Julian Ball

Len’s Island is an upcoming farming/crafting game with a beautiful visual style and some deep dungeon-crawling thrown in. In a lot of ways, it sounds like everything I want in a video game.

So it was an absolute honor to get to chat with Julian Ball, founder of Flow Studio and Lead Developer on Len’s Island. He spent several years developing the game on his own before he put together the studio, and Len’s Island has come a long way since the project began.

We chatted a bit about that game-development journey, then we talked about the game’s dungeons. Eventually, we walked through some of the exciting features fans can expect when the game launches in Early Access on November 5 and beyond.

The full interview is posted below, edited ever-so-slightly for clarity and flow.

Len's Island

What are some of your favorite video games?

Rust, Diablo, The Sims, Minecraft, Team Fortress 2, Age of Empires, and League of Legends.

What are the influences and inspirations for Len’s Island (these don’t have to be video games)?

Well I guess… Rust, Diablo, The Sims, Minecraft, Team Fortress 2, Age of Empires, and League of Legends

Although I only drew from my experience with these games throughout the early stages of developing Len’s Island. Going further into development, 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 The Sims or Diablo, although it feels like a totally new and profound experience.

Len's Island

You’ve been working on Len’s Island for quite some time. What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered over the years?

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 timeframe made by two 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, 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.

I’ve been working on Len’s island for four years, one and a half years ago I quit my cushy job to start Flow Studio and work on Len’s Island full-time. I enlisted help from my friend Martin Tapia-Vergara to join as a lead programmer and we had a friend Lars who was making some music and SFX for us part-time.

Since then, we 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 a shoestring budget that was greatly helped by our successful Kickstarter, although for the most part Flow Studio’s budget has just been my savings account and we don’t have much runway.

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, and we will expand the team and get some much-needed help once the game is released.

Also, my dog farts a lot and we work in the same room as him all day. For any dog-lover devs out there, be aware.

Len's Island

Is there anything you had to cut because of time or scope?

Bits and pieces, although we haven’t really been cutting features, we just realised our vision for some areas were way too optimistic and needed to be postponed till after the Early Access launch.

Project managing games is a nightmare, trying to build and rely on accurate timeframes for tasks in which you cannot accurately predict timeframes. As we developed Len’s island, many parts of the game naturally grew in scale and complexity tenfold. Then some other areas we realised weren’t as important.

As a whole, the game has probably [ten times the] scope of my first prototype four years ago, then doubled or tripled in scope throughout the past couple of years. This is just because surface-level ideas need more meat to function properly in a game. So the features we thought could be simple to implement, in practice, needed to be much more complex and interesting to work within the game we envisioned. The building, farming, and world-building grew immensely in scale as we built the game. The few areas that will need some more time to finish are the quests, expanding the dungeons with more bosses and adding some different weapon classes into the game.

There really hasn’t been anything that was outright cut from Len’s Island, just features that were bigger than anticipated and will be implemented after the Early Access launch.

One of the most intriguing elements for me is just how much freedom there is in the building mechanics. Exactly how much freedom will the player actually have in constructing a house or a base or what have you?

You essentially have free reign to build anywhere on or around the island. The caves are just for exploring (although we will be including some unique ways to build down there in future updates). The town is just for talking to villagers, trading goods and buying items, as well as harvesting the odd flower patch or chopping someone’s tree down. Then the main island is your oasis — just choose a patch of ground, sand, or water, and you can build on it. Build as big as you want, whatever shape you want. Build a castle, or a small hut, or an industrial farming complex; it’s up to you.

Len's Island

While farming games like Stardew Valley have been including dungeon crawling elements for a while now, Len’s Island seems committed to this part of the game in a much richer way than previous farming sims. Can you tell me a little bit about how dungeons work in the game?

The dungeons are at the core of why the island you live on is so special. There’s a lot of baddies down there, and there’s and a giant network of caverns and underground cities to get lost in. There’s a lot going on and you don’t quite know why.

I like to think of it as combining traditional dungeon crawling with the more open-world types of underground spelunking and dungeon combat. You can spend hours down in the caves getting lost, discovering new paths and fighting enemies.

The reason we like to refer to them as the dungeons is that the entire underground cave system will reset and randomize loot spawns, enemies, and mining nodes every time you enter. So you will need to learn the pathways through, repair broken bridges, and learn about the enemies and their weaknesses so you can go further and further into the caves with every run.

There’s a lot of story and mystery behind the caves; It’s one of the big areas we will be expanding after the Early Access launch to tell players more about the lore and add more and more levels into the dungeons.

It always seems like a precarious balance, to blend the relaxing nature of farming sims with the more chaotic, fast-paced combat of dungeon crawlers. What’s the secret to making this work?

I think getting the balance right is just caring equally about all sides of the game, and the players who enjoy the different sides of gameplay.

I’ve struggled to find a single game that successfully blends the open-world building and farming sim genre with dungeon-crawling or complex combat systems. Usually one of the two sides of gameplay is more of a marketing tool or a tacked-on addition to making the game feel different from competitors. We built Len’s Island from the ground up with the goal to cater to many different types of players and playstyles. Our combat system is more in-depth than a lot of successful dungeon crawler games, along with the building having more variety and detail than a lot of successful building games.

Along with that, this is just the initial early access version I’m talking about; there’s a ton more content in the pipeline to make every facet of Len’s Island much bigger with much more content and fine-tuning.

None of the farming, building or combat is forced. They work together in unison but are all isolated from each other. You don’t need to worry about big cave trolls or other players burning your house down, or needing to take a watering can into the dungeons. The key has been to let the different segments of gameplay work independently of each other while complimenting each other. So you can choose to jump from task to task, keeping the game always feeling interesting and new, all within the same world.

That sounds great. I also really like the game’s visual style. I guess that’s not really a question…

Thanks! Coming from an art background, aesthetics have been very important from day one. We’ve needed to perform a lot of wizardries to make Len’s Island look the way it does, and we’re very proud of it.

Len's Island

What are your long-term plans for Len’s Island? What features can Early Access players look forward to once the updates start rolling out?

We haven’t actually publicly talked about the long-term goals for Len’s Island in much detail. I wrote a private update to our Kickstarter backers the other day outlining some of them, so here’s the exclusive scoop!

We will be focusing on bug fixing, game tuning, and ease of access straight after launch. Once we get our footing and everything is running smooth, we will start working on translations and controller support, then the big-ticket items start coming in. Building and farming will get lots more content, the dungeons will continue to expand with new areas and bosses. We will add in bows and ranged weapons, along with starting the enormous task of porting the game over to the latest version of our game engine.

During this time we will also be starting to plan out and develop multiplayer co-op support. We’ve heard what the people are asking for, so we will deliver.

Len’s Island is due out in Early Access in November. How long do you think it will be before we see a full-on version 1.0?

We plan to launch Len’s Island out of Early Access in give or take two years (most likely give). Len’s Island 1.0 will be using the latest rendering and lighting technology and look and perform a whole lot better, the building and farming systems will be far more in-depth and customizable, the dungeons will be officially finished with an absurd amount of areas to get lost in, along with the story and final boss fight all tied up. There will be questing, more villager interactions, and finally, MULTIPLAYER!

We have more plans outside of what’s listed there, although I won’t mention it just yet, as we might save it for another surprise.

The game looks great, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me about Len’s Island!

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