With the release date for his Shovel Knight game still some way off in Europe on Nintendo’s Wii U, Sean Velasco presented himself as an incredibly humble person when he introduced himself outside Nintendo’s business booth at Gamescom. And despite his hectic schedule, the Yacht Club Games’ co-founder still managed to spend the best part of nearly an hour talking about his experiences in making his studio’s first game. It was on the premise of this that I got to ask him about his time with previous outfit WayForward, as well as his dealings with the industry titan known as Nintendo.
To be honest, this was one of my favourite interviews that I conducted during my time in Germany this year. Not least because it offered a more in-depth and honest account of how Sean Velasco had fared as part of a new indie outfit, and how he rose to the challenge by carving out his own unique piecemeal stamp on the gaming landscape.
Let’s start from the beginning. How long have you been at Yacht Club Games?
Well, Yacht Club Games was actually started by myself and the rest of my team. We previously worked at an outfit called WayForward. WayForward is the type of studio that makes a lot of license titles. They make the occasional original IP and they’re known for doing beautiful hand drawn graphics and for making side-scrollers and things of that ilk. That was where we kind of came up. I worked at WayForward for seven years, and a lot of our team also worked at WayForward. Afterwards we just decided to split off, we didn’t really want to make licensed games anymore.
Was that the principle reason for why you left?
Well, I mean it was a lot of things. I think was just time for us to move on. We wanted to make original titles. We wanted to make games where we could always be on the same team and collaborate, you know? At WayForward it was a very large company so we wouldn’t always have the chance to work together on every project. I’m a big believer in collaboration and having everyone give their input because I think that makes the best game. Sometimes that wasn’t really possible where we were. Plus we wanted to control the marketing, we wanted to control the brand. We really wanted to do it all on our own. We didn’t want to be under another company, we didn’t necessarily want to have a publisher telling us what to do. We saw Kickstarter as kind of our ticket to all of this, and so we broke off. We formed the Yacht Club, and our first game was Shovel Knight.
If WayForward had decided to take up more of your philosophy by which it was more concerned about making original IP, do you think you would have stayed at WayForward or do you think still would have ended up breaking off and creating your own outfit?
I think it’s always been my dream to have a company of my own. Before I went to WayForward, I had another company… we only made one game. We were called Happy Fun Team and we made games, before the iPhone, we made phone games. We made one phone game. We worked on Series 60 devices, we worked on BREW and J2ME stuff, so this was like old 2004 things. We made one ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ game, and then after that it’s like you know, we didn’t know what we were doing. I was fresh out of school, but that ambition I think has always kind of been there. WayForward is a great place and a lot of really excellent people work there. I think it was just our time to move on.
How do you think you’ve transitioned from WayForward to Yacht Club? What difficulties have you encountered and what benefits do you think your new found status has afforded you?
It’s been very different because before I was a designer and director, but I was only the director of the game. A project would come in, you know, it’s like “hey we’re making a Batman game, or we’re making a Double Dragon or a Contra game”, or whatever. So, that game would come in and then I would start working on it, but I wasn’t responsible for everything because that was all done by the publisher or that was done by WayForward. So doing things like HR, health insurance, accounting and having a lawyer and doing the company stuff, that’s all new to us and that’s something that we’ve had to take care of. On top of that we have things like doing marketing, creating our brand and flying out to Gamescom to do interviews like this. That’s such a big important part of the job, and that’s something that I certainly never did personally at WayForward. It’s really kind of everything; it’s running a business and it’s developing a game simultaneously. And when you’re developing a game and you only have 5-6 people working on it, then that’s also very different from when you’re working on a team of 15 people putting a game together. You really have a lot more influence on what happens everywhere, in every facet of the game. A lot of times when someone is falling behind, we’d all jump on that person’s task and help bring it all together. At WayForward it was a little bit more hierarchical, but here at the Yacht Club it’s much more community oriented. It’s difficult because when you have a bunch of decision makers all trying to figure out what’s the best way to go, and when everyone thinks that it’s so important and you care so much about the game and about the company, we have a lot of really impassioned arguments and we butted heads a lot. But I think as a result, the company has become much better. With the game Shovel Knight, the reason I think it turned out the way it did is because of the attitude that we all have of never sacrificing the quality and always wanting to collaborate and make sure that the best idea wins even if it bruises the ego of the person who had a different idea.
