Every now and again, PAX Australia throws up a neat surprise. Last year's indie out of nowhere was Broken Roads, a traditional cRPG set in the outback with echoes of Wasteland and Mad Max. The game is still in the early stages of development, but with the creative lead from Torment: Tides of Numenera joining the project, I touched base with Broken Roads' game director to find out where the Aussie RPG was headed.
In case you missed it, the basic pitch for Broken Roads was this: it's a post-apocalyptic narrative RPG with classic turn-based combat, with the main hook being the game's Moral Compass system. Scheduled for a 2021 release on all major platforms, the morality system gives players a range of dialogue options and choices throughout the game that align with their characters' general core personality - so it's not possible to swing from one extreme to another within a couple of choices.
Coupled with the Western Australian setting, and a character creation process that generates your character through a series of answers to moral quandaries, it's a game that's ticking a lot of boxes for RPG fans. But to understand more about where the game is headed, what the effect of recent government funding will mean for the project, and what it was like making knock-off versions of Elite and Privateer as a teenager, I had a chat with Craig Ritchie, the founder of developer Drop Bear Bytes and Broken Roads's game director.
Kotaku Australia: Broken Roads has gotten state funding - can you explain what this will mean exactly?
Craig Ritchie, Drop Bear Bytes founder and Broken Roads game director: Film Victoria's support has allowed us to grow the narrative team and bring on Alexander Swords as Lead Writer and Jade Stewart, Josh Shurte and Jack Currie as Narrative Designers. One of our goals was to have different settlements in the game written by different writers, managed and coordinated for consistency by the leads.
In the Australian future we are writing, there is no centralised communication network at all, so having entirely different locations in terms of feel, tone, characters etc made sense. And in terms of team size, we have a core team of 7 with 14 freelancers we call on for different tasks and at different points in the production pipeline.
With the game's moral compass, how much can you make the player aware of the choices they can't make because of their past philosophical choices? From a design perspective, does it help or hurt replayability (and the UX considerations) to make the player regularly aware of the path not taken?
Ritchie: We are busy exploring new elements to the Moral Compass that we haven’t shown publicly yet, and definitely are not fully developed, so in brief I’m looking at ways to have a basic ‘moral memory’ (definitely a working title!) where if you’d taken certain decisions in a particular moral quadrant, it sort of ‘fills’ from the inside outwards so that even if your world view shifts (the golden arc you can see in the Moral Compass) you still not completely prevented from making certain decisions that are compatible with your character’s history.
Then there’s the design we are testing we are certain simple options in every quadrant can sometimes be available. We really don’t want to restrict the players, but there has to be significance to pursuing a particular attitude/philosophical leaning in the world.
We’re also designing from the outset to allow the player to choose how much they are aware of – this covers things like letting them know that there is an option that they fail to check for, having that completely explicit right down to what the dialogue choice would be, or if that simply says something like ‘option unavailable’ or what have you. We’ve made this decision really early on, and now that we can tag certain responses based on skill/morality checks, it’s easy for us to do system-wide settings controlled by the player.
I think teasing the player with options are unavailable really encourages replayability, and you don’t have to spoil the content that they’re missing out on – just hint that it’s there…
Can you describe the design process for the moral dilemmas the player gets during the character creation process?
Ritchie: The process here is to create a branching series of scripted interactions after the player has selected their character’s origin story. These will present short scenarios written in the world of Broken Roads and each will have multiple options for the player.
The way the Moral Compass works is that there is a dynamic system beneath the hood that adjusts your philosophical leaning based on the difference between where you are currently located and where the option just taken was. You shift both around the compass as well as toward or away from the centre, which broadens or narrows your world view.
As a result, we are allowing for players to start off with pretty much any philosophical leaning. As they are during character creation, these will all be at the very start of the game, and I want to ease players into things. So while we are not going to shy away from sensitive topics, the moral dilemmas and tough decisions during character creation may well be recognisable to those who are familiar with elementary ethics/philosophy problems. We got a lot of game content to explore these in further depth!
Why'd you settle on Western Australia as the setting? Do you have any personal history with WA?
Ritchie: When we got started the original design was a journey across the whole country. It didn’t take long before I saw just how much there was in WA without needing to venture further off. I took a trip there and drove around for a few days, took about a thousand photographs, stopped and spoke to the locals in different bars and pubs, drove down random sidestreets and farm roads, and just found so much of it absolutely perfect for the start of a post-apocalyptic adventure.
I don’t have any personal history there, no, but I did love what I saw in a lot reminded me of small isolated towns around the region of South Africa where I grew up.
