Playing the game, one thing that really stuck out to me was how well executed the check point system was. Were there were any other particular aspects of the game you all slaved over in the development process?
Woz: (Laughs) We thought a lot about a lot of things. We tried to make sure that nothing that we put in the game was half-assed or just not thought through. The check point is a good example of an idea that really sort of worked out well with the implementation and figuring out the iterations for making it work better.
Sean: We spent a lot of time iterating on it. What’s another example…well, one good one is the relics. You can collect like a dozen different relics in this game, and each of them have a different property. As you might have noticed if you’ve played a classic Mega Man game, or even in the Zelda games, a lot of times you’ll have kind of “twinning” of those uses. So you’ll have items that are just very similar in use and there’s not really a purpose to having both of them. Like the example that comes to mind immediately is the Wind Waker, where you have the grappling hook that lets you grapple onto horizontal beams and then there’s also a hookshot, which is almost the exact same thing, but why is it two items?
Woz: Another example I always think of is the fire arrow, ice arrow, and normal arrow. Like I never know which one is actually better than the other one. There’s just a lot of overlap with the items.
Sean: So it’s like we have a pretty big stable of items, and at first it was kind of a mess. Like a lot of them had kind of the same uses or they would be extremely overpowered against bosses. And the idea behind those relics was always to let you cheat the game a little bit, right. Like the same way that Mega Man’s item 1,2, and 3 let you cheat the game and get over a difficult part without having to do it, each one of these items was created with kind of a different use in mind. So you have the phase locket that allows you to avoid damage and walk over spikes, you have the propeller dagger which allows you to fly over short distances, you have the fire rod which lets you attack enemies over a distance while you stay in the same place. And then there’s a bunch of kind of unique items that add different mobility or just different uses. So that’s another thing that we stressed over and just made a ton of adjustments to, and I wanted to cut all of those relics. Like I wanted them out of the game forever, because I was like “They’re not balanced” and “They’re taking away the purity of the shovel”, but like where we ended up with them the items are fun, they’re solid, and I think do a good job of kind of just letting you play your own way.
Woz: Another one that I think of, sorry for answering the question twice, but the potion minigame started as just an idea of really quick interaction with an NPC where he was just supposed to throw a rock in the air and you were supposed to bounce the rock until it falls, and that was it. Like there was no points, no anything at the end. He was just supposed to go like, “Oh, you bounced that a whole lot” or “Oh, that was kind of crappy. Try again”. And it sort of just became this enormous task.
Sean: The whole village was very much like that. You know like, we started out and we only had one village and instead of spec-ing out the entire design for everything we just kind of like brainstormed a whole ton of ideas and did the ones that we wanted kind of in the order that we felt like. So we were just working on story stuff for characters, on fun little ways to interact, and the village was something we had never done before. So we were trying to make something that was fun and interactive, and you know usually you go to a village and you just have to talk to all the NPCs and there’s not really a lot for you to do. So just in the context of everything that village itself went through a ton of revision, but even more so that little minigame started out as ‘Bounce the Rock’ and ended up as this whole thing where you have the room to yourself, the door closes before you start it, it has its own music track, there’s different levels of points and different awards you can get, and that all came from just a one line brainstorm. So yeah that game is part of the reason that Shovel Knight took so long.
Woz: But just for everything, that level of iteration on everything, not just blaming that one minigame (laughs).
It sounds like, and judging from playing the game as well, you were very careful to balance the game’s difficulty for all kinds of players.
Sean: Yeah, I mean that balance is once again something we worked very hard to strike, and making a game like this in the modern era was another tough thing that’s a little difficult at time to get a beat on. Where does the difficulty of the game lie? How much can we challenge players before they get frustrated? What’s going to be intuitive? How much of a ramp does the game need to be easy in the beginning and how hard can we make it in the end so the same player can be playing it? All those things we iterated on constantly. And on top of that we had our beta go out to a small select group of people and then we got their personal feedback and adjusted to that, so it’s been everyone, not just inside our little half a dozen group.
Woz: What happens is that everything takes a lot of iteration. Like there’s a lot of just like trying something out and thinking it’s going to work and then when it doesn’t work you, you know, tweak what needs to be tweaked, or break what needs to be broken, and just kind of figure it out through multiple iterations.
Sean: So like let go of your attachment to any ideas that, even if it was your idea or if it’s an idea you treasure because you thought it was important in the context of the game, you know sometimes you need to examine those objectively and then it’s like, “Oh, that’s not what really matters for this game”. Like for example one thing we were talking about earlier today is going back to levels. So in Shovel Knight, in the game that you can play now, you can repeat the levels as many times as you want to go back and get more song scrolls, or go get more money, or go fight the boss again or whatever, but initially that was not part of the plan. In fact we thought very strongly that you should not go back to levels.
Woz: We fought that tooth and nail, almost from the beginning of the project. We wanted this to be based on the run of the game, that’s how we were approaching it at the beginning. We said so much in public at PAX like, you know, talked to people about that and for all some of those people know that’s still what the game is. But as we played it and as we showed it to people we got their candid reactions.
Sean: Right, so it’s like if everyone thinks that it’s wrong, then it’s wrong. And like as much as all of us would like to keep with that gameplay mechanic it’s like everyone else’s expectations were so different that we were all incorrect. And after we took the cap off, and made it so you could back to levels, it ended up really not affecting things in a bad way like how we were so worried it was going to. And it ended up as a stronger game because of it.
So if the game has changed so much over time, would it be fair to say that when Shovel Knight was first started it didn’t feature a knight wielding a shovel?
Woz: (laughs) Yeah, actually.
Sean: Our initial conversation didn’t involve a knight, or a shovel necessarily. We said, “Well, we want to build a game around a singular mechanic, like an old-style NES game, and maybe even go onto make something that’s a little like Mega Man. We want to make something that has a downthrust mechanic similar to Zelda II, we want to try to channel some classic games. But also we want to go off in our own direction that’s like unique and cool but we want it to be in the style of an NES game”. So yeah this was just a lunch conversation before the Kickstarter, before anything, and we came out of that conversation thinking, “Okay, we want to have a character that has an implement that you can dig with or that you can use to like stab through blocks or stab through dirt. We want him to be able to flip enemies over in addition to fighting them with a melee weapon”. And so as we described the different functionality that we wanted to come out of the game, we arrived at the shovel. So it went that way, instead of the other way. And then so it’s like if you’re a hero wielding a shovel, you may as well be a knight, right? And so we started with Plummet Knight, like we said, “We can’t call it Shovel Knight, that’s stupid. How about Plummet Knight?” (laughs). But yeah it was Plummet Knight, the plummeting knight. And then we decided everything else from that. So we decided we’re going to have themed bosses, and since Shovel Knight is a knight maybe all the bosses should be another kind of knight, and they should have some other weird attribute that you wouldn’t normally associate with a knight, and everything just sort of went from there.