The city-builder genre has had something of a resurgence since the last time we saw a proper SimCity game. Cities: Skylines replaced EA's series as the premiere tool for simulating intricate urban areas, and 11 bit Studios injected the genre with a bit of existential tension with Frostpunk.
Where should the genre go next? How about to the skies? That's where the developers at The Wandering Band are heading with their upcoming game Airborne Kingdom. It's a visually resplendent city-builder that aims to add a dash of exploration to the classic balance of urban architecture and resource management.
Zach Mumbach and Ben Wander, two of the four ex-triple-A developers that make up The Wandering Band, dropped by for a discussion about the design of city-builders with Gamasutra. Here's why they hope theirs will be a relaxing, inclusive experience that will find an audience in this genre.
And yet, it moves
In Wander's words, the original design goals of Airborne Kingdom were centered on the relaxing nature of the genre. These are games where, instead of fast-paced combat, player tension slowly grows as decisions about resource management play out over a long period.
Once the decision was made that their city would live in the sky of a fictional fantasy world, Wander said the first instinct was to make it move, to make it an entity that could explore and unknown space.
"It's just up there in the sky. We're sending workers to gather resources, it was just instinctive right? So we added a right click in the game--a classic "right click to move" like it was a top-down RPG or something, and that was really when we felt like we had something special."
Airborne Kingdom's metropolis isn't just a hub of resource management, it's a kind of playable character. The motivation for exploration becomes aligned with gathering resources to grow the city. Once consideration was put toward exploration and resource gathering, Wander explained that a lot of thought was put into what kind of city players were creating.
A lot of great writers lately have pointed out that the city-building genre is one that reflects the political realities of the people who make them. Classic examples include how the underlying structures of SimCity reflect values about tax propositions, or how public transportation may be more limited in some games compared to the power of cars.
Here, Wander explained that the vision for the game's society-building tended itself toward literal balance. The player's city relies on massive propellors to stay afloat, so along with managing food, water, and comfort for the city's people, players need to make sure it can stay skyborne, and not literally tilt in any particular direction.
"That's the stuff in the city-building part that's pretty unique for us. You might want to have your industrial district on the left and your citizens all on the right, but I don't know if that's necessarily going to stay literally balanced, or you have to work to keep it balanced," Wander said.
"You have to work to understand that you might need a couple more houses, or a minaret, but what you really need is a fan to lift up the city, and those buildings might block it."
Mumbach's follow-up was to discuss about the goal for the game design *after* players figure out the basic physics and survival problems to keep their city afloat. "It's not like SimCity where the people are just numbers. We always talked about this concept of surviving and thriving."
"It was important to us that our game wasn't like a white knuckle experience, just holding on to survive. It's about turning that particular corner."
What's beyond the horizon?
According to Mumbach and Wander, the overall direction of Airborne Kingdom's campaign is that the player is attempting to connect different ground-based civilizations, helping them help each other in a kind of interconnected, good-faith globalist kind of mindset. Mumbach's part in executing that vision is designing the world that players uncover by moving their cities across the sky.
Motivating players to actually seek out new life and new civilizations takes a kind of particular finesse. Mumbach described the process as a mostly visual one. For all his notebooks of equations about resource distribution, he explained he has to work with the game's artists to keep visually interesting phenomena just out of reach.
"It's about always having something on the horizon that players go 'ooh, what's over there? I want to go see that.'"
To Mumbach the city becomes a character in a fog-filled map. The buildings and players that make up the city-building part of the game are like upgradable armor in classic RPGs, and his goal is to keep adding finesse to the world that makes upgrading those buildings worthwhile.
Speaking of Airborne Kingdom's visuals, it's worth calling out the particular aesthetic choices that The Wandering Band has made here. The player's city is a collection of minarets, domes, and horseshoe arches. It's distinctly Islamic style, even though the Islam itself plays little part in the game.
In our conversation we pointed out that for the last two decades, Islamic architecture in level design has tended to express foreign-ness or anxiety over terrorism. (Think Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, arguably parts of Gears Tactics, etc.)
That's not the case here. There's a sense of warmness and splendor in Airborne Kingdom's city layouts, something that looks more familiar to folks who live in cities with that architecture than for players who've only ever seen it down the barrel of a digital gun.
Wander said that for the game's art direction, paintings by Augustus Lamplough and Daniel Agdag were two of the major original inspirations, but he also credited the other two Wandering Bard members for pushing that vision. "Chee Fong is from Malaysia, and Fred Gareau is Egyptian, and we have some historical influences from their families and from their ancestry."
"It speaks to us trying to do something that looks cool, that looks different."
There was also an effort to make sure that aesthetic wasn't exceptionally appropriative. "We're walking a fine line when we do that, because we're not trying to be appropriative of anybody's culture," Mumbach said. "We're trying to be sensitive, we're also trying to pay homage to some amazing artists and art that at least in the Western world has not gotten to shine for whatever reason. In the gaming world, it's a style that stands out."
A mood, if you will
One particular quirk of making Airborne Kingdom for the folks at The Wandering Band was that as discussed above, it's a game with a fairly optimistic outlook on humanity's prospects, even in times of great need and dire strife. And 2020, with a global pandemic and uprisings against racism and police violence, sure seems like a time of great need and dire strife.
"I feel really lucky that we chose this game to make. It's very optimistic, it's quite literally 'blue sky,'" Wander said. He described a general sense of positivity about making a pleasant game in uncertain times, and a preference for putting a positive vision out in the world.
Mumbach pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic in particular had hit the game's development. The already-remote studio had made plans to coalesce and work together in-person to get the game ready for launch, but the need for social distancing made that impossible. "We're very lucky in that we were already set up to work this way. I have a lot of friends...it's hard, they're trying to adapt to this on the fly."
He also was a little more explicit about some of the themes he and his colleagues were responding to when development began on Airborne Kingdom. "It seemed like there was this surge of a nationalistic outlook coming up to the surface. This anti-immigration, which becomes anti-mixing, right?"
It's an isolationist outlook that Mumbach said they wanted the game to be nearly entirely the reverse of. It's a game where players attempt to unite individual groups with different struggles, where the whole is greater than the individual parts."
Which all loops back to a phrase Wander used to describe the whole city-building genre: "it's therapeutic, it's relaxing." And Airborne Kingdom, on some level, appears to be injecting with that sense of relaxation with a sense of purpose, to make a world where relaxing is kind of the ultimate goal.