Bomber Crew is one of those success stories that’s even more incredible when you discover that it’s the achievement of only two people.
Dev studio Runner Duck was created in January 2017, Bomber Crew was released on Steam ten months later, hit $1m sales in two weeks and on July 11th 2018, one day after the game’s consoles release, Runner Duck won the New Studio prize at the Develop Awards 2018.
Now Bomber Crew is reaching the end of its life cycle, with the last console DLC releasing in March and physical editions making their way onto shelves soon after, we thought it was the right time to ask Runner Duck co-founders Jon Wingrove and Dave Miller to look back on its development story.
And it turns out that without the hurdles of developing free-to-play mobile titles, there would actually be no Bomber Crew,
“Jon and I met while working at Relentless Software in Brighton and we worked really well together. Eventually we ended up at a company which did free-to-play mobile word games and I think we kind of woke up a few months into that and realised this was never in the plan,” Miller starts explaining.
“This wasn’t the thing we dreamt of when we were kids, programming on our little Spectrums. We hated it, actually hated it. Our day-to-day work was figuring out ways to make our games kind of annoying so people would pay money to make them less annoying. I’m a bit harsh on free-to-play, not all games are like that, but there is a tendency to fall into that trap.”
Wingrove agrees: “It’s just not an enjoyable process and that’s what you’re having to do each day. When you really want to make something as good as you can, and that’s usually what drives us, it’s very hard to be doing the opposite deliberately.”
During their free time, Wingrove and Miller started toying around with an idea.
“I’ve always been fascinated by WWII bombers,” Miller recalls. “My great uncle was a navigator on a Whitley bomber during WWII. I’ve read some his letters and it’s just incredible stuff they did because the crews were like 19 – they were kids really. And they’d have this extremely strange existence of one night they’d be in a pub in England, the next night they’d be over Berlin and then they’d come back and go to the pub again the next night. It’s such a strange existence for someone so young so I think that the setting in itself is interesting and kind of extraordinary.”
From this theme, which was the core idea for the title, Runner Duck had to decide on game mechanics.
“There were a few games back in the day, like B17: The Mighty 8th and a few bomber games that I played when I was younger... You can still get B17 on Steam and I got it again and I was disappointed because you were kind of the plane, you weren’t really the crew... There was a crew there but you didn’t have much of a connection with them. With rose tinted glasses I remembered more of a connection with the crew. So I thought it would be a great idea to make a game where it really is about the crew inside this machine. So that was basically the idea and then Jon and I worked the mechanics out from that idea and over the course of the development what we ended up with was far more in-depth and complex than my original basic idea.”
KEEPING IT SIMPLE
Runner Duck had to carefully balance both aspects of the game: taking care of the crew and carrying on with the bombing mission. They wanted players to feel like they were looking after the crew, not the plane, which is why they avoided giving players too much direct control.
“We really wanted a lot of tension but a good pacing to each mission. You’re always telling the crew what they’re doing. I think that was the balance we had to find,” Wingrove explains.
“At first when we were prototyping it, they were doing almost too much and you weren’t doing much at all. The crew was just able to do all the stuff by themselves. Then we moved more towards: ‘You got to tell them to do almost everything’. We introduced the tagging mechanic just because we wanted to make sure it really is about the crew management side of it and getting to know who’s doing what in your bomber. And then in between the missions there’s a lot of customisation you can do – you can name them differently, you can give them different equipment. I think players then really start to engage with the crew they got and it becomes a lot more important when they’re in a tight spot, to make sure they save the ones that they’ve played a lot of missions with. It was a long process to balance it.”
Miller goes into detail about fine tuning that balance: “We had to be really disciplined with what we added to the gameplay. When we first got a prototype to our publisher Curve, it was really kind of on rails. The plane would take off, you’d wait, press the button to drop the bomb, and then you’d wait until they go home. And it was really tempting to do stuff like allowing the player to actually aim the guns and fire the guns and put them in control of a single character. But if we did that, it would have taken away from the whole idea that the crew were individuals that you’re looking after. It took a lot of discipline to not give the player too much direct control.”
