One of the biggest breakout hits of 2023 was the haunting fishing adventure Dredge by New Zealand-based indie developer Black Salt Games. Much to the delight (and surprise) of the four-person crew, their debut game sold 100.000 copies in the first 24 hours after launch, smashing the goal they set for the first year. Since then, the game managed to sell well over a million copies, granting the developers financial independence on their first go.
“We were on a boat for the launch party of Dredge, so we got to celebrate with our family and friends that we had hit our Year 1 sales target on Day 1!”, says co-founder/CEO Nadia Thorne. “Playtesting is a major and frequent part of our development process so we had confidence throughout that we had a really good experience on our hands. We just didn’t expect the audience to be as wide as it ended up being.”
The four person team at Black Salt Games founded the studio at the end of 2020 after working together at another studio for over a decade. They wanted to break away and create something different, so they started prototyping game ideas to work on. Dredge was one of three prototypes they created. “Cosmic Horror Fishing Game seems like it could be quite nichey, but in the end we got such an incredible range of players who gave Dredge a try. Ranging from your horror gamers to cozy gamers. We definitely feel more pressure catering to millions of players rather than say hundreds, but it’s a good pressure to have.”
The success of Dredge brought the studio financial independence. So, what lavish purchases have the team made with their recently acquired wealth? “You’ll get a very unsexy and disappointing answer I’m afraid”, says Thorne laughing. “First thing we did was pay off the money we borrowed to make Dredge. Then we put away the money we’ll need to develop our next game. We looked at all of the extra roles we were doing as a team of just four, and have made some plans to bring in extra pairs of hands to help us on things like QA, Community Management and Customer Support, so we can take a bit of a breather every now and then.”
According to Thorne a large part of the revenues are going back into the development of a next game. Not having to worry about getting the project financed will free up time and energy that is best spent working on that difficult second title. “While I believe in our team’s abilities to make more games that capture players like Dredge has done, you can’t rely on that being the case. So I want to make sure that we’re in a position to be spending the rest of our careers making games, whether we have a success like Dredge again or not.”
Looking back on the development process, Thorne recognises the importance of getting the game in players hands as soon as possible. “Oh yes, our big takeaway was definitely playtesting. I think our game wouldn’t be anywhere near as enjoyable and accessible without that player feedback component. Being in charge of our own schedule meant we could have as much playtesting as we felt necessary.”
After releasing the game to the public back in March 2023, work on it continued. A bit of a blessing and a curse according to Thorne. “Honestly, it’s been really tough. Designing and that early development of games is WAY more fun than the post-release phase where you’re spending days hunting down one gnarly bug that only happens in-some-languages-at-certain-text-speeds-when-the-moon-aligns. But on the other hand there’s nothing like being told by players how much they enjoyed their time in the world you created. And it’s really hard to say no when they ask for more!
Overstay our welcome
The team ended up working on two expansions to Dredge. The first paid DLC was released in November called The Pale Reach. The second expansion they’re currently working on, called The Iron Rig, will be released later in 2024. “We launched The Pale Reach at the International Antarctic Centre here in Christchurch, New Zealand where we’re based. Not sure what we’re going to do to keep The Iron Rig launch on theme”, says Thorne. “We don’t want to overstay our welcome though, so I think the end of next year will see us starting to delve into new worlds and mechanics.”