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4 Game Design Lessons We Can Learn From Shovel Knight

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Released after successfully finding funding on Kickstarter, Shovel Knight was one of the most highly anticipated indie games of the summer. The game showed promise because of its unique premise: it aimed to capture the feel of an NES-era classic on a modern device. The result is a level-based action platformer, complete with chiptune music and an authentic 8-bit art style.

Shovel Knight was highly praised upon release, with the developers at Yacht Club Games successfully managing to provoke a feeling of nostalgia in older gamers, while at the same time offering a new and compelling game even for those who never experienced the classics. Shovel Knight does a lot of things right in its design, and in this article we'll take a look at four important things we can learn from it.

A Cohesive Theme and Style Can Carry Your Game

Shovel Knight has an almost ridiculous adherence to its core theme of recreating the feel of a classic NES game. Everything about the experience, from the title screen's pixelated font to the entirely chiptune soundtrack, simply oozes retro. This isn't just an aesthetic thing, many game mechanics are borrowed directly from old NES games, and the level design is heavily inspired by the most popular platformers of the time. The game is so authentic that it really does feel like an old NES game that someone somehow forgot to release.

The developers wrote an interesting article on Gamasutra detailing the ways in which Shovel Knight surpasses the technical limitations of the NES.

This thematic consistency is a core part of why Shovel Knight is such a great game. It's impossible not to be charmed by the game because it feels so well put together; every part of the experience feels like it's only there to further the goal of creating a game that is as retro as it can possibly be. Even though Shovel Knight isn't always perfect, the game as a whole feels inscrutable because of how consistent it is in its style, both from a gameplay and an aesthetic point of view.

Criticizing Shovel Knight can sometimes feel like complaining about the artistic direction of a painting in a gallery: you may not like it, but that's just because you don't understand what it's trying to say.

We can learn from this that a consistent style can really help a game feel well constructed, sometimes even causing players to ignore some of the game's shortcomings. When everything in a game feels like it's been deliberately made the way it is in pursuit of a clear artistic goal, it's easier for players to get immersed in the experience and enjoy themselves.

This obviously isn't limited to games emulating old systems; this sort of artistic immunity applies to any game committed to a particular theme or style. Having a clear artistic direction that drives every facet of your game's development can help make the end product feel cohesive and well constructed in a way that significantly benefits the overall experience.

Don't Be Afraid to Borrow From Others

Shovel Knight is fun to play—and I mean really fun to play. The moment to moment gameplay is consistently enjoyable, with tight controls, simple yet enjoyable combat, and sufficiently tricky platforming. This is because Shovel Knight plays like a greatest hits for action platformers: it's got boss design reminiscent of Mega Man, Scrooge McDuck's pogo attack from DuckTales, and items that wouldn't be out of place in any old-school Castlevania game.

Despite borrowing so much from other platformers, Shovel Knight never feels derivative, and instead feels like the natural evolution of the mechanics seen in the titles it takes from. This is because mainstream video game design has always been an iterative affair, with new titles in a genre often consisting of a few new ideas supported by a set of key mechanics that have worked in the past.

If only Scrooge McDuck could see what his legacy has wrought.

A great example of this is the convention that a player should only be able to hold two weapons in most first person shooters. It's a fun gameplay constraint that worked in a few popular games, and has thus been adopted by many imitators. As long as a game doesn't rely on this borrowed mechanic as its only form of entertainment, there's nothing wrong with doing what has been proven to work in the past.

Unfortunately, there is often a reticence towards this kind of iterative design among the indie community. Many developers feel the need for their games to be entirely unique, or at least present a new gameplay twist on an established genre. Shovel Knight shows us that this isn't necessary to be successful. Most of the time players don't particularly care where a game's ideas came from, or how original they are—they care about how the game actually plays.

As long as there is some uniqueness in the implementation, borrowing ideas and mechanics from other games can be a great tool when creating your own designs. As is evident in Shovel Knight, sometimes something as simple as combining ideas from a few separate games into one unified package can be enough to create something entirely new and engaging.

