'Did I make too big of a game?' Lead designer of sky-high city builder Airborne Empire on wanting to build a 'Skyrim or a Breath of the Wild'-sized world

A flying city
(Image credit: The Wandering Band)

Building a city in the sky in 2020's Airborne Kingdom was a mostly chill experience—while you were in a constant war with gravity as you attempted to expand your city while keeping it aloft and balanced, there were no traditional enemies to fight. It was also a relatively short game that could be fully completed in about 10 hours.

That's all changing in its sequel, Airborne Empire, which is due out in early access later this year and now has a free demo as part of Steam Next Fest. The once-friendly skies are now peppered with enemy planes, cannonballs fired from forts on the ground, and other airborne enemies to contend with while you grow and manage your flying city.

Airborne Empire - Early Access 2024 - YouTube Airborne Empire - Early Access 2024 - YouTube
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There's also a much bigger world to explore, which means the airborne city builder will take longer to complete than its predecessor. A lot longer. Speaking to PC Gamer, lead designer Zach Mumbach of developer The Wandering Band joked that he was afraid Airborne might be a little too big. 

"I wanted to make a Skyrim or a Breath of the Wild, this big world where there's all these secrets to find, and if you look out on the horizon you see something interesting, and if you go there you will be rewarded with something interesting," he said. But Mumbach is a little surprised how big his own game is turning out to be. Playtesters have already managed to spend around 50 hours in Airborne Empire… even though only about 50% of the game world has been built so far.

"So this is all like dawning on me now," he said, laughing. "I'm kind of grappling with that. Like… did I make too big of a game?"

(Image credit: The Wandering Band)

From my own perspective, Airborne Empire feels big, but definitely not too big. I'm only five hours in, not 50, but I've explored a lot of the starter continent and I'm itching to fly my growing city further to discover new regions, battle more enemies, and discover new technology—especially the arsenal that will eventually become available.

Mumbach describes some of the weapons I haven't found and built yet, including freeze cannons, flame cannons, and even a tesla coil that creates an energy field around the hovering city that can zap incoming projectiles.

"The idea is that there's gonna be all these different types of weapons, and you're kind of limited in the number of weapon slots you have," he said. "So your combination [of weapons] will determine a lot about how you play the game, whether you're gonna do the really small, fast, quick-strike city, or you're going to be this huge fortress in the sky that's moving slow but you have this overpowering arsenal."

(Image credit: The Wandering Band)

I'm most looking forward to having my own fleet of attack planes. I have defense towers that can shoot enemy pilots out of the sky, but currently my own pilots are of the peaceful variety: they can fly their little planes down to the surface world to mine for resources, gather food, and explore ruins. Soon I'll be able to send them out to dogfight with air-pirates. My beautiful city will be like a flying aircraft carrier. Hell, yeah.

"A lot of the game is balancing out how many attack planes you have, how many enemy targets are there, how many planes do you send to each target," Mumbach said. "And so then there's the strategy of how you maneuver your city. Are you going to engage a bunch of these things at once [or are you] going to try to come in and kite certain enemies, and try to do it that way?"

(Image credit: The Wandering Band)

For fans of the original game who were hoping for more chill vibes and less combat as they build their flying city, you haven't been forgotten. "Whether it's through a creative mode or difficulty settings, or probably both, we'll try to still support that style of gameplay," Mumbach said. "I think there's also a space for city building and tower defense without the quests and all the characters. I think we just want to support all those things by having a bunch of different game modes."

A new trailer for Airborne Empire premiered today at the Glitch Future of Play showcase, and you can check it out above. You can try the new demo on Steam

Christopher Livingston
Senior Editor

Chris started playing PC games in the 1980s, started writing about them in the early 2000s, and (finally) started getting paid to write about them in the late 2000s. Following a few years as a regular freelancer, PC Gamer hired him in 2014, probably so he'd stop emailing them asking for more work. Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring storylines in RPGs so he can make up his own.