The benefit of publishing a very classic, mature RPG in the post-Disco Elysium age is that a lot of publishers suddenly understand how popular the genre is. The downside? A lot of publishers want your product to be another Disco Elysium.
This was a problem that came up for Broken Roads, the Australian post-apocalyptic RPG from the Torquay-based studio Drop Bear Bytes. I’ve kept my eye on the game since it was announced — it was one of the highlights of the last in-person PAX Australia — and last week, the game made a splash by announcing a new release date and a new publisher.
The publishing element was interesting, only because indie developers have been quite vocal lately about unfair, predatory contracts. But it’d been a couple of years since the game was first announced and I was keen to hear what had changed and how things had progressed. So as part of an hour-long chat about the Australian, Fallout-inspired RPG, I asked Drop Bear Bytes founder Craig Ritchie: what does having a publisher actually mean for the studio, considering they’d been the recipient of state government funding from Film Victoria?
“Maybe people actually overestimate how much money we get from Film Victoria,” Ritchie explained over a video call. “It’s been incredibly supportive, it’s helped a ton when we needed it, certainly kept the lights on and we 100 percent couldn’t have gotten where we are without them.”
Most of the funding provided by state governments are quite small scale. While those coffers are expanding much further — Film Victoria’s in particular — a lot of the grants are typically only enough to cover the salaries or recruitment of one or two people, and sometimes not even as full-time staff. That’s partially why the federally backed tax grant is such a massive deal for Australia: it provides the kind of security that helps cover funding at scale.
“The money from Film Victoria was well under 10 percent of the budget, and again, I’m being vague on purpose. But people need to understand a game like this, we’ve got 14-15 people over the course of a couple years, and that’s a lot of money,” Ritchie explained.
But perhaps a more interesting part of the Broken Roads journey is what’s happened over the last couple of years. While the game eventually signed with Team17, who were the first to reach out after coverage of the game ran in October 2019, the Aussie studio had conversations with 35 separate publishers. Ritchie explained that they received many offers, contracts and late round discussions, and he provided more insight into the publishing process from his perspective.
“But for a few, our budget was simply too high — and I know our budget isn’t that high in terms of team sizes and overall end to end costs,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of small publishers that are like, ‘This is cool and if they don’t need the money, then we can give them all the services’. But we’re like, ‘No, we need cash first and foremost to put food on the table. Then we need to have the services that you provide as well’.”
“We spoke to over 35 [publishers]; we spoke to some of the biggest in the world and ones we’d never heard of. Some tried to see if we could make the game for $AU250,000. Others were like, ‘What if you made this like this…’ and then they’d propose this completely ridiculous change. And it was clear that for some the case was, “You want us to be the next Disco Elysium or something like that and, definitely, we may look the same, but we’re more Fallout. We know where we’re coming from; we’re not going to make such a fundamental change.”
The Aussie studio hadn’t seen any of the exploitative-level contracts that had become public in recent weeks. Ritchie wanted to stress that every contract they saw was pretty reasonable, but when terms stopped being reasonable, they simply moved on. They weren’t in a position where they felt like they were forced to take a deal, and taking the time to review terms carefully — some sage advice once echoed by another famous indie developer — has left the studio in a good position.
But some publishers had an unusual approach towards Broken Roads. “There were others that still had too much risk for us,” Ritchie recalled. “I can’t even remember the deals; they were kind of crazy recoup deals, like you’ve gotta recoup some ridiculously excessive percent or do this thing for this huge online store first.”
“One [publisher] was just saying, ‘Hey, drop all the combat from the game!’ There’s just a whole bunch of different stuff. And we know what we’re making, and we were fortunate enough to attract names that everyone has heard of, and so fortunate enough to have a bit of choice.”
I asked whether Disco Elysium was a bit of a factor in those discussions, because it sounded like a whole lot of publishers that didn’t have a deep background in RPGs had seen Broken Roads, and wanted to try and get on what might hopefully be another Disco Elysium. Ritchie agreed, pointing out that more publishers might think that way because Disco Elysium wasn’t just successful, but because it highlighted some truths about what the RPG market does want that was potentially misunderstood.
“Disco Elysium absolutely has changed a lot of things for RPGs, for narrative-driven games in particular, and proven a lot of things about the fact that there is a market who is happy to sit and read through 500,000 plus words in a play through – and there’s more than a million words in that whole game,” Ritchie said. “And there were definitely publishers who wanted Broken Roads to be another Disco Elysium, and failed to really see that, say, Pillars of Eternity isn’t Disco Elysium.”
“Neither is Fallout. Neither is Torment: Tides of Numanera. Nor Shadowrun Returns. Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Editions. Divinity Original Sin and its sequel. Wasteland 2 and 3. Solasta. Baldur’s Gate 3. There are so many not Disco Elysium successors, and they failed to see what Broken Roads is trying to be because they were more interested in securing what they hoped could follow Disco [Elysium].”
“So, definitely. Maybe there’s two questions and two answers. Did somebody approach you because of the existence of Disco Elysium? I would say 100 percent. And did somebody want to change the game to be more like the success they’ve observed with Disco Elysium? 100 percent as well.”
The lasting question, then, is how well Broken Roads can follow in the legacy of the classic Fallout games. And how does Broken Roads plan to tackle the complications of making a game that’s authentically Australian, instead of just playing into what the gaming industry has stereotypically portrayed as Australia? For more on that, stay tuned for the rest of our chat later this week.
Broken Roads is due to launch on PC and consoles in 2022.