Binpress Podcast Episode 21: David D’Angelo of Yacht Club Games
This week we talk with David D’Angelo of Yacht Club Games, the studio behind the game Shovel Knight. David covers the ins-and-outs of their Kickstarter campaign, the importance of YouTube for their success and how press plants the seed for word of mouth. He also covers how the team sussed out pricing, open and collaborative design, remote work and much more.
Alexis: So thanks for joining us on the podcast, David.
David: Thanks for having me.
Alexis: Not a problem at all! It’s a pleasure to have you, especially since you and about four or five or maybe a handful more other people are behind the game Shovel Knight.
David: Yeah and there’s just about half a dozen of us; we’re a really small team.
Alexis: Before we get to Yacht Club Games and Shovel Knight, tell us a bit about your background.
David: Before Yacht Club Games, I came from WayForward where I made a bunch of licensed games. From there, basically a team of us or part of a team that had worked on Double Dragon Neon decided, “Hey, we worked really well together. Let’s try going off doing our own thing and see if it works out.” [Chuckles]
Alexis: And you shouldn’t say “Oh, I did a bunch of licensed games at WayForward.” You guys also worked on Mighty Switch Force, Contra 4, A Boy And His Blob, and even good licensed games like Ducktales: Remastered so don’t dismiss WayForward so quickly.
David: Oh, yeah. Definitely the passion ran high there; WayForward does a really good job of putting out quality licensed products, but that side is still – we still had this driving passion to want to create our own unique IP and see if we could do it all ourselves.
Alexis: Now you said you go the itch to do something on your own. Did that itch come first, or the game idea?
David: The itch definitely came first. We actually were working on an iPhone – we were trying to see if we could do a 2D platform on an iPhone and not have it not feel terrible, and we all just weren’t really into it. We were doing it on the side while we were at WayForward still. We were all messing and tinkering with it, but no one was super passionate about it and at one point in time we were basically like, “Why are we doing this? We need to go big or go home” and get really passionate about something.
So we decided that Kickstarter was the right path, “Let’s do that; let’s leave. Let’s start our own company, let’s risk everything and make something where we’ll be super into doing.” What we decided we’d be super into was making Shovel Knight [chuckling].
Alexis: Alright, so you guys decided, “We’re going to do this whole Kickstarter thing.” How far did you get into the game development or planning before you pushed this Kickstarter live?
David: I think we started the initial spark of the idea or whatever was in January 2013, and then I think our Kickstarter went live in March of 2013, so maybe two months. But all that wasn’t development; I think we left WayForward – or some of us left WayForward, I should say – in the middle of January, so things were still –. There was probably more like a month of actual working on the game to try to build something, and then we were working on it. I mean, we were still working on it; we put out a demo of the game halfway through our Kickstarter because we were still crunching on making the game to try to have something to show people.
It was very brief; we didn’t have too much planned. We were sort of leaving a lot open to how the Kickstarter reacted to it, if that makes sense, but we have the basis of the idea which was we’re going to have eight knights. It was going to be sort of like Megaman-style level design. It was going to be a 2D platformer with a down thrust as its core mechanic – that kind of thing.
Alexis: Alright. You intended to raise $75,000 and you guys raised $311, 502 in roughly 30 days or so?
David: Yeah, that was pretty crazy.
Alexis: Yeah, that’s what – four times your goal?
David: Yeah. When we started the Kickstarter, we were like “Oh man, we’d be so good. We would really build an amazing game if we get two times our goal.” We were looking at other Kickstarters; some of them get two times their goal – maybe it’s possible we could do that, right?
We were thinking, if we make 75, we’d be like, “This isn’t probably the game we want. It’d be really hard to get this out. 150 would be just perfect; we just have to hit that number.” We were just soaring past it, we were freaking out basically. We were not expecting it to do that well.
And I think that’s a lot of how Shovel Knight has gone, actually. We expect this – we were overachieving by thinking we can get it at 150,000, but then it goes past that and we’re like, “Whoa!”
Alexis: Fair warning here, I’m going to spend quite a bit of time peppering you with questions about Kickstarter, probably – half and half. 50% because it is interesting to a lot of folks because Kickstarter’s one of the new ways to get your project off the ground and the other 50% is because of personal curiosity after surviving my own Kickstarter for a documentary. I’m curious to see the strategy you put into this.
So you’ve got the Kickstarter ahead of you; you’ve pored over it to make sure there aren’t any typos. You’ve got all the rewards correctly priced. How do you get the word out?
David: The big thing for us was we planned the whole thing around going to PAX. Initially, I think we planned to do – I’m trying to think. I think we planned to have it ready before PAX, or we wanted to launch it on – we were going to launch the Kickstarter the first day of PAX or something like that. I don’t know, but it didn’t really work out.
We were running late with a demo – I don’t know. Nonsense was happening. But basically the way it worked is we ended planning it so PAX fell right in the middle of our campaign.
Alexis: Interesting, okay.
