Released on 30 March 2023, Dredge is a fishing game that’s been developed by a new indie studio that’s based in New Zealand – Black Salt Games. Comprised of just four people – Nadia Thorne (Producer, CEO), Joel Mason (Programmer, Writer), Alex Ritchie (Lead Artist, 2D Art, Tech Art), and Michael Bastiaens (3D Artist/Animator) – Dredge is the studio’s first game, and has already been garnering great reviews across the board, with many arguing that it’s one of their biggest (and best) surprises of 2023 so far.
I interviewed the Black Salt Games team to find out a little bit more about their first game, and also got to ask as to what them as to what their future plans are for the studio. Enjoy!
According to your website, Black Salt Games is comprised of three developers and a studio manager (effectively making the studio a four person team). How did everyone meet, and how did Black Salt Games form?
Joel: The four of us worked together at a larger, work-for-hire games studio for 8 around years prior to the formation of Black Salt Games. After the disruption of the pandemic, we split off as a sister studio to allow us to focus on making our own games. We’re still very close with our old studio, both physically and socially, and it’s great to have a number of experienced game developers on hand to help playtest whatever we’re working on.
In terms of its concept and execution, Dredge stands apart from most other games, and offers a pretty unique experience. How did you come up with the initial idea, and what was the inspiration for the game? At the same time, what made you want to focus on Dredge as being your first game?
Joel: We think it’s pretty unique too. The genre mash-up of fishing and horror stands out to a lot of people. I personally really enjoy games that have two distinct halves to them – games like Moonlighter for example where you switch between rogue-lite action and shop management are really interesting to me, so combining two different elements was always a goal.
The inspirations for Dredge are pretty varied and there are some big differences between the initial one-page design brief and the finished product, but the core feeling and atmosphere of the game stayed constant. That overall tone for the game is one of the things that stood out strongly to us.
As for how we decided to focus on Dredge as our first game, we selected it through a process of prototyping. We designed a few different games and created prototypes of all of them before getting people to playtest them and give us their honest feedback. From this feedback, and our own internal discussions, we landed on the decision to take Dredge forward into full production. We place a lot of importance on playtesting at our studio and this process helps give us confidence in our decisions.
What were the biggest challenges and obstacles that you had to overcome as a studio startup, and during the game’s creation? How were you able to resolve these issues?
Michael: The marketing side was something we probably didn’t expect to spend as much time on as we ended up doing. We had a strong idea of how we wanted to market things but the time investment needed in order to make sure things were at the level we were happy with was something we hadn’t really scoped for. Fortunately all that planning and experience allowed us to deliver everything that we needed.
Considering that there exist a number of other notable indie game publishers (such as Devolver Digital, Hello Games, and PQube), what were your reasons for choosing Team 17 as the publisher? What made them a more appropriate fit, and in what way did their involvement aid the game’s development and release?
Nadia: Not all publishers that you pitch to will have a space in their portfolio or schedule for you, and no two publishers will make the same offer or have the same terms so it’s tricky to compare them all. Our aim in partnering with a publisher was to be able to share Dredge wider than we could’ve managed ourselves; more languages than the single one we speak, more platforms than the two we can manage in-house and generally just getting the game out there and in front of people via shows and games media. We felt that Team17 were going to be best able to support those goals of ours and they certainly delivered for us!
Considering that the game has been generating a lot of buzz online, what do you think is the reason for the game’s popularity – especially in an age when a lot of other indie games (that are developed by small teams) get lost in the shuffle? What advice would you give to other indie studios that want to emulate your success?
Alex: I think you’ve got to do something unique to help your game stand out. But it can’t be so different that no one can relate to it.
I have a feeling that what helped us with Dredge was partly the premise being intriguing but then also when you get into the game it’s usually not exactly what you expected. We could have gone down the rabbit hole of fishing mechanics like bait types, lures and a more involved fishing mini-game with line tension etc. But instead we used fishing mostly as a theme, focusing on time management, exploration and upgrading. Which are probably broader and more accessible. I think that’s why we get a lot of comments from people who enjoyed Dredge saying they never thought they’d enjoy a fishing game.
Joel: There are a lot of reasons I can think of, though it’s hard to know which have the largest impact! Firstly, I think the game looks gorgeous, and that’s thanks to our two extremely talented artists. Secondly, the blend of genres is enough to pique the interest of a wide range of players, and we get a lot of attention from both cosy and horror audiences.
There are other theories I have, like the fact that we try to respect players’ intelligence as much as possible by going light on tutorials and leaving them to discover how our mechanics work. I also think our very light approach to storytelling helps keep the game moving at a decent pace while still allowing players to dive deeper if they want to. I’d like to think players appreciate these things, because they were deliberate decisions made by us. But who knows!
In terms of advice, well, our priority from the start was to try to make something a little different. Partly because it makes business sense to help yourself stand out, but also because we didn’t want to make a game that already existed. We didn’t think it made sense to compete with a larger studio creating an RTS or an FPS. Perhaps most importantly, making something fresh and unique helped keep us motivated and passionate about what we were creating.
What are your future plans as a studio? Do you have any plans for DLC or a possible sequel to Dredge? What other games do you have in the pipeline?
Nadia: We’re a small team so try not to have too many competing priorities, our main focus for this year will be continuing to support Dredge; add in a few of the features we always wanted to but didn’t have time for prior to launch. And yes, we would like to provide some story extension and expand our world a bit more through DLC.
Joel: Thanks to the overwhelmingly positive reception to Dredge, we’ll be able to stick around as a studio for a few years to come. The immediate future probably holds some well-earned rest for everyone! We’re still figuring out what we do next, but we’re excited about delivering similar experiences in the future.