Interview: Ikonei Island at GamesCom 2023

At GamesCom this year, we were fortunate to have an interview with Maciej Walenta, lead designer at Snowcastle Games from Norway. Snowcastle has developed Ikonei Island: An Earthlock Adventure, which is already in Early Access on Steam. Ikonei really is the kind of game we love: simulation, exploration, farming and more, all wrapped in a pleasing package! Let’s talk to Maciej! 

Maciej and Snowcastle

Thank you for doing this interview with us! Can you tell our audience a bit about yourself?

I am Maciej Walenta, or Seth, as everyone usually calls me. I am the lead designer at Snowcastle, and I’ve been at Snowcastle for about a year. Previously, I worked for a Polish company, Vile Monarch. And I am a psychologist by trade!

Oh, that can come in handy!

A photo of Maciej “Seth” Walenta

About Snowcastle. I know the studio is based in Norway, and that you got started in 2009. Can you tell us a bit more about the studio?

Originally, the studio started as a small studio with around six people working on the first game; after that, it grew to twenty people. Since then, we have grown to forty people, but we aim to grow slowly and in a smart manner so as not to get super big super quickly. We try to remain an indie studio with this indie vibe.

Subtitle: An Earthlock Adventure

Now about Ikonei Island. I can see in the graphics why the subtitle is: “An Earthlock adventure”! But can you tell us what links the games together?

The main connection would be the same setting with kind of the same overarching lore and story. But it’s not set during the main events of Earthlock. It’s more like a side story. That’s why it has the subtitle Earthlock Adventure. if you have played Earthlock 1 and want to play Earthlock 2, when it’s released, you don’t need to have played Ikonei to understand the relationship between the games. It’s kinda like a different story to the main game.

The Pirates we see at the beginning are they from Earthlock?

Yes, they were present, you will see those kinds of things in Ikonei. One of the animals you befriend was also a companion in Earthlock 1. Or there’s an NPC, a Frog Boy, that was also present in Earthlock 1. There is that kind of connection, but it’s not obligatory to play Earthlock 1. 

We see a pirate camp on Ikonei Island

An Island Needing TLC

Turning a place that needs TLC into something wonderful… Now, who can resist to get to work and get everything back in order? We sure can’t at LadiesGamers! But there are pirates that have captured animals we have to set free: is this a wholesome game, and just how much fighting will there be?

Yes, definitely I would describe it this way. It’s very cosy and wholesome; there is almost no tension in the game. There is a bit of tension due to fighting monsters, but it’s all fairly laid back. Most of the time, we encourage you to just create a piece of your island, decorate it however you want, build houses, explore and discover some secrets.

Fighting isn’t very difficult?

No, it’s additional, it’s a choice. We have a day and night cycle, and the monsters will appear only at night, so it’s kind of up to you. If you want to venture into the wilderness at night to fight monsters, you can, but you don’t really have to.

An important part of any game is the background music, as it sets the atmosphere. Can you tell us a bit about the soundtrack?

The soundtrack is released on YouTube. So if you want, you can already enjoy the music of Ikonei island. Like this YouTube relaxing music loop! Ikonei Island Lofi: 1 hour of relaxing music.

What is the biggest challenge in designing a game like Ikonei Island, and how are you handling it?

Wow.. can I say more than one challenge? The biggest challenge is that these kinds of games are deceivingly complex. They seem fairly straightforward at a glance, but in reality, they have a lot of quite complex systems that need to work together very well. Also, I think a big chunk of our audience is not necessarily hardcore gamers. This makes the onboarding process of our players extremely important, and it’s something that is usually quite difficult to do well. You know, to try and get your mind into the player’s mind and find the best way to introduce them to new features.

The characters in Ikonei Island in luscious graphics

Ikonei Island is still in Early Access. When do you expect the game will make it to the final release?

Very soon. I don’t have a specific date yet, but it’s moving along nicely.

Ikonei Island is currently only available on Steam. Though it works fairly well on the Steam Deck. Will it be released on the same date on the other consoles, too?

We planned the release simultaneously on Steam, Xbox, and PlayStation. Switch is kind of in the works, we’re exploring options but it definitely will not be simultaneous.

Oh, what a pity!  

I agree; the game lends itself very well to the Switch. For now, let’s say we are exploring partners.

Advice About Game Development

What part of the game’s development sparked the most joy for you?

I joined the team when Ikonei was pretty advanced in development already. So, for me personally, I think it was a challenge, but also a very cool challenge, to analyse a reasonably advanced product and identify things we could still improve on or maybe things that require some changes and then implement those changes.

The inventory screen of Ikonei Island

What advice would you offer aspiring developers working alone or in a tiny team?

My second study was game design, and after that, I just started meeting people that helped me find my path. Because, in reality, the hardest part is getting your first job. Later, you start getting experience. Definitely make your own projects; even something small or rudimentary is good. Read about it and listen to people who are smart about and know what they are talking about, and just approach people. Writing people and asking them if maybe there is space for an intern, always ask! I think people appreciate when you show the initiative!

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