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Into the depths of genre-bending restaurant and fishing sim Dave the Diver

How the studio behind this surprise smash hit packed several different experiences into a single game.

Joel Couture, Contributor

August 24, 2023

9 Min Read
A screenshot from Dave the Diver shows Dave diving towards a colorful reef against a 2D, bright blue ocean background.

Dave The Diver sees you heading underneath the waves to hunt for various fish and sea life, turning them into delicious sushi dishes as you scramble to run a restaurant by night. While that's a ton to juggle on its own, the game has only just begun to surprise you with its in-depth minigames (Seahorse racing?!), varied characters, and wild plot.

Game Developer sat down with game director Jaeho Hwang to talk about how mixing 2D pixel art and 3D artwork helped give the game a sense of depth, how surprising minigames and plot elements help make the game feel more true to life and connect players with the protagonist, and the crafty way in which the development team captured a sense of a wide, huge ocean through adding some randomness to the underwater segments.

You have mentioned that Dave The Diver was inspired by a real restaurant where they caught fish in the morning and cooked them at night. What thoughts went into turning that inspiration into gameplay? How did the initial concept come together from this inspiration?

I initially had a rough idea of making a sushi bar management game that used captured fish from the ocean, which was basically managing the automated sushi bar and going out to get resources from the ocean, just like a shop-management dungeon crawler. However, while playing the prototype, I realized it wasn’t really that compelling because I couldn't focus on either task. That was the moment I came across that sushi bar, where the owner catches fish in the morning and cooks them at night. I thought it could make players focus on each aspect and give a feeling of 'preparing dinner for customers'. So, we separated the day-night stages, and that really made a difference.


The game uses a mixture of pixel art with 3D artwork in some places (such as the backgrounds in the underwater segments). What drew you to add 3D art to a game of mainly pixel art? What purposes did this visual choice serve, both mechanically and artistically?

I previously made a game called Evil Factory, which is an all-boss battle 2D-pixel action game. In Evil Factory, there was a harpoon gimmick for hitting an angler fish boss and pulling him into spikes. I thought it was pretty fun, and I eventually wanted to make this mechanic into a game.

After establishing the core mechanic, our second decision was the game stage setting. I love platform games for sure, but I wanted our protagonist to roam freely and use a harpoon to capture floating objects. We tested space, sky, and underwater, and in the end, decided to go with 'underwater,' because capturing real-life fish felt more compelling.

However, it was not that aesthetically pleasing, making underwater environments only with flat 2D pixels. So, we started to mix 3D objects in the background. It felt much deeper and looked unique, so we liked it. However, as we developed the game, we gradually started to make not only the background objects but also the sea creatures, which was the most difficult task for us, making 2D Dave fight 3D sharks.

You introduce a great deal of mechanics, minigames, and story tangents throughout the game. How did you carefully introduce those things to the player so they don't feel overwhelmed?

I put a lot of time into testing the game myself. If this term works here: 'dogfooding,' which means to 'testing your own product'. Sometimes it's hard to play the game you're currently developing, especially before the launch, but this is the best way to review the project from the perspective of being objective. I test the dev build myself and note down all the details that I assume players may think were difficult, inconvenient, or just simply boring. I really try to be in someone else's shoes and see the game from different angles, like becoming a Tycoon game lover one day and becoming a Subnautica fan another day etc.

If each different mechanic comes out in the wrong place and timing, that could break the core flow that players already like. We made these kinds of game design mistakes in earlier stages but were able to adjust them during the early access, thanks to the passionate community members.


What challenges came from giving the players so many things they could do? Why do you feel it was worthwhile to give them so many complex, different, and often surprising activities?

We tried not to make these mechanics interfere with players' engagement with the game flow. These activities should help them enjoy the loop more and not distract them too much.

I think the VIPs’ visit is a good example. They don't break what players are doing, which is capturing fish and serving at night, but they do make players go for certain ingredients to treat these VIPs. Once users succeed, they get new mechanics unlocked, so they can play the original game loop with more options, like pouring beer after serving sushi.

With so many wildly different things players can do or take part in, how did you make the main game activities and side activities feel that they formed a connected world?

