The video game industry in Australia continues to grow year-on-year thanks to a myriad of talented developers and studios that are constantly putting out critically-acclaimed titles. This year alone we’ve had games like The Artful Escape, The Forgotten City and Unpacking all reap praise from critics and consumers. Another game that has been building a strong fanbase and has the potential to strengthen Australia’s reputation is Len’s Island from Brisbane-based developer Flow Studio.
Len’s Island is an open-world adventure game that combines several genres including farming, base building, dungeon crawling and exploration to create a unique experience. It’s the brainchild of Julian Ball, who is also the founder of Flow Studio, who at 24 years of age has a wealth of experience that has helped put both Len’s Island and Flow Studio on the map ahead of its Early Access release on November 27 in Australia. You can read our in-depth interview about the game here.
From a young age, Ball was creative and had an entrepreneurial mindset. At first it was photography and videography, and as an avid skateboarder he used to film himself and make videos. He then formed a ‘company’, creating a logo and everything, to make videos for his mates. He was also heavily interested in drawing and building things, but his true calling was graphic design.
Ball started dabbling in graphic design for YouTubers, designing banners for Call of Duty clans while at school. But like a lot of teenagers, Ball didn’t enjoy school, eventually leaving at the start of Year 11 to pursue graphic design. He recalls pleading with his mother to let him focus on his passion, who eventually agreed it was the best thing for him, and he began his academic journey at Mount Gravatt TAFE before starting his degree in 2015 when he would have been starting Year 12.
It wasn’t long before Ball started a business, with content creators coming to him for graphic design work. From there it grew into a more professional endeavour, with Ball taking on clients for rebranding, logos, as well as game art and freelancing for game studios. Ball reveals that some of those he did some work for are now living in LA playing Call of Duty professionally.
In 2013, Ball decided to share his graphic design prowess with those online, starting a YouTube channel under the name Flow Graphics, showcasing his artwork as well as providing tutorials and online teaching for graphic design.
As the channel began to build an audience and Ball started to get an idea of what he wanted to develop, Ball’s focus started to shift towards promoting Len’s Island in the form of dev diaries or concept videos.
“The YouTube channel for me has been really important to make a game for the people and not just make a game for myself in isolation. So having that communication back and forth has been paramount to the creation of the game itself, it’s been really special.”
It could have been a different story though, with Ball saying he toyed with the idea early doors of pursuing the game he made as his final university project. It was called Tension and it was a two-player co-op game where players were tied together with a rope and tasked them with solving puzzles.
Ball’s university project Tension
Nowadays, the channel boasts over 250k subscribers and Ball says he’s grateful for the early subscribers sticking by him when the channel did move from graphic design tutorials to game dev videos.
He’s not the first person (nor will he be the last) to start their game development journey in graphic design, and Ball agrees that graphic design feels like “a natural extension” into game development.
“Getting that essence of the creativity and the part you really enjoy, and then making it into this bigger, more interactive experience, it just feels like a natural extension.”
As someone who has contributed to the platform, Ball is aware of how much of a resource YouTube is and encourages everyone to learn and consume as much as they can from the platform.
“It’s free and there’s infinite amounts of knowledge that you can pick apart and learn from.”
Ball’s skills in not only graphic design but in marketing were being rewarded, taking on the role of marketing director for a company, a job which saw him travelling all over Australia and to China to meet with clients and oversee production.
Early production of Len’s Island
However, despite a comfortable life as a marketing director, Ball found that his creative itch wasn’t being scratched as much as he would have liked, with his busy schedule meaning that work on Len’s Island was only possible whenever Ball had free time. So he began questioning where he saw his future.
“Nothing great ever happened from being comfortable,” proclaims Ball.
“Do I want to immerse myself in this world? Do I want to become a shareholder in a company and go down this path, and potentially make a lot of money and do a lot of great things? But it’s not my passion. Or do I want to drop it all and continue my passion?
“The more I progressed in my career away from game design, the more it started to eat me inside. I just want to make games, it’s what I love doing, it’s what I am best at, and it’s all I wanted to do. It got to a boiling point where I said “That’s it – I am doing Len’s Island, I’m doing do it full time, I don’t care, I need to harness this passion and make it happen.”
