In 2014, Yacht Club Games released its very first game, Shovel Knight, a joyful 2D platformer that wears its NES influences on its sleeve. This unlikely pastiche of 8-bit inspirations manages to emulate the look, feel, and even the technical limitations of nostalgic titles like Mega Man, Zelda II, and Castlevania III—imbued with a contemporary sense of humor and self-awareness. But how is a fundamentally retro game created in the modern era? And what do the games of the past have to teach today's game designers?
Based on extensive original interviews with the Yacht Club Games team, writer David L. Craddock unearths the story of a fledgling group of game developers who worked so well together at WayForward Games that they decided to start their own studio. From the high highs of Shovel Knight's groundbreaking Kickstarter to the low lows of its unexpectedly lengthy development, Boss Fight presents a new master class in how a great game gets made. Get ready to steel your shovel and dig into this fascinating oral history. For Shovelry!
The games I played as a kid—and during high school and college, which also fall under the "kid" demographic—played huge roles in encouraging me to write about games today. The opportunity to interview the principal designers of Shovel Knight to write the Boss Fight Books-published book of the same name was an opportunity to explore the development processes of folks who, like me, carried a torch for the 8-bit games responsible for so many happy memories. – David L. Craddock
Ian Flood drove in a daze. He pulled into a parking space, walked into the office, and dropped into his chair to stare down his task list. His brain shifted into autopilot. Read a task. Pinpoint a bug or glitch in code. Squelch it. Mark the task as finished. Move on to the next one.
Flood was vaguely aware of his friends around him, tapping keys and clicking mouse buttons and fiddling with controllers. Time passed, though how much he couldn't say. Working in Yacht Club's windowless main room was like working in a bunker. Occasionally one or more of the others called him over to weigh in on a decision. Other times they gathered around his screen. Later, he compiled Shovel Knight's code to roll out an updated version that accounted for all changes, then picked up a controller to test a level.
Hours later, Flood unplugged his Wii U development kit and checked his task list. Ten more bugs had infested it. Taking a breath, he carried the dev kit under one arm and left the office. The sky was dark. Headlights flashed along the nearby road. Flood started up his car, merged into traffic, and drove home. Tomorrow he would repeat the process all over again.
"Tired. Very tired. It's a blur," he said, recalling how he felt during Shovel Knight's development. If we had all our tasks done, I could take home a dev kit and test the game at home as my reward."
When the campaign's clock had stopped on April 13, 2013, Yacht Club had raised $328,682 between Kickstarter and PayPal donations. Time remained a precious commodity. Everyone had put in long hours: twelve to eighteen a day, seven days a week, working until their eyes blurred and their heads pounded from lack of sleep. "It's hard to be working 24/7 and continually setting these goals for yourself, and continually be missing them," D'Angelo said. "You're in a state where you're denying [reality]. You're saying, 'We're going to hit [a particular date],' but you know while you're saying that that you're not going to hit it. You can see that there's too much to finish, but you don't want to admit it to yourself. Having that feeling for six months straight is painful."
September 2013, the original projected launch date for Shovel Knight, came and went. That fall, Woz's wife Ellen gave birth to their daughter, Naomi. Even after rearranging his schedule, he only saw his family in fits and starts. "She had a little bed area downstairs, so I would take her up to her mom for feedings. All Ellen had to do was sit up to feed her, then she was done. She could stay in her asleep state, so I could help with managing the baby a little bit."
Woz's chest tightened every time he had to kiss Naomi goodbye and head back to the office. Only his belief in the project, shared by his friends and colleagues, lessened the sting of leaving home.
"We were all invested," Flood explained. "If that meant an extra three hours here or working an entire Saturday because you feel behind, or an entire Sunday because you feel like you could get so much more done if you have more time—we let work creep into everything."
Holding a bottle of Jack Daniels, Sean Velasco stepped into a cramped room where Jake Kaufman, Yacht Club's two-in-one musician and creative writer, sat pecking at a keyboard. Velasco set the bottle of Jack down on the table. He and his team had dreamed up themes and colorful designs for the Order of No Quarter and the lairs they inhabited. They had a vague idea of each character's voice: What they would say and how they would say it. The time had come to flesh out their backgrounds and motivations.
That was where Kaufman came in. "Jake has an amazing way with words, and dialect, and personality," Velasco said. "That's part of his poetry as a musician. Just the way he can get into a character and the way he can find a voice that feels different is amazing."
No part of Shovel Knight was created in a vacuum. Although Kaufman took point on writing Shovel Knight's script, everyone at Yacht Club weighed in. "We've done it a few different ways," said Woz. "Sometimes we get everyone together in a room, start from the top, and ride through together. Other times it's somewhat easier to break off into a group of one or two people, finding the direction for everything, and then bringing it back to the team and doing a full review to make sure the editing makes sense at a plot level and that everyone is happy with it."
