From Drumsticks to Gamepad: Balancing Game Development with Life as a Touring Musician

The world of video games shares more than its fair share of aesthetical ground with that of heavy metal, with the medium taking inspiration from the genre as far back as the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with titles like Holy Diver and DOOM. Suffice to say that the venn diagram between metal fans and gamers has a pretty sizable overlap, for better and for worse, but as our new gaming section starts to grow we decided to take a look at what it’s like not only for those who listen to music and play games in their spare time, but also those who make both music and games. Both are hobbies that fans often devote their lives to, but forging a career in either field is an arduous task that entails no small amount of time, patience, devotion and maybe just a bit of luck. To find the energy and passion to juggle life as both a metal musician and a game developer points to the sort of creative drive most of us can only wish for. Thus it’s easy to be impressed by Jon Wingrove, an active participant in the UK’s thriving doom metal scene but also a game programmer who co-founded his own company. In an effort to find out what it takes to balance life as both a touring metal musician and a developer of video games, we got in contact with Jon for yet another lockdown video chat.

As sticksman for epic doom ensemble King Goat as well as sci-fi maniacs Wallowing, Wingrove often has his hands full with recording music and playing live (when there’s not a pandemic on, at least), and despite a demanding job in the gaming industry he’s allowed the freedom to work on music by virtue of the fact that the studio he works for is one he set up himself alongside friend Dave Miller. The pair had worked together at several companies, but often found themselves working on projects they had little interest in, including mobile games and titles for Microsoft’s Kinect. Jon began working on video games when he was just eight, making games through his childhood simply as a hobby, and started working in the industry in 2007, initially on AAA titles for Codemasters, whose primary focus these days is on racing and motorsport titles like F1, Grid and Dirt.

Escaping a future in free-to-play mobile games, Jon and Dave handed in their notices and formed Runner Duck Games in January 2017. Their work soon attracted the attention of publishers, and the duo decided to work with Curve Digital, who Jon has nothing but praise for. Runner Duck has since doubled in size to a four-person operation, and for Jon, working on smaller titles as an indie studio is infinitely more fulfilling. “When I was at other companies I was just a programmer,” he explains. “But at Runner Duck there’s such a small team that it’s not just programming, we do a lot of design together and everything has to have a lot more overlap. Everyone has to chip in for everything.”

It’s easy to see how this might bring an extra sense of accomplishment, not to mention a greater feeling of creativity. Whilst the industry’s biggest companies continue to build huge open worlds with little to do in them even despite having exposed their employees to exploitative crunch-time practises (sometimes releasing games that are still broken anyway), indie studios continue to be the driving force for creativity in the medium. “A lot of my background comes from just messing around and creating stuff when I was a kid and a teenager,” Jon begins. “And you get that freedom when you’re doing an indie game because turnaround times are a lot quicker. You can try stuff without having to check with a whole team of people. Big games are designed by committee really, and I think it’s very difficult to orchestrate a large number of people to work with the same direction in mind. And I’m not saying innovation can’t happen because there’s definitely a load of innovative big games but I think they probably have people on those teams with a very clear direction, whereas we can sort of come up with stuff collaboratively. There’s a bit more chaos to it but it’s not just one person’s vision, it’s the whole team’s.”

In October 2017 Runner Duck released their first game, Bomber Crew, a war game of sorts, but not in the traditional mould of a first-person shooter or turn-based strategy title. Despite cutesy graphics, the game is a detailed and at times difficult simulation of manning a team on board a WW2 bomber. Unlike many other strategy games, the events play out in real time, forcing you to fulfill all the duties of a bomber crew, from navigation to gunnery to repairs, quite literally on the fly.

“Dave had the idea for Bomber Crew a while before we even started, but we didn’t really know what to do with it and it kind of got forgotten,” explains Jon. “The more we got fed up with our day jobs, the more this idea kept coming back.” Eventually the pair made a 2D prototype of the game, but it quickly became apparent that it didn’t work in 2D. 

The idea of managing a crew wasn’t there to begin with, Jon reveals, but it quickly became the focus. Bomber Crew may not have a narrative the way a more linear game with a protagonist might, but they were keen to create a game that told its own stories, be it in the myriad of ways a mission can play out or in the lives of crew members, who can die in battle and must then be replaced by new recruits. “It’s like ‘this guy went on this mission and survived, he made it through seven missions but then died here’,” Jon suggests. “You become attached to them and you end up with the drama of managing the crew.”