How old are you?
Do you have any responsibility? Wife? Kids? Mortgage? Anything like that?
Well… no. I mean I didn’t lay everything out on the line to do this. I didn’t have a house that could have been foreclosed on. I didn’t have a wife and kids that would leave me or never see me or anything. Working at a company like this, when you’re working constantly, it does take quite a toll, you know? When we were developing Shovel Knight, over those 16 months it was really constant, constant work. The last half of the game development cycle we were working seven days a week/12 hours a day, because we just needed to get that game out and we only had a finite amount of resources to do it.
How long was the game been in development for?
It was in development for about 16 months I would say…
Even though Yacht Club Games has more of a determined drive to work on its own intellectual property… Shovel Knight, the first that you’ve released, still happens to be be quite conventional in a lot of ways by basically being a gloried love letter to what has come before in the 80s. Your detractors would argue that Yacht Club isn’t really original, despite what you’ve said about wanting to do something that’s more original. How would you counter that?
I’d say that every great game is built on the ideas from a previous game, you know? I mean Super Mario Brothers was built on the jumping mechanics of Donkey Kong except they added side scrolling. Gears of War, the stop-and-pop game play is based on the game play of Resident Evil 4 which has a behind-the-shoulder perspective where you can aim and use the analog stick for more precision, and even that is very similar to Goldeneye 007 where you would move around using the stick then press a button to have a contact sensitive cursor appear on the screen. I would say games are a combination of a lot of ideas, and we took [some of] those ideas but I wouldn’t say we ripped them off wholesale or anything like that. I’d say we used them as a starting point to begin developing and iterating on it. We wanted to take a lot of the outmoded concepts from 8-bit games, games from the 80s that no longer kind of make sense or that we thought were a little unpalatable. We did things like… our checkpoint system, originally they were just silent checkpoints like a Mega Man game where you’d die and just go back immediately. But we wanted to do something more interesting with it, we wanted to tie in our money and our gold mechanics because we knew that digging up treasure was going to be a cool and important part of the game. We decided to focus on the checkpoints and do something different. We’re supporting the StreetPass and the Miiverse on the Wii U. There are a lot of different features that are in this game that could never happen on an original NES. We have parallax scrolling, there’s widescreen presentation, and we’re bringing a lot of new game design ideas, but we’re just using those original ideas as the base, as the launching point. I think when people start playing the game, at first it looks like it’s just a regular old NES game, but once you begin to play it you start to see it’s really quite different.
For the record, what platform did Shovel Knight come out on first?
It was released simultaneously on PC, Wii U and 3DS in the United States. The Wii U and 3DS version is coming mid to late September here in Europe.
What made you decide to target Nintendo platforms as opposed to Sony or even Microsoft platforms?
Well, at WayForward we had developed a lot of games on the Wii and on the DS so it was definitely something that we were familiar with. More than that, when we set out to make this game we wanted to make an 8-bit style game. We wanted to make a game in the style of Nintendo. It’s the things that we grew up with, it’s the things that we loved to play as kids. So we thought what better way to honor this idea then to go with Nintendo and have our heritage platform be where we’re expressing it first. Keep in mind we’re a small team, we’re only 5-6 people. I’m sure if we had the ability to put the game out on a billion platforms all at once maybe we would have done that, but we decided to focus on Nintendo because we thought [they] would be the best fit. We think Nintendo fans are platformer fans, Nintendo fans maybe have some of the specific type of nostalgia and if you don’t have that nostalgia, like I know a lot of people from the UK didn’t play on the NES, and if you’re a young person under the age of 20 then you haven’t seen the Nintendo 8-bit game like that. The kind of family-oriented nature of the Wii U and the 3DS, I think that’s working out really well for Shovel Knight. Even if you’ve never played a game that’s in this style, or if you’ve never played an 8-bit style game, young people are still really enjoying it and that’s been tremendously gratifying. That audience, I think, is the strongest on the Wii U and on the 3DS.
