After five years of Shovel Knight, the indie studio sets out to help other indies.
Five years ago, Yacht Club Games released Shovel Knight on the back of an enormously successful Kickstarter campaign. Since then, the game has gone on to sell 2.6 million copies, and has made an appearance on nearly every major console, including Amazon’s Fire TV. This success has afforded Yacht Club a degree of comfort that many indies might envy, but with that comes the stress of delivering on years-old promises.
In an interview with GamesIndustry, Yacht Club COO James Chan described the team’s struggle with bringing stretch goals to its audience. "Seriously, every time people ask us for advice, the first thing we tell them is, please, watch your stretch goals," Chan said. "We've been developing this for five straight years now; it's just content updates, and it's all free content updates, because it's stuff we promised. We're very lucky to have fans who bought multiple copies or are bringing other people in, which allows us to continue to make the game.”
Yacht Club’s struggle isn’t singular. In a report from March, GameDaily found that the majority of Kickstarter-funded game projects fail to ship on time. In a study that looked at the 50 most backed games on Kickstarter, only three hit their specified release date, with around 15% releasing within six months of their target dates. The rest missed their dates by more than a year, or have yet to release at all.
The reason these delays are so frequent, according to the study, usually boils down to a lack of experience in production and a desire by developers to cram their games full of features. Also a factor is the need to make sure your audience is pleased with what they see.
“The desire to impress everyone and not deliver a product that's imperfect or below par has led to frequent wheel spinning and reiteration after reiteration,” Matt White, the designer behind Ghost Song, told GameDaily.
Still, despite the delayed content, there’s no denying the overwhelming success Shovel Knight has seen, and Chan certainly doesn’t take it for granted. The game was part of Nintendo’s renewed efforts to court third-party developers back in the Wii U days, and was a launch title for the Switch last year.
"We were lucky then, but we do still see that the Switch is a really good platform for us. It's where gamers that speak our language are. It's definitely going to be our main focus," Chan told GamesIndustry.
With the upcomingexpansion King of Cardsset for release this December, Yacht Club is finally ready to bid farewell to Shovel Knight and focus on other endeavors, such as publishing. Chan expressed the studio’s intention to help other indies with their projects. Yacht Club is in a position to offer other devs assistance thanks to Shovel Knight’s financial success.
"Our publishing philosophy, a lot of it is sharing knowledge,” Chan said. "They have access to our creative, we review all the work, we play the game, we record ourselves playing the game... We send all of that feedback. We try to provide that perspective."
Yacht Club tested the publishing waters when it published the Azure Striker Gunvolt bundle with Inti Creates, but that experience stretched the studio’s small team beyond their limits.
"It was time the development team just didn't have," Chan said. "We were already apologetic about how long it was taking to finish King of Cards.”
Now, with a slightly larger team, Yacht Club is prepared to dedicate more resources to helping smaller indies with their games. The idea of an indie studio publishing other indie games has gained traction in the industry over the last few years. Many indies have expressed frustration with dealing with larger publishers, and a number of smaller studios are looking to subvert these frustrations by offering a more personal publishing experience.
"It's probably a more expensive form of publishing than anyone else is doing," Chan told GamesIndustry. "We're not just selling a game. We're sharing all of the knowledge we have so that they can become a successful developer, too... We hope that they come back to us for the next game, but if they don't, that's fine."
The next game set to be published by Yacht Club is Cyber Shadow by developer Mechanical Head Studios.
A precedent for this business model was set in 2014 by indie developer Double Fine. After a tumultuous experience with launching Brutal Legend in 2009, amidst the chaotic Vivendi/Activision merger, Double Fine decided to launch a publishing wing called Double Fine Presents to help other devs avoid similar frustration.
Beyond publishing, Yacht Club hasn’t decided what it’s next internally-developed game will be. After five years of Shovel Knight, though, the team has certainly earned a bit of a break.
"[King of Cards and Showdown] is the end of the Kickstarter list. That's it. This will be the wrap up, this will be the end of Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove,” Chan told GamesIndustry. “Then it'll be pre-production on the next thing, which we're not quite sure what it is yet. We're gonna end the five year dev cycle, take a couple of weeks off, and then come back and say 'Okay, what are we gonna do?'"
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