After continually tweaking the prototype and tweeting some updates, the game garnered some attention, enough that both Jon and his cohort felt confident enough to quit their jobs, which they did on the same day. “It was a bit frightening,” admits Jon. “But it was worth it. It’s all worked out really well.”

The studio certainly seems to be going from strength to strength. Following the release of Bomber Crew, they expanded the Crew series with Space Crew in 2020. The game takes a similar premise but transports it out of Earth’s atmosphere and into the vast beyond, navigating space stations and asteroid fields whilst fighting off alien ships. The gameplay will be familiar to those who played Bomber Crew, but there’s substantial changes that tweak things somewhat, not to mention a vastly different setting.

Most of all, though, the tone of Space Crew differs from that of its predecessor by virtue of its (literally) less grounded, futuristic setting. Bomber Crew had the tough task of replicating the roles fulfilled by real people during a real conflict whilst still being accessible, engaging and ultimately fun. “That’s a hard balance to get right,” says Jon. “We looked at the ‘90s game Cannon Fodder which we felt got the tone right. A grave would pop up every time you lost a character, so we had the memorial in Bomber Crew that lists every crew member you’ve lost on a big wall. The game does have a serious edge to it, but at the same time we know it’s far removed from reality in that it’s just a game.”

That said, however, the game shows surprising detail in its depiction of the way a bomber crew would operate, not least of all because the stress of such a situation is replicated by the fact that the game plays out in real time. “We took some liberties,” Jon admits. “But it’s pretty much how it all actually is. The systems are based on what was actually on the bombers. The number of crew members isn’t quite right, but changes like that are for gameplay purposes.”

For Bomber Crew, then, the developers made an effort to get what they could right and took care not to go too far with comedic or slapstick elements, whilst the far-out nature of its successor means the wacky moments and sci-fi parodies are out in force. Space Crew dropped three years after Bomber Crew and was similarly received with positive reviews from critics and fans. Jon hints that the studio are likely to expand the series even further going forward.

Of course, in the space between the two games, Jon has also taken some significant strides musically too. His proggy epic doom outfit King Goat released the towering Debt Of Aeons in 2018, whilst sci-fi beekeeper-suit-wearing grind/sludge oddballs Wallowing formed then subsequently released an expansive concept album and, more recently, their own comic book designed by artist Luke Oram. Clearly Jon is keen to be involved with creative projects both in gaming and music, but where exactly does he find the time for it all? Developing a video game is an arduous task.

“It takes a long time,” says Jon on the process of making a game. “And it’s a long amount of time doing the same thing over and over. For Bomber Crew, I must have spent five days in a row just taking off and deliberately crashing into the ground, changing a bit of code because it didn’t quite work right, then doing it again, and then doing that for all the different scenarios. It’s satisfying in the end though, there’s a lot of fun puzzles to be solved and I really enjoy it.”

With work like that to be doing, it’s hard to imagine having the spare time or energy to create music and tour, but Jon actually enjoys a fair bit of freedom since leaving bigger industry jobs. “I wouldn’t say it’s any harder to balance than anyone else in a full-time job,” he suggests. “I’m quite lucky in that if we wanna take time off we just tell each other, whereas others have to book time off in advance. I have to be around when we’re busiest and be conscious of deadlines, but when I had an office job I did ridiculous things where I got home at six in the morning and went straight to work because that’s just what you do when you’re playing gigs and driving back the same night. These days, if there’s no other way I just say to the bands ‘look, just book it and I’ll figure it out’, that’s kinda the attitude you have to have.”

Right now of course, touring isn’t an issue, though Jon is still writing with both King Goat and Wallowing, particularly the latter who communicate a lot online anyway and thus have been able to continue working on both music and additional projects like comic books and action figures during lockdown. Runner Duck have also continued to work from home throughout, with some things in the works that they hope to be able to announce soon. In the meantime, if you’re unfamiliar with Wingrove’s work as either a developer or a musician, you’ve got some time to get acquainted.

Bomber Crew and Space Crew are available on Steam, PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo Switch. King Goat and Wallowing’s records can be picked up on Bandcamp.

Words: George Parr

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