Interview with Drop Bear Bytes - Broken Roads
At PAX Aus 2019, we were fortunate enough to be able to speak with Craig from Drop Bear Bytes about their upcoming post-apocalyptic RPG – Broken Roads.
Alex: Hello everyone, I’m Alex and I’m joined by Craig from Drop Bear Bytes who are showing off their game Broken Roads. So please, tell us about it.
Craig: Broken Roads is an old school isometric RPG in the style of Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, all of those traditional games that I grew up with. I’m not sure if you’ve played that style of game very much but I love it and it’s my favourite way to do role-playing. You can do so many nice things to the art and the environment.
So Broken Roads is set in a post-apocalyptic future Australia. It’s not just post-nuclear, it got there by climate change, financial collapse, political extremism, overpopulation; if we’ve had a decision tree coming up for us humans and we just made the worst decisions every time, such as the politicians we voted in and the policies that we set up, it all ended up in nuclear war.
It’s also authentically Australian; I’m South African and I’ve only been here for about three years – love the place, I’m going to become a permanent citizen – but most of the team is Australian, the lead artist is Australian and we’re getting Australian writers. We’ve also been working with a couple of Aboriginal educators and elders in order to get authentic indigenous representation in the game which has been absolutely fantastic. I’m super proud of what the team has done. We got the concept in January and nine months later, we’ve got a demo to show at PAX which is just phenomenal.
A: Very quick turnaround as well in its production!
C: It is! We focussed very heavily on tech. We’re using established processors and established artists. If you know Shadowrun Returns, this is the same art team that constructed the isometric props and whatnot. They know the technical requirements for this game very well. I flew over to Western Australia to take all of the photos and our concept artists gave it a post-apocalyptic spin. The studio’s name is Mighty Vertex and they took to the style really well; they love Fallout, they love these kinds of RPGs and they’ve adopted Kerstin, our art director and lead artist, and they’ve adopted her big brush stroke painting style really well to these isometric props. With that tech and the rapid turnaround, we’ve been able to put a build together to a quality much higher to which we wanted and I’m blown away with what the team has done so far.
A: That’s fantastic! So, post-apocalyptic you normally see in the United States, UK, but nothing here, so why Australia?
C: Well, it’s kind of coming back full circle. Mad Max is the grand daddy of post-apocalyptic and you’ve also got Road Warrior so that certainly was an influence. I said this to someone else earlier the other day that Mad Max is like the Lord of the Rings of post-apocalyptic. All of the Dungeons and Dragons and Divinity and whatnot, their is all that stuff that has come since and they have that genetic lineage from Lord of the Rings. I think that Mad Max is kind of the same for post-apocalyptic. It’s beautiful I mean, Western Australia is a location that is just so good for this; it’s already desert and deserted, semi-abandoned and if you just put that little more of an imaginative spin on it – I’m surprised someone hasn’t done it already. I relocated here about three years ago; I love it and it just made so much sense. If this gets to the scale that we want, then you will do a journey across Australia. This is set between Brookton and Kalgoorlie and if we can move further, then we will.
A: And you went to these places to actually get a hands on experience yourself, is that right?
C: Yeah, I flew out there and spent three days driving around; I took like 950 photos to have something to share with the team; I stopped in these towns and spoke to the locals; I went into the pubs, spoke to the people behind the bar and asked them some questions in order to get a feel for things; I drove around some back roots and I would go three hours without seeing another car just to see something interesting and I took more photos there to send to the art team and they would already have it in the game by the following week. That was an amazing experience just being there and it was also seeing things that aren’t apparent from online research; there’s all of this late nineteenth-century European architecture; if you know Fallout, then you’ll know that they have this mid twentieth-century golden age, pre Cold War setting and I think that we’re going to start doing that late nineteenth century that looks really in this area, so that will also set us apart as we build a brand to be like an Australian Fallout with something that is just so much more.
A: So how would you describe the gameplay and the combat?
