Aussie startup gives new twist to role-playing games

Drop Bear Bytes is a great example of how government grants can help a new Australian studio create a major new game and sign with a global publisher.

Founders Craig Ritchie and Jethro Naude founded the company in 2019. Ritchie had an idea for a new framework for a role-playing game (RPG). The idea was ambitious: it would expand the scope for how role-playing morality systems work within RPG videogames.

‘We wanted to create a game set in a post-apocalyptic Australia,’ says Ritchie. ‘Several things were new. First, we wanted a convincing RPG morality framework that played out through all the characters and scenes. Second, we wanted to lean hard into the Western Australia setting.’

As industry veterans, the pair put their own capital into the venture. But the game – Broken Roads – was a massive project. It would take 4–5 years to build. Even to build a demo version to showcase to publishers would require huge funds.

Drop Bear Bytes gains a global publisher

Drop Bear Bytes developed a superb demo in under 18 months. In October 2019, the founders took their concept to Australia’s premier showcase event for games, Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) in Melbourne.

Critics and investors were deeply impressed. What followed was a series of deals that enabled the pair to build the game.

In early 2022 Ritchie and Naude signed a deal with US-based RPG publisher Versus Evil.

Announced during the run up to Gamescom 2022 in Germany, the deal will allow Drop Bear Bytes to finish the game, take it from PC to console format, and launch a major marketing campaign.

‘This is a fantastic achievement for a small, Australian startup,’ says Ritchie.

Location and lifestyle

Both founders reckon Australia is on the verge of a new golden age in games development. This is partly owing to lifestyle, according to Ritchie and Naude. Both are keen surfers. They say Australia’s laid-back lifestyle helps high-stress developers achieve a great work-life balance.

‘Australia is a fantastic place to live if you love the ocean and like outdoors living,’ says Ritchie. ‘Whatever your lifestyle, you can find a home in the big cities, country towns or along the coast.

‘With the help of fantastic, national broadband, we’ve built a semi-virtual studio that works perfectly from a small town in regional Victoria.’

Amazing graduate talent

The other major factor is talent. Ritchie points to a new wave of Australian students graduating from games-development courses.

‘The flow of fresh graduate talent is amazing,’ he says. ‘The graduates are passionate and hungry for success. Currently, there are more graduates than jobs. They are looking for studios to take them on and give them a chance to shine.’

Taking on fresh graduates is less risky than in other countries, according to Naude. This is because grants reduce the cost of creating a full-time position. He points out that grants are available to businesses started by recent immigrants – not just Australian citizens.

‘Grants dramatically decrease the stress of skilling up a new studio,’ he says. ‘They enable us to give young talent a chance. Today, we have a great team with amazing people.’

New Australian grants for the games industry

Government grants have radically reduced the overall cost of building a new studio and developing an innovative game. Drop Bear Bytes received a series of grants from Film Victoria [now VicScreen], which promotes games development in Victoria

The first was an Assigned Production Investment Grant, which helps fund special development. The company also secured a Talent Placement Grant, which helps companies nurture young talent.

‘We had a part-timer with a degree in games design,’ says Ritchie. ‘The grant enabled us to take him on full time because it paid 50% of his salary.’

Drop Bear Bytes also received a Research and Development Tax Incentive from the Australian Government. The company applied because of its innovative approach to gameplay.

‘The grant application is a rigorous process, but we got it because we were inventing new technology,’ says Naude. ‘It was worth around A$30,000.’

Support for Indigenous Australian culture

Naude points out some grants can be used to inject authentic Australian themes and character in into digital games.

‘The API grant enabled us to engage an elder in the Indigenous community,’ says Naude. ‘Uncle Jack Charles is one of the most famous voice actors in Australia. He provided the voiceover for our trailer.

‘The grant also enabled us to bring Indigenous narrative consultants on board to ensure authentic and respectful representation in the game. This will help Broken Roads bring a uniquely Australian story into the global games industry.’

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