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Broken Roads: Developing an Isometric Post-Apocalyptic RPG

Drop Bear Bytes' Craig Ritchie and Bianca Roux have told us about the development process behind their upcoming RPG Broken Roads, spoke about its gameplay mechanics and art style, and explained how the polarization of society affected the game's morality system.


80.lv: Please introduce yourselves to our readers.

Craig Ritchie, Game Director and Co-Founder: I was a journalist for about 15 years before moving into the industry. I was involved with both surfing and games journalism, then got into digital marketing for some surf brands while still writing for game websites and magazines. The digital marketing experience plus familiarity with games landed me a job with NVIDIA doing digital marketing, mostly email marketing at the time, for GeForce and their other brands. CCP Games were in need of an email producer and I was keen to get directly into the games industry so jumped ship and worked in their Shanghai office on DUST 514 (and got to do some playtesting of the canceled Vampires: The Masquerade MMO).

Later, they moved me to the Reykjavik office to work on marketing for EVE Online (and I had an awesome 9 months living in Iceland!) before finally splitting my time between their Newcastle and London offices doing marketing and live events on their VR title, EVE: Valkyrie.

I ended up moving to Australia when my wife was relocated for work in 2017 and founded Drop Bear Bytes in 2019 after a couple of years of games marketing consultancy work.

Bianca Roux, Art Lead: I studied Animation in 2011 at the Animation School in South Africa. I have played games since the young age of 4 and loved drawing characters and anatomy all my Life. After finishing high school, I came across the leading Animation School in Africa and knew this was the first step in leading me to my dream of working in the gaming industry. My skills have come from a good overview of the 3D workflow in college, watching countless tutorials, practicing my craft, and general work experience. I have taught myself many of the software packages, knowing that they are a popular means of workflow in the gaming industry, like ZBrush and Substance 3D Painter. I particularly enjoy sculpting characters and bringing 2D images to life in 3D.

I started as an Intern at a cell phone mobile gaming company, where I modeled props for a game called Snail Boy. After breaking into the 3D industry, I worked as a Sculptor and Modeler at a 3D printing company. I moved on to a company called Atomedge, where we worked closely with the University of Cape Town in order to bring the students a means of learning photorealistic anatomy in 3D through an app.

I then started working for another cell phone gaming company called Augmentors. Here I was a Character and Prop Modeler and also delved a bit into rigging and skinning of the game characters for unity.  After that, I got the amazing opportunity to work at one of Africa's leading Animation Studios, Triggerfish. I was a Character Artist in the film called Seal Team.

I then moved on to working as a Freelance Artist for numerous small commissions ranging from stylized cute characters to realistic anatomy projects. Since then I have been working at Drop Bear Bytes for 3 years and I am so excited to finally be working on a game for numerous platforms. I believe the experience I have gained in all the different varieties of the 3D field has made me a better artist with broad knowledge, and I feel very honored to be able to say that.

The Studio

80.lv: Could you tell us more about Drop Bear Bytes?

Craig Ritchie: I founded the company with Jethro Naude in January 2019 – a friend since childhood who had worked with on a couple of startups, including a games studio, and we slowly grew the team as investor funding, state funding, and publisher advances allowed. We’ve grown to 14 now, distributed across multiple time zones in five countries, so there’s a lot of Slack calls, Google Calendar juggling, and the like. We were already fully remote before COVID hit, so thankfully we were largely set up for the way many studios have had to adjust to working these days.

Bianca Roux: There are 14 of us at Drop Bear Bytes plus another six people supporting us at Knights of Unity. We've had a number of contractors over the last few years so a little over 30 people have worked on the game in total.

We are a remote company and have many different time zones, however, we have found a time each day that suits everyone to have a call and catch up on what we're working on. Art, Narrative, and the Dev teams work cohesively and give each other helpful guidance and feedback. Narrative will give us an idea of what requirements to meet to tell the story, as well as what characters, props, and buildings are necessary for the game. The Art team is in the same time zone so we are constantly in contact and work very well as a team. The Dev team implements our 3D creations and we love experiencing the last step in the pipeline.

Broken Roads

80.lv: Now, let's talk about Broken Roads, how did you come up with the idea for the game? Why did you choose post-apocalyptic Australia as the game's setting?

Craig Ritchie: Jethro and I originally played around with a bunch of ideas – some of which we may want to go back to one day – that centered around tactical combat in a post-apocalyptic world. As we expanded the ideas we thought, hey, why not do it in Australia rather than generic post-apoc, which is so often North American or in Eastern Europe? "Great setting for it," I thought, "but why is Australia just not the setting for more games?"

So, we had this plan for a tactical combat game journeying across the whole country, but within the first month, maybe six weeks in, we kept on expanding on the stories and characters to such a degree that we realized, hey, we’re actually designing things that would be better suited to a standard cRPG. Baldur’s Gate 2 is both Jethro and my favorite game of all time, and so many things we built out worked for a classic isometric RPG more so than a tactical/strategy RPG, and we made the conscious decision to have Broken Roads as a narrative-driven RPG in February 2019.

The Game's World & Art Style

80.lv: Please tell us about the upcoming game's world, how was it created? How did you achieve the hand-painted style?

Craig Ritchie: I knew from the outset that I wanted a game that felt like playing in concept art. For a long time I’ve felt that concept art looks way better than the finished result – years ago this was of course due to limitations in computing power/graphics hardware, but that’s not an issue anymore. I had a very specific style in mind for this and a friend introduced me to Kerstin Evans, who joined as a Concept Artist before moving up to be our Art Director for about three years. When I saw the work on her ArtStation, I knew for sure she had the big brushstroke, a painterly style I was looking for in the game and she did a fantastic job bringing it to life in Broken Roads.

