Shovel Knight has proven to be a runaway smash hit.
Developer Yacht Club Games has been supporting its Kickstarter-funded success with huge content updates since its initial 2014 release. The latest update, Specter of Torment, is out March 3, appearing on the Nintendo Switch as a timed exclusive.
I recently sat down with lead programmer and studio co-founder David D’Angelo to talk more about Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment and about developing for Nintendo’s hybrid home console / handheld system.
Q. You recently announced that Shovel Knight and its expansions Plague of Shadows and Specter of Torment would soon be sold separately. You’re also rebranding the whole package as Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove. How did this decision come about?
David D’Angelo: Shovel Knight has become so big now — it’s essentially three games inside one game — and it felt like we were having a hard time communicating that message. We don’t see these expansions simply as big updates, which is what we called them before, but instead we’re now making these whole new games, so we should sell them like a new game.
We’re coming up on four years since we first started working on Shovel Knight and people have moved onto new games. I mean, we’re on the PlayStation 3! I doubt many people still play on the PlayStation 3 anymore. So, we’re thinking when you move onto a new system maybe you don’t want to repurchase the whole game, you don’t want to pay for the whole thing and you just want to pay for the part you want to play. And plus, we were thinking that these games — Shovel Knight, Plague of Shadows, and now Specter of Torment — are vastly different in a lot of ways.
You know, Shovel Knight is very slow and much more like a Mega Man style ‘running and jumping’ experience, while Specter Knight is more like Ninja Gaiden. So I think these games appeal to different types of players, and we thought it was important to make it clear they are different. So if you don’t like Shovel Knight, but Specter of Torment looks interesting, then we can make Specter of Torment cheaper for you.
Q. What about your existing fan base? How did the Shovel Knight community receive the news?
David D’Angelo: I would say it’s been pretty positive overall. There was a little bit of confusion around the changes to how we’d be selling Shovel Knight, but once people understand it they’re like, “Oh, that makes sense!”.
To be honest we weren’t anticipating negative feedback, though we weren’t really sure how the community would react to it. I think what most people were worried about was, “Oh no, am I not getting the free updates anymore?”. And we’re like, “No, you’re still getting the free updates. It’s fine!”.
Q. What about Wii U and 3DS owners who’ve purchased Shovel Knight through their Nintendo Accounts? Did you ever have a conversation with Nintendo about bringing existing game ownership to the Switch?
David D’Angelo: We’ve asked Nintendo about this in the past, but it wasn’t something we specifically asked about this time. We just figured it wouldn’t be something that existed.
When we bring Shovel Knight onto a new console we try to make it unique to that system in every way we can. For us, we hope people would like to buy the game again and not feel like it’s a scam, because we do invest so much time into it.
That said, it would be cool if Nintendo could make a proper account system work across future consoles.
Q. What’s next for Yacht Club? Maybe a 16-bit, SNES inspired Shovel Knight sequel, or do you want to do something entirely new?
David D’Angelo: We’re committed to starting on our new game once Specter of Torment is all wrapped up, so that will kickoff this year. But, I mean, we don’t know what will come up yet.
We are going to stay away from Shovel Knight for a bit since the team is overall burnt out, but we have talked about what Shovel Knight 2 would look like for a long time. Everyone here is dying to make a Shovel Knight 64.
Q. Shovel Knight 64 would be cool, but please make a SNES style game first
David D’Angelo: *laughs* Yeah, that would be pretty cool, too.
Q. Let’s “switch” topics. When did you decide to port Shovel Knight to the Nintendo Switch, and when did development for the system begin?
David D’Angelo: It wasn’t much of a decision for us as we never sat there and said, “We’re going to be on the Switch!”.
For us, if something has a controller then we want Shovel Knight on that system. It was always a given for us that Shovel Knight would come to the Switch. I honestly can’t remember when we started development for Switch, but it was definitely towards the end of last year.
Q. Did you engage Nintendo to become a development partner for the system or was it something that occurred naturally, like, “Hey we have a new console, would you like to make a game for it?”?
David D’Angelo: Nintendo first came to us, but I mean they’re usually in pretty good conversation with us, so they said, “We have something coming. No we can’t tell you what it is, but if you have something around this time then that would be great,”
Q. So Nintendo were active about reaching out to developers they’ve worked with before?
David D’Angelo: They do a pretty good job of keeping us in the loop in case our projects line up.
Q. Talk me through getting a Switch development kit. Surely it was a huge undertaking that required you to jump through a lot of Nintendo’s hoops?
David D’Angelo: Oh yeah! It was a huge secret, right? Nintendo didn’t do a true reveal until January. So we had to prove that we had locks on our doors and our studio was all secure, and only certain people in the company could know about it.
It was all very secretive, but that comes with any type of development hardware secrets regardless of the company.
Q. Once you had your hands on the Switch development kit, how supportive was Nintendo in helping you to come to grips the hardware?
David D’Angelo: They did the standard stuff like sending someone out to explain the specs and what they were trying to do. There’s resources online, like every other console, where there’s samples we can look over and use to help us create a game.
Q. How does developing software for the Switch compare with developing for the Wii U?
David D’Angelo: I would say the Switch is light years ahead of the Wii U.
