This will be a 2 part interview because of how large this interview. This interview was synthesized from roughly 48 minutes of audio. We would first like to extend the most sincerest thanks to Yacht Club Games team that was at PAX as well as the great gentleman that we interviews. Both Mike Herbster (Level Design) and Sandy Gordon (Pixel Artist) were great to talk to. We decided to hold on to this interview closer to King Knight’s release, but due to delays that Yacht Club discuss here. With that in mind, enjoy the interview below with Mike Herbster. The second part of our interview series will be with Sandy Gordon!
During our interview, Mike was also kind enough to give us a tour of the King of Cards Demo. We really appreciate the opportunity!
What sort of background do you have and how did you get involved with Yacht Club Games?
I started at Way Forward. The first games I worked on were GBA games towards the end of the GBA’s lifespan 12 years ago. I was working at a Gamestop when a producer found me and asked “How would you like to make games”. When I left Gamestop, I went to Way Forward, and now I’m here (at Yacht Club Games).
What games did you work on at Way Forward?
My first game was a Spongebob Game. From there, I worked on Contra 4. I periodically worked on A Boy and his Blob, a game that the director of Shovel Knight also worked on. I worked on Bloodrayne Betrayal that no one played (laughter). We ran metrics for the game to see how it’d do. It was a game we made for ourselves without realizing that normal humans would have an interest in it. We saw this harsh drop off halfway through the game. Out of the first 5,000 people who picked up the game during its first week, only 2 people finished the game. That’s the game that taught me that you can make the game hard and turn off people very quickly.
How did you get involved with level designing? You had mentioned that you were approached at Gamestop and then started working at Way Forward. What prompted you interest in Level Design?
Initially at Way Forward, they gave me a test to see how design would work. I took a design test where I strung together a level, placed the coins and created a path for the character, plotting out the level ramp from point “A” to “B”. We do things different here at Yacht Club as far as that stuff goes. It’s a large group environment and everybody pitches in and talks about how the level flows. We would get that at Way Forward, but it was also very fast paced.
It’s a lot of down time to evaluate and polish, which is very important. A lot of places, they want you to polish as fast as you can to get the product out there to the consumers. With Shovel Knight, thanks to the amazing fan base and everyone taking to it so well it gives us time. We don’t have to rush to finish a level.
So you all work as a team all the time?
Yeah, we’ll focus on certain levels, sometimes in smaller groups, and then bring it to the group at large for discussion. Sometimes we might even hand off the levels to different people in case inspiration strikes them.
How would you personally define level design. It can be so many things to different people. How do you interpret it?
I’m involved primarily with laying down the collision, figuring a rough idea of the art pass. I do a rough pass of the art work and another artist will come in and really pretty it up. I put in collision arc, anything with parallax, splines, timings, enemies placement, and making sure the enemies are enemies.
I notice that in King Knight videos and what we’ve seen in this demo, this expansion has the newest levels compared to Specter and Plague knight. Was this decision made due to providing a fresh experience or mechanics for King Knight?
So a lot of the Plague of Shadows input we received was that “you’re making us play the levels again”. Even if that was true, and with the inclusion of certain screens, you were essentially playing the Shovel Knight campaign with minor twists. So for Specter of Torment, if we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna go all the way. We stuck with the 8 Order Of No Quarter and the Enchantress levels to keep a sense of structure. The first idea we had was to do Mario world size levels that are small and compact, and we did a bunch of them. These maps are around half the size of a normal Shovel Knight size level, but we’re planning close to 30 stages. So then that way it’s a different event that you get to each time. The world map can also have different paths like the upper path be a traditional level while the lower be an auto scroll. It gives the players some options.
It’s really refreshing to see the fact that you guys listen to feedback and take it into consideration.
We also don’t want to make our fans feel like they’re going through the game for the tenth time. (chuckles)
Out of the Knights that you’ve design, which Knight did you have the most fun designing and working with?
Oh man! So Shovel Knight was a great grounding point in terms of normal platforming. I love Plague Knight,l which not a lot of people like, because the mechanics are so fun. With the speed run achievements that we have in the game, Plague Knight is the only one I can do. His jumps and bounce and mechanics feel so good to me. A lot of people don’t get into it, but people love Specter Knight because of the ability to grab a ledge and kind of have safety net
What is a roadblock that you tend to find when level designing?