Bianca Roux: We use numerous software packages such as Photoshop, ZBrush, Maya, and Substance 3D Painter. There was a process of research and development in exploring how to capture a hand-painted style on 3D characters, buildings, and objects. We leaned on researching many different games with similar styles, while still trying to create our own unique method. In the sculpting phase, we discovered that a detailed, yet stylistic hard-edged approach works well to complement the highlights and shadows. We found that using a combination of Normal, Ambient Occlusion, and Curvature maps set the model up well as a base for texture. Our Texture Artist paints all the textures by hand, capturing large brush strokes, and thus, giving the world our unique painterly aesthetic.

We decided to make the move to full 3D in 2021, and have found that this has benefitted us greatly. 3D models achieve more visual appeal in the lighting and rendering, as well as improve workflow speed by reusing, rotating, and re-texturing existing objects. Our goal is to create a game where it feels like you are playing in concept art and we still achieve this aesthetic with our method of hand painting 3D models.

RPG Mechanics

80.lv: You state that the game will have a blend of traditional and original RPG mechanics, could you please elaborate? How do you differentiate them?

Craig Ritchie: The team’s computer role-play gaming roots go all the way back to the 80s and 90s with titles like the Ultima games, Might and Magic, Fallout, and of course all the Infinity Engine RPGs. Broken Roads satisfies the core RPG fan’s desire for exploration, character development, combat, quests, side quests, leveling up, meeting new party members, building relationships with your companions as you go, and of course reactivity and different endings or at least end consequences based on the player’s decisions. I consider all of these to be traditional RPG mechanics.

In terms of original, well, the more modern thing we’re bringing are four different origin stories (Hired Gun, Barter Crew, Jackaroo, and Surveyor) that serve more as archetypes than strict classes (but your companions in Broken Roads have been designed to fit class archetypes from Dungeons and Dragons, such as rangers, berserkers or clerics, for instance, but I’ll go deeper into that another time).

The main thing we’re bringing that is new is the Moral Compass, which we believe is a more original take on alignment and morality than what has been done before. We’ve also had a couple of ideas and systems in the works that Disco Elysium beat us to launch with (*shakes fist towards London by way of Estonia) to do with how philosophical ideas germinate and evolve in the character over time.

The Moral Compass

80.lv: Could you tell us about your unique Morality System, how does it influence dialogue, quests, and character development?

Craig Ritchie: I really just wanted to do something that better resembled how people actually navigate their way through the world, where we’re not nearly the simplistic, one-dimensional beings that are either entirely this thing or entirely that thing. "You’re with us or against us", or "you share this one characteristic that is similar to this person I despise, therefore you must be entirely like this person I despise". Twitter argument thinking, basically.

The way people have become so utterly divided and polarized over almost everything, and how a difference of opinion has now had morality projected onto it – for example, the near-religious fervor with which people don’t just consider opposing views as merely a difference of opinion or simply incorrect, but also immoral, and the very public, very vocal condemnation of those who think differently while loudly, and again publicly, letting everyone know "I am not in that camp! I am not one of the deplorable". Social media, online anonymity, isolation, and atomization coupled with such divisive "this or that" political events like the Brexit vote and the Trump/Clinton election brought out the worst in people that we’d seen in years, maybe ever.

The utter lack of critical thinking and the reductive oversimplification of the complexity of a person’s entire life, inner world, and values, hopes, and dreams, however philosophical you want to wax on this, the point is that people were reduced from beings deserving dignity and respect to hated, impure, immoral enemies where before they could have simply been respectful of their differences and dislike their choices but not dehumanize them because of them.

All of this was the major driving force for wanting to produce a character alignment system that touched on this complexity, while of course also working in a video game. I played around with some 3D designs but they just became too complex. A compass, with 360 degrees, divided into four, with varying moral philosophies and a moveable section of permitted choices, your character’s world view, was the result.

Promoting the Game

80.lv: How do you approach the business side of things and promote the game?

Bianca Roux: We have recorded and posted numerous videos and interviews on our community platforms such as Steam, YouTube, Discord, and Twitter. In these, we discuss the game and our workflows, speak a little about ourselves, and give advice to anyone interested in getting into the industry. We enjoy interacting with the community and hearing any feedback or ideas that they may have. It is incredibly rewarding giving the community teasers and updates and seeing their reactions.

Craig Ritchie: In terms of monetization, it’s going to be a premium game. We’re still determining what the price will be at launch but you can reasonably expect it to be similarly priced to similar games. In terms of promotion, well, all the standard stuff we have already been doing like attending shows such as PAX and gamescom, getting as much press coverage as we can, and of course, a few other things up our sleeves which we’ll reserve for 2023.

Future Plans

80.lv: What are Drop Bear Bytes' future plans? Are there any new features you plan to implement in Broken Roads?

Bianca Roux: Look out for many authentically Australian animals, critters, and freaky insects. Many more unique characters are in the pipeline to interact with throughout the game. We still have some levels in development, which will capture the colors and authentic look and feel of Western Australia.

Craig Ritchie: We’ve also been thinking beyond Broken Roads for some time now, but we’re a long way away from discussing any of that. We’ve got a deep, complex RPG to ship first! In terms of new features still to be implemented, there are a couple of backburner items we will get to if time allows, but the core design, story, mechanics, etc. have all been set in stone for some time now. It’s more about tweaking, balancing, and improving what we have as opposed to introducing anything new during the final year of development.

Craig Ritchie and Bianca Roux, Game Director and Art Lead at Drop Bear Bytes

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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