Game Design Deep Dive: The Spinning Plates approach of Bomber Crew
Deep Dive is an ongoing Gamasutra series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game, in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren't really that simple at all.
Check out earlier installments, including maintaining player tension levels in Nex Machina, achieving seamless branching in Watch Dogs 2’s Invasion of Privacy missions, and creating the intricate level design of Dishonored 2's Clockwork Mansion.
Who: Dave Miller, Co-founder of Runner Duck Games
My name is Dave Miller; I’m a co-founder of Runner Duck Games, a two-person indie studio based in Brighton, UK. I handle the artwork, half the design and a tiny bit of programming. We’ve been going since the beginning of 2017, and have recently released our first title, Bomber Crew on PC.
I’ve been developing games since I was a kid, starting with Deluxe Paint and AMOS on the Amiga. I was a massive fan of Cannon Fodder by Sensible Software, fascinated by how attached I felt to these sprites that were just 16 pixels tall. I used to practice making simple clones in the same art style but with Star Wars or Akira characters.
Jon (The other half of Runner Duck) and I met in 2011 while working at Relentless Software. A few years later, we found ourselves working on F2P mobile puzzle games, which we felt was an uninspiring experience, and far from what had originally attracted us to making video games as kids. So we built a prototype of Bomber Crew in our free time and sent out a simple 30-second pitch video and a brief email to every publisher we could find. Soon after that we signed with Curve and made the jump to being indie developers!
What: Keeping the player engaged with decision making
While Bomber Crew may have a cute, sugar-coated appearance, the heart of the game is inspired by the incredible and somewhat brutal experiences of aircrews in WWII.
On a typical sortie, the crews may have had to endure hours of steady cruising and scanning the skies for threats, before sudden moments of intense action and crisis, as an enemy aircraft appears out of nowhere and rakes the bomber with gunfire. While the latter part of this scenario makes for engaging and exciting gameplay, the prolonged waiting around part doesn’t, so we had to think of ways to keep the player occupied continuously.
Another challenge we faced was keeping the core focus of the game on the experiences and stories of the individuals in the crew. The temptation to allow the player to jump in and aim the gun turrets or steer the aircraft was present, but that would have reduced the crew to mere vessels for the player, rather than living, breathing characters that the player would grow attached to through their triumphs and tragedies.
We addressed these problems by implementing various systems that provide the player with quick and straightforward interactions to maintain all the ‘spinning plates’ that they’re presented with. The intention was to keep the focus on the decisions made by the player both before and during the missions, rather than simply relying on the player’s skill in a particular mechanic.
Crew Station Controls
We needed a simple way to allow the player to make decisions without making the crew redundant. For the most part, we achieved this by putting any controls for the aircraft behind a station that must be occupied by a member of the crew. For instance, to call for a Spitfire escort over the radio, the player must have a crew member at the radio operator’s station in order to access the button that does so. Likewise, the landing gear can only be raised by selecting the crew member occupying the pilot’s station. This approach increases the challenge if a crew member is incapacitated, as the player must begin to move the remaining crew around the aircraft - which in turn reinforces that the crew is the focus of the game.
While a crew member will operate any station at a basic level (aim and fire guns, fly the aircraft level), we always give the player decisions to make for each station, for example, a gunner can be ordered to use incendiary ammunition which, when timed right will make quick work of a group of attacking Messerschmitts. It was important that any control we give to the player is achievable in a few clicks, so their attention is not taken away from the crew as a whole for too long.
The Tagging Mechanic
In our initial prototype, the gunners in the crew were almost entirely autonomous, firing on enemies as soon as they can in range. While more realistic, this made the player feel helpless and removed from the threat of attacking fighters. Allowing direct control of the turrets would break the core of the game’s design, so we needed another solution.
We devised a system that would allow the player to feel more engaged by the combat element of the game. Our solution was the tagging system. By hitting a button, tagging mode is toggled – a slightly zoomed-in view with a large reticule, which when hovered over an incoming threat for a few moments, will tag it and therefore order the crew’s gunners to open fire on it. It feels a bit like aiming a gun, is a quick and simple interaction, and importantly doesn’t take away the glory of shooting down an enemy ace from your crew!
Once we had this system in place, we found it as a great way to give orders to other members of the crew. For example, once you spot the bomb target, tagging it using tagging mode will order your pilot to turn the aircraft towards it and begin the bomb run. Its also used to direct the pilot towards headings that are plotted by the navigator.
The depth of gameplay during missions comes from learning how the systems of the bomber and the systems of the environment interact. Once these are understood, the player is continually given tough compromises to make, such as:
‘Shall I order my tail gunner to stop a spreading fire in the tail, or leave him to defend against a pursuing fighter and put the rest of the crew at risk?’
‘Should I order my pilot to fly beneath the clouds into heavy flak so the navigator can get his bearings, or risk wandering off course with insufficient fuel to return to Blighty?’
‘My outer port engine is damaged! Should I send my engineer out onto the wing, risking a fatal fall in order to save the rest of the crew?’
As all the bomber’s systems are controlled through the crew members, it was critical that we had a simple interface to allow them to be ordered to move between the various stations in the bomber.
Our solution was to allow crew members to be selected with a mouse click, then sent to a different part of the aircraft, or a particular station with another single click. To give the player feedback on where their brave engineer was about to jog off to, we show an orange line offering a preview of their route. If the player hovers the cursor over a station or equipment, we provide a highlight to show they will interact with it.
Over the first weekend after the game had launched, we received tons of great feedback from the community of players. From this, we were able to improve the crew management system by adding hotkeys for specific actions such as sending a crew member to the rest bed to recover health. We also added a ‘slow time’ function, so when the action gets too hectic for some players, they have the option of a little more time to think. The community’s feedback has been invaluable for helping us focus on the right areas to improve.
The result of these systems is that Bomber Crew maintains its focus on the development of the crew, and the decision making abilities of the player. Our intention was always to create a game where the player becomes attached to the characters they recruit and train so that every moment of every mission matters.
In taking direct control away from the player and giving it to the crew, they remain relevant throughout the gameplay. The real challenge in doing this is to provide the player with the means to easily execute all the little choices that quickly stack up to make the difference between glorious victory or fiery disaster.