WayForward did games like Contra 4, which was a run-and-gun platforming shoot-em-up, but they also did other games such as Bloodrayne…
Yeah, I worked on Bloodrayne: Betrayal… I directed that.
In other words, WayForward has done a variety of 2D inspired games. Shovel Knight was an action/adventure 2D game. What other games or what other types of games do you have in the pipeline? And do you think you’ll ever go and do something that’s more 3D orientated?
Currently, we have our hands full with Shovel Knight right now. There’s the initial release of the game that we’ve taken care of in the United States, there’s the European version which we’re going to be submitting imminently and like I was saying in mid to late September it’s going to be out. There’s a Japanese version of the game that we’re going to be putting out, and then on top of that we have all this update content that we’re doing. From our Kickstarter we had many stretch goals, and those stretch goals are coming as free updates later on down the line. For this entire we’re basically going to be continuing to develop the game and the value will just keep getting greater and greater as you go. Maybe by the end of that we’ll be sick of making Shovel Knight and we’ll say: “OK forget it, we don’t want to do this anymore. Maybe we’ll make a 3D game or maybe we’ll make a 16-bit style game” or something like that. The things that we’ve been talking about are making like a Shovel Knight 64 or doing something that had really great mobility mechanics. Those are all just kind of high in the sky dreams at this point. Our team is built very specifically for making this type of game. If we were going to make a big 3D game I imagine we’d have to staff up and we’d really have to change the way that we’re thinking about everything too. I would love to make a game that’s maybe a little bit stylistically different. Speaking of Gears of War, like the active reload, when you’re reloading there’s a sweet spot and if you press the button at the right time then your reload will not only be faster, but your bullets will be more damaging. I just loved that, because it was like a little game within a game. I was thinking about something where you’d have a kitana and you’re fighting and you’d slam the sword down into your arm, and then the active reload would come and you would press it again and break through it, you know something like that. But that’s just like a seed of an idea. We’ve talked about making a pinball game. We’ve talked about making a collectible card style game. Some of those ideas may express themselves in the Shovel Knight update content. Really it’s just kind of the whim of the moment of what we’re doing. Once Shovel Knight is about to be finished with all the updates and everything, I imagine that we’ll start thinking really seriously about what the next project is.
Some quarters of the media regard WayForward as being the US equivalent of Treasure. What is your aspiration, and how do you want Yacht Club games to be viewed as in years to come?
I want to be Nintendo, I want to be Disney, I want be Apple. I don’t see Shovel Knight as just being a singular game. I’m wearing a Shovel Knight t-shirt right now, we want to do more than just develop the game. I see Shovel Knight as being a brand that we can use. We’re already making a lot of cool stuff. We have these t-shirts, we’re making little 5-inch figures from pop culture Shock toys. We’re going to be doing a foam shovel from ThinkGeek, like the Minecraft shovels. We want to kind of expand it out a little bit, right? I want a graphic novel, I want a movie, I want cereal, I want a shampoo bottle with a screw-off head, I want a Broadway musical, I want a theme park…(laughs). So, I mean this is really just the beginning of that, but the most important thing for Yacht Club is maintaining the quality of the game. I want to be known as a company that only develops the most fun and cool games. Maybe it’s only for this very small swath of people, but that would be very important to them. You think of something like a Blizzard which is a great example, people are enormous fans of Blizzard. They know that everything that Blizzard puts out is going to be excellent cause they iterate on it, the quality is going to be high. You love games like Warcraft, and World of Warcraft and Starcraft and now Hearthstone. Each one of those games is so uniformly brilliant that the next time you see a Blizzard game is announced, it’s got sort of the same thing with Platinum games, doing like Bayonetta and Revengance, it’s like you know what you’re in for and you know that you’re going to be in for an excellent time no matter what. That’s what I want to do the Yacht Club. When we announce a new game, or when we announce that something is happening, I want you to immediately think it’s going to be good.
