Interview by Chris Picone, 11 August 2021
We have a special guest today; Craig Ritchie, founder of Drop Bear Bytes and director of Broken Roads, an isometric post-apocalyptic RPG set in Australia and one of my absolutely most-anticipated games of all time. We got to have a long chat about his team, what it takes to run an international game studio, their experience with Film Victoria, marketing plans, and of course, Broken Roads.
CSH: First tell us a bit about your studio. I’ve been keeping an eye on your dev blogs and couldn’t help notice that you have managed to gather what looks like an incredibly talented team with loads of gaming experience and qualifications - but this is your debut game, so what’s your secret?
Craig: Thanks a lot. Yes, we are incredibly proud of the team we have. I think it’s really just come down to having been in the industry for a while prior and having been lucky enough to get some good recommendations really early on. Jethro Naude, co-founder of Drop Bear Bytes, and I have been friends since we were like 14 years old and he’s got a ton of experience in start-ups and finance, as well as previously having worked as a game economist.
I was recommended our art director, Kerstin Evans, by a mutual friend and I also spent a ton of time looking at and reviewing many, many CVs and resumes over the last two and half years. Most recently we’ve had the incredible fortune to attract even more experienced talent in our narrative lead, Leanne Taylor-Giles, and her husband James Giles, another gameplay animator, who both joined us this year from Ubisoft Montréal.
Some people were hired because I saw them post some of their work on Twitter, others posted to Reddit boards for game devs looking for work, while others I just reached out to out of the blue to see if they liked the look of the project want to work with us. I’m really happy with how the team has grown and continues to attract great talent.
CSH: It seems fortune has smiled upon you more than once: You have also been blessed to receive a grant from Film Victoria. What’s involved with that? What set your game apart from other applicants? Has the grant imposed any requirements or limitations on your game? What have you been able to do that you wouldn’t have been able to without the grant?
Craig: We were incredibly happy to get funding from Film Victoria – twice, in fact – and we literally would not be where we are now without them. There is a very lengthy application process: a series of meetings and interviews, full budget breakdowns, information on the team, acquittal reports, milestone updates… It’s an incredibly structured program that happens to mirror the requirements for things such as platform partners, game publishers or investors/financiers, which in itself is good experience for game studios to use to get used to this kind of thing.
In terms of what set us apart, well, I think we’re doing something new and interesting with a really solid team that can execute on the plan. A lot of people think ‘If I only had the money I could do X,’ or ‘If only I got funded I could do Y…’ That’s true in some cases, but really not for all. There are many projects out there and there is a lot of competition and in fact we got turned down by Film Victoria the first time we applied for funding. We were not at the point yet where they were confident that we were the best choice for them to back, and fair enough.
I’m seriously grateful to them though. They have believed in us, and I’m very happy we happen to live in a state that has such good government support for the games industry. Not only does Film Victoria support us, but so does Creative Victoria, which gave us a grant to take part in PAX Australia in 2019 and provided us with a further grant for PAX Online last year.
They haven’t actually imposed requirements and limitations beyond a few things like including their logo as well as certain other contractual obligations, and of course they have a code of conduct, a diversity statement, and a few other things that are very reasonable about studio culture, values, and many other things that – quite frankly – if you are not doing them, your studio’s probably got larger problems anyway. We touch on some very heavy themes and we’re not backing away from some very serious topics; Broken Roads is for mature audiences and puts players in some very difficult ethical quandaries, and Film Victoria have been nothing but supportive of that.
In terms of what we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do without their support… well, keep the studio going, keep the lights on, and keep the team paid. There was a period last year where it was Film Victoria alone that kept us going. It is no exaggeration that Broken Roads would not exist the way it is today without them.
CSH: One more question before we get to the meat. Your website also mentions that, while you’re based in Australia, your team is spread across the globe – South Africa, Canada, and even China. What’s it like working with such a scattered team?
Craig: Yes, pretty much all of us work remotely across many countries and time zones. We’ve largely gotten used to this the whole way through development, and not only since lockdown, as many of us have been freelancing or running our own home offices for years anyway.
It takes a different kind of discipline and also a certain type of temperament to be able to sit alone in a room and focus for most of your day. There are definitely personalities better suited to having people around them all day, and I certainly feel for how they have had to handle the world as it is at the moment, but for most if not all of the Drop Bear Bytes team, the way we’ve got everyone set up works well.
CSH: I imagine trying to synergise across the timezones must be a nightmare. Are there any systems or programs you use to help manage the team?