C: Well, the gameplay is real-time exploration, much Baldur’s Gate and various others, but when you enter dialogue, things are still happening while you’re talking and the world doesn’t pause. As soon as you enter combat, it becomes turn-based and I’m a huge fan of turn-based tactical combat such as Fallout’s original grid-based combat. I do really like Baldur’s Gate’s style but I think what Divinity: Original Sin, Shadowrun and XCom’s style of combat is what myself and the team really enjoy. So it’s all real-time except when you’re in combat. It’s also all handcrafted battles so there are no random encounters; we’re able to create the 3D environment. We’ve got 2D props that are cast onto 3D objects so that cover is real. If you understand ray casting, you can run a line of sight from yourself to the enemy, and if you’re behind cover, then you’re behind a 3D object. So the game is going to have really good cover mechanics instead of just ‘he’s here and that’s what his stats are like’. I think that if you know the genre, it should hopefully hit a lot of the right notes; you’ll have all of your abilities, both active and passive, and talents which you can draw upon in combat.
A: And how does the game plan to cater for newcomers to the genre?
C: I think newcomers are going to have to understand that there’s going to be a lot of reading. We are going to have voice over to which we have already got some great VO talent, but games like these can run into the hundreds of thousands of words, so it’s more like partial VO where you can get the feel of the characters in certain core moments, but there will be many times that the player will have to read and really think about it. Especially with the moral component, we want people to sit and really think about their decisions and their answers so I know that we’re not going to pull over the Fortnite crowd or the Assassin’s Creed crowd, but there is this core niche that this game speaks to. Hopefully there will be some newcomers that like the art style and the setting in Australia and they’ll take their first steps into a genre that they might not have considered otherwise.
A: So just to touch a little bit more on the art style, we noticed that the bushes and foliage were implemented by subtle brush strokes, so what was the decision behind that?
C: Well I knew that we wanted to get a very painting look to it and I think that a lot of games’ concept art looks better than the game’s graphics and I thought, ‘why don’t we have the visual target of playing in concept art?’. So some of these bushes, like you said, are just brush strokes, that’s our finished asset and that’s what we want in the game. I spoke to some friends and I spent a lot of time looking at Art Station and I found an artist, Kerstin Evans, and with her style, she had a portrait of a character that was exactly what I wanted. It was that brush stroke style that had this forlorn look with desperation in the person’s face and I was like, ‘This is it! Let’s see what she can do outside of just character portraits,’ and it’s been perfect! So she’s helped us manage the junior artist, the work with Mighty Vertex who has transferred to art over to in-game props, and I think that it all still represents the original concept which is what the goal was.
A: As we are a Switch focussed website, have you considered any Switch exclusive features, such as HD Rumble or touchscreen controls?
C: We are designing touchscreen from the beginning. Our UI designer comes from a console/mobile background, so the entire UI is scalable, the font can be increased and there’s a colourblind pallet already, so everything is good to go for different resolutions. I’m a huge Switch player and the first website that I reached out to was Nintendo Life; the developer is all about Xbox and the other guys are into PlayStation so we’re fully focussed on what can we do differently on each console.
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A: That’s good to hear! We’d like to acknowledge everyone working on the team so can you please tell us a bit more about who is involved with Broken Roads?
C: There’s a core team of six that’s involved in the day-to-day. We’ve also got about 15 different freelancers who we reach out to for different things. It’s small and it’s indie, so we have kind of a gig-based setup going. For example, we brought on a writer for just a two week period last month and we’re going to need them again in November so they’ll come back for about three months. We’re going this way as opposed to signing salaries and bringing people on board only to let them go as we can’t pay salaries down the line. There’s a bit too much of that in the games industry.
We have a narrative lead, Samantha Webb, who is previously from Riot Games and she’s now with Ubisoft and contracted with us at the same time. She has a masters degree in game design and she has a lot of experience with good processes and how you write for games. She’s able to share that knowledge with the rest of the team and help us avoid pitfalls that other rookies might make.
