One thing I love about the indie game scene is the sheer amount of variety available when it comes to genres. Big budget titles tend to stick to a tried-and-true blueprint, whereas indie devs are more open to mixing genres and taking creative risks. Brisbane-based Flow Studio is one developer that isn’t afraid to combine genres and ideas in the hope that it creates a unique experience. The studio’s debut game Len’s Island is a melting pot of genres and one that has shown incredible potential. I was able to sit down with the founder of Flow Studio and lead developer of Len’s Island Julian Ball to chat about the game ahead of its Early Access launch next month.
WellPlayed: You’re developing a game called Len’s Island – what’s the elevator pitch?
Julian Ball: The core of what makes Len’s Island so special is its duality in gameplay, all wrapped up in a beautiful package. It’s an intense dungeon-crawler with a deep and complex combat system, mixed with a relaxing farming and building sim inside an open-world setting. There’s little to no specific goals or directions, you have the freedom to carve your own pathway forward. Whether that path is building and decorating enormous castles and villas, creating a thriving farming complex, exploring the caverns and fighting enemies, or just living a simple life chopping down the trees and trading with villagers.
WP: Len’s Island is a mixture of genres, from base building to farming, to exploration and dungeon crawling. What was the inspiration behind this genre cocktail?
JB: The initial concept was brought to life when I was just getting sick and tired of great fighting and dungeon crawling games that lacked more relaxing and creative outlets, and vice-versa with the more open-world building style games. I felt there was a big divide within these genres and very few games managed to bridge the gap in a captivating way. As development progressed, the gameplay and systems have really been crafted by the community feedback along with brainstorming our own ideas. We try not to draw too much from other titles or media and instead think of our own solutions to problems, or ways we can adapt or change popular expectations. I’d like to think that this way of thinking has helped to create the unique charm of Len’s island. I play Len’s Island and it gives me the sensations of games like Minecraft or Sims or Diablo, although it feels like a totally new and profound experience.
WP: When did development on Len’s Island begin and how many people are working on it?
JB: Development for Len’s Island officially started around three and a half years ago in 2018, although I had made several concepts and smaller prototypes as early as 2016. It was just me working on the project at night and on weekends for the first couple of years, I then brought on my programmer friend Martin in late 2019. We have some helping hands like Lars who has created the soundtrack and helped with SFX, along with Ivan who has helped here and there with the effects and graphics programming. Although there’s just the two of us sitting in my office all day working on the actual game.
WP: Seems like an ambitious title for a small team. Are you confident you can execute your vision without compromise?
JB: Yes and no. The game we have crafted has blown away my wildest expectations from three years ago and slowly grown in scope over the time. There are some bits of content we thought we could get in for the early access launch that will need to be put out later. Though I’m honestly amazed every time I playtest the final build of the game and just think, “Wow did I really make this?” We hands down accomplished our initial vision for Len’s Island, and far beyond. Though our definition of that vision kept growing over time, along with our standards, so naturally It’s been hard to keep up with a bar that’s kept on rising.
WP: How much has Len’s Island changed since the initial idea to now?
JB: From a player’s perspective, not that much. From a developer’s perspective, a whole darn lot. Martin and I fell into the trap most indie devs do, we chose a wildly large project to be our first release knowing that it would be extraordinarily hard to take on. On top of that, we simply misunderstood the scope of the systems we would need to develop. At a first glance certain mechanics like the building or combat seemed not too hard and relatively robust and easy to tackle. Though as we developed more of the game we also matured as game designers and became a lot better at developing. Our initial surface-level ideas needed a much finer degree of execution to match the standards we wanted. Somehow we’ve managed to pull it off though, the game feels exactly how I planned, and far more. It just took a lot more coffee and sweat to get it there than we initially thought.
WP: Is there a right and wrong way to play Len’s Island? Could you simply enjoy life on the island, building and farming while ignoring the caves and combat aspects?
JB: There’s no wrong way to play Len’s Island and we developed the game specifically for that reason. It’s possible to progress throughout the game in a multitude of ways. If you need iron shards for an expensive weapon or tool, you could fight some enemies and go mining for iron down in the caves, or you could set up a farming business selling bananas to the townsfolk which you can use to buy the iron shards. You get to decide where you want to invest your time as a player. If you don’t like combat so much, then you can avoid the caves and still create a wonderful life for yourself on the island. Then use your crops and resources to go buy the best weapons money can buy, so if you decide to venture into danger, you’re far more equipped.
WP: Does Len’s Island have a story? If so how deep is it and is it possible to roll credits?
JB: Absolutely. I don’t want to give away too much, seeing as it’s one of the areas of the game we want the players to piece together themselves. We are also planning to expand on the story much more after the initial release. There’s a reason why the Island is so special and why there’s so much evil below it. You’ll have to piece the rest together yourself.
The Maldives or a video game?
WP: Just how big is the island? What else can players find while exploring?
JB: It’s pretty big with a varying landscape and a lot of hidden areas to find. We’ve actually had some of the beta-testers complaining that they got lost and couldn’t find their home, so we might have made it a little too big…
WP: You mention there are NPCs that Len can interact with, what do they offer to the gameplay experience?