It’s an incredibly easy system to develop for, even compared to other consoles. I mean, we had Shovel Knight up and running on the Switch within a week.
Everything has been smooth sailing developing for Switch. But the biggest unknown for us is, I mean this is a launch title, so you don’t really have an idea of how people are going to be playing it, how they’re going to be using the system, what the conventions of use are going to be.
So you try to do guess work and figure out what those are going to be, even when Nintendo doesn’t even know how people will interact with the system. That’s the real tricky part about developing for it.
Q. And what about Xbox One and PlayStation 4? Any comment on how development differs between them?
David D’Angelo: They’re all pretty similar. Playstation 4 is easy, and developing for it has gotten even better. I think Switch, for a launch console, is very close to that, and I’ve been very impressed with how put together it is.
Xbox One is a different kind of thing to develop for. The decisions Microsoft has made make development challenging for our type of game, which isn’t setup for handling profiles in weird ways.
Shovel Knight is designed like an NES game where you plug in the controller and it works, which is a little different to Xbox’s operating systems. So it’s a little trickier, but still not all that rough.
Q. As a developer how do you think the Switch stacks up in respect to “sheer guts”, to what the system is packing under the hood?
David D’Angelo: I haven’t spent a ton of time investigating how far you can push the Switch in every direction, but I know the hardware is pretty impressive for such a tiny system. Like, when Nintendo announced the price I was really shocked at how low it was.
I think the hardware in there is extremely powerful given the size of the thing. It’s like, if you hold the Switch up next to your PlayStation 4, your PlayStation 4 is enormous, right? But the Switch also has a screen and two controllers and that’s amazing!
Q. The Switch’s pricing has been a sticking point for a lot of people, so it’s interesting to hear you say you were shocked by the system’s price.
David D’Angelo: If you look at what it’s using, it’s using NVIDIA technology behind it. And if you look at those graphics cards online, they cost more than the Switch costs – and I mean, that’s just the graphics card alone.
Q. Nintendo believes it wouldn’t take more than 12 months to port a PC-based game to the Switch. Do you think this is an accurate statement?
David D’Angelo: It’s a big leap to say how long it would take to port any game over.
There’s a lot of different types of demands for a lot of different games, and just the way a game is written for PC could be way different to what the Switch is expecting, and that could make a big difference in how long it takes to port a game over.
From our perspective, it took a week and it was no problem. I would imagine for most experienced programmers it wouldn’t take very long, depending on the size of the game and what’s involved.
Q. The Nintendo Switch is unique in that it allows us play three unique ways; what’s been your favourite way to play Shovel Knight on the Switch?
David D’Angelo: I like it on the TV but with two Joy-Cons split off in my hands. Sort of like Wii style, if that makes sense? And playing co-op around the office has been really fun, like you can very easily hand someone a controller. They’re always there and that’s really cool.
The last system to ship with two controllers was the Famicom (NES), so it’s outrageous that there’s two built into the system right there, that two controllers are always available is really cool.
Q. Do you think couch co-op is something Nintendo are really trying to push for the Switch? Like, if you’re an indie dev and you’re not making a couch co-op game then they don’t want you on the system?
David D’Angelo: Nintendo never said we had to have co-op or anything. Nintendo did say they’ve got the system coming and Shovel Knight would be perfect with two players for it, and we agreed. It wasn’t much of a push and pull there *laughs*.
Q. As a consumer what are you thoughts about the Switch? Do you think there’s success in the system’s future?
David D’Angelo: It’s always hard to predict these types of things. I think it’s a cool device, and it caters to everything you like. If you’re into console games, it does that; if you like co-op games, it does that; if you’re into single player games, it does that.
For me the success of a system relies on the games. Having Zelda is a really great start, having Mario at the end of the year is great. ARMS is awesome. I can’t wait for Splatoon 2. If Nintendo have a steady release of games every month there’s no question it will be successful.
Q. Do you think Nintendo are doing enough to court big third-parties back to developing for their system?
David D’Angelo: That’s been hard for Nintendo. I would say that going off their announcement for the system, it didn’t look all that great to be honest. I think third-parties are hesitant because they’ve done really poorly in the past.
If Nintendo can prove the Switch is successful, and the games are successful, then I think all types of games will be successful. It’s all about Nintendo leading the way, and if they do that then third-parties will come.
Q. The same was said about the Wii U ahead of its launch and we all know how that turned out.
David D’Angelo: There’s good signs with the Switch. Bethesda being on a Nintendo platform for the first time since the NES is pretty amazing. If they can keep up the interest then, well who knows. For developers, having a HD, beautiful and gorgeous game on-the-go is a really cool experience. It’s fun to play games like that in this way.
So if Nintendo can convince people the system will sell then it will seem like a no brainer for developers to put their game on the Switch.
Q. You released platform exclusive “cameos” for both the Xbox and PlayStation versions of Shovel Knight. Any Nintendo cameos for the Switch version?
David D’Angelo: There are no cameos *laughs*. But we do have more amiibo features that we will be revealing very soon, which will be exclusive to the Shovel Knight amiibo.
Q. No plans to talk with Nintendo about adding wider amiibo support?
David D’Angelo: Nothing like that, nope.
Q. Thank you much for your time, David
David D’Angelo: It was my pleasure, was nice talking to you.