It’s been quite a while since we had an interview here on Seafoam Gaming, but nevertheless, we finally have another one! This interview with Catalin Marcu was done over email, regarding the latest eShop gem, The Adventures of Elena Temple. To make things easier, Blue text is when I speak, and Green Text is when Grimtalin speaks.
Q1: First off, would you like to provide an introduction to who you are and what made you begin work on Elena temple in general?
A1: Hi, my name is Catalin Marcu, a.k.a. GrimTalin, the solo indie developer behind The Adventures of Elena Temple. I worked for 10 years in gamedev, mostly on mobile games for various clients, until last year, when I decided to embrace the indie life. I always craved the creative freedom that only the indie way would provide me. For my first project, I wanted to create a very old school game and make it almost like I was there in the 80s, when the games industry really started to become relevant. I know it’s not a game for everyone, but a lot of people that had the chance to play the games of that era really appreciate the nostalgia and design of The Adventures of Elena Temple. And Elena is my wife’s name, by the way, it was my silly little token of appreciation to name the protagonist after her.
Q2: With that out of the way, I can tell that this is the first game released by you on a marketplace, yet compared to tons of other first attempts or even later attempts, it was a really solid and enjoyable, if a bit short metroidvania, leading to an enjoyable game on the first attempt that I don’t see happen too often without years of work or a big team. How did you manage to keep the game at a consistent quality? Was it by making it in a way that you’d enjoy playing, or did you have people come and beta test it?
A2: One of the advantages for having worked so many years in the industry prior to going indie was all the experience I amounted. I’ve previously worked as a programmer, designer and producer, so I had a decent idea of how to keep a game under control, at least in terms of scoping. Making a game on your own is quite a difficult endeavor, so I had to plan and scope carefully to not go over my budget – there’s no use for an unfinished ambitious game, but a tiny finished game with a decent quality level can find its audience that appreciates it for the experience it provides you with, despite it being short. The most time spent during development was for the level design, I had a bunch of rules I’d follow, like the flow of the player’s movement, the puzzles with at least a small twist, the unique look of each room etc.
In many ways, I did make a game I’d like to play, I often find myself wanting to test some feature and spending a lot more time just playing around. But I did have playtesters too: friends, people that got it through the Early Access I ran on itch.io or during the Steam Beta and people that tried it at game conferences, they all gave me valuable feedback.
Q3: With the Steam Release last month, Elena Temple is likely to fall victim to the same situation most smaller indies do on Steam due to the overabundance of games (good and bad) and the rise of retro-inspirared platformers on the service in recent years. Do you think the switch release may help bring attention to the Steam version as well, or are you hoping for the Switch version to do well with the Steam port being a secondary release?
A3: To be honest, I had higher expectations for the Steam release, but like you said, it has become incredibly overcrowded. The same day The Adventures of Elena Temple launched, there were 70 other games releasing. Unless you have something that really stands out in the crowd or a big marketing budget, your game is very likely to pass by unnoticed, even if there is actually an audience for it. It’s hard to get to the right players. So, yeah, I did have a few depressive days, thinking that maybe the game is too niche or too quirky for anyone to care.
But then the most wonderful thing happened when the Nintendo Switch™ version appeared on the Coming Soon section of the eShop. It started getting a lot of traction, there was a lot of interest and buzz around it – I mean, a lot for a one person indie studio with a little game, don’t imagine millions of crazed fans screaming for the game! But the press was interested, news were being written, tweets were being posted and so on. It was the busiest days I had on Twitter ever. I literally teared up seeing the response to the game, I’m not ashamed to admit it.
Anyway (clears throat like a man) I always had higher hopes of getting better traction on Switch and so far it’s been amazing. I never planned to get rich with Elena Temple, I had a lot of fun making the game, I’m very proud of it and I was just hoping to sell a decent amount to justify the six months of my life I put into it, plus the two months after the Steam release.
Q4: Speaking of the Switch version, how did contact with Nintendo start on bringing the game over to the platform? Last year interview after interview came out about how iron-fisted Nintendo were with indies that were new to making games or indies that were just wanting to port their older games, unless they were Japanese and publishing on the Japanese eShop. (Plantera DX had to wait in Japan for a while to get released over here despite it being a western made game) Did you end up having any similar difficulties getting the game ported to Switch, or did you manage to come in at a recent time where they weren’t nearly as strict as they used to be?
A4: I don’t want to get into too many details, I don’t want to breach the NDA by mistake, but what I can say is that the people I worked with from Nintendo were just lovely super helpful people. For me the process of onboarding and getting the game on the store was much easier than I expected, especially after having made this opinion over the years that self publishing on consoles is tough as hell. It seems to me Nintendo has opened up a lot to indie developers. If it weren’t for them, I don’t know if I’d have continued my indie adventure after seeing the poor results the game had on Steam.
But, like I said, things look good on the Switch, at least for my very low expectations – let’s just say that if I make 10k units, I officially declare this an insane beyond my wildest dreams success, but I have quite a few more success levels under that value too!
Q5: In regards of the porting process, was there any Switch features you enjoyed tinkering with the most? I felt some clever HD rumble usage in the game, although it was light, and the video capture tool was available from the get-go, too. Was there anything else that may have been tinkered with, but didn’t make the cut?