I believe it's because we formed everything around the protagonist, Dave. It may seem like you need to do these different actions randomly, but since they are mostly done by Dave, who you are already emotionally attached to, players understand that Dave is dealing with unexpected daily occasions, just like we drive, eat, cook, and fix our bathroom, all in the same day in real life.

The Sushi Bar is a place anyone can visit, and like in real life, you meet some unexpected VIPs or very harsh customers with their own background stories. So this leads to our unique side missions and sometimes mini-games. Since our setting is very open, I believe players are also open to all the new potential situations and different situations that happen in the game.

What drew you to make the underwater area constantly change? What do you feel that added to the experience of Dave The Diver?

If you dive underwater in real life, you will notice it's always different based on weather, current, and fish locations. We wanted to create environments like this—places that always felt fresh.

Also, since our team is not big enough to create a whole open ocean, we decided to make a more 'closed but changing environment.'

There are so many different types of sea creatures in Dave The Diver. What sort of research, into both sea life and sushi recipes, went into creating them for the game?

We watched many documentaries on underwater creatures and read tons of books related to them as well. Also, some of our members are really into scuba diving, so they gave the team very cool ideas. For example, the current that suddenly pulls Dave along, and the manta ray photo-shooting missions.


How did you choose the recipes the player could make in the game?

The chef guy, Bancho, believes all fish have their own unique taste, but we are only eating a very limited number of them. So basically, we made all fish into sushi, tropical fish, and even terrifying deep-sea creatures.

In real life, you will only see the red or white meat slices of fish, but in Dave The Diver, we tried to keep iconic parts of each fish. For instance, the angler fish sushi has a lantern-looking part. I think this is what makes sushi in Dave The Diver unique and why people like it.

The underwater segments can be beautiful and relaxing as well as tense, dangerous, and terrifying. What ideas went into creating an experience that can shift from serene to scary?

Good question. Underwater is always a very mysterious setting, yet very beautiful. In a game like ABZU, you can enjoy beautiful underwater scenery and find a mysterious underwater civilization. In Subnautica, you need to carefully manage resources and air while looting new materials to craft in dark and scary deep-sea caves.

We wanted to give both feelings to Dave The Diver. You can enjoy the scenery and take photos of turtles, but if you want to loot some resources to serve customers, you need to take some risks to do it.

Dave The Diver feels like it is themed around the complexities and varied tastes of sushi, taking elements that feel like they could be at odds with each other (fearful and calm exploration, 2D and 3D art, so many different mechanics and minigames) and turning them into something delightful. How did the nature and variety of sushi shape the game itself?

Yes, just like sushi itself, we have underwater elements and land elements that are intertwined tightly with each other. It may look weird at first glance, but you know it tastes awesome once you try it.

It wasn’t an easy task to mix things together and end up looking smooth, but I think thanks to my team’s consistent devotion, we managed to pull it off like a real sushi chef.


Hitting the fish with some of your weapons can require very precise aim. What drew you to make the players take their shots with care?

In the real world, shooting a harpoon or spear gun underwater is slower than it's supposed to be on land. However, if we create a gun or harpoon mechanic like this, then it would take away some of the shooting excitement. So we decided to keep the weapon shooting fast enough but made it require a certain level of precision. Since you can't move swiftly enough after missing one shot underwater, you must be more careful with the distance and angle. I think that makes combat in Dave The Diver pretty unique.

What thoughts went into choosing which side activities you would include? When you picked an activity, what ideas went into creating those fun mini-games?

One of our goals and keys to our game design was to keep players engaged by expanding the gameplay loop with new activities to offset a certain level of inevitable repetition of the core gameplay loop that Dave The Diver has. For instance, hunting random fish to serve customers can be enjoyable, but introducing new goals would enhance the experience. To add more tension and encourage short-term goals, we offer VIP or party missions requiring players to collect 'specific ingredients' within a limited time frame. Of course, 'fun elements' are crucial to the game design decision, and we referenced many real-world examples to inspire our ideas. Storm Shark Party was inspired by the Discovery Channel's Shark Week and the movie Sharknado. The mini-game where the player uses a gas cutter was inspired by real-life underwater gas cutting. I think the fact you can have vicarious experience with these real-life activities, lightly in the game, is one of the reasons why players love Dave The Diver.

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