Then Jacques Leemans, he’s the Development Director. He’s got 15 years of dev experience, was RnD Engineer at Deakin University and lectured game design at Open Window. He’s an absolute genius when it comes to mathematics and 3D, so he has created this beautiful solution for 2D tilesets in a 3D space. It looks 2D but there’s a lot of 3D work going on behind the scenes. Melanie Leemans, married to Jacques, joined us recently as well. She has about four years of Unity experience so she’s doing a lot of level assembly. I can create something in Photoshop and she’ll just put it all in engine, adding touches and details as she goes.
Jethro Naude is our CEO and gamer economist. He has a masters degree in environmental economics, so while we’re not trying to push ideals down people’s throats – this game is not supposed to be a political soapbox and we’re not pushing it as activism in any way – we’ve had a very careful look at all of the environmental damage that could be done and what could lead to another financial crisis like we saw a decade ago, and that forms part of the lore that leads to the post-apocalyptic game world in Broken Roads.
I mentioned Kerstin Evans already, a brilliantly talented artist; she used to teach game art and now she’s working with us. Almost everyone who comes by the booth says that her art has caught their eye and that it is beautiful, and I have to say that it’s all Kerstin. I also need to mention Aimee Correia who did a lot of fantastic environment art. She’s an excellent photobasher and took our real Australian locations and put an awesome post-apocalyptic spin on them. She really gets what we’re going for and has produced some awesome concepts.
We’ve got Cassandra Lee, she’s a young artist in South Africa. Cassandra is a concept artist who created an entire post-apocalyptic world of her own and she’s just a really good fit. She’s taken Kerstin’s style and if you look at the world map and all of the items in the game, including some fantastic weapon design, they’re all hand-drawn by Cassy.
Tyson Hollitt is our Digital Designer handling all of the UX and UI in the game. He’s from Firemonkeys (an Electronic Arts studio) and Torus before that, and really understands how to design scaleable UI that will work on all the different platforms we want to use. It’s been excellent having him on the team so far.
We’ve got Tim Sunderland, he’s our audio lead, he just posted on Reddit one day and said ‘hey, I’m trying to get my foot in the door,’ and I thought that that was interesting. He’s based in Rockhampton in Queensland, I heard his stuff and I was like, ‘Wow, this guy is so good!’, so we brought him on. He’s also just really good at engaging with people, so he’s wearing the community manager’s hat at the same time.
I’ve mentioned Mighty Vertex already who did Shadowrun Returns and they do a bunch of art outsourcing and they’ve done an amazing job, to which I’d especially like to mention Eric Qin for their hard work as well.
We have a newcomer, Luke Dorman, who is a junior level designer and a graduate from one of the programs here in Melbourne. He’s based in Ocean Grove and we’re headquartered in Torquay, about 30 minutes away. Luke’s also got good experience in QA and helps out a lot on that side.
We’ve also spent a lot of time with the Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre, which is just up the road from us, in order to try and get authentic indigenous representation just right. I’d like to mention Anthony Hume who, while not directly on the team, is an advisor and he’s been really patient with my questions. Being South African, I can barely write a deep Australian story myself let alone tell Aboriginal stories, so he’s introduced me to an elder of The Noongar People in Western Australia. He’s a professor at a university over there and he’s really interested in the project. All of these people are giving of their time and they’re really happy with the respectful way that we’ve gone about it. We know that it takes a long time to get the right characters in there properly and represent these communities respectfully and we’re really grateful for their help.
We’ve also got Jade Stewart who’s a writer of Aboriginal descent and she’s going to be doing an Aboriginal companion at one of the in-game settlements. Whether it takes us two months or two years, we’re going to do everything at a pace where everything is put in is approved by Anthony or any of the other advisors.
I’m super proud of the team and everyone else who has helped us in getting all of this together. There are other freelancers that I haven’t mentioned, so apologies to those that I’ve forgotten to call out. And again, this is nine months of work, and what the team have pulled off is amazing and I’m really stoked with it.
A: That sounds like a very impressive roster and the game seems like it’s in very good hands! Already looking at the game from just nine months work is incredible.
C: Yeah so the idea didn’t exist on New Year’s Day and this is where we are.
A: That’s just incredible! So I know that we have a tentative date of 2021 and are you aiming for a same day launch on PC and all consoles?
