This interview has been edited for clarity and contains mild spoilers for Dredge
Dredge is a sometimes spooky, sometimes chill adventure game about taming the seas, catching fish, and unravelling an eldritch mystery. It also happens to be one of the most engrossing titles I've had the fortune of playing this year, largely because it has that rarest of things: an impeccable vibe.
Despite being on shelves for less than a month, New Zealand-based developer Black Salt Games says Dredge has already surpassed its wildest expectations. So, in a bid to understand just how the studio summoned its barnacle-clad success story from the briny depths of game development, we caught up with Joel Mason (programmer/writer), Alex Ritchie (lead artist), and Mikey Bastiaens (3D artist/animator) for a postmortem set on the high seas.
As you'd expect for a game in which you spend the vast majority of your time carving through open ocean, one of the biggest challenges when developing Dredge was finessing how the water itself should behave. "Wave simulation is not a trivial matter. There were a number of bugs that we eventually ironed out, but there was a period of probably at least six months where we'd be tweaking the water every week," says Mason.
"We decided early on that we didn't want the water physics to move the boat, because the location of the player in the world should result from the choice players make in relation to their time resource. So we didn't want you to just be able to sort of float everywhere for free in a way."
Where the water tastes like brine
Ritchie reveals there was one version of the game where the waves would slowly move a player's boat, pulling them out to sea like a piece of driftwood. The studio quickly nipped that behavior in the bud, because movement in Dredge directly correlates to the game's time resource (pushing its day/night cycle forward) and the team didn't want to leave in a workaround–even if it was rather unpredictable.
It was also difficult to decide how waves in Dredge should work. The team wanted to have a weather system that changes over time, allowing the calm seas to quickly turn into choppy waters when a storm rolls in. It's another design choice that helps ward off complacency and ensure players remain a little on edge, even after they've found their sea legs. Still, filling the world with a tempestuous ocean that didn't turn players' rattling tugboats into high-powered cruise missiles required some fine tuning.
"The combination of particularly steep waves and a boat that has a decent number of upgraded engines can result in a ramp," says Mason. "So there was a time where, if you were going fast enough, you could actually fly. You would get enough lift, and then of course you'd land again and sink down to the bottom of the ocean and bounce around.
"[To counter that] we employed some physics manipulation and also balanced things by asking questions like 'what is the maximum speed we ever want players to go?' That also affects the position of the islands in our world and how far apart points-of-interest needed to be, so it was really important to get that right."
Ritchie explains the team also played around with the shape of waves to prevent players from catching air, smoothing down inclines and doing whatever they could to make them less appealing to Tony Hawk wannabes. "We ended up just going with simple sine wave shapes, and visually that was only slightly different anyway. Technically, you could say they look less realistic, but our game isn't realistic, and the gameplay was much better for the change," they add.
"Then we also tweaked movement. For instance, we had to figure out how much damping to put on the speed of the boat to make it so that when players encounter bigger waves, they're slowed down even more. [...] We also have a whole system for painting the wave height in the world, so whenever you're near an island we have a texture that controls the maximum possible wave height. It's always set to zero at the edge of islands so that waves can't lift the boat up and beach players. I should add that we're using Unity's built-in physics, which makes it very easy to get going, but then we also have to wrangle with that system, which wants to be very realistic and physically accurate, to create something more controlled."
The four corners of the earth
When it came to locking in the various mechanics and environments of Dredge, the team relied heavily on repeated playtesting to help ensure the difficulty curve didn't become overwhelming. Mason explains that Black Salt never set out to make a difficult game, so the zones and especially the mechanics weren't locked in from the start.
For example, he says the team spent a while in front of a whiteboard fleshing out the four corners of the map–where Dredge's four main zones are located–before dropping in other points of interest such as towns, people, quest givers, potential quest routes, and other hidden trinkets. "We would place all of those things down, and then we'd have to factor in the monster for the region and how they'd interact with both the environment itself and the player," adds Mason. "We always wanted our monsters to be pretty unique in each zone, and so we did that for Gail Cliffs and Stellar Basin–and that went great–and then we got to Twisted Strand."
Mason says the team had pencilled in a monster idea for Twisted Strand that initially took the guise of a creature that would charge down players. To counter the charge, players would need to pull out a harpoon gun and shoot it one or more times. "Maybe you'd chase it, maybe it'd chase you, but it was planned to be dynamic," he notes.
There was a problem with that idea, though. The harpoon gun would've relied on first-person aiming, and it became clear those controls wouldn't be easy to use or implement–especially on rough seas. "We thought about doing some auto-aim thing where you just had to be close [to the monster] to use the harpoon, or maybe even attach it to the broadside of the boat so that it could auto-fire," continues Mason.
