It was back in July that we sat down with the developers of Dredge who made the trip to Japan for the BitSummit 2023 (check out our recap of the event). We had about half an hour together, and it was a great chance to come back on Dredge (check out our review), why it did so well, what were their next plans, what they thought about the Steam Deck, and the state of the gaming industry in New Zealand. Phew! We did cover a lot of ground, now that I think about it.
Nadia Thorne: I’m Nadia Thorne, I’m the CEO of Black Salt Games and on Dredge, I was the producer and did a lot of the QA as well. Previously, all of the Black Salt Games team worked together in another company, previously that focused on mobile game development in New Zealand, in Christchurch. And then COVID happened, the world changed and we thought, you know, now is the really good time to kind of set out by ourselves and pretty much into develop our owned stories. And you know, that was what we always wanted to do. We’re big gamers and then to be able to share our own games with the world was a big kind of aspiration for us.
Michael Baestens: Yeah, and I’m Michael Baestens, also known as just Mikey. And I’m the 3D environment animator on Dredge. And like Nadia mentioned, we were previously working at a studio and I was there pretty much like over 10 years, I think anyway. So one of the longest standing members of that company, it’s we all moved over to this new thing…
Boiling Steam: Was it difficult for you to make the move to be independent?
Nadia: Not really, I mean that’s the thing. We spun out at that (previous) studio, we’re still supported by that studio. And it’s a really great connection because it means that we have 60 game developers, just next door, and QA testing - they can come and play test the game, and especially when we’re doing prototypes. Dredge was just one of a number of prototypes we did to kind of see what kind of game we should make. And we played test those, and so yeah, we were able just to grab people who really know games to give their feedback. And that’s how we chose Dredge.
Boiling Steam: What was the idea behind the prototype of Dredge? How did you get the intuition that it’s going to be a great game?
Nadia: Yeah, so it came from Joel, who is our programmer and writer, it turns out. Yeah, we didn’t really plan for it to be so narrative-heavy when we were first building Dredge. I think you know, we started with maybe 10,000 words. That turned into 30, 35,000. Yeah, so it evolved as we went along. And basically, what he sold us on is kind of the tag that we still sell Dredge on today, which is Lovecraftian fishing game. And as soon as he kind of said that, Lovecraft and fishing, it made sense because, you know, the sea is really messed up.
There are things out there that… Yeah, yeah. And also, you know, that you’re out and the sea that loneliness, that isolation, kind of feeling. And all of the themes and the atmosphere that it just all made sense. So yeah, that was the spot.
Mikey: Nice, easy, hook. It just made sense, I guess. Yeah, and of course, on the outside of things you can do creepy looking fish and like, that sounds good. Yeah, that sounds fun.
Boiling Steam: How long did you work on the development of Dredge?
Nadia: So we started production in February 2021. So yeah, basically two years.
Boiling Steam: When did Team17 start to get involved in the project?
Nadia: So pretty much as soon as we had, you know, kind of anything to show about Dredge we started posting out on Twitter and immediately one of their publishing scouts at the time, Simon Smith, reached out to us and we were like, we’re not ready.
Boiling Steam: Did you already know him?
Nadia: No, no, it was just from posting on Twitter.
Boiling Steam: Was he ready to make an offer?
Nadia: Not an offer, I don’t think. He was ready to see what we had. And then it took us about six months to put together a publisher demo. And then at that point, we sent it to Team17, but we also went out to a number of other publishers.
Boiling Steam: Are there any reasons, besides the financial aspects, to work with Team17?
Nadia: Yeah, and because we were in the situation where we had the development funding paid for. But what we were looking for was a partner who would really be able to elevate us and share us as widely as possible. Yeah, because we’re at, you know, it’s our first game.
Mikey: We don’t know anything about how to get the game out. We can make a game, but we don’t know how to sell a game.
Nadia: We don’t have the kind of expertise in that area. And so yeah, we ended up going with Team17 based on their portfolio, their level of experience. We had confidence that they would be able to get us front and center in a few areas, and they did. They really came through for us.
Boiling Steam: What were your expectations for Dredge? I really liked the game right after I saw it. But did you expect that it was going to become as big as it did?
Mikey: I don’t think any of us had any idea how big Dredge would become. Nadia has the best expectations out of all of us. I think us on the development team side, were like “well I hope some people will like it” (laughs) -
Boiling Steam: You must have been surprised?
