E-Learning, ELearning, Game Design, Gamification, Gaming, Instructional Design, Training Design, Uncategorized
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What We Can Learn From Shovel Knight *Retro Edition*

It’s that time of the week again!

This time I’m going retro – well, to some extent. I’m taking an in depth look at Shovel Knight this week which I’ve been playing on the Nintendo Wii U, released in 2014 the game has received universal acclaim for it’s style and gameplay.

I’m paying particular attention to the way the introduction level has been designed, it’s absolutely genius. I haven’t seen a better example of an introduction level since Megaman X which I may cover in the future. Prepare yourselves to have your mind blown by some of the greatest level design and instructional design in a video game.

What is Shovel Knight?

Shovel Knight is a 2014 2Dside-scrollingplatform game, developed and published by independent video game developerYacht Club Games. The game was initially released for Microsoft Windows, Nintendo 3DS, and Wii U, and ports of the game for Mac OS X and Linux soon followed. Ports for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita will be released in 2015.

Shovel Knight Introduction Level


Ok, so I want to spend some time showing you exactly why this introduction level is so great and to do that we’ll go through each section piece by piece and start to dissect the way the information is given to the player. This is where we, as instructional designers and E-Learning developers can begin to take advantage of the methods employed.

When you start SK you are simply placed on screen – a bold move in the modern day of games. Instead the introduction level is designed to show you what you can do by treating you as a complete novice (without you even realising it). It slowly rewards you for your progress through the module and as you uncover more game mechanics.

When you start the game your first instinct may be to use the directional pad to start running around, great start, but the game shows you an important concept here. Your route is blocked to the left hand side so instead, being a logical person you run to the right hand side. The screen then moves with you to the next section, therefore telling you that you move to the right hand side to proceed through the game.

Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 20.39.17

As you merrily skip to the right hand side of the screen you see a pile of dirt. All you know at this stage is that the screen moves to the right, but you do have a shovel in your hand. It would make sense that you could dig that pile of dirt. So you press the a couple of buttons on your gamepad and quickly realise the knight swings his trusted shovel by pressing the ‘A’ button. Success! You march triumphantly over to the dirt pile and start digging revealing multiple gems in the process – now you’ve learnt how to collect gems and that your shovel can be used for digging piles of dirt.

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Now we’re coming at this from the approach that the player knows absolutely nothing about gaming, you can see how this approach is both supporting those who consider themselves gamers and those who have never picked up a controller before.

Let’s get back to the action, we know how to progress through a level and now we know how to use our shovel. The next screen contains a crawling ant (the enemy) if you are one of those who people who doesn’t know how to act in this scenario you will discover that ants hurt you. If you do get hurt you’ll also notice that you can take multiple hits before you die, your Health Bar will reduce but you’ll survive. So if you do get hurt you’ll now realise that isn’t the correct approach and instead you’ll try to attack him with your shovel – it works. So without telling you anything the game has already taught you about three key concepts in this game.

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A little further along and you’ll be face with higher terrain, you can’t keep running so instead there must be another way up, press a few more buttons and hey presto! I can jump. So you hop up onto the new terrain. Uh-oh, now there’s a raised piece of terrain with an ant on top! So we know we can jump, we know we have to kill ants, can we jump and swing our shovel at the same time? Yes! Another success for the Shovel Knight!

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Next screen! Walk along a little further and you’ll be faced with two routes, a route along the top with a sand block and a route below with 2 ants and a pile of dirt. So you jump up to the top first and you figure that if the shovel works for dirt then it will surely work for sand, bang, you hit the block and it disintegrates leaving behind a gem. Because of the information given to us at the start of the game you know what’s in the pile of dirt at the bottom of the screen so of course you’ll choose to fight the ants and claim some more gems.

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When you move to the left hand side of this section however the game gets incredibly clever – it moves the screen left indicating two things. Firstly it shows that you can move backwards and return to where you’ve been. Secondly, remember that pesky ant on a platform we killed? Well he’s back, enemies respawn and without explicitly telling us we now have even more information about the game mechanics.

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One final section now to show the thought and planning that went into this incredible introduction. After moving past the aforementioned section we jump up to a passage that includes a couple of sand blocks, but they aren’t positioned in a way that you can hit them with your shovel in the normal way. So again new players will think “OK, I can jump, I can swing my shovel, but that won’t work here. What about pressing down instead?” Bingo! You’ll need to push down on the directional pad which turns your shovel into a pogo stick obliterating the sand beneath you.

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The game’s environments are meticulously designed, with a brilliant introduction level that educates the player of every major mechanic, threat, and design element. I could speak forever about this introductory level however I’m going to stop there otherwise this post will go on forever without getting to my application to learning. I am however planning on doing a podcast on this topic in the coming weeks to discuss SK in more detail.

Why Shovel Knight is GENIUS and what we can take away

Shovel Knight follows a simple process that we can all learn from. You are shown a game mechanic and then you are able to practice that mechanic in a safe environment, organic learning. Shortly after you will find yourself directly applying that mechanic in a practical sense that generates a sense of reward. This is one of the key aspects of gamification and what keeps people coming back to Shovel Knight. Each time we complete one of these goals, unaided (or so we think) we release dopamine into our system, this dopamine makes us feel good and we continue to want more! What SK has done is create a loop of safe practice, practical application and then the reward of unaided completion of that task.

So let’s think about E-Learning and how this can be applied there. Well, as instructional designers and E-Learning developers we need to start considering chunking down content into bitesize portions for our learners. Take what you want them to learn and begin to break it down into smaller manageable chunks of content that can be rewarded. Allow them to practice in safe environments with the information they’ve received. Be sure to take a look at my previous post on decision making available here for help crafting scenarios. Utilise these opportunities to allow the learner to apply the bitesize information – it will pay dividends in the end result. Take Shovel Knight, by the end of the first level we know how to jump, dig, attack, pogo jump, we know about mini-bosses, special enemies, hidden paths, what happens when we die, checkpoints, boss battles, how to navigate bubbles, how our life bar works (long list I know but it’s proving a point). Shovel Knight does not give one piece of on screen text explaining any of these mechanics it simply allows you to figure them out by yourself. Now we may not be able to take that particular aspect away from SK because our clients are always going to want to see instructional text of some sort. BUT we can chunk the content down to leave the learner with a massive sense of achievement come the end of the course.

The next time you’re working on a large project, stop and think about how this can be logically broken down. Prepare each section with a meaningful reward, like an achievement, or show them a part of the overall ‘puzzle’ that has now been filled in because they completed that section. The flow of our work in the learning space should feel intuitive, like the learner is there on a free flowing journey between content. If you spend the time to structure your course well and reward small successes the chances are your overall course and learning projection will be an even bigger success. Remember the learner needs to take the information they’ve just received and apply it in a practical way, absorb, reinforce and reward. What you are doing is slowly creating the bigger picture for the learner, like with SK, by the time you have completed the introduction level you are ready for anything the game has to throw at you. Your E-Learning course should be the same, by the time the learner has finished with each section of your content they should be able to understand the bigger picture and how each of those sections fits into it. Shovel Knight is an organic growth of information, our E-Learning courses should be the same.

Thank you for taking the time to reading this longer blog post – my passion and enjoyment for Shovel Knight definitely spilled over into content here!

A new post will be coming up soon so stay tuned for that and I’ll send out links to my podcast as soon as it’s ready.


1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Do We Need Instructional Text in Games? | GAMING IN TRAINING

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