Craig: We use Slack, Google Workspaces, Confluence, JIRA, Skype, smoke signal, carrier pigeon. All of our assets and data for the game are in the cloud, so things such as BitBucket or Google Shared Drives, which a lot of studios use even if they are located in the same physical location anyway and work just as well for a distributed team. There are so many good collaborative tools these days that you just have to find works for you. In past projects we’ve also used Basecamp, Dropbox, Asana, Trello, HacknPlan and numerous others, but we’ve got a pretty good set up at the moment – mostly thanks to our excellent producer, Jess!
CSH: Onto the game then! Let’s start with the fundamentals. In this day and age, why did you opt for isometric? Why turn-based?
Craig: For quite a few of us on the team, isometric RPGs are our all-time favourites. It really is as straightforward as that. It’s a proven approach that has worked incredibly well for decades now, again looking all the way back to the Ultima games and many others from the late 80s and early 90s, through to the giants such as Fallout and Planescape: Torment, and more recently Shadowrun and Pillars of Eternity. I love the perspective; I love the way it can both inspire nostalgia and still have room for innovation. Isometric RPGs allow for, in my opinion, the best instantiation of tabletop role-playing on a computer. The raised position view of a single portion of the map, seeing a little bit more of the world at a time, adventuring through and uncovering the fog of war… We love all these things and we know that the kinds of players we’re connecting with love them too.
Broken Roads is turn-based quite simply because we all prefer more cerebral combat and the strategic & tactical thinking which that style of gameplay offers, where your decisions and your smarts matter more than your reaction speed. There is absolutely room for awesome action RPGs and other action titles or fighting games where it’s all about how good you are with the controller, how well you can react in a moment, and so on. We love those games too, but we knew from the outset we wanted Broken Roads to feature turn-based combat and be a narrative-driven, very story-heavy game.
CSH: What else can you tell us about the inspiration behind Broken Roads? You’ve already mentioned Fallout and Planescape: Torment. Mad Max and Disco Elysium are obvious influences as well but what else? Any specific historical events? Other literature?
Craig: Well, you listed some of the big ones, but we are also really influenced by games going as far back as the Ultima series, the original Baldur’s Gate games, the Fighting Fantasy game books, and many others. As for Disco Elysium, those comparisons are somewhat unavoidable. The developers completely raised the bar so that every isometric RPG/adventure game from now on will be compared to it for a very, very long time. That team did some amazing things with that game.
As for historical events, there’s a whole load of stuff that happens in the game obviously influenced by world and Australian history, but players can find that out for themselves. I don’t want to spoil that for them.
In terms of other literature, sure. I can’t even begin to tell you how many books have influenced the team over the years. As well as our respective educations, mine in particular was studying philosophy, which our creative lead Colin McComb also studied; Jethro has a Masters degree in economics and a background in environmental economics; Kerstin studied psychology; and the list goes on. We want to touch on a wide range of ideas, theories, philosophies, and works from so many great thinkers around the world.
CSH: This seems like an opportune place to segue into one of Broken Roads’ flagship features, the Moral Compass. You’ve talked about it lots elsewhere, but I gather it’s changed over time and you’re still looking at further changes. Can you talk about that?
Craig: Sure – the Moral Compass was our way of bringing more flexibility and depth to morality systems than the usual alignment/good vs bad/light side vs dark side split we’ve seen before. We wanted something that not only constrained player’s choices but also adapted to each of those choices in turn, just as someone’s world view can change based on experiences in the real world.
And yes, there definitely have been a number of new ideas and improvements since we first designed it. I mean, the biggest change to the mechanic was changing one of the four quadrants from existentialist to humanist, but there’s also been the addition of moral memory (which may still be renamed of course!) which are sort of like tendencies or inclinations towards other ideologies that fall outside of your worldview, a significant change to moral traits over the last little while (again, something we are not revealing too much about right now!) and the way that characters’ morality can play in to combat. We are still honing, refining, testing, balancing – all the time – and deepening many of the moral dialogues in the game so that you don’t simply make one utilitarian choice and there you go, but rather open up a flow that can result in an entire philosophical argument before it’s done.
Wait a while… We will have a lot more to show soon.
CSH: Speaking of characters, who can we expect to meet in Broken Roads? You’ve kept pretty mum on the topic so far.
Craig: Well, I don’t want to go into the characters too much right now; I think one of the joys of these sorts of games is meeting the major characters and discovering companions as the story unfolds.
