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How  Bomber Crew 's devs found outsized success with a permadeath flight crew sim

How Bomber Crew's devs found outsized success with a permadeath flight crew sim

December 28, 2017 | By Joel Couture

December 28, 2017 | By Joel Couture
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More: Indie, Design



Bomber Crew puts players in charge of manning and running a WWII bomber, dealing with all of the troubles that arise while out on a mission.

Asking for so much more than just choosing a flight path and hitting a target, players are tasked with dealing with bad weather, low oxygen, and training crew members to be able to do their job right, it forces players to maintain a tense juggling act on every attack.

It was a game that Dave Miller of Bomber Crew dev Runner Duck expected players to like. Just not quite on the large scale that they enjoyed it, with the game quickly moving big numbers.

“We weren’t expecting it. It took a little while after launch for us to get a full idea of how successful it had been. Before launch we were confident that the game was good, and we had created something that we are both very proud of- so it’s great to see it doing well, and awesome to see players enjoying the game,” says Miller.

That unexpected success was something the developers wanted to capitalize on, both financially and to reward all of the players who had so kindly supported them. Still, what were they to do for all of these players who were enjoying their game, and how to do it?

Recruitment

Runner Duck had several things going for them right out of the gate with Bomber Crew, starting with a shared interest with their players. “We’re fascinated by the subject, and from the fan’s feedback, it seems this has come through in the final product. It turns out that plenty of other people share the same interest in the aircrews of WWII bombers. For such a fascinating subject, it hasn’t been explored much over the years,” says Miller.

Players have interests in all manner of things, though, so a shared interest between players and devs doesn’t necessarily translate to sales. However, the game’s playful look may have also increased the pool of potential interest that the game saw. “The game also looks different to most WWII titles,” Says Miller. “It has a fun and accessible appearance which belies the brutality of its gameplay.”

Streaming support helped them as well. “We’ve had plenty of great streamers playing the game, showing off its depth of gameplay, which seems to have been significant to its success.”

Something else that helped them out flowed naturally from the game’s development as well. “Our initial prototype for Bomber Crew was actually a 2D pixel art affair. We soon decided to make the jump to 3D, as we found ourselves wanting to do things that just weren’t possible otherwise.” says Miller.

While a choice between pixel art and 2D was important for Miller to pull off what he wanted from the game, it also helped him pique the interest of a publisher.

“This turned out to be a fortunate decision, as when we first pitched to Curve they were looking for indie titles that used 3D graphics. I think it's tough to stand out in the indie games market right now; rightly or wrongly, a game with 3D presentation can appear as a higher-value proposition,” he continues.

This mixture of player popularity through streamers, having an interesting subject, and having a playful look that opened it to more players is part of what Runner Duck felt set them up for success. Having just the right look to pick up publisher interest would be the next part of what helped them then capitalize on it. Through these things, Runner Duck had themselves set up to build upon their initial flood of sales.

Building on success

Runner Duck wanted to build on the good will of its players as soon as they saw how popular they’d been with them, changing course from their original development plans.

“Initially, the plan was just to move on to developing the console versions; Although the enthusiasm shown by the players has given us extra energy and drive, which we’ve channelled into free updates and plans for more content. We’ve found ourselves able to keep to our original schedule despite the additional work. It’s incredible how moral support can help,” says Miller.

Player support is all well and good, but being in a position to offer free content helps, too. This was accomplished from that publisher relationship Runner Duck had established previously, taking some of the pressure of risk off of them so they could work in relative peace. “Securing a publishing partner in Curve meant that they took a significant portion of the risk, leaving us to concentrate on making the best game we could,” says Miller.

It also helped that the developer had plans in place for what to do should the game take off (or fail miserably). “Our approach has always been ‘hope for the best, prepare for the worst’. The ‘worst’ in our case would have meant scrabbling to pitch a new project for funding, which isn’t all that bad,” says Miller.

Having so much support from the players and publishers was highly motivating for Runner Duck, helping them find the will to juggle their console port plans and added content at the same time. Knowing what sort of content to add could have been a whole new challenge in and of itself as well, but Miller had already found a good source of ideas for what to do there as well.

“We feel that it's important to continue to listen to the community and carefully make improvements for them,” says Miller.

Listening to the audience

Bomber Crew’s audience, being its biggest supporters, could also be a great source of inspiration on what to add to the game to improve it. As such, Runner Duck started paying careful attention to what its fans requested, seeing how they could work within their desires to keep rewarding them for picking up the game. 