You used the term “small swath of people”, and trends come and go. Audience expectations also change, especially in the context of when technology changes. Nintendo has obviously seen as to how this can essentially erode and decimate their brand image in the grand scheme of things. For example, Mario… the House that built Mario found out in late December that Mario doesn’t really resonate with audiences at large anymore. Mario 3D World didn’t sell as many copies as Nintendo wanted. Even though you’ve said that you want Yacht Club games compared to companies such as Disney or Nintendo or Platinum, etc., where you have that seal of quality. If we were to just mention Platinum, Platinum games don’t sell. I don’t care what anybody says but they don’t sell…
No, you’re right.
And regardless of quality there are obviously commercial expectations and commercial pressures involved with any project. Especially when, as you said before, one of your team members has a kid now. Knowing that you would very much like to continue doing 2D games, and that’s where your expertise lies, but knowing also that market has moved on from 2D games and that people now increasingly don’t want to look towards 2D games as being a source of entertainment. We’re not talking about the older generation who have also grown out of games, we’re talking about the young people. We’re talking about the kind of people that don’t read magazines anymore, that don’t read feature length articles that probably won’t even pay attention to this interview because it’s going to be way longer than anything that they’ll ever read in their entire lifetime. How do you go about creating the kind of content that fulfills you, but at the same time making sure that the content appeals to a large enough audience where they are able put you in a position where you can “Disney-fy” or “Ninento-fy” yourself through the course of making licensed merchandise, or even just paying the bills and making sure that the game sales?
We wanted to make Shovel Knight, you know we took it to Kickstarter so we knew it had to be a commercially viable product right? We were basically doing our pitch to the world from the beginning. Of course we have passion for 8-bit games and we love making this type of game specifically, but one of the big reasons… you said Platinum games don’t sell… you know WayForward’s independent games didn’t buoy the company in the way that I really wish that they would.
Is that because they were lower quality titles?
No, I think it was almost entirely marketing, you know? With Yacht Club and with Shovel Knight that’s a really big important part of what we’re doing. We’re trying to tell a story to the audience about what we’re making. I would disagree on the point that 2D games are becoming less popular and that people aren’t as into them as they used to be. A lot of the enormous games are still 2D, or are presented in a 2D side-scrolling format. Super Mario 3D World is a 3D game, and I think the reason that that game didn’t sell was mostly because of the Wii U’s smaller install base. You think about the Sony titles, like Sony’s big digital library of indie games like Spelunky and Hotline Miami and Luftrausers. There are all these games and they’re just enormous. Also, how about Angry Birds? That’s a 2D game or Hearthstone, that’s a 2D game. And these are enormous titans of the gaming industry. I think you look around at somewhere like Gamescom, and you look at where the big booths are and yeah, they’re for places like Blizzard or League of Legends and Riot, and that type of thing. But that’s really only one part of the game industry right now and those games are made by hundreds and hundreds of people. We’re a small team and I think that our game has a pretty universal appeal, and it’s mostly just getting the message out to everyone and getting the game into their hands. I understand what you’re saying about it not necessarily being able to go to everyone, and really that’s a large part of what we want to do with making cool stuff that you can have that has a physical presence. Let’s say if there’s a Shovel Knight TV show, or if there was something Shovel Knight related that could kind of pull you in, then you start playing the game and you’re like, “wow this is a cool game, and I love it regardless of how it looks or what it’s like”. Many of the games I mentioned have visuals that aren’t necessarily their strong suit. Even World of Warcraft is pretty low res now at this point, but I don’t think it comes down the visuals quite as much now. Now it’s more about the ideas.
Riffing on what you’ve stated, what advice would you give to other independent developers who may also have team sizes such as yourself that have limited resources as a consequence, that don’t have trust fund parents, and want to make cool stuff. What advice would you give them?