Ball then saved enough money to quit his job and start Flow Studio, which he did at the beginning of 2020, a decision he is glad he made.
Since then, Flow Studio has doubled in size, with Ball’s former university lecturer Martin Tapia-Vergara joining the team, as well as a handful of contractors here and there to help with things like sound design and game art.
“I worked on Len’s Island for two-plus years by myself before I brought on Martin because I realised the immensity of the project, and I went there’s no way I am making this by myself.”
Currently, the duo works out of Ball’s bedroom-turned-studio, and despite Tapia-Vergara being Ball’s lecturer in the past, the two have a great working relationship and are on the same page when it comes to their vision for Len’s Island, even if their ideas differ at times.
“We have a lot heated, passionate conversations figuring out the most minute of details.”
Ball admits that both he and Tapia-Vergara have tried to add a little bit of humour to Len’s Island, with funny and quirky item names and descriptions, such as a mace called The Angler Dangler.
Len’s Island has been making waves since it started to take shape, building a strong following on YouTube and Discord, as well as generating an impressive number of wishlists on Steam (at the time of writing it is ranked number 49 on overall wishlists) and being the sixth most downloaded game demo during this year’s Steam Next Fest.
Given its blend of genres, it’s a game that I’ve dubbed a genre cocktail, a term that Ball has taken to.
“It’s a mix of two big genres, the more creative home building, farming, the more exploration and that calming therapeutic gameplay, mixed with the more intense dungeon battles and cave exploration and combat,” explains Ball.
Ball reveals that he would play games such as Diablo, and while he loved the combat, he would feel exhausted about fighting all the time. He would also play games like Minecraft and Stardew Valley, and immerse himself in the farming and the building, but then would crave some action, which is where the idea for Len’s Island stems from.
With so many genres and styles at play, Ball believes he has found a good balance of all the elements, and that Len’s Island is truly unlike any other game, a sentiment I would agree with after spending several hours in the demo.
When it comes to the origins of his interest in the medium, Ball cites RTS juggernauts Diablo, Warcraft and Age of Empires, as well as games such as Doom and Hexen for shaping his taste in video games. However, he owes a lot of credit to his old man, with whom he would play games and set up his Steam account.
But like a lot of game devs, Ball says he doesn’t have a lot of time to play video games these days, and if he does it’s to check out a particular mechanic or feature. Rust is the last game that Ball played properly – playing all night and giving him that fix before uninstalling it the next day to save himself from the time sink.
It’s essentially two people making their first real game and that first game is one that is usually made by 20-50 people
Both of Ball’s parents have had a positive impact on his career, and their ongoing support is something that Ball says has helped him flourish creatively. His dad, who plays Len’s Island, calls Ball weekly and excitedly tells him about the items he’s found or the buildings he’s built.
“They’re my number one fans,” says Ball.
“They were the first people to back the game on Kickstarter, they were there at the computer ready, and having a big celebration for it and all of that. It’s been really special having their help.”
Watching people play Len’s Island and hearing people’s feedback, whether it be positive or negative, is something Ball has said has helped shape the game.
“I’ve watched nearly every let’s play for Len’s Island on YouTube,” admits Ball, who says that he took notes of all the feedback and used it to make Len’s Island a better game, and it’s another reason why the game is launching in Early Access.
However, like most things in life, the development of Len’s Island has been at the mercy of two key resources: time and money.
Long working days and weeks are commonplace in the video game development industry, and while Ball would love to be in the position where the studio can work ‘normal’ hours, the reality is that it’s simply not possible.
“It’s essentially two people making their first real game and that first game is one that is usually made by 20-50 people, and we’re making it out of my bedroom and we work 12-14 hours every day, seven days a week,” explains Ball.
“It’s not easy and most people in my position are in similar positions, it’s unfortunately what you need to do, but it’s all out of necessity and it’s all to create something great.”
Flow Studio HQ
Given the studio is based in Ball’s bedroom, he says he almost feels an obligation to work on the game whenever he can, finding it almost impossible to switch off. However, despite the challenges and long hours, Ball says he wouldn’t have done it any other way.
