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“What will gamers do when the eShop or PSN is shut down, and they want an old game?”

The creators of Shovel Knight discuss their love for physical products and how the games industry should embrace its past

Nowhere in my pre-prepared questions had I intended to ask Yacht Club, the talented developers behind Shovel Knight, about physical games.

In fact, we were speaking to the firm to discuss their move onto Switch (which is "really cool", they say). And to chat about their recent change of business model surrounding its Shovel Knight 'DLC' (we'll come onto that later).

But we found ourselves asking about Yacht Club's recent attempts at games publishing, where it helped Inti Creates release Gunvolt 1 and 2 on 3DS at retail. It is an unusual move for a studio that admits it "has no real experience in selling games", but it was here where we discovered the firm's love of the box.

Yacht Club published Gunvolt 1 and 2 at retail

"Inti Creates said they really wanted to get [Gunvolt 2] out into stores, and they knew that we had just done it, successfully, with Shovel Knight," says Yacht Club programmer David D'Angelo. "So they asked if we were interested in publishing it. We thought: 'Why not try it again, and learn the process and maybe it will be easier this time around?' It is also a really cool game that we wanted gamers to play, and maybe if people saw that we were doing it, perhaps they'd be more excited to play it."

He laughs: "We are like 30 years behind everyone else. We love NES games, we love bringing a game home for Christmas and wrapping it up under the tree, and we wanted to help people do that as much as possible. We feel so lucky and fortunate for what the games industry has done for us, and we wanted to pay that back a little bit. It's amazing to work with Inti Creates, these guys made Mega Man 9 and that was one of the games that taught us how to do a retro revival. Every part of that game was really finely crafted, and you can really feel the love that went into it. How could we not pay back our respect for what they had done for us?

"It wasn't a case of wanting to make money. That's not what we were planning on. It was just a case of us putting out things that made us excited."

The Gunvolt pack wasn't as successful as Yacht Club had hoped, although it exceeded the expectations of the firm's distributors (and GameStop, too). And perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that the studio is so excited by boxed goods - digital may be a more prudent path (and less of a risk), but this is a team that prides itself on creating games from a bygone era. So it's not just the 2D NES-style platformers of the 1980s that they like, but everything that came with it.

"Making a physical product means you are creating something that is in the world forever"

"It is an old-fashioned thing," acknowledges D'Angelo. "Perhaps we are a little older than your typical indie developer. There are parts of it that seems dumb and antiquated, but also there is no alternative, and I think people don't really understand that. If I was a grandma buying a game for my grandkids, I am not exactly going to gift it to them through Steam. We see that as a really huge hole that the games industry is missing.

"So it's logical to have a boxed game. But we also think it's fun to have a game sitting on your shelf that you can honour, and flick through the manual. We miss that part of games and it is sad to see that go.

"There's another part, too, when you think about what will happen in 30 years from now. Today, we get retro games off of eBay or via used game stores. What are you going to do when the eShop or PSN or Xbox Live is shut down, and you want to play an old game? I have no idea. You just have to hope that they remake it for a new system, or they have some kind of porting system. That's a really scary thing. Making a physical product means you are creating something that is in the world forever - unless they put it in the garbage."

Shovel Knight in Amiibo form

Physical is actually part of the vision for Yacht Club's Shovel Knight brand. Outside of the boxed version of the game, the company has also created physical goods - most notably an Amiibo produced by Nintendo.

"That was incredible," D'Angelo enthuses. "To have our toy on the same shelf as Mario, Peach and Zelda was a huge honour. We always saw Shovel Knight as being a franchise. When we had the opportunity to make that toy, we jumped on it. We wanted you to see Shovel Knight in the same way you look at other Nintendo games.

"We always wanted Shovel Knight to be something that entered your real world. One of the things that was exciting about the 1980s was Mario mania. You had Mario books, Mario movies, Mario magazines, shampoo bottles, cereal... If you wanted it, your whole bedroom could be Mario. Everything in your life could have Mario in it. That was really exciting because the character was part of your real world. Physical products is the only way to get that feeling, and that feels very romantic to us."

"We wanted you to see Shovel Knight in the same way you look at other Nintendo games"

Despite it's love of the old-fashioned, Yacht Club's business is built on modern games industry principles. Shovel Knight was funded via Kickstarter and it has a strong digital component that has seen the game live on well beyond its initial launch - it has now sold over 1.5m copies.

That digital component is an interesting one. Yacht Club's 'DLC' for Shovel Knight isn't really DLC at all. The firm had promised in its Kickstarter that it would create digital add-ons, yet when they completed development on Shovel Knight, they discovered that there wasn't much more they could add. In fact, they had already cut stuff out because they felt the title had become bloated: "We thought what we had done was too much," D'Angelo says. "We just felt some stuff didn't fit and it would be a better game without it. We had really crammed in everything that we wanted."

So when it came to the promised digital content, they had to come up with something different.

"We discussed whether we wanted to make it like a Mega Man Powered Up or one of those Castlevanias, where you can play as another character through the same stages and world," he says. "But that just wasn't appealing to us because Shovel Knight felt like a complete game. So that is why we decided to build new games set within the same universe, like a Yoshi's Island."