With Wingrove being a programmer and Miller an artist, the tasks were divided quite naturally between Runner Duck’s two co-founders, with “a lot of crossover on the design.” Some of the music was outsourced, most notably to Petros Sklias, who wrote
But with such a small team, efficiency was key in most tasks, which is partly the reason why Bomber Crew has a cartoony art style.
“The whole art style of Bomber Crew is designed so that it can be done by one person,” Miller says. “It’s very simple pixel art and that was a conscious decision to make sure we embarked on something we could actually finish without having to bring loads of people on board.”
As a result, Bomber Crew has an unusual combination of a bleak setting and very colourful art style. Although there’s also another reason for that, Miller explains.
“Aside from it being efficient, I was a big fan of a game called Cannon Fodder back on the Amiga in the 90s. It had a really strong anti-war message. You got this start screen and in the background there would be this hill and as you lost your characters throughout the game, little white crosses would appear on the hill. So after you’d been playing for a while, this hill would be dotted with a graveyard of all your lost souls. It’s actually strong and the fact the art was simple allows you to project your imagination on it a little bit. That works for Bomber Crew because the characters are very simple and we give them names, and an age and occupation. So people tend to project more depth onto them, because it gives them the space to do that.”
THE PARADIGM SHIFT
Keeping the art simple meant the team could focus its efforts elsewhere.
When asked about the challenges along the way, Miller instantly replies in a laugh: “Doing it in ten months.”
He continues: “It first came out on Steam ten months after we started full time on it and that was pretty tough because it’s fairly complex. So it was just about being disciplined and getting on with it, getting through the tasks, hitting the milestones.”
Once the PC version was out of the door, the challenges didn’t stop though, as Wingrove explains:
“We spent a long time working on the control system for the consoles, getting it to play with a controller. That was probably one of the bigger challenges but I think we got something really good now to the point where I actually prefer playing that way.”
Looking back at Bomber Crew’s development process, he adds that if they had to do it all over again, they’d try to get the control system in place earlier.
“I think we’d try and allow ourselves a bit more time, relatively, as well,” he continues. “We just released an update which added more languages – Japanese, Chinese and Korean. And I think, looking at that, we’d definitely try and get the support in for that earlier.”
Miller adds: “I don’t think we underestimated UI but it still ended up being more work than we would have liked. I think that always happens in games. UI is such a huge task, it’s really easy to not quite understand what a big task it is.”
Apart from that, both agree that it actually went well and ”nothing terrible happened” in ten months.
In the end, the biggest challenge Runner Duck faced wasn’t the development, it was realising that they could run their own studio in the first place.
“Clearly you have to do loads of work – you have to do work in the evening, try and build a prototype, get it going and have something to pitch before you quit your day job. But the biggest thing for us was making that leap... Realising that we could pitch a game to a publisher and get paid to make a game ourselves.
“It just felt like an impossible dream and then as soon as we got on and said: ‘Well, let’s just give it a go’ and we started sending emails, we realised that, no, it’s totally possible. The publishers are there and you send them an email and they will respond to you. Just realising that it was a possibility was one of the biggest paradigm shifts for us.”
Sometimes the most difficult thing you have to do when creating a game is to get rid of those doubts, get over that impostor syndrome. Having managed to do exactly that, Runner Duck was rewarded by having millions of players engaging with Bomber Crew.
And it got another reward, crowning years of hard work and dedication to Bomber Crew’s setting.
“One amazing thing that came from making Bomber Crew was in September last year,” Miller tells us – and you can definitely feel the passion in his voice. “I was chatting with a guy who is an engineer on the Battle of Britain Memorial site, which has the last flying Lancaster in the country, and we got an invitation to go up. Unfortunately Jon couldn’t make it but I actually got to go on board a Lancaster bomber in the pilot seat, which is something I thought would never happen because there’s only one flying one in the country and one other in Canada. That was an incredible end to it.”