Broken Roads Interview with Drop Bear Bytes

Broken Roads Interview with Drop Bear Bytes text over two characters in a wasteland with a bomb blast in the far distance.

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of drought and flooding rains.

An excerpt from Dorothea Mackellar’s famous poem “My Country” 1906

The excerpt above is to many within Australia (of which I am one) as perfect a verse as exists to encapsulate the beautiful and unforgiving nature of the Great Southern Land. Of course, Australia is much more than this, both now and for the estimated 65,000 years of its human history, and to those ancient inhabitants, it is a land of many nations with distinct cultures and identities. What does the future look like in such a land? And what would that future bring if some apocalyptic reset event occurred? Many stories and films have pondered this, the most prominent and influential example being George Miller’s 1979 film Mad Max. The world of Mad Max is chaotic and amoral, where death is king and mercy is myth.

Broken Roads borrows much from the aesthetic and themes of Mad Max and its ilk, films presenting amoral dystopias, with humanity regressed to the animal. Broken Roads takes a u-turn, presenting a post-apocalyptic Australia in which all decisions have morality, postulating perhaps that it is that factor that separates us from the animal; the very survival of the human race in catastrophic circumstances may hinge on our capacity to apply subjective moral tags, a philosophical shelter against the sticks and stones of the chaotic, unthinking universe.

As an Australian who is deeply interested in RPGs, Broken Roads offers two things: a new and hopefully unique presentation of Australia to the world and a new and exciting toy box in which to explore a post-apocalyptic world with a strong moral lens. So, we reached out to Broken Roads developer Drop Bear Bytes for insight into their processes and approach to building the game.

Answers were provided by Craig Ritchie (Game Director), Anniemay Parker (Narrative Designer), and Tim Sunderland (Composer and Audio Lead).

RPGFan: I’ll start by asking you to introduce Broken Roads and share some insight into its original conception.

Craig Ritchie: In its earliest form, Broken Roads was going to be a road-trip SRPG with tactical combat. Far more focus on the encounters and the combat, but we couldn’t help ourselves in adding more to the world and the characters’ backstories and so on. It wasn’t even Australia at first — just some generic post-apocalyptic location.

As we dug further in, well, we realised we were designing something closer to Baldur’s Gate 2 (both my and my co-founder’s favourite game) or the early Fallouts, and we dropped the “S” part and focused on a traditional isometric RPG in the style that we love.

Broken Roads' Big Bux Billy with dialogue choices to either sell someone's necklace or check that they are okay parting with it.
Which path would you take?

RPGFan: The Moral Compass system in Broken Roads is quite novel and seemingly dynamic. Was this a central concept from the beginning or did it emerge throughout early development? What influences led to this morality system?

Craig Ritchie: It was quite soon after we decided that, yes, this is going to be a narrative-driven RPG and were looking at ways to represent a character’s range of options that also allowed them to shift visually. So if you think of old D&D alignments (Lawful Good thru Chaotic Evil) it’s a good 3×3 setup but it’s not always clear how a decision you make might be, say, Chaotic Neutral vs Chaotic Good and how you might be moving between the two.

We were also very conscious of finding a way that restricted player characters from doing the ‘good option, good option, good option OK now the most evil choice in the game’ thing. Because the Moral Compass slowly rotates, there’s a logic to how your character could conceivably change over the course of the game, while at the same time not feeling prohibitively restrictive to players themselves.

When starting the game and determining where your player character is located on the Moral Compass, you are able to choose to hide these prefixes for complete immersion if you prefer not to know whether something is a moral choice or not.

You can always change this, and other dialogue display options, at any time. We know these can influence player choice so we let you decide if you want to see the Moral Compass previews or not.

RPGFan: Although the game is not fully voiced, there is some choice voiced dialogue. Where did Drop Bear Bytes source the voice actors for this game? Are there any voices we might know from Australian TV or other media?

Anniemay Parker: In regards to sourcing our voice actors, we had Karla Hart, our writer on all Indigenous content, source Noongar people to voice our Indigenous characters. Otherwise, Tim has worked diligently to find the cream of the Aussie crop along with some of his mates to bring it all together. I even get to voice a vendor in the game! I feel quite famous with that under my belt now.

Tim Sunderland: We’ve been fortunate to work with professional voice actors such as Guy Cunningham, Aimee Smith, Angela Tran, Karla Hart, Andrew Krakouer and Jay K Cagatay just to name a few, but I’ve also enlisted friends, family, and coworkers to lend their “Aussieness” to the voices.

RPGFan: The Switch is an aging platform and hasn’t always offered the smoothest CRPG experience. Did you have any reservations about developing Broken Roads for this platform? Are there any ways the game will be designed differently for console platforms in general?

