Yacht Club Games puts a bow on Shovel Knight Treasure Trove with their big King of Cards + Showdown update, launching December 10.
Hey there, Overachievers! In this article, we wanted to discuss everything about the unlockable content in Shovel Knight Showdown. You know what we mean by “Unlocks”? We mean when you’re playing a game and new features or elements are added, expanding your game experience. We love unlockable content, variety, and secrets in general, so we were excited to develop unlocks into an integral part of the experience for Shovel Knight Showdown.
From the very beginning of development, we hoped that Shovel Knight Showdown would be chock full of content that we’d want players to unlock. There would be all sorts of characters, costumes, levels, modes, and who knows what else! But how would it all work? As we so often tend to do, we thought back to our favorite experiences with a feature, and tried to analyse why we thought it was fun. For unlocks, it went something like:
- Surprise – The surprise of unlocking something cool is fun (if you don’t know what you’re getting)!
- Accomplishment – When presented well, unlocks provide a great sense of accomplishment and progression. Looking through your trophy checklist, or having a particularly rare unlock that can be showed off.
- Ramping – Having everything unlocked from the start can be overwhelming! If everything is all accessible, it doesn’t give players a chance to learn each new element in the game at an appropriate pace. Unlocks also give us a chance to teach new elements in a regimented way; for example, unlocking stages in order of complexity. By the end, you’re an expert!
- Motivation – Unlocks keep things fresh and provide motivation to keep on playing. “If I can just pull off this maneuver, I’ll get this new stage I really want!”.
While we have fond memories of unlocking content in our favorite games, it’s not always been a universally loved mechanic. Lately, especially as many popular game series have become bigger, more varied, and more expansive, unlock systems have come under the microscope and aren’t always greeted in such a positive light. Let’s dig into some of the common complaints from the perspective of players:
- Too Much! – Now that there’s so much content, unlocking a giant laundry list of stuff could be a ton of work! It isn’t fun!
- Tedium – It takes so long to unlock everything!
- Mode Mismatches – I can’t unlock stuff by playing what I enjoy! All I want to do is play multiplayer… I don’t want to play single player to unlock anything.
- Save Data Woes – Not having all the content unlocked from the start stinks for multiplayer. With no Save Data, I just want to play everything with my friends! Now my party is ruined!
- Painful for Experts – For players that already know everything about all the content and how it works – why do they have to wait to unlock it all?
With all these potential pitfalls, we knew we had to take great care in designing our unlock system. With Shovel Knight: Showdown’s scope nailed down enough to begin creating an unlock system, we set to work.
With our positives and negatives in mind, we formulated a set of core questions:
- What content could be presented as unlockable content, and what couldn’t?
- How do we award unlockable content? Under what conditions do elements get unlocked?
- What order will everything be unlocked in?
- How will unlockable content be presented to the player? And what actually happens when an unlock gets unlocked?
Unlockable Content is a minefield, hee hee hee!
So let’s answer those questions!
What of Our Content Could Be Unlockable?
There are so many elements to Shovel Knight Showdown, but we didn’t want locked content to pare down the initial experience. We wanted players enjoying all of the game’s features right away, meaning nothing should be less fun because a feature wasn’t yet unlocked. It was important that Showdown’s core features like Game Modes, Items, and Options were all available from the start. This process of elimination left only a few categories for what could be awarded to players as an unlock: Characters, Stages, Palettes, and Costumes. Once we had these categories, choosing the initial contents proved to be quite a challenge! After all, the player’s first impression of the game hinges on what cool things they see as soon as they begin!
Character unlocks are tricky because some players wouldn’t be able to choose their favorite characters from the get-go. We decided that the novelty of trying each character would offset the wait to unlock any potential favorites, and we wouldn’t make players wait too long.
The initial Showdown roster!
We did our best to make sure the initial roster comprised a fun, familiar, and diverse group of characters. The main characters of the single player games – Shovel Knight, Plague Knight, Specter Knight, and King Knight – are all unlocked from the outset. We included some characters that would be exciting because it was their debut as playables – Shield Knight and Black Knight. Finally, we chose some characters to give players a taste of what would be coming next, while providing drastically different play styles- Propeller Knight and Polar Knight. Propeller Knight has nuanced wind attacks and unique air mobility, while Polar Knight’s huge figure shows very clearly the differences between character sizes.