Well, we had no money to start this company and so we went to Kickstarter. It really, really helped to have a lot of experience in the industry first. I’ve seen people do Kickstarters and they don’t have experience or they haven’t shipped a game before, at WayForward we had to ship games and we had to it on time. I was terrible at putting the games out on time, but you know we had a schedule and a budget and we had to stick to it. We knew Nintendo, we knew how to submit, and we knew all of these things so that was already advantageous to us. But if you’re experienced with game development, I think going to Kickstarter makes sense. If you’re not as experienced with game development then maybe you could go with a publisher that has more experience. They may have some marketing muscle, and also a lot of publishers are willing to front you some money so you can get the game developed in return for some sort of back end deal, and if that’s the direction that you feel the most comfortable in then I think as an indie developer that’s an absolutely valid way to go as well. Overall I would say just to make sure as a game, that you know what it is, that you know what the game play is going to be like and that you have a compelling story to tell about the game. Shovel Knight, that was a game that as soon as you see one screenshot or you read one little bit about it you immediately know what it is, and you can decide if that’s something you’re interested in or not. I think that kind of pointed direction of being proud of what you are and just shouting it to the hills is really important. Games that are very stylish or games that have a really interesting hook, those are the kind of games that get noticed. Even with Shovel Knight we had a little problem with that because people looked at it and said, “oh yeah this just another one of those 8-bit demake style games”, but then once you get into it and play it, as I said before, you realize that it’s kind of a different beast.
How has Nintendo been like to work with?
They’ve been amazing. Like I said earlier, when we left WayForward I called up Dan Adelman who was Nintendo of America’s…
He’s [Dan Adelman] left now, how does that impact your relationship with Nintendo?
It doesn’t. At this point now, we know many people on the Nintendo of America side and while Dan got us in the door, Nintendo really embraced us everywhere. We have a lot of people that we’re working with and they’ve been wonderful for helping with marketing. They flew us up to San Francisco to do a press event.
This is Nintendo?
Yeah, yeah Nintendo did that, Nintendo of America. They’ve constantly provided a spot for us at a booth so we can show Shovel Knight. Many times at Nintendo’s booth, and even if they didn’t provide us booth space we’re always just given more and more opportunities. When the game came out there was a big takeover. They did Nintendo Direct, and we were mentioned in it. They did a really good job just helping bring awareness about Shovel Knight, and I think their excitement for it and their fervor really helped amplify our message too. They’ve just been awesome, they’re good people and they’re friendly and they’re professional. We couldn’t have asked for more from Nintendo. They’ve been really excellent.
Do you think the way Nintendo has treated you is an exception rather than the norm?
Well, I think now Nintendo is warming up to indies a lot more, but they have a different strategy than the other platform holders I think. Whereas Sony has there many, many, many indie titles, it’s like volume and they just want to get everything and that’s a great strategy too. I love man of the indie games that are out on the PlayStation 4 and on the Vita. With Nintendo I think they’ve taken a few games that they like and they’re putting their focus on those. I’ve been traveling around with other indie developers like myself who’ve been doing things like Aban Hawkins and the 1001 Spikes. That’s another game that Nintendo has had more attention on and they’ve just been good with a select group. But not everyone is all there all at once. So I would say we’re not the exception, but not absolutely everyone is on Nintendo’s focus right now, if that makes sense. It’s more like a small group of titles that they’re kind of putting forth.
Some people within the indie sphere, and I know you’ve obviously painted Nintendo in a very positive light based on your own experiences… A lot of people who do come from the indie community don’t have as glowing a reference point with regards to their experiences with working with Nintendo. A lot of people have also argued that Adelman… one of the reasons why he left was because of the fact that he had different ideals to how Nintendo should operate and it was a marriage that just wasn’t built to last. Him leaving was almost a sign indicative of the fact that Nintendo, although they are from a PR standpoint making attempts to appease the indie community, deep down they really don’t care and these actions that they’re committing themselves to are half-hearted and ultimately lack conviction. Do you think now that Adelman has left, your relationship with Nintendo will change in any way? And do you think that Nintendo has changed enough over the course of his tenure, and what they’ve publicly stated, to promote the indie cause?