Difficulty Doesn't Have to be Set in Stone

The level of challenge a game presents players with has always been an important consideration during video game development. Players come in all skill levels, and developers are tasked with fine-tuning their game's difficulty so that it will appeal to the maximum number of players possible in their target audience. This is usually very difficult to do, and so the practice of including multiple different difficulty levels has become the norm.

Shovel Knight eschews this tradition in favor of its own unique take on player challenge. The game doesn't have lives or a traditional game over system; instead, each level has a series of checkpoints that the player can respawn at infinitely. What makes the system interesting is that players are given the option to destroy checkpoints. Destroying a checkpoint is a gamble: it does gives the player some extra loot, but they then have to beat the rest of the level without the use of that particular respawn point.

I bet he regrets breaking the checkpoint

Unfortunately, this system feels inconsequential in practice, since the rewards given for destroying checkpoints are rarely large enough to offset the amount of loot that will be lost by repeatedly dying. However, it's an interesting idea on a conceptual level, because it lets players govern the difficulty of the game on the fly. Unlike a simple difficulty level setting, players aren't locked into playing the entire game at a particular level of challenge. Those looking for a greater challenge can destroy checkpoints—and are even rewarded for doing so—but this commitment to a high level of difficulty is not permanent. It only lasts until the next checkpoint is found, at which point players are then given the choice again as to whether or not they want to play with the increased challenge.

This type of dynamic player-driven difficulty level isn't seen very often. Even though Shovel Knight stumbled a bit in its execution of the concept, it does show that this type of system could be worth pursuing. Allowing players to adjust the difficulty of a game with thematically relevant systems helps pacing by allowing them to experience the level of challenge they want at any given time, without the feeling of cheating one gets by changing a difficulty setting in the options menu.

Balance is Important, Even in Single-Player Games

Throughout Shovel Knight, players are able to acquire a significant arsenal of upgrades and items, as is par for the course in most adventure games. These range from typical upgrades like new suits of armor and special attacks, all the way to more esoteric items like a fishing rod and something called the chaos sphere. In theory, these items should add a lot of variety to the gameplay, giving players multiple tools to use in any given scenario, as well as allowing for scenarios tailored specifically to the use of a particular item.

Unfortunately, this doesn't quite pan out for Shovel Knight. Other than certain bonus levels that require the use of specific items, there is very little incentive for players to toy around with their arsenal during the game's primary stages. This is because these items vary wildly in effectiveness, with some being useful in almost every scenario and others bordering on uselessness. The key offenders are the chaos sphere, a highly damaging bouncing projectile, and the phase locket, an item that grants the player temporary invulnerability.

There's a lot to play around with. Unfortunately, most of it isn't terribly useful.

If abused, these two items can be used to trivialize most of the content in the game. When coupled with the armor that increases a player's maximum amount of item uses, the phase locket can be used to avoid almost all damage in any level and the chaos sphere can defeat several of the game's bosses in a matter of seconds. Players don't need to use this combination of items, and many surely won't, so the game isn't entirely ruined, but it raises the question of why cheating through the game is even possible.

Many single player games focus on empowering the player as much as possible, without really considering balance in the same way multiplayer games do. However, through Shovel Knight's example, we can see that this isn't always the right way of thinking. Unless it's something you explicitly want, it's always a good idea to go through your game's systems and make sure there aren't any options available to the player that allow them to trivialize the content you've created.

Likewise, it's also important to make sure there aren't any obviously useless inclusions. If you want your game to allow multiple gameplay approaches, make sure they are as equivalent in their effectiveness as possible. Overpowered or underpowered items can be balanced by patches in multiplayer games, but this type of consideration is often not present in development for single player experiences. Just because there isn't a vocal multiplayer community to complain about a single player game's balance, doesn't mean it isn't an aspect of the design that can seriously harm players' enjoyment of a title.

Conclusion

Shovel Knight does a lot of things right, even though it does stumble occasionally. Though it might, at face value, appear simply to be an oddity that aims to replicate the old days of the NES, there's actually a lot of modern considerations baked into its design. This isn't evident on the surface, but if you take a closer look at why the game succeeded there's a lot to be learned from it.

Turning a critical eye on a successful product can often be an enriching experiment, and I guess that's one last lesson we can learn from Shovel Knight.

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