Shovel Knight Showdown features a unique combination of platforming and battling. This made choosing the initial stage set interesting because players would have no idea of what to expect!
The initial Stage roster. It looks so teeny compared to when it’s all unlocked!
We had a lot of flexibility to show off whatever stages we wanted here, but we felt it was important to pick stages that best showed off our core concepts, set pieces, and variety. This would leave room for later stage concepts that require more complex understanding of the characters’ mobility.
Palettes and Costumes
Palettes are both effective and simple to implement, so we crafted 8 palettes per character. Additionally, some characters have ‘Costumes’, meaning totally different animation sets. Character Palettes and Costumes don’t affect gameplay at all, so they felt like natural unlock fodder. We ensured that players would have at least one costume, and each character had four alternate palettes, available from the start. Palettes could be unlocked in sets of 4 since we had so many.
Everyone starts with 5 palettes!
It can be disappointing to start multiplayer games if you don’t have the option to immediately customize your character to some extent, so hopefully it’s a good balance. By the end of the game, you’ll have a veritable kaleidoscope of character palettes.
How will Players Earn Unlocks?
We love accomplishing little challenges to earn Trophies and Feats- if they’re done well. It’s a blast to overcome a tough challenge and be rewarded! Developing these unlock requirements was difficult because there are so many pitfalls. First, it can be boring when unlocks are too easy or require tedious grinding. Second, if the unlock method is unclear, it can feel like your unlock progress is random. We’re asking players to do this stuff, so it had better be good!
Because of the similarities unlocks had with our currently-existing Feats (if you’re unfamiliar, Feats are like Shovel Knight’s in-game achievement system), we thought about unlocks the same way we did Feats:
Unlocks were chosen to be thematically appropriate, balanced, and fun.
First, we divvied up our unlock content and assigned goals to it. We strove to pick unique requirements for each unlock that felt fun and thematic! Unlocking a character’s new palette set would require some cool display of that character’s skill. A major unlock like a new character might require you to encounter them as a rival in another character’s story. For all the unlocks, we tried to make sure the unlock method was somewhat themed to the content received, so it didn’t feel random. For example, ‘KO’ing 100 total opponents would unlock the Lich Yard stage- which makes sense because the Lich Yard is a creepy graveyard!
To combat any confusion toward unlock methods, we laid out a menu where you could clearly see what would be unlocked, and how. While it was cool that the unlockables were clear… at the same time, the surprise of unlocking something was gone! So we also built in a system where some of the unlocks and their requirements would begin as “????”, and would be listed more clearly as the player unlocked related elements:
As the player does more feats, more unlock requirements naturally appear.
For example, the unlock method for a character’s palettes will only be displayed once that character is unlocked. We could hide any piece of information: what category an unlock is (Character, Stage, Palette, Costume), what is actually unlocked (Shovel Knight, Shovel Knight’s palette, etc), or the requirements for an unlock. A delicate balance was struck between spoilers and clarity. You might know that completing Plague Knight’s campaign unlocks a character, but not which character!
But what of players that didn’t care to unlock characters by doing these Feats? We wrestled with challenge of competing play styles. Showdown was developed foremost as a multiplayer battling game, but some players would play the single player only, or vice versa! How would we ensure players weren’t locked into a single unlock method or forced to endure a mode they didn’t want to play?
Players can press the “switch” button to see how unlocks are obtained over time / through Feats.
As the above image demonstrates, our answer to this problem was to create an alternate method for unlocking each piece of content. Every unlock can be attained through multiplayer by playing for enough time, or by accomplishing a feat. Balancing both of these methods was a challenge!
Importantly, if an unlock is achieved through the multiplayer time method, a player can still accomplish the feat- they just won’t unlock anything else. This should preserve the fun of accomplishing the challenges.
How Do We Determine the Order of Unlocks?
Ordering the unlocks was tricky, as there were several competing desires. We determined that unlocked content should be ordered so that:
- The player should get new and compelling content regularly.
- Content should grow in complexity over time i.e. easy-to-use characters should be unlocked earlier.
- Each character’s unlock appearance should make sense in the context i.e. characters shouldn’t be unlocked before they appear in Story Mode.