I read in a previous interview that a lot of the game's economical models and balancing is done through intricate, complex spreadsheets. What do those look like, and can you talk a little more about the process of building processes for video game development?
Well, this is nothing out of the ordinary for game design in my experience. It’s just a load of tabs, columns and rows with dynamic stuff going on so you can edit things on the fly: they pull directly into the game build so it is quick and easy for a non-coder to adjust values and test things. One example that functions right there in the sheet without having to make a build is the level up flow, which we have modelled to show how values, derived stats and available skills or talents unlock depending on which attribute the player chooses at level up.
In terms of processes for video game development, entire books have been written on the subject. Our team comprises people who been in the industry for decades, some who have worked on multiple titles on multiple platforms, and some for whom this is the first ever video game project. We have got a mix of experience and best practices that we lean upon, most centred around agile project management, but again this is a really deep topic. There are a lot of tried and tested methodologies and we going with what we know works, and being flexible when needed.
Disco Elysium got a lot of praise last year for eschwing some of the traditional ideas of what classic RPGs can and should be. What kinds of experiments and systems would you like to see cRPGs toy with, add or remove altogether, whether that's in Broken Roads or another setting?
Ritchie: Disco Elysium has definitely changed the landscape! They did some really cool stuff and it’s very encouraging to see that a game like that can win Game of the Year, receive the kind of critical and popular praise it has, and that people aren’t afraid of reading in video games in 2020.
Tools like Unity and as a result how easy it is getting for newcomers to make games, reducing that barrier to entry, is great. It allows for experimentation and new ideas to actually be executed and no longer only the domain of those with the experience or capital to work on large and ambitious projects like RPGs.
Some of the stuff I’d like to see is deeper integration between novel ideas and multiple game systems – such as if you come up with something new, be it an all-new mechanic, or an original way of doing something we’ve seen before, then I think is a lot of room to explore and innovate. Mixing in time mechanics in combat, having quest flags affected by dialogue then affect your next battle for instance, combine survival and roguelike elements with a relationship management system, finding ways to add RNG/dice rolls where we have not before, and so on.
In terms of what would I like to see removed, well that is entirely subjective – but I’d love to play old Final Fantasy games with no random encounters and zero grind! I think they already started doing that in some of the re-releases, so, good start so far. But for sure, just breaking the rules and realising that some conventions exist because they make for the best player experience, while some rules rules are there only because we haven’t found something better yet.
Colin McComb is joining the project, having worked on Torment: Tides of Numanera. What does his experience bring to the project in practical terms?
Ritchie: Having Colin on board is great! I'm stoked he had the availability in his schedule and, more importantly, liked what we were doing. It's an interesting full circle, having titles like Fallout 2 and of course Planescape: Torment being such big influences on Broken Roads, and now having Colin on the team. He’s only just started with us, but the initial discussions and everything we’ve spoken about over the last month or so has been great. The way he thinks about RPG design, the experience he has got, and of course that he has a genuine interest in philosophy as well makes a very good fit.
Australia as a theme gets replicated in video games in one of two ways: heavy ocker accents, or post-apocalyptic Mad Max-like wastelands. If neither of those narrative settings existed, what would you consider to be an Australian game - and do you think Australia more broadly has an identity strong enough outside of accents that it could carry the setting of a game?
Ritchie: Well, there is a lot more to Australian than just those two things. There is so much you can do with the different parts of the country, and just how much variety there is around Australia in terms of flora, fauna and landscapes. You could probably do some very cool management game ... Sim Australia, or environmental-themed strategy games come to mind. Then there is of course an abundance of indigenous culture to draw upon as well that has nothing to do with ocker accents or wastelands. Of course Australia has an identity far beyond these.
You've mentioned that you made a space trader/combat game like Elite or Privateer as a kid - can you tell me more about that? Are there any space trader/Privateer-esque games out there right now that you love?
Ritchie: Hahaha, wow, forgot I’d discussed that! It was just a load of design docs influenced by Elite, Space Rogue, and Privateer, with a little bit of Star Control II in there for good measure! A lot of the games that 13-year-old me loved. More recently, the X series has probably been the pinnacle of single player space adventures, and I did spend 3 and a half years at CCP Games working on EVE Online and EVE: Valkyrie and sunk a lot of hours into both of those.
The most recent game to have popped up on my radar that fits the bill, but I haven’t played it yet, is Rebel Galaxy Outlaw. Those games generally require a lot of your free time as you want to immerse yourself fully – and free time as a little bit of a premium right now! Asked me again once we’ve shipped Broken Roads!
Broken Roads is scheduled to release in 2021 on PC, PS4, Xbox and the Nintendo Switch.