JB: The town is basically a hub for trading goods and buying new items, which you do from all the NPCs’ stalls. We have a lot of content to do with NPCs in the pipeline which will be ready soon after release, this includes questing and a lot more detailed interactions. You can have some fun talking to the people, playing blackjack with the pirate and trading. Although there’s a lot more in the works to be added, we just couldn’t fit it all in for the early access release.
WP: In July 2020 you ran a Kickstarter for the game, with a goal of raising $33k to help fund the game. Instead you nearly doubled that, raising $58k. That must have been a huge confidence boost for you? What has the extra money allowed you to do?
JB: Yeah it sure was. The Kickstarter was basically our way of gauging if the game was worth making and if people were drawn to the concept. So it was a major relief that it was successful. The extra money essentially allowed us to not become homeless while developing the game. It’s expensive to start up a game studio from scratch and doing it while being unemployed for over a year is rough. The Kickstarter funds, my savings account, and revenue from my YouTube channel is what made Len’s Island possible. Even then it’s still down to the wire, I had to sell my car recently to keep the lights on. If we didn’t get the extra money from Kickstarter we just would have been forced to launch the game sooner, so it’s been nice to get some extra development time to make the game that much better at launch.
WP: What sort of features are you looking to add once the game is available in Early Access?
JB: A whole lot. There’s a bunch of features and content we’ve spent years working on but just don’t quite cut the level polish we would like for the EA release. The main features and pieces of content we will be adding through early access are detailed quests and NPC interactions, expanding the dungeons with more enemy types, more bosses and eventually adding the final boss. We will be adding a lot more building and farming content, along with more worlds and islands to explore. Finally, we are adding multiplayer. The community has been heard loud and clear and we are planning to add co-op multiplayer support ready for the official release out of early access.
The cave of wonders
WP: Len’s Island seems like a very community-driven project? How much of an impact has the community had on the game’s development?
JB: The community has been the driving force behind Len’s Island from day one. I’ve been documenting the development process through dev diary videos I make on my YouTube channel. Through these videos we have been able to form a really close connection with the community and build the game based on their feedback throughout every step of development. We even have one of our community members helping to develop the game. Ivan, who has helped part-time with graphics programming and visual effects, started out as an active member in our Discord server and ended up becoming one of the official members of the team.
WP: What has been the most challenging aspect of developing Len’s Island?
JB: Where do I start… It’s hard enough starting a game studio from scratch and self-publishing your first indie game, then we chose a massive brief for a game, in a small time frame made by two full-time developers. I knew it wouldn’t be easy going into it, that was part of the draw for me, to create something great that I could be truly proud of. I wanted to not just make any old game, I wanted to make the best game I possibly could. Although what I didn’t foresee was how making this game would impact my life on a significant level.
For the past couple of years Martin and I have quite literally spent every waking moment working on the game. It’s just two of us in my bedroom, 6-7 days a week, 12-14 hours a day, working on the game. This is just because we have no other choice other than to work this way. We have been working for years with no pay, not much sleep, and a gigantic amount of work almost impossible for two people to complete. Working like this takes a toll on relationships, mental and physical health and just all facets of life. This affected me personally to the point that I was in an ambulance getting my heart defibrillated a couple of months ago. It’s a long story and I’m since okay, although the official diagnosis was essentially, “You’ve been running at dangerously high stress and anxiety levels for too long now and it’s destroying your heart.”
Saying all of that, I would still do it again. I’m immensely proud of what we have been able to accomplish and nothing great was ever made being comfy. It’s just sort of in my blood to live life like this, Martin seems to work in the same way too. We had a big goal and the only thing standing between us and that goal was a plan and a lot of hard work. The number one force in keeping ourselves motivated throughout all of this is the idea of creating Flow Studio into a flourishing game development studio, giving jobs to local developers, creating beautiful games and hopefully building a rich and positive environment for people to work in. It’s taken some sacrifices, although we will get there.
WP: Len’s Island is set to launch in Early Access on November 26 (November 27 in Australia). Do you have a timeline for when you’d like the game’s full release to be available?
JB: Around two years after our early access launch, give or take, though most likely give. We have a schedule planned out to take Len’s Island from early access to full release. Though that schedule changes a lot depending on how successful the launch is. The bigger the launch, the more money we have to hire more developers and add more features.
Snooze you lose
WP: Currently it’s slated for a PC release, but are you open to the idea of bringing Len’s Island to more platforms?
JB: Definitely. We know the game would work really well on consoles and other portable devices. We’ve even had some testers play the game on their phones through Steam Link and love it. It’s just a matter of time and resources to get the game to that point as there’s a lot of additions with accessibility and language we will need to make first. We’ve had a console version in the back of our minds throughout development and been slowly getting the game ready for it.
WP: Thanks heaps for your time and best of luck with the Early Access release.
Len’s Island will release in Early Access on November 27 (November 26 global). You can wishlist on Steam below: