Interview with Shovel Knight artist Nick Wozniak: “Sometimes, you’re a fish.”

At E3 2017, I had a chance to chat with Nick Wozniak of Yacht Club Games about the future of Shovel Knight, King Knight, and whether anyone has a fish under their helms.

Nick Wozniak graciously agreed to chat with me at E3 2017. As a pixel artist for the Yacht Club Games and, thus, all of the Shovel Knight collection, he had a veritable treasure trove of insight on the games’ design and development, the future of the series, and what’s actually under Shovel Knight’s helm.

App Trigger: One of the things that captured me the most about the Shovel Knight games was the progression and level design. You guys really captured that spirit that games like Mega Man X have where it teaches you as you play. How hard was it to hit that sweet spot with this game where the levels were challenging, but not too much so, and still felt rewarding?

Nick Wozniak: It was really hard. I would say that was the hardest thing, the thing we went back and forth the most on: finding the thing that allows players to do well and progress without causing them to feel cheated in any way, or feel like it’s too easy and like they just spent time doing this thing that doesn’t really mean anything. We want players to earn it and accept it as a thing that they did, and the difficulty can help with that.

But also, being able to manage your own difficulty a little bit: we have that checkpoint system where you can break the checkpoints. And that means that you can make a bet with yourself–I can do this; all I’m doing is betting my own time, because that’s all I’m sacrificing by doing this. So if you break checkpoints, you can maybe move into the next area with a little more trepidation, but more reward. And if you wanted to, one of the hardest achievements in the game is the checkpointless run, which is breaking all the checkpoints you can. It’s very hair-raising and difficult, but that difficulty is next to where there’s like seven or eight checkpoints in the later levels, and you’re never losing more than five to ten minutes of gameplay.

Our goal was to make a game that everybody can immediately play and get a good handle on what the game expects of you, then get through the levels at their own pace in a way that means they can finish it. With Nintendo games, in my head there’s a bunch of instances, especially in Mega Man where you just transition into a room and you’re in spikes. You have no choice but to die, especially in Mega Man IV in one of the water levels, if you jump too high, it will literally put you inside of a spike collision. And you just die!

shovel knight

Credit: Yacht Club Games

AT: You didn’t learn anything from that!

NW: Right! Well, you learned the map, but that’s not useful information to someone who’s learning systems. So yeah, level design is the way to do that, it’s also the systems in place, it’s also approaching it knowing how people are playing it. To that end, we have a bunch of play tests; we bring it to conventions and have kids play it, we have people come into the office and they play it and maybe they’re people who don’t play games. We live on that feedback, to make sure we know what we’re making as we make.

AT: You did that poll recently on Twitter, too, and you had a good response on that. People said it [the difficulty] was about right.

NW: I think it’s really easy to say something’s just right.

AT: Right, especially if your audience is people who already finished the game and liked it.

NW: Yeah, what’s more interesting, and what’s in line with our expectations, is the difference between who said it was too hard. So, for Shovel Knight, I think 6% said it was too hard, and 8% more said Plague Knight was too hard, and then 1% less said Specter Knight was too hard, so that was a way for us to see the differences mostly rather than get a metric of actually how hard it is. Because we asked our followers, so these are people who already clicked a button to let us know they liked us and wanted more information from us. So I assume most of those people have played or finished Shovel Knight. It was more telling for Plague and Specter Knight for sure.

AT: And I assume that info is going to go toward King Knight and whatever else comes next, right?

NW: It helps us reaffirm what we’re thinking already. We knew that Plague Knight was too hard for people, so when we approached Specter Knight, one of our goals was to make it fun and easy in a way that effortlessly you could appreciate the fun of it. Plague Knight was a counterpoint to Shovel Knight. In Shovel Knight, you learn the levels and you have a very basic mechanic that you learn in the very beginning, and the rest of it the game is the levels expanding upon that. Plague Knight is sort of the same levels, but you’re a new, totally different character.

AT: You feel limited at the beginning.  You feel like you can’t jump or anything!

