuff begins to wane. So initially we were making similar levels, and we were falling into this trap of making this 30 minute experience over and over again, and in January we went through the process of redesigning every single level. We think we now know how to make a 6 hour experience, and how it can all tie in together, but it was learning how to make it all flow and making sure the game would be good.

EB: How many public events does an indie game end up seeing over the course of development? Because for you guys it seems like it’s just one event after another.

DD: Oh yeah, that was a really difficult thing for us to handle, because if you look at it from an independent standpoint because our game development completely stops. So when we go to PAX and 5 of us are there, no one is back home making the game. And from a flow standpoint it interrupts our rhythm, and it’s not like you lost a week for going to a convention, it’s more like losing a month. Because it’s like you have to get into rhythm when you get back, and even the week before you are developing for an event like PAX. So you’re already screwing up rhythm just trying to get ready for a convention.

EB: How do independent developers handle the grind and specifically crunching that comes with developing a game?

DD: We crunched the entire development of Shovel Knight. There were like 2 months after the Kickstarter that we didn’t crunch, but from the summer of 2013 to summer of 2014 we crunched on making Shovel Knight. And we’re used to that because when we were making games at Wayforward, we’re working for publishers and you’re set to deliver something in a 6 month span, and aren’t asking you to go above and beyond. 6 months isn’t long enough to make a game, so we would have to crunch just purely out of our passion for the project. So with like Double Dragon Neon, we wanted it to be the best freakin' Double Dragon game you’ve ever played, and that meant to us that we had to be there 24 hours a day making it. For Shovel Knight it was like our first game, we couldn’t screw it up, we only had so much money, and we wanted it out fast as possible, so we crunched all the way through.

EB: What was so appealing about making a game with a retro styled aesthetic?

DD: Well, first at Wayforward we were doing a lot of games that were revival games like A Boy and His Blob was a revival of A Boy and His Blob, Double Dragon Neon was a revival of Double Dragon, Contra 4, and Batman: The Brave and The Bold we were looking at Batman games for the NES, because those were the best Batman games up until the Arkham games came out. So we had just been making these games and it occurred to us it be cool if we made an original game, an original property, but did things the way they did them in the 80s.

The other thing is that if you look at games in today’s landscape; games are so complicated. The example I use is Grand Theft Auto. Not saying anything bad about it, but in that game you can fly a helicopter, fly a plane, drive a car, ride a wave runner, ride a bike, and that’s just the transportation in the game. They all control differently, they all play differently, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg of how complicated Grand Theft Auto can be. So it seems like wouldn’t it be nice, wouldn’t it be relaxing to play a game with 2 buttons, and two actions, and build a whole game around that.

And we wanted to remind everyone how interesting a game could be and still be that simple.

EB: What was the major benefit of limiting yourself in sticking to the restrictions of the NES?

DD: One part of it was that people knew what the game was in an instant. Like if we took these simple ideas in a modern looking game you wouldn’t understand what the game is about. So, on one hand it was to build it that way so people can better process the game, and making sure we were limiting ourselves for the gameplay was important. When you build a 2D platformer, typically you don’t have the screen by screen Mega Man-like transitions where you walk to the edge of the screen, and then it transitions to a new screen. And when you’re building a game screen by screen it’s really easy to process the differences between each screen, whereas when you’re building this free flowing level, it’s a lot harder to notice that you’ve been running for 30 minutes. But when it’s screen by screen it’s like, "I just fought this guy last screen, and I don’t want to fight that guy again in the next one." So it makes it easier to count the action encounters and puzzle encounters, and specifically say where the repetition and specific actions are happening, and it really makes it easier to organize it.

And then when it comes to making something understandable for a player, it usually comes down to simplifying it. So if an animation is 3 frames long it’ll be easier to understand than an animation that is 50 frames long, because it’s harder to see all of the 50 frames. Also when there is only one button to solve a puzzle, that puzzle needs to be interesting because there is only one action, so it forces you to be more clever to make up for the fact that you are working with simplicity.

EB: Was there ever a controversial design decision where the team was split on something?

DD: All the time, like constantly. Like one day, Sean came in and said we should have fishing in the game. He thought it would be awesome if this guy in armor was just sitting around fishing in a level, and without knowing how that would work from a gameplay perspective. And I’m like, “That’s terrible, why would I want to fish in a platformer?” because fishing is this patient thing, and that goes against something like an action-platformer which isn’t nearly as about patience as fishing.

But the way we think is that Sean came up with the idea, so there must be something appealing of this idea, but I think there is something bad about it. So how do we meld our ideas to make something better? So what ended up happening was no one was using Trouple Potions. They would go to the Trouple King, he’d do the dance, and players were like, "Well, I’m not doing that again." But with the fishing pole, what if we put Trouple Potion inside levels, and people would realize they are more dispensable than they thought? Usually, players with dispensable items are always saving it for the right time, so if they are fishing them up the player will use them, because they’ll have a surplus.

