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Game Design Deep Dive: Unlocking Chester in Shovel Knight

Digging into the design process around the weapon unlock system in Shovel Knight.

Who: David D’Angelo, Developer at Yacht Club Games

Yacht Club Games is an independent studio in sunny California, and we just released our first game - Shovel Knight! My main role at YCG is programming engine and gameplay, but since there’s just half a dozen of us, we all take on a piece of everything from business and marketing to game design and implementation. Some past games I’ve developed include Double Dragon Neon, BloodRayne Betrayal, Mighty Milky Way, Thor: God of Thunder, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, DuckTales: Remastered, and A Boy and His Blob.

What: Shovel Knight's Weapon Unlock System

Chester is a character you can find in each stage (in a chest) and in the town in Shovel Knight. He offers to sell you various relics – the game’s subweapons. In town, he’ll sell you relics at their full price; but in each stage, if you can find the chest he hides in, he’ll pop out and sell you the stage’s relic at half price.


Creating Chester

You don't have to go far on Google Images to find this one

The idea of a merchant who sells you his wares mid-level isn’t an entirely new concept. Even with popular examples like the merchant from Resident Evil 4, we didn’t entertain this approach as a design path at the outset. Campy and goofy, the mid-level merchant idea worked in Resident Evil 4 but feels out of place in so many other games.

What’s interesting about Chester’s creation is how he wasn’t a planned character at all; he was created to solve previous design problems that arose from the systems we had in place.

Starting with a Chest

We had decided early on that we wanted subweapons along the lines of Castlevania, so the next step was figuring out how the player should attain them. Although Castlevania's element of surprise and encouragement to seek out your favorite temporary subweapon could have worked for our game, we felt we needed a permanent weapon unlock structure to provide more variety to every encounter and give a grander sense of level progression. Our game’s structure and level design was based very much on Mega Man’s, so to most outsiders looking at the game, the obvious choice would be to have the subweapons permanently unlock at the end of the stage after defeating the boss. But in making an NES-style game, a major design goal was to avoid references or callbacks to other games. We wanted the game to feel new and universal: one that could have come out at the time of the NES and felt special, which meant avoiding nostalgia traps that rely on previous game knowledge for enjoyment. In addition to that, we knew our level structure would have a major difference from Mega Man; we’d have a heavy emphasis on exploring and discovering secrets. Those two points put together led us to believe that we should hide the relics in chests.

The following video shows our initial implementation of chests from the Kickstarter demo for Shovel Knight.

Why were chests alone a design failure?

The constant problem we were running into with Shovel Knight was how to make the secrets you seek out worthwhile and rewarding. In our case, we didn’t have a lot of rare items, unlockables, or collectables to hide in the levels; most of what you’d be collecting around every nook and cranny was gold.  So the real question became: in what ways can we make the money you find actually seem valuable?

This is a common trap a lot of video games fall into. Just think about how players have become disenchanted with collecting rupees in Zelda due to stuffed wallets, an overabundance of easy-to-find money, undesirable upgrades, or annoying popup messages. Link Between Worlds surprised everyone with its rental system, since it reminded everyone of the days from the old 2D Zeldas when you’d desperately seek out every rupee, so excited that it might give you access to your next upgrade or weapon.

The first problem we had with our initial relics-in-the-chest setup is that the relics weren’t involved in the economy at all. Why would you go out of your way to collect gold if the best things you could acquire in the game (and really one of the few items you could even collect) wasn’t something you could purchase? So right away we decided we should instead sell the relics in town. And that was the first appearance of Chester!

Unfortunately, moving the relics to a shop in town came with its own problems. With the relics removed from the stages, they started to feel unsurprising – the ultimate killer of the joy that comes with secret-based gameplay. Why hit a wall that might reveal a secret if you know your reward will always be gold? If you’re an excellent player, you probably already have more than enough gold, making secrets uninteresting. After discussing the millions of shops and weapon unlocks in every game and toiling on the issue for weeks, we realized the simplest solution was just to mash our two ideas together: merchant and the chests! From there, it became a discussion of how to implement a shop into the gameplay. The laziest and dumbest idea, usually the one that sticks with this team, was to make Chester pop out of the chest we had already setup with in-stage functionality. We knew an in-stage sale had to have some benefit other than just saving you a trip back to the town, so that’s how we decided on the idea that you’d receive a big discount if you found the weapon in-stage. And of course, once our merchant was coming out of a chest, his name had to be changed to Chester!

Result: Unlocking the Design

The new Chester worked superbly! In fact, it had benefits we didn’t even anticipate. Once we had the system implemented and working for a short period, we noticed the way people collected gold in the stages changed dramatically.  After players saw Chester their first time in a stage, in the following stages, they’d make sure to sniff out as many secrets as they could in order to have enough money to purchase the item by the time they reached Chester.  And the system encouraged players to think about their money over the course of the game. For example, players would save some gold instead of spending it all in the village in case they needed a little extra for Chester. This kind of behavior put a lot more emphasis into our death, exploration, and other mechanics that relied heavily on the importance of the economy’s worth. We also gave Chester two extra relics that could only be bought in the town, which made sure players would regularly return to the village to talk to Chester and other townsfolk.

Outside of gameplay Chester served a wonderful role too. He added a great deal of character to the world. He gave it a little more of the Earthbound/Mother quirkiness flavor we felt worked well in our game. Because he came out of a chest in such an overtly goofy manner (always finding the relic before you) he avoided the campy feel we were worried about from other games. He even got his own story moments to shine!

Completely by accident, the angler fish mid-boss, designed to catch you by surprise as it mimicked the old chest, became twice as funny when your good pal jumped out after you’d defeated the angler fish:

But not everything can be perfect! For a lot of players, we failed to communicate that Chester would provide the relic from the stage (no matter if you found him or not) for a more expensive price in the town. So many people spent a much longer time in the levels or replayed levels in order to make sure they didn’t miss a relic. We could have avoided this issue with better communication or by making the game design return the player to town before they fall into the trap of returning to the level, but this became clear only after release.

That’s the whole story of what went into Chester’s creation. Even the tiniest game design idea can go through a long process to find what works best for the game. Starting small and evaluating the troubles of an existing design can guide any game developer to creative, interesting results.

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