David: I don’t think that was ideally what we wanted, but that’s what we did [chuckling]. Anyway, the idea was we will announce it; it probably won’t get a bunch of coverage. People will know it because they know the games we made like Double Dragon Neon, BloodRayne: Betrayal, A Boy And His Blob, or Contra 4 – they’ll recognize those names and they’ll probably be like “Hey, there are some good developers behind this.”
But we thought, in general, people don’t want something unless they know really what they’re getting, right? So we thought if we could show something at PAX, that’s the way we’ll sell our game the biggest amount.
The first half of our Kickstarter, we actually didn’t do too well compared to normal Kickstarters because we didn’t do any updates; we didn’t do anything. We were just hammering away at this down-low, trying to get it ready on time for PAX, which was probably [chuckling] a huge mistake.
Well, I guess it paid off at the end, but it was a huge mistake to totally ignore the Kickstarter for the first two weeks. The idea was we brought our demo to PAX and we thought the 40,000 convention-goers or whatever and the media people that were there would see the game for the first time and flip out over it, hopefully. That was the main idea behind what we are doing.
Once we actually went to PAX, we showed up, showed off the game and it went well; we sort of recompiled our thoughts and realized, “Hey, we’ve been ignoring the Kickstarter. We need to go full-force.” When we went to PAX, we were halfway through the campaign and I think we had somewhere like $40,000-50,000. Still, that’s pretty low for 15 days in, right, compared to our 300,000 output that ended up happening.
Most people that were talking to us at PAX thought, “Hey, you’re probably going to fund, but we’re not sure.” We had backers coming up to us and being like, “We’re so excited! I hope you’d get it!”
Alexis: A little?
David: Yeah, you wouldn’t say that, looking at it now, but it seemed like such a shock. Yeah, so we went at PAX, basically we said, “Hey, we’re going to do an update every single day. We’re going to announce one of the Boss Knights.” We had all eight – we said we had eight, we’re going to have eight, but we didn’t announce what they were. We just said we’re going to reveal concept art and full, final illustrations every three or four days – I forget what the schedule was, but we had major, major reveals every few days.
We decided we’re going to go really hard after YouTube channels and be like, “Hey, can you show off our demo?” Twitch streamers, all of the media websites – basically anyone we could get Shovel Knight to have in their hands, we were going to give it to. And that’s sort of where the people started getting interested, I guess.
Alexis: Yeah, I’m looking at the graphs here on Kicktraq – it’s kicktraq with a ‘q’ – and right around the middle you can kind of see where PAX happened, and then all of a sudden you guys started to ramp up and you blow past the goal and then the graph gets steeper and steeper.
So at the very beginning when you first launched the campaign, you didn’t send out emails to, say, Joystiq or IGN saying, “Hey, we’re a team from WayForward” or did you just kind of hope that it would trickle out naturally?
David: We did. At the very start, we probably sent 400 emails –.
David: [Chuckles] To everyone. I think we got a little pickup; Colin Moriarty of IGN was, from the beginning, has been super into Shovel Knight because he’s a retro gamer and he had reviewed BloodRayne from us, which he really liked.
We had some big support – I think Joystiq backed us pretty early. But the thing is about most of these media sites is they’re not allowed to talk about Kickstarters. I don’t know if that’s changed, but at least the time when we were doing it, Kickstarter was still pretty – in terms of talking about it in the media – was still pretty fresh. I think it sort of had the same impression for them as iPhone games where it’s like, there are a million of them.
You can’t just talk about the next iPhone game that someone emails me about, because otherwise we’d have to talk about all of them, right? So they all responded to us, saying, “We’re pretty excited about this, but come back to us when you’re funded because that’s when we’re allowed to talk about the game.
Alexis: Interesting. On the Engadget side of things which I was a contributing editor there for a while, we do get bombarded a lot with different pitches for Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns, but we want to make sure that they haven’t yet funded, usually to make sure that we’re not reporting on old news. I guess it’s an interesting relationship that I guess we’ll come back to later on when we talk about how the game has been received, now that it’s out. That the games press has with game developers – it seems like there is a much bigger impact to that than the gaming press has, or at least it’s more tangible to me from the outside. It’s like, “Oh yeah, they got a great review” and then sales seem to go up. I don’t know how much that’s connected.
Speaking of where your audience comes from, where did you see most of the backers coming from? Did it seem like it was friends of people who had already backed, or maybe there were still a lot of people coming from social, or maybe all those press mentions weren’t so much –. In Kickstarter, you get to see how much money somebody has spent from that particular outlet or that kind of thing.
David: Right. I want to say 25% or some pretty large amount was straight from Kickstarter. I guess people that saw it through other campaigns or if Shovel Knight was featured that day or something like that – that was a good chunk. I think 50% or something very enormous was from YouTube.
David: Yeah. I mean, our biggest views are just in terms of – I don’t know how many hits an IGN article gets, but you can see on YouTube at least how many views something got. We got 300,000 from a GameGrumps video or something like that, 150 from two best friends – all those YouTubers have a million+ subscribers that we’re sending this game to and they were promoting the hell out of it. I think a majority of the money came from that.
Outside of that, I think it was mostly searching through Google or stuff like that, the more intangible ways of knowing where it came from.