Right. You mentioned, do I think they really care? And like any company Nintendo cares about making money and indie games are what’s popular right now and Nintendo knows that they need indie games the same way that Sony and Microsoft know that they need indie games because that’s a vibrant and exciting new part of the game industry that has appeared. I think as long as Nintendo continues to earn money from indie games, especially if they’re earning a lot then they’ll continue to do. If they’re not seeing a return on it, then maybe it’s not worth the investment. It’s the same thing as going to a show, its like are we going to go to PAX? Well, what is the value of going to a show like that? You’re not selling physically selling the games there, maybe you sell t-shirts there or something, it’s sort of an intangible value right? And every game that’s on the Wii U and the 3DS, especially exclusive ones, they just add to the buying proposition for the console. I think it adds to the library, and it’s really, how do I say… it adds to the overall Nintendo eco-sphere the same way it would with any of the other companies. So, do they care? I can’t really say. They’ve certainly treated us very well and we’ve both seen mutual success and I think we would both like to see each other be successful in the future. As far as Dan Adelman leaving, I don’t know if it’s because of his ideals, or if was his frustration…
Was there frustration?
I don’t know, I can’t say. But I know a lot of times between Japanese game companies and the American division, the American division won’t have quite as much power… like a Capcom or something. You have the main office in Japan and then in the United States it’s like the satellite office. I mean I’m not sure, like I said I’m only speculating but I can imagine the same way that working at WayForward you have people that are controlling your actions or guiding what you’re doing and I think maybe Dan Adelman just had enough of that indie spirit that he wanted to jump in all the way. I’ve been with Dan and other indies for the better part of all of last year and he was just there in the mix with everyone, and if he ever had any frustration or anything with Nintendo I certainly didn’t exactly know. It’s more like he was just forthcoming about it, and he was really excited about indies. I guess it remains to be seen. Who knows maybe five years from now, half of the indies will have withered and died because they weren’t successful and the other half will have staffed up with 80 more people and they’re all making giant AAA games, that sort of stratification goes away. Who can say, right? Ten years ago digital distribution was just getting started, Steam wasn’t really a thing, the price point of games were almost all identical, and now we see that there’s so much variety and there are so many options. You have tiny teams, you have enormous teams. I think it’s just an overall healthier ecosystem and I think Nintendo realizes that, and they want to be a part of it too.
In the short-term… the fact of the matter is that these rumors obviously exists for a reason. With Adelman leaving, what advice would you give to perspective indies out there who do want to work with Nintendo? And how [would] they get into a situation where they can release their games on Nintendo’s platforms?
Honestly, what I said up until Dan left was, “oh you know, just talk to Dan Adelman, he’ll be your point of contact”. I haven’t actually spoken with Nintendo of America so I’m not exactly sure who the point of contact should be. But I know that Nintendo’s stance on indies is still very accepting. They hooked us up with development kits. They’re very supportive of that type of thing, but as far as the person you should get in contact with? Now I’m not exactly sure. They probably have someone, I think it came as a bit of a surprise, no one was expecting Dan Adelman to leave. I’m not sure if Nintendo knew either. Maybe it’ll be a couple of weeks until they have a new contact to reach. Whether that’s a person that’s already within the company, like I know Damon Baker is in charge of the marketing and he’s very involved with Nintendo indies also and he’s helped us out a lot. Maybe I would send people to him.
What about in terms of design philosophy. You have stated as to how Nintendo tends to zone in on certain types of games. Would you say that someone one should ultimately compromise their design philosophy and maybe try to make a 2D platformer in order to get into Nintendo’s books?
No, I don’t think so. A lot of the games that are coming out in the indies are not necessarily 2D platformers. There is a lot of creative content and I think maybe 2D platformers are en vogue right now just because of the age of the people that are developing them, it’s like that’s what they grew up playing. I imagine that ten years from now we’re going to see a bunch of block-based construction games like Minecraft because that’s what children for the past five years have been playing incessantly. We went to Florida Minecon last year and we saw the fervor with which these kids are playing Minecraft, and these YouTube personalities are so enormous. There will be a big long line and it’s this kid up in front, and I’m like, “who’s the kid?” and another Minecraft fan turns around and says, “oh my gosh! That’s direwolf20!” This is a whole world that I haven’t really been privy to until we went to Minecon and we saw it for ourselves. Mojang was really kind to have us there with a lot of other indies, and so we got to show our game off to that generation, but as I was saying I think that the 2D platformers are the heart games for us, but maybe in the future it’ll be a little bit different.
Sean, thank you.