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How Stages Are Created For The Mega Man-Inspired Shovel Knight


2D platformer Shovel Knight is slated for release on PC, Nintendo 3DS and Wii U later this year. The game is developed by a team of ex-WayForward staff, and is inspired by three games in particular—Zelda II, Mega Man and Dark Souls.


Siliconera caught up with Nick Wozniak, who’s one of the team members at developer Yacht Club games, via e-mail to find out how the studio got started and to learn more about the process of creating Shovel Knight itself.


What made you part ways with WayForward and where do you guys stand now, as far as your relationship with them is concerned?


Nick Wozniak, Yacht Club Boatswain: Right now is the perfect time to jump into the wide world of independent game development. While at Wayforward, we were working on games that we were really enjoying but ultimately knew that we wanted to do our own thing; to own the vision from inception to sale. While we remain friends with Wayforward, we believed in what we were doing so much that we made the tough decision to move on.


Is there anything you hope to do differently from WayForward?


Wayforward is really known for taking already existing IPs and flipping them around into something relevant and fun again. Games like A Boy and His Blob, Contra 4, BloodRayne, and most recently Double Dragon Neon. Where we hope to differ is really in our focus on original IPs. Our first of many being Shovel knight!


Where does the name “Yacht Club” come from?


The name “Yacht Club Games” makes us sound aloof, arrogant, self-important, and as if we are only in it for the cash; all of which describe the exact opposite of the company. The farcical view of ourselves is really just a way to have fun with the concept of a modern game company.


You’ve talked about the level design of Shovel Knight being “organic”. What exactly do you mean by that?


Shovel Knight is a like a fledgling plant, growing from the seeds of its simple mechanics. We wanted to limit the amount of actions that the player can do, so that the fun and excitement comes from the level elements and how you interact, or when the player experiences a subversion of those basic mechanics with sub-weapons. By keeping the player’s move set simple, we believe that the player will have the chance to internalize what Shovel Knight is very quickly.


You need to be much more deliberate with how you design stages in side-scrolling games. How do you get started and figure out your stage layouts? Things like, “Okay, I’m going to put a jump here and an enemy there”. What’s the process like?


We generally start out with a rough idea of what we want to put in the level—gameplay objects, enemies, hazards, etc. After we settle on a bunch of design elements that we think will compliment one another, we plot the level out. We’ll do a very basic layout in Photoshop and use words to denote what goes where.


So in the beginning of the stage, you’ll see “teaching moment” or “early secret”. Later on, you might see “spike hell” and I think we all know what that means! As we are designing the basic layout, we are also making the graphics and code for the stage.


Once we have objects and enemies for the stage, we’ll start tentatively laying out a real, in-game level. Each enemy and game object never works exactly how it was envisioned, or may require tweaks, so we spend time experimenting with each in real in-game situations to see how they work together and what kind of fun we can have. When we have puzzles or layouts that we like, we’ll move on. A stage starts as a long row of empty rooms, but we fill it in with gameplay until we’re satisfied that it’s fun and well-paced.


After that, we playtest the level many times, often with players who are new to the game. This lets us pinpoint any potential kinks in the level (we often make things too hard and have to tone them down!). And finally, when we are satisfied with the silky, buttery play of the level, we’ll be done and move on. Eventually, we’ll go back for one or two more tweaks.


Early on, you said that Shovel Knight was inspired by games like Zelda II, Mega Man and Dark Souls. Could you elaborate a little on where the Dark Souls comparison comes from?


Well it’s definitely not in the tone! Dark Souls is a game that really rethought the way that a player dreads death and values their currency. When you walk around any of the game areas holding a large amount of souls, because it’s so easy to die, the simplest task becomes daunting. The idea that you could lose that precious commodity at any moment makes the player dread death and really value that virtual bag of money. In the same way, we want to explore how imminent death can reinforce value in Shovel Knight.


Speedrunning is one of the aspects of the game you’ve briefly mentioned as well. How do you build a game with speedrunning in mind, and how does that change the design process?


Speed running a game is all about learning what the game does and how it operates so that the player can, in turn, run through the game as fast as possible. An ideal game for this is one that doesn’t change each play-through and doesn’t rely on too many random events.


Also, adding things like in game timers helps a lot for anyone who is trying to race the clock. We also have several friends in the speedrunning community that we’ll be taking feedback from. Hopefully, Shovel Knight will have the right set of factors that make the game fun and challenging but also learnable!