Specter of Torment is more like a full game than a piece of DLC

2015's Plague of Shadows and the upcoming Specter of Torment are almost entirely separate games to Shovel Knight - albeit using some of the same assets. Yet Yacht Club has positioned them as DLC, and given them away to owners of Shovel Knight at no extra cost.

"Perhaps we're not the brightest in doing that," jokes D'Angelo. "No, originally we were looking at models like Minecraft, essentially. We thought that the way you make games successful nowadays, is that you build up a brand and you keep adding to it until people love it. We set out with our Kickstarter to do that, and we said we would have this much content after launch.

"In a day where everyone is mad at Kickstarters for not delivering on their promises, we wanted to be the people that you can put on a pedestal for doing everything that they said they would"

"We wanted to honour our promises. In a day where everyone is mad at Kickstarters for not doing that, we wanted to be the people that you can put on a pedestal for doing everything they said they would. But I do think we confused people with our Specter of Torment announcement, and we want to make it clearer to people that it is very much its own thing."

Indeed, D'Angelo admits that the biggest challenge the studio faces is getting gamers to "realised these additions to Shovel Knight are effectively new games." So earlier this month, the firm announced it was rebranding the three titles as: Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope, Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment, and Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows - with all three combining together as Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove. Those that already own Shovel Knight will still get all the updates for free, but future players now have the option of buying Treasure Trove or the individual games separately. D'Angelo hopes this will make gamers realise the depth that exists within its Shovel Knight add-ons.

The question is... did giving away the content extend the life of Shovel Knight? The game is over two years old now. It sold 700,000 copies in its first six months, but then a further 800,000 since then. You're also now seeing Shovel Knight (the character) appear in other games, such as Yooka-Laylee. It suggests that Yacht Club's generous digital strategy has worked.

The original Shovel Knight has sold over 1.5m copies worldwide

"Actually, it is weird because we don't really have a metric to know if it is working or not," says D'Angelo. "The game is lasting two years, it is doing great... but we have no comparison to know if that's because of the additional content or not. Maybe Shovel Knight would have sold just as well if we had done nothing, and just kept talking about it over-and-over. Yes, it is definitely true that Shovel Knight has done way past our expectations. We are really happy about it. But whether the extra content has worked or not, we are not really sure. Everything is working, but we don't know what part of it is the thing that makes it work."

Shovel Knight is one of those products that have benefitted from that '80s and '90s nostalgia that has dominated the entertainment industry in recent years, but Yacht Club has also benefitted from close working relationships with the platform holders.

It began by having a strong relationship with Nintendo. Shovel Knight was initially for Wii U and 3DS, which resulted in the creation of an Amiibo. It is also one of the first indie titles to come to Switch.

And it followed that by securing equally impressive partnerships with PlayStation and Xbox - which even allowed the studio to use some of their first-party characters.

"We have been very successful on 3DS and Wii U, because we supported those consoles and made it feel like the game could only be played on those devices," D'Angelo said. "With 3DS we had Street Pass and stereoscopic 3D, and on Wii U we had Miiverse, off TV play and all that sort of stuff. We made Shovel Knight feel really at home on those systems.

"How about we make Shovel Knight 2, or Super Shovel Knight, or Shovel Knight 64? Maybe we could take Shovel Knight through the ages, that is something that is very appealing to us"

"So we went to Sony and Microsoft and said: 'What can we do on your systems that would make it feel at home?' And they both said things like: 'Put it on PS Plus' or whatever. Well that wasn't exciting to us. We went back to the drawing board and we thought back to one of our favourite game releases, which is Soul Calibur II. When that came out, it had Link (from Zelda) in the GameCube version, it had Spawn (comic book character) in the Xbox version and it had Heihachi from Tekken in the PS2 version. We just thought that was a really cool way of making your version of the game distinct, and we wanted to do the same thing. So we went back to them and said: 'Hey, what if we put one of your characters in the game?' We suggested Kratos [God of War] would be the coolest for PlayStation and Battletoads would be the coolest for Xbox, and amazingly they both agreed to do it.

"We were freaking out about putting Battletoads in the game. We were looking at Battletoads when making Shovel Knight. It's crazy to think that we were able to directly honour it by making them return for the first time in 20 years."

Outside of its Gunvolt experiment, Yacht Club has spent much of the last four years devoted to a single project - albeit one that had two different games spun off from it. It is already thinking about its next game, so what should we expect? More old school gaming? Or something a bit more modern?

"We've talked about wanting to extend the Shovel Knight franchise," D'Angelo concludes. "How about we make Shovel Knight 2, or Super Shovel Knight, or Shovel Knight 64? Maybe we could take Shovel Knight through the ages, that is something that is very appealing to us. But also, we are all very burned out on Shovel Knight for sure, so we thought: 'What if we made a new IP? What would that look like?'

"The true reason we made Shovel Knight a 1980s-style game is because we wanted to cram as much fun gameplay into it as possible. And to us, if we could limit the burden on the art style, then we could iterate and really put in loads of enemies, objects, bosses, and everything you can imagine. I think that idea will remain pretty central to our studio, no matter what. You won't see us making The Last of Us anytime soon."

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Christopher Dring avatar

Christopher Dring

Head of Games B2B

Chris is a 15-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who