NW: You don’t know what to do. The whole game is learning to be Plague Knight in those same levels, so it’s the opposite. One is a guy you know and you can just learn the levels, and the other is levels you know, but you need to learn the guy. Plague Knight worked on that level, but as a result it was inherently difficult. But Specter Knight we wanted to throw all that away and start over. So, not the same levels at all, maybe some of the same set-ups, but it’s new. We redid the art, we redid the character mobility completely.

We all look at the game and think about it as a group, so I’m speaking about this as an artist, but we were all in the meetings about character mobility and level design and player progression and items and all those things. Everybody’s a part of the same discussions. Making King Knight is going to be, well, people have already played through the game three times. This will be their fourth play through. How do we make it interesting and more dynamic without making in the same slog? So we’re approaching it in a new way. We think people will like it, but it’s a different take on the game for sure.

shovel knight

Credit: Yacht Club Games

AT: We ended up in King Knight territory! I know Shovel Knight was a nice balance of light-heartedness, but with some darker, sadder elements. Plague Knight was just goofy all-around, but Specter Knight was really sad. Especially if you had played Shovel of Hope and knew the ending and you’re just like…wow, this is depressing. Are you aiming for one emotion or the other with King Knight?

NW: King Knight will definitely be a lot more goofy. He’s the guy that we make the most jokes about. We speak in the voices of these characters on our Slack, and we’ll post an emoticon of a character and what they’re saying, and speaking as King Knight is the funniest thing, because he’s just way goofy and over the top, and he must be king of everything. So everything’s like, maybe mentioned as a king, he’s there for it.

AT: He’s great. He’s the light-hearted guy. Even though you guys gave us choices at the beginning of Shovel Knight, your eye is drawn more toward King Knight, so I think that’s the one a lot of people start with.

NW: He’s great. He’s the first guy you probably encounter, and he sets the tone of the rest of the game. You know what to expect, kind of, when you see King Knight. He’s a joke, even in his name. He’s not a king, he’s a knight who’s kingly, and that’s ridiculous and stupid and it sets the bar for your expectations of what the game is and what the knights are. His campaign is going to be a big departure from the very tragic story that Specter Knight was, but it will be interesting and focused on his journey to becoming King Knight. I’m not sure what the timeline is now, we’re still working through what it is, but it’ll be goofy.

AT: Is there anything you can tell us about how his abilities will play?

NW: We showed off a little bit before. We did a tweet, just showing off basic mobility. He bashes through things, and bashes off them and twirls. It’s cool. It was in a very early stage; the art’s kinda temp. But it’s just working through what the mobility it’s a very Wario bash meets bouncing on things in a weird, chaotic way. It’ll be hopefully as easy or easier than Specter Knight, but hopefully fun and weird and cool in its own unique way.

AT: I’ve seen a little bit of Yacht Club talking about working on more Shovel Knight, or more things besides Shovel Knight after all this is done. What would your personal preference be? If you could work on anything, what would it be?

NW: Anything? I think one of the things we want to work on in the far future is definitely like a Shovel Knight 64, a 3D platformer. We would all love that. We all love Mario 64 to pieces and would just love to be able to jump into that.

AT: He seems so right in the world of Yooka-Laylee.

NW: Yeah! I love seeing his model there and I would love to be able to do something like that. Maybe not as a collect-a-thon, more the way that Mario 64 handles a stage, where you explore that one stage and really get to know all of its ins and outs. It’s really fun and exciting, so I think that’s where we’d go with it. But we haven’t really worked on that at all. Our team is kind of starting new things right now, but it’s very, very early and nothing to really talk about. I think we eventually want to have more than just Shovel Knight. We don’t want to just be “the Shovel Knight company.” We’re developing something new right now that hopefully will be as big or bigger than Shovel Knight.

AT: Now you’ve got Shovel Knight in Dark Souls, too!

NW: I would love to see that be official and have a real Shovel Knight thing in Dark Souls, but they don’t do cameos, so that’s okay.

AT: Well, you have Shovel Knight in Dark Souls and Shovel Knight in Yooka-Laylee, is there any other place you’d want to see Shovel Knight?