Craig Ritchie: I’m still really impressed by what I see developers squeezing out of Switch hardware. We’ve done some things like much lower texture resolution, disabling unimportant NPCs from crowds, and a ton of other optimisation throughout the game to make Broken Roads run well not just on Switch but also on Xbox One and PS4.

We didn’t actually design anything differently as we always knew from the start we would want to support Xbox controllers on PC from launch, and having a lot of the UI built with this in mind helped. Of course when it did actually come time to make everything function perfectly without keyboard and mouse, well, yeah, it took a lot more time than expected. Nothing that the team couldn’t overcome, thankfully, and it handles well now.

RPGFan: Do you think making such an Australian game could risk alienating an international audience? Or do you expect the opposite, that Australia’s mystique and uniqueness will shine through and intrigue players from overseas?

Craig Ritchie: Honestly I expect the opposite. People are intrigued, like you say, by this weird continent on the other side of the world with its strange animals and reputation where everything is trying to kill you. We’ve leaned into a lot of the urban myths and that kind of thing, and that’s been fun. We did end up getting some feedback after the demo came out last year that people expected way more of the stereotypes they know from old movies or memes, but that’s kind of what we were going for — fun, hopefully funny, but not farcical. An authentic look at the many things that are truly Australian, and then taking that forward into a post-apocalyptic setting where one of the ‘rules’ was that people should behave and react in a believable way for the most part, and that kept some of the silliness out.

There are a lot of laugh out loud moments in Broken Roads, but the tone remains mature and serious. Too many instances of “crikey!” or “that’s not a knife!” would have been a little off target.

Battling armed combatants in the ruins of a park in Broken Roads.
What a terrible day for a picnic in the park.

RPGFan: My American colleague Abraham Kobylanski was asking about the prevalence of post-apocalyptic media coming out of Australia. Do you think this is a natural narrative playground for Australian creators? Were movies like Mad Max, The Rover, or even Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds more, or less, influential on Broken Roads than games like Fallout and Wasteland?

Craig Ritchie: The primary influence for all things Wasteland and Fallout were Mad Max and probably A Boy And His Dog (not Australian), with the fashion and general vibe of Mad Max 2 likely being the main influence. They all come back to Broken Roads — and thus Australia — because Fallout 1 and 2 are for sure the biggest influences on our game.

I watched a ton — many, many hours — of old post-apoc movies as well as Australian classics and have many pages of notes from pre-production in the first half of 2019. Most never made their way into the game but they did coalesce into the overall result you’ll see in Broken Roads.

RPGFan: The creative team spent some time scouting sites, taking photos, etc. When on these trips, what was the community’s interest? Were there any uniquely Aussie people who influenced the NPC design?

Tim Sunderland: I think the overall feedback from the locals was positive, most people just asked why there of all places, to which we’d respond, why not? Being in regional Western Australia actually felt very similar to being in regional Queensland, the state where I’m from, so it was a very familiar setting, but I think Australians from all over the country still have that same “Aussieness” about them no matter where they’re from, so I’m sure anyone playing the game can look at or talk to an NPC and say “Hey, I’ve got a mate just like this” and I think this is one of the best things about being Australian and I’m excited for people to experience that feeling.

RPGFan: This is a game made on, and in many ways, about the traditional land of Indigenous Australians. What level of consultation did you have with Traditional Owners? Does Drop Bear Bytes feel a responsibility to highlight First Nations stories and voices in Broken Roads?

Anniemay Parker: We’ve worked closely with multiple Indigenous consultants across the development of this project to ensure we properly capture such an important part of Australian culture. I personally have worked with Karla Hart who offered her amazing writing skills to write dialogue for an Indigenous companion and the Noongar characters in Broken Roads.

My favourite parts of the entire process were learning Noongar words and designing some quests with Karla. She offered interesting solutions to the usual bread and butter of quest types that range from finding unique items to hunting and even trade.

A chart of thought is shown in Broken Roads.
Broken Roads’ Moral Compass offers plenty of insight.

RPGFan: A common criticism of games with morality systems is that the player might perceive they have been punished or otherwise disadvantaged by choosing a particular path, feeling that one path is objectively richer or more rewarding than another. What thought, if any, was given to this criticism? Can Broken Road‘s Moral Compass offer a more balanced experience than other games like Mass Effect or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic?

Craig Ritchie: We gave this extensive thought. It was a big consideration to make most options both reasonable (to the in-game moment) and to not always reward the player simply for choosing a dialogue option that has a moral quadrant prefix. We want to reward players thinking through the situation, so just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should. Broken Roads is definitely not a game where what you may consider to be the ‘good’ options always results in the best outcome or the best rewards. Just like in real life, though, people in our post-apocalyptic Australia prefer someone helpful and cooperative over a rude, selfish dickhead. It’s just that the people who depend on you may not take kindly to acts of altruism that mean they end up worse off as a result of your choices.