None of those options, however, felt truly satisfying or in keeping tonally. "There were other issues around the harpoon," chirps Bastiaens, "because now players have access to a gun, so what are they going to harpoon? There's obviously a whale that shows up in the game, so they're going to run around and start trying to shoot the whale. Or they'll go to another location and start trying to shoot the town. They'll just shoot things that they're not supposed to, and it'll break the immersion of the game–especially when the world doesn't react back."
Ultimately, the team felt that Dredge, in terms of its actual moment-to-moment gameplay, is more of a puzzle game than anything else, and so forcing players to quickly switch genres by turning the game into an FPS–albeit briefly–would've felt like pulling the rug out from under them.
It was a failure that influenced the team's wider design philosophies when it came to implementing Dredge's core mechanics and power-ups. "We wanted to make sure that our abilities, those things you can unlock in every zone, weren't just one trick ponies," Mason adds. "We wanted them to be useful in every zone."
That's why, for example, the dynamite players eventually unlock can be used across the entire map to unblock routes, shortcuts, and secret areas that might've previously been inaccessible. It also encourages players to revisit zones after they've completed their respective quest lines to see what they missed last time around. That, in turn, feeds into the title's underlying time management mechanic, as each of those longer journeys to the larger zones will consume more daylight, increasing the risk of players being caught out at night and encountering all manner of unsavory creatures that could bring about wreck and ruin.
The nightman cometh
Those moments of horror and tension that arise from players being forced to confront the moonlit abyss are the main reason Black Salt chose to lean into time as a resource. The team explains an early prototype actually asked players to focus on fuel management, but it was challenging to make that specific loop feel like anything other than tedious busywork.
"We added fuel to the prototype," says Mason, "and there were a few different thoughts behind it. One was that players should have to push a refuel button every time they visit a dock, but when they did that it felt like a nothing transaction because fuel was really cheap. But, if you forgot to push it, that sucked.
"Alternatively, we could've made the refueling automatic, but that made the mechanic feel irrelevant until the point where you actually run out of fuel on the water. And we said 'well, we're not going to kill the player for that, so let's just make them move really slowly.' That also didn't feel good, but we still wanted players to feel the excitement of being caught out at night, so that's why time became the resource instead."
Discussing those early prototypes, Ritchie says the core gameplay loop that has always been the backbone of Dredge is: Go Out > Get Fish > Sell > Upgrade > Go Out > Get Caught At Night. That said, in the original prototype none of the fishing mini games that prop up the mechanic actually existed. Players simply held a button down and the fish were reeled in, then they'd need to figure out how to fit it into their spatial inventory–which, itself, was added to replace a simple inventory list that didn't really contribute to gameplay.
Although the studio eventually decided to accentuate that aspect of gameplay with a myriad of fishing games, most of which revolve around timed button presses, they never wanted those to feel make-or-break. "One of our core design pillars was that fishing should not be frustrating. It also needed to be reasonably accessible as well," says Mason.
"I'm a huge fan of Stardew Valley and everything about that game–except, perhaps, the fishing. It's just too finicky and frustrating, and it removes me from the experience. That's why, one of our core pillars, was that the fishing mini-games in Dredge must be optional. As you start the mini-games, you're already catching the fish whether you're pushing any buttons or not. It's just happening, and you can either help it along or potentially hinder it if you mess up that skill check, but if you do nothing it'll still complete itself.
"It adds a bit of risk-reward while keeping fishing fairly accessible. We also have an accessibility setting that removes some penalties from the mini-games to make it easier, because Dredge isn't a fishing sim."
You know what's really creepy? Scope
When we ask the team to chat about their successes, the twisted form of scope creep emerges from the shallows. Black Salt, though, managed to ward off that particular menace by adhering to its original vision of how large the game should be. Although there was mechanical iteration resulting in features either being saved or tossed overboard, Dredge's final form is remarkably similar to the studio's earliest pitch.
Bastiaens explains there wasn't really a time when the team had to crunch, and all of the features they deemed necessary were properly scoped out so they knew how long it would take to implement each one. "We knew that for one thing to happen, we might have to pull something away in another areas," they say, "so we knew how to stay on track."
For Mason, scope management essentially boils down to asking some simple but critical questions: How long is this going to take? And is this feature actually worth the time investment–will it actually improve the product?
Ritchie, meanwhile, notes the art style the team chose for Dredge also helped ensure development never became too chaotic. Although he feels the painterly look is appropriate for the game, he notes that it's also a "production friendly" aesthetic that allowed the team to stay on track. "If we had chosen to do something with more detail or fully 3D characters, it would have taken a lot more time. But I'm still really happy with how it looks, and when you consider how much time it actually takes to make an asset versus how good it looks in the final product, I think it worked out well."
Dredge is out now on Steam, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X | S.