Nadia: Absolutely. In indies, it’s unpredictable. I dont think anyone could have expected. I had some kind of targets, and we were at our launch party when we blew through our year-one target. That was Day1, we hit our year-1 target.
Boiling Steam: That’s amazing.
Nadia: You know, we were not projecting some kind of ridiculous amounts or anything, but it meant that it was immediately ROI positive and it means that…
Mikey: We have a runway to make another game!
Nadia: We have done a number of free updates and we are working on a paid update. We are targetting Q4, ideally earlier than later. And another DLC early in the new year. We have been overwhelmed by the response.
Mikey: We want to do right by the people. Originally we were planning to do a few free updates and that’s it. But because it’s done do well, we can’t just NOT do it for all the people. They are all wanting more. We should.
Nadia: The biggest complaint about Dredge is its length. People just want more. It gives us a chance to beef that up a little bit.
Boiling Steam: What does the industry look like in New Zealand?
Nadia: It’s not just us there are many other studios in New Zealand. Mikey has actually previously contributed to another studio called Digital Confectioners, and Dread Hunger has done very well from there. Up in Wellington there is Dinosaur Polo Club with Mini Metro, Mini Motorways. And then there’s Grinding Gear Games, who made the popular game Path of Exile.
Mikey: I remember when they were just 6 people in a garage, now it’s one of the biggest studios in the country, it’s crazy to see their growth.
Nadia: They are in a different league.
Mikey: When you are competing with Blizzard and Diablo 4, in a couple of months time when they do Path of Exile 2 it will be very interesting to see how they do.
Nadia: Any other mention?
Mikey: A thing about New Zealand is that a lot of stuff happens under the radar. They work under a NDA, they work for Epic or Unreal - there’s quite a bit of experience within that gaming industry in New Zealand.
Nadia: We’ve just recently received government support, which will help us to continue developing our games. We get tax-rebates. We have about a 1000 people in the game industry in New Zealand and that’s growing year on year. Soon the industry in New Zealand will overtake the film industry. And that industry is quite big as well, thanks to Lord of the Rings and everything. So yeah, so it’s growing pretty steadily.
Boiling Steam: It’s like… So what’s the strategy in New Zealand for attracting talent in New Zealand? Did you actually develop talent locally or recruit from other countries?
Nadia: It’s really difficult. Obviously, it’s especially these last few years, we haven’t been able to bring the expertise in. But we are very much lacking in that senior level expertise. Especially in engines like Unreal. And so, yeah, we do try and grow it locally. But because our studios aren’t really big enough to have a whole lot of seniors. And obviously, you need seniors to grow juniors. So yeah, there’s a massive need to bring people in. So yeah, so if anyone wants to come to New Zealand…?
Mikey: Even if it’s just for the teaching side of things as well - the education is still trying to figure out what that pipeline is, and they haven’t changed it up in a while. I’m like, the industry is moving so quickly, there are things you need to kind of know for what’s needed in the industry now. They don’t even know most of the software we are using. So there’s a lot of transitioning trying to get that senior talent. Not only just to work there, but also train that next generation coming through with things so that they’re more prepared for the actual industry going forwards.
Nadia: It’s kind of a thing, industry-wide though.
Boiling Steam: There is competition for global talents.
Mikey: Yeah, especially because now a lot more companies are more open for remote working. Because of the pandemic, so there’s a lot more opportunities for getting those sort of people over without having to actually fly them over, get them to up their entire life to move to New Zealand and fly all the way to the other side of the world. It’s a long way if you want to go back and see your family.
Boiling Steam: Back to Dredge, how many people worked on the game, before it became big?
Nadia: Yeah, it’s the same amount now as it was then. So yeah, four people worked on it. So you got two of us here. And but we did have an audio guy. So we contracted in a guy called David Mason and Michaela Cornelius who did all the music and sound design. So including them, that’s six.
Boiling Steam: What was your process to work on the game, did you have a formula that worked well?
Nadia: We do. Yeah, We had a plan, I think we executed it really well. Our day-to-day kind of development process is SCRUM. So, yep, we break everything down into just sprints. And that’s worked really well for us, because that’s the process we’re used to in our previous studio for like 10 years. So, I think a lot of our success comes down to, we knew how to work together, ready to build games we didn’t have to figure that out while also figuring out the game side of things. So we know our cadence and everything. We knew six months ahead of time and we weren’t going to be heading a date and we were able to pivot accordingly.
Another big huge part of our process is play-testing. So making sure that everything is fun. One of the biggest requests we get in DREDGE is to add a fuel mechanic. And that’s really funny because we tested that really, really, really early on.