While crunch is a practice that is rife in the video game industry and one that should be outlawed, there are two types of crunch. The first one is enforced crunch, a practice that is common among big studios. The second is a self-motivated crunch, where you want to spend as much time as possible working on your project because it’s yours.
Ball acknowledges that his current work schedule isn’t healthy or sustainable, and even reveals that he’s had serious health issues, including having a heart attack, because of how much he’s worked on the game.
“If you can make an indie game and work those long hours and stay up here all the time, you just have to be inhuman – you have to be an absolute machine. Because we’re all human at the end of the day, we all have emotions and you need to maintain your health and your mental health.”
The problem says Ball, is that game developers fresh out of academia have these grand ideas of making an open-world RPG, but most don’t understand the magnitude of what that entails. He admits that while he knew his project was going to be too great for one person to develop, he wanted to do it anyway.
While Ball would love to work 9-to-5 and not think about the game outside of those hours, the reality is that it’s simply not possible and the game would not be launching when it is.
Although the team is eager to get the game into the hands of players, the amount of effort put in by Ball and Tapia-Vergara is a result of the studio’s high expectations for Len’s Island, and they want to ensure that it launches to a high standard.
“I’m really proud of the game and really confident in it, and a lot of it probably is that internally we have really high standards and anything that doesn’t meet that we don’t accept,” Ball tells me.
Ball is aware that he works more hours than he should, he says that quality hours are better than the quantity of hours.
“It’s better to work nine very productive hours, than 12 or 14 non-productive hours.”
So why not push the release date? The answer to that is money, with Ball revealing that he hasn’t been paid a wage in more than a year and a half. With no money coming in, eventually the finances will run out, and aside from the game’s Kickstarter funds, the project has largely been funded by Ball’s savings, who says he simply can’t go without earning money forever.
It’s one of the main reasons why Len’s Island is launching in Early Access, as it will give the studio the chance to make some money that they can use to finish the game’s development.
In July 2020, Ball launched a Kickstarter campaign chasing A$33,400 to help with the development of Len’s Island. Not only did the project reach its funding target, it nearly doubled it, finishing with a total of A$58,579. It was a great victory for Ball and Flow Studio and reinforced their belief that they were creating something unique that people were interested in.
A lot of the Kickstarter’s success is attributed to the Flow Studio YouTube channel,
On paper, A$58,579 sounds like a lot of money, but where does that money go?
Ball says that the money essentially keeps the business going and that a lot of people don’t understand how much it costs to start a studio and to keep it running.
“If you want to set up a game studio, you need to set up a company structure, and it all has to be done through accountants. You need to have everything done with a fine-tooth comb – you need to have contracts and trademarks, and all sorts of stuff.
“If you want to do things right from the get-go, which you really have to do if you’re going to make a game that’s global and have a big audience, it costs a lot of money to do that. And just to keep it going, like software subscriptions and everything related to games, it can cost thousands of dollars every month.”
In saying that, the Kickstarter money did allow Flow Studio to hire some artists to do some work, however Ball admits that the majority of the money simply went to “keeping a roof over the company.”
Despite the success of the Kickstarter, Ball says that he wouldn’t do it for the Flow’s second game, stating that by that time comes the studio’s coffers should be able to cover it without needing to crowdfund.
However, Ball does clarify that if he could wind back time, he would do the Kickstarter for Len’s Island again, something he said needed to happen out of necessity and was worth it.
Ball working on Len’s Island (wrong Shapes flavour though)
Given the interest in Len’s Island, it’s a wonder that no publisher has snapped up the title. However, Ball tells me that it’s not for a lack of trying, with the Brisbane-based developer receiving endless offers from people wanting to invest in Len’s Island. However, Ball has warded off every suitor that has knocked on his door for a slice of the Len’s Island pie, some of who were offering him a multi-million-dollar paycheque. For someone who works out of their bedroom and runs on limited funds, you’d think the option of cashing in would be enticing, but for Ball, it was always about creative control – something that he didn’t want to give up or jeopardise.
“I just don’t want to be told how to make the game and I want to pour all the resources into the game and I don’t want to pour it into anything else,” declares Ball.
