A Case of Distrust by solo developer Ben Wander (aka The Wandering Ben) was one of Polygon’s best 50 games from last year. It merged whodunit threads with a lovely aesthetic and smart dialog. Today, Wander announced a new game called Airborne Kingdom, which involves a flying city and a search for desert migrants.
This time, Wander is working with a reunited team of old friends. Prior to making A Case of Distrust, he worked at Visceral Games, part of a unit of four people who designed multiplayer modes for shooter Battlefield Hardline. After Wander’s departure, and the later shutdown of Visceral, the rest of the team went their own ways. But now they’re reuniting to make Airborne Kingdom. Collectively, they call themselves The Wandering Band.
Airborne Kingdom is a city management game with a twist: The city is mobile. It floats above a desert country, making contact with civilizations on the ground. By interacting with these societies and attracting new citizens, the city grows and improves.
The game’s first images, released today, show a distinctive look, created by art director Chee Fong, who cites inspirations such as British artist Augustus Lamplough’s landscapes and Daniel Agdag’s magical realism. Code is being handled by Fred Gareau. Production and marketing is headed by Zach Mumbach. Wander is in charge of design and story. Since the closure of Visceral, the team members have variously worked at Crystal Dynamics, Motive Studios, and on projects outside gaming.
After the release of A Case of Distrust on Nintendo Switch and Windows PC, Wander knew he needed help on his next idea. He was still in contact with his old pals.
“We started spitballing about games that we liked and games that we wanted to make,” says Wander. “It got to a point where we thought we were onto something and so it became more serious.
“If you’d told me five years ago that I’d be working with this group of people again, I would have probably signed that contract in blood with the devil, in order to make this happen. These are some of the best people that I know that make video games.”
He adds that there’s no hierarchy at The Wandering Band. “We’re all equal partners. We all have equal say. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Airborne Kingdom is being developed for Mac and Windows PC. Potential console versions are to be decided. There’s no release date yet, but the team is aiming for 2020.
In the game, the player leads a flying city that explores a great desert, gathering resources, managing population needs, upgrading buildings, and expanding. Ground-based societies offer opportunities to grow the city’s population, bolting on new skills, technologies, and cultural influences.
The game’s strategic elements are entwined with a narrative. “While you’re gathering resources and meeting with static cities, you hear rumors about ancient artifacts that are lining the desert,” says Wander. “And that’s where we can punch up a little bit of the story points.”
He says his inspiration for Airborne Kingdom includes the Anno series, Frostpunk, Sunless Skies, FTL, and 80 Days. “These are really good examples of nodal storytelling that we want to do, not in terms of the amount of story, but just the idea that there are these points that you can go to at any point. You can choose what direction to go in. You’re exploring the landscape with these punctuated points of interest, all over the map.”
The game’s mechanic of interacting with other people is an underlying message that’s relevant to the wider world.
“You’re getting new people to migrate to your city and understanding that these migrants bring new ways to do things,” Wander says. “Together, they all make a bigger whole. That’s a pretty important theme that comes through purely in the mechanic. We don’t have to hit people over the head with it. It’s just kind of obvious when you play it.”
But the theme is also relevant to Wander’s particular experience of making games. He says it’s “wonderful” to be part of a team again, after spending almost three years working alone. “Something that I’ve learned about myself is that I work best as part of a team. It’s great having other people to bounce ideas off of. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until we did it again and I understood that this is it. This is what I want.”