Death is more of an annoyance in games today. You die and simply start all over again. At best, there’s no real loss and at worst, you go too far and it puts people off from playing further.  Do you think there are ways other than death to make a game of this sort challenging?


There are different ways to approach death and new ideas are floating around all the time, but like I mentioned above in regards to Dark Souls, the way that death reinforces gameplay is something that is very important to us.


What else do you think is important to keep in mind while designing a retro game for modern audiences? What works and what doesn’t, in your opinion?


What works now is what has always worked. Simple and reliable controls; readable, strong character design; fun and challenging gameplay. Any time the player feels out of control of the character, we’ve lost them. To that end, we are trying to avoid things like physics driven gameplay or context sensitivity in buttons. Hopefully the player knows exactly who shovel knight is after just a few seconds of gameplay!


The knight character designs are kind of reminiscent of Dark Souls, in how they all look a little sinister. On the other hand, you have areas in the game with pink skies and green buildings. Artistically, what’s your final vision for the game? Do you want a more muted colour palette like Dark Souls or even the original Metroid, or are you going for a brighter look?


Artistically speaking, we are using the original bright, vibrant colours of the NES palette to give the player a sense of playing a game from their past, while also giving a sense of adventure as the player encounters various fantastical creatures and dangerous foes. The bright colours are also very important because the game carries itself with levity, so I wouldn’t expect to see anything as dark and foreboding as Metroid or Dark Souls.


Instead of just the one character, you’ve now got four playable characters for the game’s single-player campaign. Will each one have their own separate “What if…” story, or are their stories all going to tie in together?


Those extra characters are going to be a lot of fun to develop! Besides the gameplay differences, we are also hoping to switch up the dialogue a bit and have each one live out their own unique adventure.


What are your plans for story-telling? Obviously, the “game” aspect is king when it comes to a game like Shovel Knight, but you’ve said the game will have a strong story aspect as well. So, how do you tell story through gameplay?


Gameplay IS king, but telling the story through gameplay is also one of the most effective ways at telling a story. By explaining what is going on in the world of Shovel Knight through various boss interactions and special story events, we are hoping that the player has a very holistic experience.


Now that you have to plan for four playable characters, you need to design every stage to accommodate each one’s abilities. How are you going to do that? Will enemies have different patterns depending on the characters you play as, or will you be taking different routes through the stages depending on your character?


This is going to be the most fun part of having these extra characters playable. We can go a little crazier than Shovel Knight for these extra 3 and bring their own challenges to bear with their unique mobility and combat abilities. The challenge will be to make it work in an already existing framework. We are hoping that the game doesn’t need to change too much so that the main fun comes from playing with a different set of basic rules.


Initially, you’re going to have PC, Wii U and Nintendo 3DS versions of Shovel Knight. That last one will probably use stereoscopic 3D. How does that change how you approach the art and stage design?


In terms of the gameplay design? Nothing much. The biggest challenge is making sure that the visuals retain their clarity for the different layers. It may involve some slight adjustments to the level art as we jump into it, but intensifying the art to work in 3D is going to be a very fun experience!


It might be a little too early to be asking this, but are you thinking of Miiverse features for the Wii U version?


We are thinking of a lot of the different features and special opportunities we have with each platform, but right now I can’t really be any more specific. We are really excited about the Miiverse, though, especially its integration in games like New Super Mario Bros. U


Now that Shovel Knight is well underway, do you already have a separate person (or people) thinking about what your next game is going to be? What kind of ideas are you leaning towards at the moment?


Oh no (laughs), there’s no separate team! Making Shovel Knight is taking 1000% of all of us so there’s not been any real effort towards the next step after shovel knight, but we do talk about it every now and then. A fun idea is making a Super Shovel Knight followup that moves into 16-bit or maybe even a polygonal Shovel Knight 64!


Another one of our goals, however, is to get Shovel Knight on as many platforms and in as many regions as possible, so that may be the first thing we work on. So nothing really newsworthy to announce… but Shovel Knight is just the beginning!

Ishaan Sahdev
Ishaan specializes in game design/sales analysis. He's the former managing editor of Siliconera and wrote the book "The Legend of Zelda - A Complete Development History". He also used to moonlight as a professional manga editor. These days, his day job has nothing to do with games, but the two inform each other nonetheless.