Alexis: So YouTube was really the standout way that this has happened. Did you anticipate that since the beginning that that would happen?
David: Definitely not. We went to PAX and I talked to a bunch of other Kickstarters while we were there, once I had successfully funded. A few of them, I was just asking about them and seeing sort of the trends where what they felt made differences, and a lot of them would be like, “Oh, a Kotaku article or an IGN article or whatever.” And I’m like, “Yeah” – that’s what you’d expect, right?
I kept hearing from a few people that it was YouTube and it just seemed so odd to me. But when I started thinking about it, it made a lot of sense. One of the big games these days, it’s Minecraft, the roguelikes.
Alexis: Things that are easily let’s playable, yeah?
David: Yeah, easily let’s playable things, experiences like DayZ where it’s never the same thing twice. It’s stuff that’s easy to upload to YouTube, not a repetitive thing or not something like a movie where you have experienced the content already, right?
I started thinking about it and started thinking, “Yeah, that’s where people are going to buy games or figure out about games.”
Alexis: Now what I think is – sorry, yeah?
David: No, go ahead.
Alexis: What I think is interesting is you all unintentionally set yourselves up in a way for success with YouTube, with the video that you put up on Kickstarter, because it’s not one of those traditional “Hi, my name’s whoever and I’m here to tell you about a game I’ve been working on.” It was just pure gameplay.
David: Yeah. We were very conscious about that; I mean, I’m sure everyone who makes that video is like, that’s all they’re thinking about, right? We watched a bunch of them and we thought like the people who did those videos were able to stand in front of the camera like Tim Schafer from Double Fine or whoever were able to do it well, it worked. It really worked.
I think we tried it for a little bit and we just thought, “No one knows who we are; no one’s going to connect with this video.” What they’re going to connect with is the fact that Megaman has been cancelled and it seems like they’re never going to make one again. If we show Megaman gameplay, people are going to connect to that. I mean, that was sort of our thought process behind it. I didn’t really think about it as almost like setting it up as a perfect trailer that someone can put on YouTube.
Alexis: Yeah, you gave them a whole bunch of footage instead of you talking in front of the camera.
David: Right. I do think that was sort of a shock and I noticed a lot more Kickstarters do it since we did it, which is not putting –. Every game talk, Kickstarter did a talking head before us, and it’s interesting that that’s the path it makes. It’s sort of less Kickstarter-y to just put a video up there of gameplay.
Alexis: Yeah. And one thing that’s important to note is that, well, $311,000 sounds like a big number, and it is. What might be more impressive in some way is that that’s coming from 14,749 backers. That is a lot of fans that you have, putting money behind the belief in the game.
David: Yeah. I think that was the big shocker. I was looking at a bunch of other Kickstarters, and usually the successful ones – they’re somewhere in between $30 and $40 per backer, I think, and we were at I think $20 per backer. So we were way under what we should be, which is sort of upsetting.
We made a mistake probably by not having better rewards or something to entice people to put more money behind it, but at the same time, it’s like “We got so many people that really want the game; that’s what they’re here for,” which is exciting.
Alexis: That brings up an interesting point. What kind of research did you do on Kickstarter in general to figure out, “Okay, this is a strategy that we’re going to have”?
David: I think we didn’t do too much. We did a lot in terms of “Here are similar games to us. Here’s $75,000 – it’s what we think people won’t be shocked by.” We did a lot of that; we did a lot of research of “Here’s the rewards that people usually go for, here’s what they want to see on the page” – figuring out what worked well, I guess, for Kickstarter.
We were passionate about doing an NES game, but we knew at the same time, this is a good project to do on Kickstarter because Kickstarter people go for things they’ve seen before; things that have been lost in today’s era are the things that are most popular on Kickstarter, because it’s something that you can be very easily familiar with.
We had studied Kickstarter from that perspective; I guess what we hadn’t studied as much was – I don’t know – the ways in which Kickstarters really got popular.
Alexis: Going back to the backer number, you all had a post on your blog that was fantastic, really. You had a roundup of the sales for the first month of the game when it came out this summer, and one of the things that you mentioned was that preorders predict first week sales by 200-400%, at least according to other developers. Which means that Shovel Knight was guaranteed, according to that metric, to sell two to four times that 15,000 numbers. How many did you exceed that by?
David: We didn’t exceed that by a ton. That’s two to four times in the first week, I think.
Alexis: In the first week, okay.
David: And we did – I can’t even remember what we did in the first week. I think we did something like 80,000 in the first week.
David: If we did four times our preorders, that would be 60,000 copies, right? So we did a fair amount more than what that expectation was. But in the article, I tried to clarify, “Hey, it’s a Kickstarter that’s different than a preorder, right?”
Alexis: Yeah, it’s a different kind of intent.
David: Yeah, it’s a much more limited market I would assume, just because you have to be someone who’s somewhat familiar with Kickstarter and backing things and that whole process to begin with.
Alexis: Even based on time, you have a 3-day, 7-post limit, yeah?
