There are plenty of reasons to play a video game, but one of the most undervalued is to relax. ISLANDERS definitely wants you to kick back. Developed by newbie studio GrizzlyGames, it’s a beautiful, serene little city-builder, where all of the usual pressures of the genre – resources, time limits, enemies – have been stripped out completely. You take your time, place your buildings, and keep playing until you or the game stops.
It’s a fascinating model for a game, and we couldn’t wait to grab GrizzlyGames to talk about it. We don’t get many games like ISLANDERS and the Console Edition on Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S, and we wanted to understand how this little city-builder got built.
Could you please introduce yourself and your role on ISLANDERS and the Console Edition?
Hey, we’re a small indie team consisting of Paul, Friedemann and Jonas. Friedemann made most of the art, Paul was responsible for the UI and Jonas focussed on game design. Coming up with the idea and the programming work was a very shared and collaborative process, though.
How would you describe ISLANDERS to someone who hasn’t had the chance to play it just yet?
ISLANDERS: Console Edition is a relaxing minimalist strategy game about building cities on colourful islands.
The goal is to score as many points as possible by optimizing the placement of your buildings. Some people describe the game as “the Tetris of city builders”, which is probably a pretty fair description. All islands in the game are procedurally generated, from lush green grasslands to dry deserts and snowy mountainscapes.
ISLANDERS has been doing pretty well for itself on PC and Mac. Has the leap to console been challenging? What’s been the biggest obstacle?
The biggest challenge was the switch from mouse to controller input, but after some careful fine tuning, we think the console edition plays just as well as the PC version. The folks at Coatsink handled most of the porting work and they did an amazing job. Everybody who’s tested the Xbox version so far seemed to really love it, so we couldn’t be happier.
On paper, so much of ISLANDERS feels like it shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s a city builder where you only have two upgrade options at a time. It’s a game that keeps you playing, yet doesn’t really offer any objectives beyond a score. How did you know to break the accepted wisdom with this kind of game?
We only had only 4 months for the development of the game. It started out as a university project at game school (HTW Berlin ba Game Design), so we had to stick to the deadline and deliver something playable by the end of the semester. We think that really helped us to focus on just one or two simple game mechanics and refine them to as close to perfection as we could.
We didn’t know if the gameplay would end up working out when we got started, but we were in a situation where we could afford to take the risk.
Where did the inspiration for ISLANDERS come from? It feels like there might even be some Tetris in there, and some board game influences?
All three of us enjoyed classic city builders like The Settlers, or the Anno series as kids but couldn’t really fit such complex games into our daily lives any longer. So we thought it would be cool to try and make a game where you can still build awesome cities, but without all of the complexity and time commitment that comes with bigger titles in the genre.
ISLANDERS is remarkably chill. Did you aim for that feeling from the start?
Yes. We definitely aimed for that. Our goal was to remove unnecessary layers of stress and complexity from city builders to open the genre up to a new audience.
Do you feel we need more games with ISLANDERS laid-back attitude?
Yeah, we’d love to see that. There are already a lot of relaxing games out there, even city builders like Dorfromantik by our friends at Toukana for example, but we could definitely still use some more. Games are such a great place to calm down after a stressful day.
But while it’s chill, ISLANDERS can be punishing. There aren’t many games that will fail you after two wrong moves. That’s another bold decision. How did you manage to reconcile that with the relaxed gameplay?
We don’t think that challenge leads to stress. The main source of stress in games is usually time pressure and we don’t have that in ISLANDERS. In fact, having some fun problems to think about without any time pressure is often exactly what makes these kinds of games so relaxing. It allows you to forget your real world struggles and focus on something else.
There are some situations at the beginning of each new island where two misplaced buildings can absolutely mean the end of your run, but besides that it is always a longer sequence of decisions leading to that outcome.
How does ISLANDERS keep you coming back for more, without some of the usual reasons to replay like collectibles, a story-driven campaign, etc?
ISLANDERS offers some fun optimization challenges with a chill atmosphere. Most players who visit the game regularly do it to wind down after a stressful day.
That being said, ISLANDERS is not meant to be played forever. We know that the replayability has its limits and that is fine. Even if you just play it for an hour or two, you’re still getting very good value for your money in our opinion.
There’s a timeless quality to the architecture, like it could be anywhere, at any time. Was that deliberate, or did you base the style on something specific?
Great observation. We didn’t want to reference any specific time or culture. Thanks for letting us know that worked out. ;)
Do you watch the videos of players getting ludicrous scores and the tactics they use? Have players done things you didn’t expect?
Yes, we do watch these videos. Especially when the game came out, the skill of some players way surpassed our wildest imaginations. We were sure that the game would force a game over state at some point, but some players just managed to keep going and going to a point where it started to completely break and glitch out the game.
We published some balancing patches since then, so those problems are sorted for the Console version now, but some players are still ridiculously good. We especially enjoy seeing what people make in creative mode.
How has it been developing for Xbox? Was a launch through Game Pass ever a consideration?
Developing for Xbox was super chill. We added new gameplay content and basic controller support and handed it to Coatsink to take care of the rest. Yes, we considered most options.
ISLANDERS feels infinitely extendable: new things to build, new eras, perhaps even adopting different IP (we’d love a Star Wars/Tatooine version!). Is that something you are considering?
We agree that there is still a lot of untapped potential and while we can’t say that there will never be any new content or additions to the IP, we don’t have any plans for it at the moment.
We know that seems crazy from the outside. Why wouldn’t you wanna keep working on a game that did so well? But there is also a different way to look at it: Why would you keep working on it if you have the once in a lifetime opportunity to work on whatever you want for a few years? For us personally, having the opportunity to explore what else we can do, was the bigger opportunity here and perhaps we’ll return to ISLANDERS at some point in the future.
What’s next for GrizzlyGames?
We don’t have any new GrizzlyGames project to announce at the moment, but we really enjoyed the process of bringing ISLANDERS to Xbox so there’s a good chance our next games will come to Xbox Series X|S (or whatever the current console generation will be by then).
Finally, which game would you take to a desert island? Assuming there’s the ability to play it there, of course.
Playing ISLANDERS on a deserted island seems like a funny thing to do, but we spotted a loophole in your question, so we’d probably go with an online only multiplayer game instead.
If you’re smitten by the idea of ISLANDERS and the Console Edition, and the prospect of a Settlers-style game without the pressure of, well, anything really, then worry not – it’s out now. It has launched today, the 26th August, and you can play it now. It’s only £4.19 from the Xbox Store, and you can expect a review very soon. As someone who’s played this on PC till their fingerprints wore off, we have some confidence that this will be something special.
Let us know what you think of ISLANDERS: Console Edition by dropping into the comments.