What I can say is that we’ve tailored a number of the companions to suit traditional RPG archetypes, even though we have a classless system, while also focusing very heavily on giving them a lot of depth. Companions have a real history and backstory; inter-party dynamics; party banter; an opinion of the player’s character; an opinion of each other, and so on. This means that players not only can enjoy the different skills that companions bring to the experience, but also the relationships that form along the way.
So for instance, there’s Sean, who has grown up as a farmer; Jess, who is a cameleer; a number of hired guns collectively known as the Scouts, and who each brings with them a range of skills; Cole, who is a tinkerer/repairer/engineer, and others who players will get to meet soon.
CSH: I can’t wait! What about the setting? Mad Max was one of your main inspirations and you’re based in Victoria, so I was surprised to hear the game was based in Western Australia?
Craig: WA is just so right for doing something post-apocalyptic. It’s got dry and barren areas as well as an abundance of farms, the red ground, the little towns dotted around the landscape… The place has interesting old architecture and so many beautiful locations.
CSH: You’ve mentioned Kalgoorlie to Brookton specifically. What drew you to this area? Are there specific features or history that drew your interest?
Craig: The game starts off in Brookton and covers a lot of the wheatbelt region, such as Merredin, Kalgoorlie and Southern Cross, as well as a number of locations off the beaten track. Because we wanted to make things as authentic and true to Western Australia as possible, I drove around there for three days and took over a thousand photographs for reference material. We were not able to put nearly as much in the game as we would like!
CSH: That sounds amazing. I’ve always wanted to visit WA but I’ve never quite made it there. You’re nearing the end of this project - relatively speaking, of course. Any plans for the future?
Craig: There’s a lot we want to do, and we’re often banking ideas on our internal wiki. We’re full steam ahead on Broken Roads and are just fully focused on making the best game we possibly can! We’ve still got a long way to go, and release isn’t necessarily the end of development these days…
CSH: Most indie developers struggle to gather any kind of media attention but Broken Roads has been something of a media darling. How did you manage that? Did your own marketing background help?
Craig: Thanks – yes, we’ve been seriously stoked with how much coverage we’ve got and the attention that the game has garnered thus far. We had a plan to come out with a splash from the first reveal on 1st October 2019 and put a lot of effort into PAX Australia a couple weeks later. We worked very hard on establishing a media relations database and responding to individual emails and accepting all interview requests the early days, no matter how small the outlet.
Many, many indie game developers don’t appreciate how powerful and impactful building a brand and having a marketing plan is. I think too many people think, ‘Oh if I’ve got a good-looking game or an interesting premise it will just get a ton of attention anyway’, or the ultimate wrong approach of, ‘I’ll market it when the game is out’. None of this is news, by the way, but it’s still surprising how many people ignore this.
The short of it is we worked very, very hard in the lead up to October 2019, and I’m sure that resulted in what a lot of people call ‘luck’, which my experience has shown is directly proportionate to the effort you put in.
CSH: As anyone who’s ever read any of my work knows, I’ve made a point of finishing every interview on the same question. So to wrap this up: Making something as lengthy and in-depth as Broken Roads is a process of learning as much as creation. What mistakes did you make? What would you do differently knowing what you know now?
Craig: We are always learning, seriously. We’ve made mistakes in nearly all areas of the game, but thankfully none are catastrophic and all have been learning opportunities. These range from simple narrative decisions where we’ve had to throw out a few weeks’ worth of work because we changed the story, through to design ideas that sound great when pitched, look awesome once designed, but just don’t feel good when you test them in game.
The mistakes also happened just in general studio management as well as in making the game itself, but again, there is always something to take from them: learning how to hire with company culture in mind, having Slack on my phone (it’s now deleted, thankfully) through to lockdown preventing us from being able to travel to WA on multiple occasions. Knowing what I know now, I’d advise my team not to have Slack on their mobile devices, and I definitely won’t be purchasing non-refundable plane tickets ever again.
Thanks so much for your time, Craig! Marketing and funding are crucial but often-overlooked aspects of indie game development, and I think there are a few valuable lessons here that any budding indie dev can learn from. And I’m even more excited for Broken Roads now than ever! I guess I’ll have to go back to stalking your Twitter account for updates on your Dev Blog for now, and I eagerly await the release. The hype, as they say, is real.
Drop Bear Bytes on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DropBearBytes
Broken Roads on Twitter: https://twitter.com/brokenroadsgame