David: Right, yeah. It was so exciting, and then it actually turned out to be true.
Alexis: And what’s more impressive was that in one month, including the Kickstarter sales, you had about 180,000 copies sold.
David: Yeah, it was extraordinary.
Alexis: So by some quick, back-of-the-napkin math, that’s more than $2.5million that has come into the Yacht Club Games bank account.
David: [Chuckles] Yeah, I mean, not exactly.
Alexis: Well, I mean, there’s lots of other costs, but there’s a lot of runway now, I would assume, that you have to working on the rest of Shovel Knight with all the extra stretched goals and potentially other projects.
David: Yeah. The scary thing about making games is it’s very unpredictable in the future. Shovel Knight did well, but we already committed to doing a year of free updates for the game, which means for at least a year, we won’t be making any more revenue – at least not major revenue, I should say. We won’t be starting a game till the end of next year, because we’re not crazy in doing two games at once [chuckling].
Potentially, we won’t have something new coming out till 2016 or something like that, so it’s like making sure everything lasts that long is part of the stress somehow in making games.
Alexis: Speaking of that stress, you all ran out of money, actually – was it in March?
David: Yeah, that sounds right.
Alexis: Tell us a bit about the experience of having this Kickstarter money that you calculated should keep you going through the game’s release, and then all of a sudden – whether it’s suddenly or slowly – the rug is getting pulled out from under you and you have to push to make it to the finish line. If you make it, unbeknownst to you, you’re going to have 180,000 sales in a month.
David: Yeah. It was very stressful but it was very slow, like a known entity, right? We planned out the game to release… We initially said our Kickstarter would come out in September, and once we got the money we said, “Hey, we want to make a bigger game; we’re not releasing then.” We want to spend our time and make sure it’s everything we wanted it to be.
I think initially we were thinking December-ish we’d probably be done with it, which probably means it would come out in February. As we got close to November-ish we knew, “Hey, we got a long way to go.” We planned it out and we said, “Hey, the money is going to run out March 31st or whatever – that’s our drop-dead date. We got to have the game out and released by March 31st.”
We knew even then that we wouldn’t get paid till June because of the way you get paid from Nintendo et cetera is that you pay quarterly, although I think Valve was monthly. A lot of those things take a long time to get set up, so we thought, “We probably won’t get paid till June, realistically.” So hey, we’ll finish the game in March, everyone will take a vacation for two months or whatever, no one will get paid, the company will go silent and then we’ll come back once we, hopefully, get money.
I mean, it was very stressful for that process, but we knew what we were getting into. When it got more stressful is when we got close to March and we said, “Hey, we’re not going to finish it for March.” We got to February or whatever. The game takes a month to get through Nintendo, to get approvals, so by the time we got to February we’re like, “Hey, we’re not going to make it.”
We got in a call with Nintendo March 1st and we were, “Hey, we’re coming in really, really hot. Could you rush us?” because we didn’t want to disappoint everyone because we had announced we’d come out March 31st. Basically it was like, “We can get you out in three weeks if we really hammered it or something.” We talked internally; we we’re like “Hey, even if Nintendo rushed us, we wouldn’t be able to make it.”
Anyway, at that point we were like, “Hey everyone, we’re going to still work 24 hours/day, like we’ve been working seven days/week and we’re not going to get paid and it’s going to be terrible and we’re all going to hate our lives more than we already do.” At the same time, we knew and we felt comfortable – people were taking loans from their family members or whoever was willing to help them out at the time, but everyone knew, including our family members, the same facts which we did, which is preorders are expected to do two to four times in the first week.
We knew we had this more than a fuzzy feeling about it. We knew we would get at least some money out of it enough to feel comfortable. I knew that if didn’t do two times or four times in the first week – say, it sold 5,000 copies or whatever. That still means $50,000, which is enough for the month or whatever. Or enough to say, “Here’s enough time to start looking for new jobs or whatever like that.” It would be enough money to cover whatever problems we had over those few months of finishing the game. No one felt particularly threatened, I guess, other than making those few months solid.
Alexis: Did the idea of taking outside money other than friends and family, more from investors, ever come to mind, or was it something that was always out of the picture?
David: We definitely talked about it. In general, it always seems like it would be a mistake. It’s like we’d just be giving up a bunch of gold or whatever. It’s like – what’s that study where they have two marshmallows on the table and it’s like you can have one marshmallow now or two later? And everyone eats the one marshmallow. It’s like that classic kind of problem.
If we can just hold out, we’re going to get two marshmallows. The feeling of being comfortable for the few months we’d run out of money didn’t seem worth the huge chunk of change we’d have to give up. We talked about alternatives like we’d get a bank loan. We actually went through the process of doing stuff like that. It’s hard to make a game 24 hours/day and also do that kind of thing [chuckling].
Alexis: And also do business development.
Alexis: One thing that I found pretty interesting was the commitment to Nintendo platforms. Nowadays, that might not be the thing that is in vogue. Another thing was that in your Kickstarter, two-thirds of your pledges were for PC copies and then that kind of flipped around once the game was released.
Why the backing for Nintendo?