Some read-throughs of scripts were structured. The team pored over every line, often speaking aloud and changing their intonation to match a character's personality. King Knight's florid speech matches his grandiose and pompous style. Plague Knight was the proverbial mad scientist, cackling while lobbing beakers of explosive brew. Not all edits occurred in face-to-face meetings. Slack, a free chatroom app widely used in the business world, lets users create custom emojis to better reflect a team's personality. "We have a King Knight emoji, and we have one for every character," Woz said. "We will frequently use them while speaking in their voice to make jokes. When it came time to actually write what the character would say, we had an idea of what their audible voice would sound like because their personality was already figured out."
When Yacht Club was not busy developing Shovel Knight, they were busy playing it— looking for bugs, imbalances, and lines of dialogue that rubbed them the wrong way. "I'll be playing the game and a line bothers me, so I'll go in and make an edit to it," Velasco explained.
The team agreed the script should reflect the game's fun, colorful tone. Text, used sparsely, drips with Yacht Club's collective sense of humor. They love punny puns, are liberal with alliterations, and swoon over singsongy prose. "I like improperly using language purposely, and spelling things incorrectly purposely," Velasco continued. "If someone says, 'Have you been down to the juice bar? It's fresh-squozed daily!' I like 'squozed' as a past tense of 'squeeze.' Or there's a horse that says, 'As soon as I'm done resting my hoofs.' That got flagged multiple times [by the team]: No, it's hooves. It's just that wackiness of language as an organic, weird thing."
Woz and the others kept their audience in mind while editing the script. Fans who still knew the Konami code would love Shovel Knight, but many younger players would be coming to it from childhoods rendered in polygons instead of pixels. The team struck a balance between dialogue that was inviting to children while still remaining sophisticated enough for adults. "We'll use keywords," explained Woz. "We're not afraid of using the word 'inventory' [which might confuse children]. That's one of those things where when we said the word 'ichor,' we actually defined how it's said and what it is. It's almost a weird little lesson, but that's intentional because kids play the game."
"You can skip everything in Shovel Knight, from the beginning cutscene to all of the boss dialogues," added Velasco. "You can even hold a button at the end to skip the credits. There are some people who say, 'Shovel Knight is my favorite game. Didn't you love Shovel Knight and Shield Knight together?'" To which their friend who also loves the game might ask, "Who's Shield Knight again?"
Shovel Knight's script unfurls in short sentences and pithy dialogue, yet the option to skip interludes and repartee appeals to players who care more about bashing skeletons with shovels than they do the hows and whys that spur their cartoonish clashes. That, too, hearkens back to 8-bit design, when games with lightweight scripts promoted replayability. Super Mario Bros. only reminds players of Mario's mission to rescue Princess Toadstool at the end of castle levels. Then they're out of the castle and gamboling across sunny fields riddled with hazards to jump and goombas to squash.
"We tried to take every opportunity to create something the player would have fun with and also be willing to play a million times over and over again, like a Mega Man [game]," said Velasco. "If you want them to do that, you've got to get the story out of the way or at least make it something they can skip if they want. When dialogue gets too long, even someone who is invested in reading it feels like skipping it. Brevity is the soul of wit, right?"
Aside from Shovel Knight's introduction and brief interludes, most storytelling occurs when players set foot in the boss room at the end of each level. The ritual that unfolds owes its underpinnings to Mega Man games. Once players enter a boss room, the Robot Master of the hour emerges, his life meter fills up, and the battle begins. Yacht Club borrowed that template and built on it. "When we looked at Mario's and Mega Man's stories, [the developers] put a lot of effort into the design and story in each stage for the bosses, but you don't often have a real attachment [to the boss characters]," D'Angelo said. "It's something you're making up."
Before crossing blades, Shovel Knight and a level's boss enter into a verbal sparring match. "Dialogue always happens around battles, so when you encounter Mole Knight, we think, what's he going to say? Why are you fighting him?" Woz explained. "Maybe it's not consequential, but knowing the outline of the story means we can have an understanding of who matters [in a scene] and who doesn't. We develop an outline and flesh it out in-game. Then, once we have those events set up, we go back and finalize the script."
Boss banter showcases each knight in the Order of No Quarter, giving players an opportunity to learn what makes them tick. Or, in Polar Knight's case, to draw a veil of mystery tighter around his character. Tall and muscular, Polar Knight glares as Shovel Knight enters his domain. His arms hang at his sides. One pan-sized hand grips a snow shovel. Shovel Knight greets him as "old friend," and asks if it would be better to "lay down our shovels and part as equals." Polar Knight shrugs off his former ally's détente. He craves power, and found it by throwing in with the Order of No Quarter. When Shovel Knight laments the absence of the "proud warrior" he once knew, Polar Knight declares that the time for words has passed. Then his life meter fills up, music kicks in, and the fight begins.