As a result, we certainly believe that there’s far more going on under the hood in Broken Roads than Mass Effect and KOTOR because they were analysing your morality as a position between two poles, while ours is 360 degrees and 100 points from centre to periphery. Each of your companions also has a position on the Compass. This is hidden, but if you’re paying attention to their personality and their reactions in the moment, it should become apparent what their respective world views are.

RPGFan: What steps did Drop Bear Bytes take to ensure accessibility in Broken Roads, considering factors like inclusivity and catering to a diverse player base?

Craig Ritchie: We’ve added in numerous options to the settings that allow players to play how they want. These can be in the way of showing or hiding Moral Compass previews, showing or hiding quest objectives in the HUD, and so on. There’s a way we think the game is most fun to play, but it is swayed by my own old-school RPG bias, so there are a couple QoL improvements as well.

At launch we have a Large Font option, which I find particularly useful on Steam Deck, and after launch I would like to either add a slider or another even larger font size.

One thing we designed and have waiting in the wings is a colour-blind mode and the palette for that. What we actually get to implement depends on sales of the game and — simply put — how much money we are able to commit to post-launch improvements.

RPGFan: With the insane success of Baldur’s Gate 3 expected to usher in an era of mainstream acceptance of CRPGs, do you think Broken Roads is poised to be at the forefront of an Australian wave of these types of RPGs?

Tim Sunderland: I think we all feel like we’ve been operating in the shadow of Baldur’s Gate 3, but in a really great way because they’ve undoubtedly raised the bar for RPGs in general and brought a lot of attention to CRPGs specifically, which is exactly what we are, so to be releasing Broken Roads in the wake of that is incredibly exciting. I’d love to see more RPGs and games of all genres set in Australia and if we help to encourage that even in the slightest, I’ll be very happy.

RPGFan: Can you discuss any post-launch plans for Broken Roads, such as updates, expansions, or additional content, and how the team aims to keep the player community engaged over time?

Craig Ritchie: We’re definitely not done with Broken Roads. We have combat encounters we can still polish, quests that had to be cut short (or cut entirely) that we’d like to get back in, additional moral moments we couldn’t execute on as well as we would have liked, and a lot more beyond that. On top of hotfixes and normal patches to fix bugs, I think players can expect a big (free) v1.1 patch in the next few months for sure.

Broken Roads' inventory screen with Jess carrying lots of food, weapons, and beer.
Some of those cans look familiar…

RPGFan: Given your studio’s name, I thought I should ask you to share something about your first run-in with a drop bear. What advice can you give people considering a trip to Australia, so they might survive an encounter with one of these vicious marsupials?

Anniemay Parker: All I have to say is, it’s definitely not as cute or cuddly as a koala. I’ve seen photos circling around Australia but no one can ever get a clear shot on the beasts, and those that do, disappear forever.

Tim Sunderland: Well to be honest if you ever have a run in with one chances are you’re never comin’ back, and if you do, you’ll never be the same, so the best medicine is to avoid them all together and when in the bush always remember to look up and live.

RPGFan: There seems to be an emphasis on moral philosophy in Broken Roads. Do you think players will resonate with some of these themes, or will they simply act as a narrative vehicle? What key messages would you like players to walk away with after playing the game?

Craig Ritchie: We don’t have a specific message other than ‘think more.’

We obviously hope players are intrigued by the questions raised in Broken Roads. We’d like the difficult moments in the game to serve as thought experiments that allow them to probe deeper, outside of the game I mean, and I am looking forward to reading and participating in Reddit or Discord discussions on some of those moments.

My personal message would be: watch out for false dichotomies and reductive summaries of complex situations. The Moral Compass was directly inspired by seeing how people communicate on Twitter and Facebook. Spending less time on social media helps, and will probably make your life better.

Anniemay Parker: My personal message would be: Empathy is a powerful tool.

It doesn’t mean you let someone get away with anything because of their circumstances, but it helps you remain open-minded and understand the world a little better. It empowers you to question why you think the way you do in different situations. Knowing when and where to apply empathy can open up opportunities in life that would otherwise pass you by.

RPGFan extends our thanks to Drop Bear Bytes’ Craig Ritchie, Anniemay Parker, and Tim Sunderland for taking the time to answer our many questions about Broken Roads, and Plan of Attack’s Jeffrey Matulef for their tireless coordination. For further reading, be sure to check out Abe’s review.

Claton Stevenson

Claton Stevenson

Claton (yes no "Y") is an RPG obsessed News Editor. Claton fell in love with the genre whilst watching his childhood friend spam GF summons in FF VIII; thinking "wow these graphics are just like real life. Is this really a game"? He’s been chasing that feeling of awe and wonder ever since. Who knows? Maybe he’ll find it right here with RPGFan. When he’s not writing for RPGFan, you’ll find him nonchalantly leaning against the ballroom wall being the “best looking guy here.” …whatever.