EB: At what point in the development did the campfires come up. Was it before or after the idea of Shield Knight?

DD: So the campfire was originally just a concept made up for the Kickstarter, and none of us can figure out where exactly that came from. On our Kickstarter we quoted Mother 3 as the mood we were going for, story-wise. And Mother 3 is this weird game that is very silly, very funny, and at the same time is sad and has a melancholy to it, and we wanted that same sort of feeling that's in Mother 3 in Shovel Knight. So when we were thinking about that, we probably wanted something that matched that feeling visually, but extending that into what it is now, but the main inspiration was a moment of rest after a level. We felt like after a crazy action level we wanted something to let you cool down before going into the next level.

And the other inspiration is in Mario 3 where there is a falling sequence and you catch the Baton, and we felt like that cut scene was a strong aspect for it. So we wanted to have this tie and bring the player into the story, because our story is as simple as Super Mario 3 and Mega Man, but they don’t have anything that draws you into the story that reminds you of what you are doing. So we wanted this theme or dramatic thing that we could harken back to.

EB: How did you guys come up with all the puns for Croaker?

DD: A lot of it was Jake. Jake came in and he’s a really good writer, and he’s really good at everything. He was a spelling bee champion, and so he wrote most of them, and we like scoured the internet for like ice cream jokes. So we had to figure out how we would make it work with our knights.

EB: What’s the design philosophy behind an individual boss and theme of a level?

DD: Every game is different for sure, and on this game we started with the theming of the level. We knew we were going to do the Mega Man formula: we would have 8 bosses, 8 theme stages, and let's figure out what those would be. From a boss standpoint, it was figuring out where they fit in from a difficulty standpoint, so like King Knight has to be easy because he’s the first fight, but Mole Knight is middle of the game so he has more attacks as the player needs to be ready for more things at this point.

Then you throw ideas around based around the character. Mole Knight is about digging things, he throws dirt at you. So in a way, you’re competing with him in a digging contest, and he’s popping out of walls, and that entire fight revolves around the theme of digging.

EB: How do you balance a game for the modern era while also try to capture that challenge most associate with the NES era?

DD: It was another struggle for us, because we were coming off Bloodrayne: Betrayal and that game had a mixed response because it was so hard, people either loved it or hated it. And we feel we’re good at games, and when you’re playing your own game so much you get really good at it. So being able to judge difficulty is especially hard because of that.

So we wanted it to be an accessible game, and we told people at PAX and said it wouldn’t be NES hard, but all we had ever done was make games that were NES hard. So on one level we wanted it to be understandable, easy, and learnable. For instance in Bloodrayne you had to dash to be invincible and avoid everything, and we didn’t teach it very well, so some people struggled and didn’t use the dash.

So that intro stage is built strategically so you’ll understand every single thing you need to know, because there is a lot to learn about two attacks. The second aspect was we wanted to make it hard, but still keep it accessible. Initially, we wanted no checkpoints, because that’s what a NES game is, because that’s what’s fun is that huge risk in that you can get to a boss, and die at a boss, and it’s tough.

But we didn’t want to scare people off, so the way we thought about it was dynamic difficulty. So you would have Trouple Potions and you could use them and not in the same way Link can use a fairy, and the checkpoint idea was a major breakthrough in our game. So we had a lot of checkpoints to make our game easier, so how do we have them and still have the game hard? So that’s where the idea to break the checkpoints came up.

EB: What are the plans for post-game content for Shovel Knight?

DD: I don’t think there will be a lot beyond the Kickstarter stretch goals just because there is a lot of it: there are 3 playable boss characters, 4 player battle mode, a challenge mode, and a gender slot mode. That will occupy us for the next year, and by that point we’ll be shoveled out and wanting to do something different.

EB: What advice would you give to anyone trying to make it as an independent developer?

DD: It really depends on what stage you are at in terms of making games. If you are making your first game then just focus on trying to finish something, so don’t go big right away. Try to make snake or tetris or pacman or defender, so some simple game so you can finish it to completion. Because being able to see the entire development process is important.

But if you’re further along I would say be more open about your game, and take everyone’s opinion seriously. Because not everyone is always right, and not everyone always understands where you’re coming from with your idea. But usually there is some insight to be found in someone’s opinion, and it’s a hard thing to keep convincing yourself of that. But keeping that in mind helps you make a better game. 

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#1 Foolz 2014-09-09 17:16
Great interview, except I'm not sure why the anti-jive website apologised for easily the most anti-jive question asked. :P

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