Shovel Knight, the indie game developed by Yacht Club Games for the Wii U, 3DS, and PC, came out a little over a month ago. We loved it, and so did most other critics, but the chance of commercial success was seen to be fairly low by many people, for multiple reasons. For one, the game’s retro art style and gameplay appeal to a very specific audience that already has questionably too many indie games of said style to choose from. Having such a specific target audience could have also limited mass appeal for the game. To add to that, the game was set to come out on a very limited set of platforms, one of which (the Wii U) not really having a strong install base or brand popularity in general.
Due to these factors, in addition to the hard, unforgiving math of video game development costs, the six developers at Yacht Club Games knew it would be a long rough road of development, with a very real chance of failure at the end, in spite of how much effort they put into the project. Considering all this, it is wonderful to see some of the statistics that the developer has revealed over the past week, some of which clearly highlight what can be achieved with enough dedication and passion, even by a small independent group of creators using crowd-funding to pay for development.
1. Even “Retro” Games Are Expensive To Make
To start, the developer talks about the costs of game development and how they came up with the total budget they would ask for via Kickstarter and a Paypal donations campaign. They provide a general calculation for game development in general:
The picture shows the general equation, but also indicates real life factors that Yacht Club Games had to deal with. Using crowd-funding to get money for Shovel Knight, the chances of getting close to 1.5 million dollars, the number found with the general formula above, would have been slim. Sure, a handful of games such as Double Fine’s Broken Age have been able to raise huge sums of money to more adequately deal with the results of the formula above, but these are exceptions rather than examples of the general rule. Yacht Club Games set a comparatively much much lower initial goal ($75,000), and was able to gather roughly four times that amount. Even then, with roughly $330,000, budgeting was far from an easy task.
The sound/music designer volunteered to work for free and get pay after the game released and started making money. The second year of a two year development plan was eliminated from the equation, as it was decided to move certain stretch goal game features to post release content patches, that would be released for free (basically cutting the budget in half going by the cost per month model). With a these two huge changes, in addition to a resignation to grueling 7 day work weeks for pay that would barely make ends meet for the core development team, Yacht Club was able to cut the budget down from $1.440,000 to roughly $600,000. To their credit, the developers saw this as a win, even though that number was still almost twice what they had been able to raise from the public.
Not only is it amazing that Shovel Knight came out at all knowing these harsh budgeting realities, it is baffling on some level that a group of developers would even attempt such an endeavor, knowing these harsh realities from the beginning and carrying on anyway. They ran out of money five months before the game was released, and it really seems that a bit of luck mixed with a voracious level of passion from Yacht Club Games is the main reason Shovel Knight made it.