David: There were a bunch of reasons. One was obviously we were making an NES throwback and it seemed bizarre to not have that game be on Nintendo platform, right? That’s where it was meant to be in our minds. Also Nintendo is super promoting NES games right now. They have NES remix – they didn’t have at the time, but they’re the only ones with virtual console stuff, the only console system where you can get NES games.
Alexis: Right, so that’s what the market was.
David: To us, yeah, I felt like that there’s probably still a big market there. When we were talking about this at the beginning of 2013, PS4 wasn’t announced, Xbox One wasn’t announced; we had no idea what those were going to be. Who knows? Were there even going to be game systems? The trend was saying no. The trend was saying there’d be Netflix boxes.
Alexis: Netflix boxes, yeah.
David: Yeah, we had no idea what they were going to be. We loved our Wii U and we loved our 3DS and we thought, “That’s good enough for us.” We had connections with Nintendo because WayForward does mostly Nintendo games for some reason or another; I’m not really sure, but a lot of their licensed products, maybe because they’re for kids a lot of times, are on Nintendo platforms.
Your Spongebob’s, your Barbie’s aren’t usually on PS3 and Xbox or whatever.
Alexis: Barbie: Advanced Warfare.
David: Right. I think we had gone through the Nintendo process a lot. We are very experienced. We knew people at Nintendo. I think it all just felt like the right fit. We didn’t really think about it too much, honestly. It just came naturally.
Alexis: Another interesting thing I noticed, which is one thing that quite a few Kickstarters are doing now is once they’re finished with the main campaign, they decide, “You know what? Let’s do an extension via PayPal so we can still have people preorder the game.” Did you see a big effect – or benefit, that is – by doing that?
David: We didn’t. We actually cut it off. I think we started ours a week before the end of the campaign or something – very close to the end. I think we ran it for a month; not very long after. We were very strict on making sure it was a limited time.
We didn’t really want to see a big benefit out of it, if that makes sense; we just wanted to make sure it was there for the people that –.
Alexis: Missed it by day.
David: Missed it by day or didn’t like Kickstarter for some reason. A lot of countries, for a lot of reasons, a lot of people can’t use Kickstarter. I think you have to use – this might change – but you have to use –.
Alexis: Amazon payments.
David: Amazon payments or something and that wasn’t possible for a lot of people. We just thought, “Hey, here’s another. If you’re not able to do Kickstarter for some reason, here’s another avenue” and we just thought it’s like a more open Kickstarter or something like that. We didn’t want it to really run longer because we felt like that was sort of confusing what it was, to begin with.
I forget what exactly we got out of that; it might have been $20,000 or something not very large. I might have put it – did I put it in that article? I can’t remember. I probably should have; I don’t know [chuckling].
Alexis: I think you did.
David: But yeah, anyway, it wasn’t a big deal. It makes sense that it wasn’t a big deal because we didn’t make a big stink about it. It was mostly there for the people that’s “Hey, I can’t back your Kickstarter for some reason. Could you help me out?” It’s like, “Here’s the page.”
Alexis: Sure, come on in. Okay, the game is finished and it’s time for the release, finally. What did you do to spread the word then?
David: A lot of the same things we did with your Kickstarter. Basically, we went to the same people that liked our game then and said, “Here’s your reward, you get the game.” [Chuckles] Feel free to talk about it. We’re not going to pressure you, but –.
David: Yeah, we’d love if you’d talk about it. Anything you want to talk about is fair game; try to stay away from spoilers if you can, but if you’re a let’s player, we’ll assume your crowd knows what’s going on. That was sort of the avenue we took. We sent it to all the YouTubers, all the Twitch people, all the media coverage people.
I think one of the big things we tried to do to amp up the non-Kickstarter part of it was we released it a day early to Kickstarter people.
Alexis: Interesting, okay.
David: Yeah, because we thought one, we got the codes early from Nintendo and we thought, “Hey we could give it to our Kickstarter backers. How about we reward them for waiting so long?” And the second part of it was we thought if we really want to amp up the release date, we gave out the codes at 6PM the day before it came out I think. We thought, “If people were talking about it all night, if you woke up in the morning –.”
Alexis: And just see Shovel Knight, Shovel Knight, Shovel Knight.
David: They would just see Shovel Knight everywhere because 15,000 people just got the game. That’s actually what happened, which is shocking that it worked. We were trending on Twitter; we were all over every game site, everywhere you could find game news. I think people were shocked like, “What the heck is Shovel Knight? I’ve never seen this before!” It was all of a sudden everywhere because it was just a massive influx of people – more than you would normally see for an indie game.
Alexis: It’s tough to do the following, but was there a way to quantify the effect positive reviews had on sales, maybe?
David: I haven’t tried to figure that out and all, and I think it would be really impossible to do. It’s really hard to say. I mean, if I had to guess, it’s probably had a really good impact, but I would imagine it’s smaller than you think, which seems like an opposing thing to say in the same sentence.
Alexis: Not necessarily.