A5: Porting went very smoothly for me as the game was made in Unity. I spent more time tinkering for the Switch version, like you said, particularly with the HD rumble – it was definitely the coolest feature for me to play with. Support for the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller was another big thing. I can’t think of anything that I wanted to put in the game specific to the Switch, but had to cut it.
Q6: Considering how the eShop is a much smaller storefront than Steam, and how lots of indie success stories have been made through the platform, do you hope Elena Temple might get just as lucky? Heck, the only reason I managed to learn of the game and ask for a review copy was because I stumbled across it in the eShop coming soon section, despite me searching for Steam Metroidvania titles on an almost bi-weekly basis. Have you been getting a lot of interest in the Switch version as a result?
A6: I guess I kind of answered this question prematurely above, but put shortly, yes, there was a lot of attention the game got on Switch and most of it was because the game was so visible in the Coming Soon section of the eShop. I have to admit, I was counting on that visibility, because my marketing budget was near zero. So I hoped that the right people would see it and it would peak their curiosity, which did happen. And that, combined with me trying to be proactive and contacting people in the press and streamers, led to a bunch of positive feedback for the game.
It’s the one thing you can never control, you can do your best to put the game in front of people, but you have no idea if they’ll appreciate it or not. But they did, it got very good reviews and a lot of praise so far.
Q7: Now for a fun question: A lot of metroidvania titles have been inspired by games such as the usual Symphony of the Night and Super Metroid, but stuff like that also leads to a lot of those games feeling samey, which makes stuff like Guacamelee that changes up the setting or adds newer traits all the more special. But I could sense with this game, carrying an old computer/pre-8-bit art style it seemed to be inspired by something else, giving me a feeling of something like La Mulana without all the evil difficulty spikes. (and that game was inspired by Knightmare II for MSX) So what was the game that provided the core inspiration for Elena Temple’s design?
A7: In many ways, Pitfall was probably the most influential game, hence the Indiana Jones like protagonist and the snakes. Then there was Prince of Persia, particularly the Macintosh black and white version, plus Dark Castle on the same system, which had a lot of influence on the look of the game – of course, my visuals are simpler, mainly because of the game’s resolution of just 240×160 pixels. For the actual gameplay I didn’t use a particular reference, it’s a mishmash of a whole lot of platformers I’ve played through the years.
Q8: Any plans to bring over Elena Temple to other platforms, per chance? While the Switch is likely to be the most profitable anyhow, it would be pretty nifty to see this on other systems so that more people can play them. Likewise, what about any plans to partner with Limited Run Games and perhaps get this put on a Switch Cart or PS4 Disc? This is a game I enjoyed very much to the point I would gladly buy a PS4 disc version if possible, or even a cool Switch LE!
A8: No plans for other ports for now. I feel that Steam and Switch are the best fit for the game and where my target audience is most likely to play. I didn’t know of Limited Run Games, thank you for the tip, I didn’t consider having the game sold on physical support, but I think you just planted a seed. I just might try to pursue that.
Q9: Right before we wrap this up, could I get your thoughts on what you think of the state of the Switch eShop? With the layout being a huge step back from the Wii U in my opinion, it leads me to fear that games like this will be buried in mere weeks due to how the front page only shows around 25 games or so, and with little categories the horrendous layout makes the Web eShop the superior way to browse. Do you have similar thoughts, and if so, how do you think Nintendo could improve if they act on their promise to improve visibility?
A9: I’m quite happy with the store from a player’s perspective. And given the good visibility it still has, from a developer’s perspective too. Maybe they could organize it better, but I’ll be honest, I don’t think it will help that much. The eShop will get more and more crowded and visibility will drop. Sure, some easier way to see games by category or some special features by genres would be welcome. But just like Steam, PS Store, XBox Store and so on, games will eventually also get buried on the eShop. One thing I think Apple did right with the AppStore is their daily features, with Game of the day and various lists of games that share a trait, besides their weekly featured games. Something like that would be really cool to see in other stores.
Otherwise, the only real option you have for a new boost of visibility after the game drops off the New Releases page on the eShop is to discount it, and we all know how well that went for the AppStore and Steam – it just drove prices down and a lot of people got so used to buy games on sale that it became the norm for developers to set their prices based on the fact that the bulk of their units will be sold at a discount of 50% or more.
Q10: Last but not least, an obligatory question: After Elena Temple gets released, what’s the plans for the future? Any updates planned that may add things or tweak the usual bugs and whatnot? What should our readers expect?
A10: I just recently mentioned this in a tweet, very low key, but I’m working on an update for the game, adding some cool stuff and a feature that I hope will help extend the game’s life a bit. More on that very soon! I also have a little surprise in store for those players curious about the design of the game – which would go wonderfully with a physical edition too! After that’ll be done with, I have a new game in mind that I want to get started on, something neither monochrome nor a platformer. More on that a bit later, let me get past the pre-production phase first! Before we wrap this up, I just want to thank the readers for putting up with all my nonsense and a huge thank you to you for this interview and for playing The Adventures of Elena Temple!
Thanks to Grimtalin for taking his time to discuss his game with me! The Adventures of Elena Temple is out today on the North American Switch eShop, and I found it to be a pretty enjoyable and relaxing gem to play through. Feel free to read the Developer’s blog on the development here for even more info!