“For me, I am not trying to build a company, I’m not trying to make a lot of money, I’m trying to make a fantastic game. I think a lot of funding opportunities jeopardise making that fantastic game, and I don’t want to put any risk associated with making that game not optimal and not the perfect game we want to make.”
Talking about the pros and cons of publishers is something that Ball feels will help the broader game development community.
“Anyone that has a gem and is starting to polish that gem will get approached,” says Ball.
As Ball points out, a business’s core goal is to make money, and if people are trying to invest in your game or product, it’s because they see potential and want to make money off of it. However, Ball believes that a lot of indie devs don’t back themselves in when publishers come knocking.
“If you have a good product, you can get so far with just that product selling itself and just being smart in the way that you market it.”
Len’s Island concept art
For Len’s Island, a plethora of YouTubers have been promoting the game simply by playing it, something which cost Ball nothing and says happened because he sent a few emails. The results speak for themselves, with Len’s Island currently having more Steam Wishlists than some games that have had sizeable marketing budgets, with Ball’s background in marketing also helping the studio sell the game to consumers.
However, Ball does believe that publishers aren’t totally redundant, stating that many games wouldn’t have been made without publishers opening their chequebooks.
The studio hopes to release Len’s Island in full in two years, which will be more of an expansion than the finalisation of the game. The bulk of that time will be spent on reaching two milestones. The first one is adding multiplayer to the game, which according to Ball is the number one feature requested by the community. The second milestone is essentially rebuilding the game in a newer version of Unity.
“We’re using an early 2018 version of Unity to make the game, which makes it quite tedious,” says Ball.
On the topic of expansion of Flow Studio, Balls says that once Len’s Island releases and the studio starts to see some money coming in, the plan is to move out of his bedroom and into an office space, which will allow him to bring on more talent to speed up the game’s development, although Ball wants to keep it a tightknit group.
“The plan is to grow the team quite rapidly, because we also have big plans making Len’s Island multiplayer, rebuilding it from the ground up with a new engine, you know all these plans, they’re big grand plans that are going to take a lot of help.”
If you have a good product, you can get so far with just that product selling itself and just being smart in the way that you market it
One of the unfortunate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been just how many businesses have had to shut their doors. However, it means that there is no shortage of office spaces available to rent or buy at a heavily reduced price. But with people all over the world becoming accustomed to working from home as a result of the pandemic, it’s a wonder why Ball wants to invest in an office space, especially given that Len’s Island has utilised contractors from all over the world.
“Nothing quite matches a bunch of people butting their heads in the same room and thinking together as one, and being this living breathing family that can instantly communicate and turn around and share ideas.”
Another big boon of working in an office is that it will allow both Ball and Tapia-Vergara to have a much healthier work/life balance and not have to work those long workdays and weeks.
On the topic of the broader Australian games industry, Ball does believe that the government is doing a decent job at funding games and keeping the industry going, however he does admit that there is room for improvement.
“For a large part, games are still new media,” says Ball.
“I feel like the world as a whole and culture as a whole is still playing this game of catch up and we’re starting to catch up but it’s taken a while.
“The main gap that I see isn’t really to do at a government level, it’s really more of an industry level, where I think game design studios as private companies have responsibilities to create thriving workplaces and cultures and create happiness and fulfilment within people. It’s something that is really important to me personally.”
Ball says that games should be “about the people and not the product”, and it’s a mantra that he wants to build Flow Studio on.
Supporting the Brisbane development scene is something that Ball is keen to do, and he would love to be able to create more jobs to stop the number of creatives seeking greener pastures overseas.
“I studied here, and I know just how many amazing creatives, programmers and game developers there are that just don’t have jobs in the industry, and there’s just not many going.
“When I think about creating Flow Studio, I think about all the people’s career goals I can help achieve, and all the people I can help flourish in their creative fields.”
With Len’s Island on the brink of releasing, it’s not hard to see how Ball has managed to build hype around the game’s release. Sometimes when you speak to someone you can just tell that they have that innate ability and desire to succeed no matter what it is, and Julian Ball is one of those people. He’s incredibly passionate, not only about making video games but also instilling a positive culture for those working with him, present or future. It makes me excited to see what the future holds, and I have no doubt that Flow Studio will be a household name in the Australian game dev scene in the years to come with Ball at the helm.