David: I would imagine, I think the reviews probably have a positive effect for people that actually spread the game by word-of-mouth. For example, GameGrumps on YouTube – they’re not a good example because we gave the game to them – whatever big YouTuber like TotalBiscuit. We had no contact with TotalBiscuit at all, and TotalBiscuit I’m sure – or Zero Punctuation is another example.
These people, we don’t know them so they got the games through other means. Why did they pick up the game? I’m sure it’s because they saw a good review that’s like, “Hey, everyone’s talking about it.”
Alexis: It plants the seed for word of mouth.
David: Yeah. Zero Punctuation or whatever does his video, and then 200,000 people now know about the game because Zero Punctuation saw a good IGN review and played the game because of that.
I feel like that’s sort of the good net effect of the reviews, rather than “I saw the review on IGN and now I’m buying the game.” I’m sure that percentage is very small.
Alexis: Right. How did you settle on pricing and what were the considerations of keeping the pricing the same after the Kickstarter campaign?
David: Well technically our price is a little confusing compared to our Kickstarter campaign. It sort of stayed the same, but that’s why it’s confusing. The Steam version on our Kickstarter was $10, and the game released for $15, but the Nintendo versions were $15 on our Kickstarter. We basically said in our Kickstarter, “Hey, we have to pay 30% or whatever to Nintendo, so we’re raising the price for what that would be.”
Basically $15 is what we thought the game was worth, if that makes sense, and what we thought we could get away with [chuckling]. We compared it to other games at the time and we said, “Hey, $13 is what the typical indie goes for.” At the same time, we were seeing that Transistor came out for $20 and we were like, “That’s a little weird; that’s really high for an indie game.” I think we’re worth $20, but at the same time, do people see an 8-bit game as worth $20 these days? Not when they can buy one for $5 on eShop, right? $15 sort of seemed to make sense given that the high price in Kickstarter was $15, and that’s where it felt like a quality indie game was usually priced at.
Alexis: So most of the team works in a central location except for you, right?
Alexis: What was the decision-making in that? Is it because in favor of a remote team or was it by necessity?
David: Necessity, I guess. I worked in Valencia at WayForward with everyone, and then actually during my time at WayForward, I moved to Chicago because my wife was going to grad school here. But I still worked for WayForward when I moved, just because they were kind enough to let me work there and I was too scared to look for a new job, as anyone is.
I worked there – I want to say starting in 2012, I don’t remember exactly when, but I worked on all of Double Dragon Neon, which was the last game our team worked on together there and that’s when we started talking about working on the side.
The people on Double Dragon Neon felt good working together. We were all talking about, “Hey, it would be cool to start doing our own thing or whatever.” At that point, we didn’t have an office; they weren’t getting together at WayForward and talking about the game. Everyone was working out of their houses, so it didn’t seem so weird that I was in Chicago.
Now it seems bizarre that I’m the one guy off-site. Once the Kickstarter got funded, we got an office and it’s like, “Hey, this is a real company” then it was sort of like I’m the outsider. But it started not so unnaturally.
Alexis: I read a usgamer.net article that has the line “But Yacht Club Games is essentially four people in an office and one computer monitor constantly projecting the face of the fifth, David D’Angelo, who telecommutes from Chicago.” Here’s this picture of a monitor on top of a Python and then C++ book [chuckles].
David: Yeah, I pretty much live on a computer there.
Alexis: Quite fantastic.
David: I go there every month or two months or so just to catch up and do things that would be sometimes more helpful for me to be there for one reason or another. For example, when we were doing 3DS StreetPass implementation – to have a StreetPass at the same room is way better for iterating on.
Anyway, it’s always bizarre when I show up because they’re like, “You’re not on the computer; I’m so confused!” [Chuckling] even though I’ve interacted with them in real life for maybe years before that.
Alexis: So what are some things that you do to make sure that everything goes smoothly while working remotely?
David: The Hangout is the biggest thing. I’m always that; it’s projected on the computer as a Google Hangout. It’s pretty much like I’m there other than I can’t move [chuckling] and I’m on a constant second-delay or whatever because of the Internet. I’m in constant communication through the video. We have internal chat rooms, so when people are talking not verbally – we’re always in communication all the time basically. It’s the way I try to avoid me not being there or the complications from that.
Alexis: So from the very beginning, Shovel Knight and the Yacht Club Games crew has had a very interesting relationship with the community who’s backed it. One of the things that you all have done are Design Hangouts – I think it was at $75 for kicking into the Kickstarter you could be like yourself and they’ll pop you up to maybe a Scala or a Haskell book and you can be a fly on the wall during design hangouts. How has that gone and what have you learned from interactive with community?
David: That’s been really, really cool, and that’s one of the big things. One of the reasons we wanted to do a Kickstarter was because we had been making these games at WayForward and they’re very insular, mainly I would say because of the licensing model where the publisher is the one who’s sort of taking credit for the game. They’re the ones doing all the marketing, they’re the ones doing all the business, all the promotions, everything and anything related to the game is essentially the publisher’s doing. WayForward just makes the game and gives it to them.