C: The reaction that we’ve had thus far from players, potential publishers and investors have all exceeded anything that we could have hoped for. We were going to do PC first and then start the porting. So we’re getting all of the UI stuff done and so that we don’t paint ourselves into any corners and getting everything ready. So we were going to get the PC version done and then port. But now, it sounds like people are demanding it for Xbox and Switch already so we’re now thinking that we’re going to have to do a multi-platform development. The international reaction has been incredible; we were translated into about 12 or 13 languages the last time I looked, the Russian community is super excited, Taiwanese, the translation of the press release went out, French, German, Hungarian, Turkish, Brazil, I can’t even remember it all, it’s totally blown up. We’ve definitely achieved what we’ve wanted and then some. So we will most likely go for a day one, Multiplatform, localised release. That’s what we want to do.
A: Fantastic! Is there anything else that you’d like to tell our readers?
C: I did want to mention the Moral Compass, that’s kind of the unique selling point of the game. It’s something that hasn’t really been explored in role-playing games. It’s a 360 degree compass of which you have a gold arc of available choices and each time you make a choice from one of the four philosophical ethical quadrants, you’ll gradually shift your world’s view depending on your character’s choices. All of those darts represent choices and as you choose them, you’ll slowly shift your world view around. So you can’t just be good in one quest and be evil in the next, it isn’t a Star Wars light side/dark side dichotomy, it’s much more nuance. We don’t even go with the idea of good and evil, for a post-apocalyptic, you’re going to face some really difficult and morally tough situations that your characters will be in. So it challenges how you balance some kind of semblance of being a good person with the sacrifices you’ll have to make. There are some very tough choices that we’re putting in place and it isn’t completely clear as to which one is the good option and which is the bad option – we’re having a lot of fun with that. Before I got involved in games and this world, I did about six years of philosophy as undergrad and postgrad and I feel like there’s so much you can do with that that hasn’t been explored yet without anyone having to take a single ethical philosophy class and without it becoming an educational tool.
A: That’s very interesting! So does that work well for replayability where you can go down different avenues?
C: That’s really what it is! The moral compass has 360 degrees and 100 points, so there’s 36,000 possible places that you can put a decision point on. The algorithm of gold arch will determine where your world view shifts and it depends on your current philosophical leaning and where that point lies. So basically, every option becomes available and you don’t really have to worry about every single one to get you there as if some were unavailable; that’s because you’ve done a playthrough that has made a worldview that would simply not encompass those thoughts. A lot of games will present you with all of the available options and there’s no consistency of character, so what we’re trying to do is that you’re role-playing, what would your character think in this situation? What would be dialogue options or resolutions that that kind of character would have available to them? I think there is huge potential for replayability. It’s decoupled from your build so we’ve got a classless system; on levelling up, you get an attribute point that you can spend on the Skill Tree that’s decoupled from the morality system. So you’ve got your build which is what your character is like and then you’ve got your morality which is like: how are they in this world, what is their attitudes and beliefs and how do they see themselves in this kind of setting?
A: So really in-depth role-playing in the sense that if you’re playing Dungeons and Dragons, you have a lot of manoeuvrability around your choices. That sounds absolutely fascinating! So anyone who is interested in role-playing and D&D, definitely check this one out! So where can our readers go to find more about Broken Roads?
C: Brokenroadsgame.com or just dropbearbytes.com. We’re going to start our dev blogs and everything as of next week. We’re probably going to get on indiedb as well and have that as a bit of a portal look into the game. But we’ve also got a Discord channel and we’d love people to start joining it; there’s already a bit of activity that Tim, as our standing community manager, is all over. Definitely subscribe to the email as well because we’re going to have a very small closed beta; we’re trying to find core engaged community members and we take the feedback very seriously. So if you show enthusiasm and if this is your type of game, talk to us on Discord and email us and we may let you in on our closed beta.
A: Thank you so much for that Craig and thank you for taking the time out to speak to us about Broken Roads.
C: Thank you, I really appreciate it and for you to come talk to us is awesome, so thanks a lot. It’s been great!
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