After working on the same game for 4 years now, sometimes we struggle playing through something, making something, and finding out we made that room already. A lot of the time even though we may reuse items and assets, we do our best to not recreate a room twice. This is probably one of our largest hurdles that we’ve run into. Sometimes we’ll put on other games’ music in order to clear our heads and do our best to create something new and not copy a Mario level.
What are some of your favorite games that you took inspiration for when designing levels
We obviously have a very Mega Man inspired game on our hands. During the month of May, we’ll usually play-through as many Mega Man games as we can. A lot the original Shovel Knight was inspired by Zelda 2 and the close range combat. Most of Specter Knight was inspired by Mega Man X and how they handled things like wall climbing. We didn’t want you to go be able to bypass certain parts of the map so we had to be very specific on his jump. We did our best to examine why people love Megaman X, and realize that the wall climbing let you save yourself and continue in the game. It makes it way easier for people that aren’t that good at platforming.
For King Knight, a little bit of Wario for the pogo-ing, and for the card game aspect it’s a card game mixed with a puzzle. It’s definitely going in a weird direction, but we wanted something that was fast paced and different.
What are some modern games, like Celeste, or other modern platformers that you think have great level design?
Celeste is amazing. I plowed through that game in a day, I loved it a lot. I wish I had more time, but Stardew Valley takes up so much of my time. I bought it on the Switch after owning it 3 other times. I thought to myself, “I’ll never get into this game again, but it’s portable now!”. I was a huge original Harvest Moon fan, and this scratched every itch.
When working on King Knight, did you feel a sense of sadness or closure knowing that this is the last expansion for the game?
Well, we still have battle mode. You’ll be able to play as the other Knights that didn’t get a story mode. The campaigns and stories won’t be as fleshed out as the mainline expansions, but they’ll flesh out a little bit of their story.
What gave you guys the idea to include a card game spin to this game?
After finishing the Specter Knight expansion we started joking around with the current title of the game, King of Cards. We were thinking about a card game with it! All of a sudden, everyone and their mother started releasing card games and we debated if we should move forward with it. We added a puzzle concept to it be a little different. You can push the cards to gain access to a gem, so the focuses more on the gem vs. the cards themselves.
For the original Shovel Knight series, what is the most memorable level?
Specter Knight’s level is definitely extremely memorable. The level came together really quickly and after a couple polish passes, it was good to go.
How does it feel that Shovel Knight has had such a positive relationship with Nintendo?
Working with all of those guys is great. As a kid, I would have hoped that I am where we are with them. It’s a lifelong dream of mine. I was fortunate enough to meet Iwata and Miyamoto and it was amazing. I got them both to sign a Micro for me.
Shovel Knight was the first non-Nintendo IP to have an amiibo right?
That is correct! It worked well with us and we’re looking forward to the other 3 Knights!
When you’re done with Shovel Knight expansion, would you guys continue the franchise in some capacity?
I’d personally like to work on this forever. I’m not sure necessarily where the company will head in the future though with Shovel Knight.
You ever think of veering out of the 2-D Style platform? We saw the April Fool’s joke of Shovel Knight 64!
Yeah we’ve definitely humored other ideas, but nothing is set in stone.
How do you feel about Shovel Knight being featured in other games like Yooka Laylee, Bit Trip Runner 3, Blaster Master Zero and Azure Striker Gunvolt?
We have a great relationship of Inti Creates. They actually approach us about having Shovel Knight in Blaster Master and they gave us a beautiful design of Shovel Knight, we never hit commit faster! We do our best to get a synergy with the other studios because we want to make sure we’re out there and that we have have faith in other games too. It helps promote both of us and that we’re fighting the same fight.
Are there any personal projects that you’d like to talk about?
I honestly haven’t had the time for as much because I just had a newborn and I’m watching her absorb games. I put her in front of Mario and watching her A jump and watching her understand that something on screen is happening because of something she presses.
Last question, as a huge fan of music, what was it like working with Jake on the game’s soundtrack?
Working at Way Forward, Jake did a lot of work with them. So we meet with Jake a lot. He’s actually 3 towns away from us. We’ll see him a few times a month when we’re in the thick of work. He’s a genius, that man. He’s one of my favorites.