So you have very little interaction with the fans. Generally, it’s not approved behavior that you say, “Hey, I worked on this game. I like it for these reasons.” They don’t want to cause any trouble because of that. Generally, you don’t interact with the fans; WayForward doesn’t go to any show conventions or anything like that, so there’s very little being in touch with that people actually want or expect and that kind of thing and we wanted to get a lot more out of that from the Kickstarter. Kickstarter seemed like the perfect opportunity to do that because that’s sort of what they expect; it’s like a built-in community for a game that gets created when a Kickstarter funds. So the design hangouts seem like a natural extension of that to us.
The really cool part is we would know if we were surprising people or not, which is the amazing part – that you don’t know when you’re building a game. You suspect, “Let’s have Shield Knight be this heroic person that’s your companion throughout the quest. Is that going to shock people?” I think so, right? But you have no idea.
“Hey, let’s put a town in the game.” It’s sort of like a Megaman formula, but what if there’s a village and you’re talking to everyone and there’s all this upgrades and stuff? We sold people on a Megaman kind of game, but if it’s much bigger and people don’t know it, they’re going to be really surprised and amazed. I have no idea. We think they will, but we don’t know. Maybe everyone who backed the Kickstarter have this vision of this Zelda-type quest to begin with, so to do those design hangouts and basically throw all their ideas and say, “Is this what you were expecting?” It’s really cool to see what their reactions are, exactly.
Alexis: Now how did you manage the input and seen the reactions with the whole design-by-committee dilemma?
David: I guess design-by-committee is sort of what we do [chuckling].
Alexis: But it turns out great.
David: Yeah. I don’t think we see that as a problem the way other people do. I mean, we do think it’s good to have a person who’s leading on a role. We don’t have any roles or job titles at Yacht Club because I think it’s important that everyone contributes to everything.
We all think that, and we all think like if Ian, the other programmer, notices something wrong with the art or something that someone else might not see, that’s going to be very helpful but at the same time, it’s not art-by-committee where Ian is making the art, because that’s stupid. He’s not a good artist, but everyone has something to contribute, but at the same time if Ian says, “This art makes me think of this game and that’s not good” and the other person leading that – Woz – says, “This is why it’s good” and can convince him why it’s good, then you know that idea’s even stronger than you thought it was to begin with.
That’s how we operate in general, and it sort of fits naturally with the design hangouts. We know we’re going to make it what we want it to be and we’re all serving Shovel Knight; we’re not serving ourselves. It’s not like a game where we’re not putting our own, personal experience into it and that’s what’s makes it special.
Alexis: Right, it’s building the character, the world.
David: Yeah, we’re trying to figure out what Shovel Knight is and trying to make it a Shovel Knight, as opposed to making my personal experience that touches on my emotions I had of my childhood or whatever – where it would make sense if it’s like a unique voice or whatever you want to call it. I think that’s sort of the process.
We sort of operate on the figuring out what’s the best idea for the game all the time anyway, and although Sean is the design lead, often design ideas don’t come from him or he’s proposing design ideas that were all like “Hey that sounds really dumb.”
That’s part of what I think makes a good game – knowing that sometimes your ideas, you’re going off on the wrong track and other people need to be there to check you, to say “Hey this is what Shovel Knight actually is.”
Alexis: Right now, you’re about half a dozen folks and you’ve done a lot of hiring freelancers, say, for example, the music. Right?
David: Yeah, although I would almost describe Jake – he’s not a freelancer. Jake Kaufman, who we’ve worked with on tons of games at WayForward –.
Alexis: Quick interjection here. I was listening to the Mighty Switch Force soundtrack just before the podcast.
David: Yeah, those are incredible. Everything he does, it’s just so perfect and it’s mind-boggling how he delivers every single time. But basically we had worked with him a ton and the only reason he isn’t part of the core team is because he’s like Jake and you need to do everything on the planner.
The thing you might not know about him is that he has all those great games you might have heard of – somewhat popular games, I might say. Mighty Switch Force isn’t a huge deal, but some people know this – Jake is also doing the games you’ve never heard about ever in your existence, or weird things all over the place. He’s always juggling 50 projects at once, and none of them make him any money, and that’s part of what makes Jake, Jake. We can’t hog 100% of Jake, but we would if we could.
He felt like very much a part of the team in more ways than just a freelancer delivering music. He helps write a lot of the dialogue; he contributed to gameplay stuff and it’s very much a part of “Hey, if we did this with the music, how would this affect the gameplay? How could we do more cool gameplay because of the music?” kind of things.
Alexis: For the most part then, you all are pretty self-sufficient.
David: Well, what do you exactly mean by self-sufficient?
Alexis: Do you hire a lot of freelancers to help you build the game?
David: Yeah, entirely self-sufficient. We had an intern, Morgan Guyer, who is now freelancing and we’ll probably be hiring soon. Morgan did a lot of the Troupple King’s background; he did Shield Knight’s animations, he did the storybook intro to the game. He did a lot of various art things all over the place.
