Islands & Trains

Relaxing diorama sandbox

Hey there, indie game world! I’m thrilled to talk about one of my favorite upcoming indie games. I’ve always had a soft spot for dioramas; there’s something incredibly artistic about creating small worlds that convey different moods. And as for trains, well, let’s be honest – we’ve all been wide-eyed kids at some point, haven’t we? Who can resist the charm of trains? Island & Train lets you build your own diorama with trains – need I say more?

Now, let’s jump into a fantastic interview with Fabian, one of the creators behind Islands & Trains.

Could you share with us the story behind your current project? How did the idea originate, and what motivated you to bring it to life?

I believe it actually happened in kindergarten, when I saw my kids building these crazy big train tracks with the classic wooden train set pieces, when I thought “hey, this could be fun in digital form”. At the same time I actually just learned of the term “wholesome” and found that there’s a whole community dedicated to it – pretty much a movement of its own, that I never heard before.

And I just knew I wanted to make a game that could fit in that category. Cozy, relaxing, wholesome.

I’m not really the best idea guy (which one can immediately see by just looking at the game’s name :D) but there were some major games that have been very obvious inspirations, each in their own way. Islanders, Dorfromantik and Townscaper  in my opinion have a very distinct style and hyper-condensed game idea and since it was our first “big game” out of the mobile world, I thought a tiny building game with trains might be a perfect entry title. 

Focusing on just the building part seemed like a good decision and meant it should be done in a reasonable amount of time – but we all know how this goes, especially, when you are working on a game in your spare time 😉

It’s fascinating to discover that you’re a kindergarten teacher with a passion for game development. Can you tell us a bit about how these two seemingly different worlds intersect in your life and creative pursuits?

What I love about both elements is that I can inject my personality/attitude/creative output in both worlds. I use my (amateur) graphic design skills in kindergarten work whenever possible (e.g. last year we created a stopmotion picture and children’s book with the kids – which was an absolutely memorable experience for us as).

My fondness of wholesome “things” definitely influences the kind of gamedev projects I usually work on. In general I just try to be a very positive, supportive & creative person and I’m super happy and privileged that I can fulfill lots of my very personal thoughts and ideas in 2 completely different areas. There also is a rather spiritual component behind it all, that I personally cherish very much, but I guess this is not the place to go into that 😉

Building dioramas and idyllic villages with dense forests sounds delightful. Could you share more about the tools and customization options available to players in shaping their miniature worlds? How much freedom do players have in designing their creations?

This is actually still very much up in the air. Obviously we’re working hard on getting as much content in the game, as possible. Personally, I imagined the game to be rather small in scope and level dimensions, but people tend to share immensely big levels, so at the moment I’m doing my best to rework lots of assets so people need fewer steps to populate their islands.

Also the game’s user experience has been reworked, so one can now paint the land, instead of having to single click for each tile. Personally I loved and cherished each and every ground tile, but players were rather annoyed by the tedious process.
It would be awesome to give people the option to choose between different house styles/colors but that also is highly dependent on how good development runs along.

Based on the materials you have shared online, it is evident that the building process in “Islands & Trains” yields remarkably seamless results. I am particularly impressed by the way the various pieces effortlessly come together as additional tiles are placed on the ground. It is even possible for players to construct multi-level structures with different floors! Could you please provide some insights into the technique or approach you employed for the terrain building mechanics in the game’s islands?

Gosh, I hear a big sigh of disappointment incoming. Actually there is no fancy tech involved at all. It is just a tile-based environment and I’m hacking stuff together on a daily basis in terms of intersecting meshes, hiding seams, etc…

Obviously I’m a huge fan of Oskar Stålberg’s work but we realized & decided very early on that we could not adapt a workflow similar to Wave Function Collapse or the likes due to lack of time and/or skill.

But I admit, it is A LOT of fun to come up with weird workaround hacks to imitate similar results for our tiny game.

The terrain, for example, currently has 9 stacking levels, so it’s 9 meshes in total. I tried to model each of the 4 sides unique enough so repetition is minimized. On top of that the meshes are rotated 90° on each adjacent grid tile. So instead of an obvious tiling effect the mesh detail repeats only after 4 placed meshes.
I spent a huge amount of the time working on these ground/rock assets, since these are usually the first thing players place in their worlds and while it is just a grid-based game I wanted to try to make it look less grid-ish(if that may be a word).

The captivating toon-shaded visual style showcased in the trailers is truly remarkable. I am fascinated by how you have achieved such a result. It is evident that each mesh in the scene features gradients that resemble hand-painted art, adding a unique and visually appealing touch. Could you kindly share some insights into the techniques and artistic magic that contribute to the distinct look and feel of the game?

Actually it’s very few gradients. It all started out with only single-colored mesh parts, then one day, when working on the first buildings, I found it looked a bit flat on bigger building surfaces, so I went back to the drawing board on that. Since I did not want to give up the master texture approach (one 256×256 for the majority of the game’s assets) I messed around with the texture and assigned a tiny gradient strip to the building parts. Due to a forced texture compression some artifacts are being used on purpose to give off the impression of some minor wall-texture-detail, barely noticable from afar.

We have a reputation for being quite direct and delving into the nitty-gritty details that others might shy away from. So, in the spirit of our blog’s style: Can you give us a rough estimate of the number of gamers who have been adding “Islands & Trains” to their Steam wishlist?

I think currently we are somewhere around 30.000 wishlists. Once I learned all the ins and outs of the steam dashboard and I got quite obsessed with numbers that kinda clouded my judgement and wasted quite a bit of time on chasing these numbers. Over time I just forced myself to go back to my initial mindset of just trying to enjoy the journey and being lucky enough to have a tiny game idea that resonates with people on certain levels 🙂

I’m super proud about having achieved these numbers and am thankful for every supporting hand that reached out along the way and allowed us to take part in some very impactful steam events and festivals over the course of the development, so far.

I did not really know what to expect and dreamed of someday achieving 10.000 wishlists, so we are already way past that. Just a couple more wishlists needed and I could fulfill my dream of running my own kindergarten from my part of the revenue 🙂



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