NW: I’d love to see Shovel Knight all over the place. For Smash Bros would be amazing. For Overwatch, we’ve been thinking a lot about Overwatch. Recently somebody drew a centaur-Shovel Knight. He was holding a shovel and next to it on the whiteboard I drew Orisa from Overwatch and they were having a conversation, being weird about centaurs. And we posted it on Twitter and then the offiical Overwatch Twitter said hello back, and it was really cool! There’s nothing there as far as a cameo, but I’d love to see Shovel Knight in those things. A big Reinhardt skin would be awesome. We love that game a lot and we play it all the time.

AT: I forgot to swing back to King Knight a bit earlier–you did the gender swaps? Can we play as Queen Knight?

NW: Body swap is a feature we promised because of our Kickstarter as one of the stretch goals. To fulfill that we kept it to Shovel of Hope and the main bosses. We haven’t fully figured everything out, but I don’t think so. I think we’re just keeping it to Shovel of Hope.

AT: Here’s a question specifically for you–you did the art–what were your primary inspirations? Shovel Knight invokes that retro nostalgia but it’s also obviously very modern.

NW: It was definitely trying to be an NES game. It uses that palette; it uses the dimensions of those characters. But I think what I was trying to do with a lot of the character art was make the characters feel like they had real volume and form. We played a bunch of games before we made Shovel Knight, like Little Samson and Little Nemo. Little Samson has a lot of weird, cool bosses that are really big and imposing, and lots of cool art, very cartoony. Wizards and Warriors was a game we played a lot and I liked the way they did their enemies and player character. We also played a lot of Dark Souls, so I was thinking about knights a lot. The end result is just a conglomeration of what I can draw, and what’s fun and worked.

AT: I love the town too, with all the silly things walking back and forth.

NW: That was fun to do, the concept. We had a concept artist and she just in one night drew like fifty drawings. Eventually, we had a whole crew and we assembled it into a line-up, finalized the animations, and it was done. It was really fun to work on the village.

shovel knight

Credit: Yacht Club Games

AT: So you guys have been amazing to the speedrunning community. Do you continue to keep up that support in the future?

NW: Yeah, so at the beginning of Shovel Knight there’s an element of randomness that is not super fun. If you beat the first two stages, there’s a wandering encounter that appears–the Reize character. He can really mess up runs. To go through a run and have to stop eight minutes in because of bad RNG…it’s not what you want to do. So we made it so he doesn’t spawn under certain conditions if you’re fast enough. Speedrunners never see him, but it doesn’t affect the game as a whole.

We try to make sure that things like that don’t happen, that players are never stuck because of a random encounter. There’s a certain level of randomness that makes things fun, that makes a speedrun interesting, because otherwise, it’s just a rote course have to do. I don’t think Dragon’s Lair is a super exciting speedrun, but Mega Man X is a lot of fun because there’s a certain level of randomness and unknowns that you have to react to. We have one of our guys in a Discord with a bunch of the speedrunners, and they’re always talking about what’s going on and exploits they find.

There’s a pretty big exploit that was found when Specter Knight released where if you did the rail grind into a wall, tehre’s a single frame where he’s in his idle state, and he could jump again, which meant he could go into a wall and jump over it if you were very precise. It’s a very hard technique to learn, and they were like, “We don’t want to spend a bunch of time learning this if you’re just going to patch it out.” And we said, “Yeah, we’re gonna patch that out, sorry,” because it had more ramifications, and they just didn’t bother learning it. So we definitely care about that, and we’re going to be on a Skype call; I think we’re in SGDQ as an incentive and we’ll talk to whoever’s running. Not sure who we’ll be talking to this year, but hopefully the incentive is met.

shovel knight

Credit: Yacht Club Games

AT: One more, and it’s kind of silly. What is under Shovel Knight’s helmet? Is it actually a fish?

NW: That is something we have not officially addressed, and I think I’m gonna leave it at that.

AT: Oh no!

NW: Why not? It could be a fish. Sometimes you’re a fish. But maybe it’s something else. That started with a very rare NPC that runs by in the second village, and then we made it a costume for the amiibo, and there’s one more incarnation of it that we’re going to be announcing soon that you’ll see. It’s very exciting for me because of how amazing it is, but I can’t talk about it right now.

AT: Well, thank you so much!

NW: Thank you!

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