- Content should all be thematically appropriate, too!
This list had to be balanced for two unlock methods- timed and Feat-based! Ack!
We began with Story Mode unlocks because those seemed most difficult to tackle. We wanted to give out really good unlocks for beating Story Mode, and they had to be appropriate! Each Story in Story Mode features a different rival or impact character- and it seemed natural that this character would be a perfect unlock reward. But we didn’t want the unlock order to be too rigid, and some of the content was way out of order in terms of complexity.
To combat this, we set up Story Mode unlocks in several sets of ‘tiers’. If you complete Story Mode with any of the initially unlocked characters, you’ll unlock characters or elements from the mid tier. Completing Story Mode with a character in the mid tier would unlock matching content in the final tier, where the most complex stuff was located. In this way, content could be unlocked in a balanced way depending on how you were playing.
Every character’s Story Mode features a unique rival or friend.
Sorting content in Story Mode gave us a rough outline of the unlock order, but the timed multiplayer unlocks solidified it. We wanted to make sure that timed multiplayer unlocks felt themed, but multiplayer battles were wildly contextless free-for-alls! How would we make unlocks feel thematic? We decided that all the timing unlocks would be done in pairings. For example, unlocking Mona might also unlock Mona’s stage. That would make it feel thematic! To perfect the formula, we tweaked the timing between the timed unlocks to make sure that players got them at a steady pace.
By following all our guidelines for both single player and experiences, we eventually landed on a satisfying unlock order. Hopefully, Shovel Knight Showdown unfurls in complexity in a very natural way!
How is an Unlock Presented to the player?
When you unlock something, it should look cool! We prioritized giving players information quickly and consistently, with some nice fanfare to make the reward even sweeter. Like with all our menus, we ensured that you could prompt them briskly so these messages felt like a reward, rather than a chore:
To keep things snappy, players are only alerted to an unlock in two spots: after you complete or lose in Story Mode, or between multiplayer matches. This made unlock messages feel like a surprise that could happen any time the screen fades to black! We found this surprise factor to be super fun, as everyone would rush to try out whatever we’d unlocked.
Our standard unlock message got a few upgrades for Showdown. Look at that little Shovel Knight march!
For the in-game message display of Feats, we already had a good base from the other games in Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove. When achieved, the Feat would simply appear as a prompt along the top edge of the screen. We mostly stuck with that design with only minor additions. First, the display would keep your unlock a secret until after the match. Second, if a specific player accomplished the Feat, a small sprite the character appears next to the unlock text, to let you know which player did the deed! Gotta give credit where credit is due!
When You Can’t Win, Cheat!
We poured a lot of time and attention into making the Unlocks system something players would love, and we hope that most players use it as they play and enjoy the game. That being said, there are times when an unlock system could be a big obstacle to fun:
- What if I’m setting up a tournament and I need everyone unlocked now?
- What if I just got the game on a new system, and I don’t wanna grind it all out again?
- What if I played through everything on a friends’ machine, and now I bought a copy of my own?
- What if I played through everything on my PS4 and now want to play the game on another platform?
- What if I just don’t like waiting?
Nothing could be a satisfactory answer to all these questions. So we thought it’d be best to just hide some cheats in the game that take all the work out of it! Here they are:
Unlock Everything (Temporary)
Unlock everything temporarily with this cheat! Reset the game to return things to how they were before.
This cheat will unlock all the characters, stages, palettes, and costumes temporarily. That means, the game will no longer save your progress from here on out, until you reset.
We imagined this cheat would be used by someone who might want to alter their game progress, but still see all the content available to play under certain scenarios. For example, “my friend might come over to play and we both have played through everything together in the past so want to do so again, but I don’t want to screw up my current save file where I’m trying to play through it legit!”
Unlock Everything (Permanent)
Unlock everything permanently with this cheat!
This will unlock all the characters, stages, palettes, and costumes permanently. That means, your save file will be permanently altered to have everything in the game unlocked. Done and done… but maybe less fun?
Over the course of development, we tried our best to make Shovel Knight Showdown’s unlockable content system work in an enjoyable way for players of all kinds! There’s a ton of fun stuff to find, challenges to overcome, and surprises to discover. Please have a great time experiencing the constant feed of new and exciting content! But if don’t… give those cheat codes a try!