And then we had a couple of people who just come in that we’d worked with from WayForward to just do some QA or helping us with level design. Generally, we weren’t hiring out artists or hiring out programming or anything like that – nothing too major. But now, we’re starting to use a little bit now that we have some money under our belts, we’re starting to use a little more freelance here and there, but obviously it’s still pretty insular.
Alexis: What’s the biggest growth pain now that you have some of the resources to push things forward?
David: Our biggest pain right now, I would say, is managing the business with making the game at the same time. We’re trying to do all these updates and we’re trying to schedule them and figure out how we can do them in a year. At the same time, we’re trying to get out the game in Europe, which is a whole –.
Alexis: Mess, yeah.
David: Mess. And we’re trying to plan conventions; we’re trying to do merchandise. We’re trying to hire more people – we’re all of these things and normal business operations. It’s very hard to balance both of them and figure out – hiring people is a big responsibility, right? We have to be able to –.
Alexis: Do we have to have another person just for that?
David: Are we going to run out of money in two years? I hope not. We really need a key person to figure that out; who will that be? Everyone’s making the game. We really need to hire a person to figure that out for us, but that’s totally irresponsible. I need a lot of that kind of thing.
Alexis: Now that we’re winding down, what’s one mistake you’d rather not repeat over this year and a half journey with Shovel Knight?
David: One mistake – oh, man. I feel like a lot of things have gone right surprisingly well. I think the biggest thing we don’t want to repeat, which we sort of have said to ourselves, is we don’t want to sacrifice our lives to make games anymore. At Shovel Knight, we spent 24/7 making the game, which just crushes your soul.
It was really fun to make Shovel Knight; sometimes we want to work 24 hours/day because we’re having so much fun, but at the same time, when you’re locked in and required to do that, it can be very painful to know, “Hey, I’m not paying attention to my family.”
Nick Wozniak had a baby. I got married during –.
Alexis: What was its name again? [Chuckles]
David: [Chuckles] The baby? No one’s ever seen it before. We all had real lives during that process and we couldn’t live them, and that’s sort of the mistake. It doesn’t feel like a mistake though because we knew what we were doing, but that’s sort of the thing we don’t want to repeat.
Alexis: On the flip side, what’s one decision that you’re particularly proud of?
David: Oh, man. I don’t know; I’m just so proud of everything [chuckling]. I guess I’m really proud that we stuck to what we wanted to make. I guess it would’ve been easy to say, “Hey, let’s cut a bunch of levels” or “Let’s do this or that to get it out faster and make it less painful for ourselves” and I guess I’m really proud that we sweated over every single millimeter of the game. We really stuck to our guns, saying, “Hey, we’re not putting this out until everyone feels really good about it.”
Alexis: Two last questions here, one that I really should’ve asked at the very beginning. What’s behind the name Yacht Club Games?
David: It’s sort of just an ironic name. We’re not all about making money and it was just like, at the time when we were looking at the mobile games, they were stealing every penny out of your wallet. It seemed like that’s what other companies were; they were like Yacht Club. It’s like, “I’m starting this company so I can have more fun at my yacht” or whatever, and that was that.
The other part of it was we showed the playful arrogance of a Yacht Club, if that makes sense. We sort of aligned ourselves with that idea of playful arrogance where we’re sort of arrogant about the quality, what it’s going to be, and we’re playful with that at the same time. We’re all about making a playful experience.
Alexis: Alright. Playfully confident, okay. And the last one, the most rigorous and tough question of them all: what is your text editor of choice?
David: My text editor – for code?
Alexis: For coding, yeah.
David: I use Visual Studio.
David: I sometimes use Notepad++ to look at random stuff [chuckles].
Alexis: Not to single you out here, but you are the first out of I think 21 episodes that has named Visual Studio their choice.
David: Oh wow, really? What did people always say?
Alexis: Usually Sublime Text. We get some Vim. I don’t think we’ve got any Emacs yet; I’m waiting for it.
David: I see. When I was in college, I switched between Vim and Emacs a lot. But I don’t know – a much easier way to make a game, is to use Visual Studio, to me for some reason. I don’t know, maybe it’s just like after being programmed to use it for so long [chuckling]. I mean, that was the only way you could –.
Alexis: There’s the pipeline, yeah?
David: Yeah, that was the pipeline at WayForward.
Alexis: So if folks want to find out more about Shovel Knight and Yacht Club Games, where should they go?
David: Yachtclubgames.com is a good place to start, or you can go to our twitter @yachtclubgames, or our Facebook which is Yacht Club Games. Or you can just start asking random people on the street if they know us.
Alexis: [Chuckles] Guerilla marketing?
David: And hopefully they’ll say they know Shovel Knight [chuckling]. Otherwise, you should tell them about it.
Alexis: And if we’d like to follow your 140-character ramblings, where can we do that?
David: You can do that @dandyycg.
Alexis: I’m sorry, what was that?
Alexis: Alright. For us, you can follow us @Binpress and myself @alexissantos. Thanks again, David. It was a blast! I’m sorry if we talked too much about Kickstarter here.
David: Oh no, I love talking about anything and everything.
Alexis: Alright. For the listeners, we will catch you next week!
Author: Alexis Santos