And what we found was it just wasn’t fun. Running out of fuel in the middle of the ocean and having to go back in slowly to town or whatever. It just wasn’t entertaining. And so, yeah, it’s really interesting when we get kind of feedback. “All you guys should do is add this and add that” It’s like, we tried it. And no, we shouldn’t.
The play-tests get to see some of the things that never make it into the final product. But yeah, it’s even things like we just released photo mode. Because they’ve played lots of different games, and tried lots of different photo modes. They were able to tell us “OK, change this, change that, this kind of control…” It’s really helpful.
Boiling Steam: Yeah. So what are your plans after Dredge?
Nadia: Yeah, we’ve got some ideas. Yeah, nothing that is worth sharing or anything just yet. But we’re excited to make sure that we finish up on DREDGE and in a nice place.
Mikey: Yeah set that one up and do the sunset. I guess, and everything making sure it’s good as we want it to be.
Nadia: Yeah, and then we get to fully like have the mental head space. We can focus on the new game.
Mikey: I think we’re always going to try to make something that’s got a big emphasis on like mood and atmosphere. Going forwards, whether the particular themes, whether it’s just kind of like the outfits up maybe that might change up, but it’s the whole idea of just something that’s got a little bit of an edge to it, a little bit of a twist, something that just subverts some sort of thing there is probably where we’ll probably want to be trying to move things in anyway.
Nadia: Yeah, I don’t think we ever want to be type cast if that’s a thing. Yeah. Another thing that we really liked about DREDGE was we seem to be like it was a mash up of different genres. That may be something we continue to play with.
Boiling Steam: On which platforms are you at the moment?
Nadia: We are on PC, Steam and GOG and Nintendo Switch, Sony PlayStation 4 and 5 and Xbox One and S series. Yeah, we tried to really try to get it everywhere we could put it on.
Boiling Steam: Which part of it is the biggest?
Nadia: Steam… and the bulk of our sales is from the US. Japan’s is a really interesting market because it’s one of our only markets where Steam isn’t the biggest, so Nintendo Switch is the biggest market in Japan, and then Steam though! So steam is still bigger in Japan than PlayStation. So that was a little bit surprising. Xbox nowhere to be found In Japan.
Generally it does pretty alright in other countries, and in some countries like Brazil and Italy, the Xbox does really well.
But generally, probably about two thirds of our total sales are on Steam.
Boiling Steam: So the Switch is not that big of a market?
Nadia: No, possibly surprisingly. 60% on, kind of steam, about 40% on the consoles. And that split, like, yeah, PlayStation in and Switch are pretty even. Yeah. And then poor Xbox.
Boiling Steam: What do you think about the Steam Deck?
Mikey: Yeah. It’s really good. It was a real console that would run Dredge pretty well. It feels like it just runs really well, because we designed Dredge like on PC and on the Switch, throughout the entire development. So we always wanted to be kind of a nice handheld experience. And then so this pretty much brings a little bit of the power of the Switch to the handheld side of things. It runs really nice on that.
Nadia: And others are now obviously coming so ASUS have just released their one as well (the ROG Ally), so yeah it’s handheld definitely becoming more and more of a thing.
Boiling Steam: Any data on how many people are actually playing Dredge on the Deck?
Nadia: No, we were just talking about that!
Mikey: We dont know. And seeing maybe that’s what happens because we don’t know about… We just know that because you just buy it on Steam and then if you have a Steam Deck you can play it. Maybe there’s a way that we can talk to someone to get the analytics of like… But who’s how many of these games have been played there? Yeah. And they’re here (Komodo/Valve). Yeah. So we might be able to find out.
Nadia: We had to do a few more things to get the Verified status. I think we had to remove some settings that were not longer relevant (Full Screen?) and stuff like that. There were only very minor things. We do know that we were showing up at some point at the top of the Steam Deck charts. Must have been doing all right.
Boiling Steam: Do you have a Steam Deck yourself?
Mikey: Yeah we got one.
Nadia: I think we have the American version, with a different plug.
Boiling Steam: What are you looking forward to during the BitSummit?
Nadia: We really hope to meet a lot of our Japanese players, and learn how to make good games for Japanese audience.
Mikey: Also get connection on how to best get out games out in this part of the world - the more successful we are here, the more reason we have to come back and to see more of it.
Many thanks again to Nadia and Mikey for their availability! Don’t forget to also check out our recap of the Bitsummit 2023 event.