“The community has made decisions relatively easy - we’ve received so much detailed feedback and suggestions that have helped us focus on the right areas. Reading through as much feedback as possible tends to reveal common themes. Often these are things we have considered in the past, but sometimes they are things that matter to many people, but would not occur to us. The fact that we have so many more minds considering how best to improve the game is hugely beneficial,” says Miller.

Having so many people invested in the game and its success was a huge boon for its developers, helping them find ways to improve upon it in ways the fans would appreciate, both as things they wanted to see from the game, and as a feeling of working with the developers on the game in their own way. This created a connection between the players and developers, one that could create even more goodwill between them.

Part of creating that connection involved making sure the players always knew that their feedback was being acknowledged. “As we appreciate the community’s feedback, they also appreciate us keeping them informed. Occasionally we have the time to write detailed update announcements, other times we can only manage a quick ‘thanks, we hear you’. The community is considerate of the fact that we’re busy working on the game, so appreciate both lengthy and brief responses. The important thing is to acknowledge the feedback where possible,” says Miller.

This would ensure that the players knew they were being listened to in some way, rather than just howling into the dark. This would reinforce that feeling that they were involved with development in their own way, and that if they did see a problem with something, they weren’t going to be ignored. The game that they enjoyed would still continue to improve in ways that would make them like it even more.

With so many fans talking about the game, it would seem that it would be difficult to go through all of their feedback just to pick out some of the best ideas. However, the developers felt the feedback naturally worked itself out in a way they could easily use it (while taking care not to overwork themselves).

“The community has put so much effort into the discussion and compiling of feedback in the Steam forums, that the well thought out ideas rise to the top. The main limitation of what we act on is down to our current schedule, working on the console versions,” says Miller.

Not that getting feedback is always easy. “Initially, some of the more critical feedback was kind of hard to read, but even these comments had such substance and goodwill towards the game, it was impossible to feel negative about them. We found reaching out to these people and attempting to address their criticisms a very positive experience,” says Miller.

Working through some of these criticisms wasn’t easy, either, as the game has a very specific mood and style it is trying to create, and it had to preserve this while addressing criticism. “The core idea of Bomber Crew is to maintain the uncertainty of survival that the real crews of WW2 endured, and in doing so, make every decision matter. Risks can be mitigated, but never wholly eliminated - if they were, the experience of the game would feel flat,” says Miller. “The most significant challenge in choosing what ideas to implement is in not dismantling the heart of the game.”

It also didn’t hurt that, as a two-person development team, they could easily discuss whether they felt any given idea would break that core spirit. “As there are just two of us working on the game, decisions can be made very quickly. We’re both equally invested in the game’s design, so usually, a single conversation will give us the plan for the next update,” says Miller.

Other ideas might have the game’s fans divided, creating even more challenges for the developer to work through in deciding what to implement. “Some subjects can be divisive, for example, the requests for a pause button. Half the player base were crying out for a way to pause the action and dole out orders without pressure, and the other half were convinced this would ruin the experience,” says Miller.

“A few days after launch, we added a ‘Slow Time’ feature, which allows players to slow things down if they need more time to think, but it is rationed, so must be used only when necessary. In consideration of the hardcore 'no-pausers', the game gives a small post-mission bonus if the feature isn’t used. Much to our delight, this was well received. These little community-inspired improvements have been some of the most rewarding work on Bomber Crew,” he continues.

Despite some of the challenges inherent in listening to the fans and weighing their feedback against the spirit of the game Runner Duck wished to create with Bomber Crew, it was something the developers felt that they just had to do. “We had so many supportive, well thought out comments from day one; it would have been rude not to respond,” says Miller.

Through the natural organization of the feedback into useful suggestions, having a huge fanbase invested in seeing the game improve, and looking into the common themes of this feedback, Runner Duck would easily find direction in how to improve the game for its fans.

While they would face some challenges in choosing what to implement and how to implement it, it made it much easier to see where to take the game next, and how to capitalize on that early success, to create more goodwill amongst its players and continue to keep them engaged by making them a part of the development process.

Being thankful

Being able to continue to work on a game he’s so passionate about is something Miller feels truly blessed to be able to do.

“The overriding feeling from the launch was an enormous sense of relief. You can never tell how these things will play out, and developing a game all the way through to release requires a huge amount of effort. Having the payoff of being able to continue doing what we love is just fantastic,” says Miller.

For Miller, he feels that the financial success is only a part of what makes him so happy with Bomber Crew’s success. To him, creating that connection with so many people who love the game like they do, is the real reward.



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