A Communal Evening With: Terraria

29 May 2011  by   Paul Younger
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Terraria is something of an indie sensation. The game reportedly sold 200,000 copies in the first four days of its release and, at the time of writing, sits happily above The Witcher 2, DiRT 3 and a discounted Total War: Shogun 2 in Steam’s “Top Sellers” list. Not bad for a game whose ‘About Us’ page lists just four people.

That sort of success doesn’t exactly happen every day, so Tim and I started some fresh characters and embarked on a Communal Evening With: Terraria to examine what all the fuss was about. Selected recordings of our antics are peppered throughout this article for your viewing pleasure (apologies for some rogue mouse pointer action in a few of the videos).

(I blame Tim for that.)

(Because it was his fault.)

Peter Parrish: I should probably start by saying thanks to the developers (Andrew Spinks, to be precise) for giving me a free Steam code. TRANSPARENCY.
Tim McDonald: Haha. While I paid for it. On the other hand, if I didn’t, we’d probably never have gotten around to doing this.
Peter: Indeed. Anyway, despite it selling 200,000 of itself people might not know what Terraria is. So, Tim, what the hecking crikey is Terraria? And why have you played 12 hours of it.
Tim: Because I’m a sad and lonely individual, mostly. Although I don’t think that’s quite the answer you were going for.
Peter: Haha, there’s a quote for the box. If Terraria had a box. Which it doesn’t.
Tim: The easiest way to describe Terraria, I suppose, is to say “It’s sort of like Minecraft, only 2D and side-scrolling.” You wander a 2D world, mining materials and crafting things out of them. Things like … houses, and weapons. Which you use to explore further afield and get better materials.
Peter: I think I’m right in saying that the developers have made their affinity for Minecraft clear and are happy to say that, yes, bits of this are supposed to be inspired by it.
Tim: The two games certainly share some of the same basics – mining and crafting – but Terraria feels more like a game than a sandbox, to me. There are loads of ludicrous weapons and items squirrelled away; there are secrets, and bosses, and a multitude of environments, and … well, in our little playthrough we saw maybe three environments? Grassland, underground, and deeper underground? Off the top of my head, there are at least five more, all with different enemies and materials and whatnot.
Peter: Agreed, the aspects that are similar are applied in a different way … or for different ends.
Tim: Yeah, I think you’re right. I get the feeling things like Minecraft (and probably even Dwarf Fortress) inspired this, but it’s taken them in a different direction. Where Minecraft is more of a sandbox, where you build for the fun of it and to see what crazy things you can do, this feels more like a traditional game. Castlevania-ish, even.
Peter: Minecraft seems a bit more “hey man, fancy building something?” while Terraria says “JESUS CHRIST BUILD A HOUSE NOW OR DIE.”
Tim: In multiplayer, certainly. The spawn rate goes a bit mental.
Peter: Even in single player I needed a quick place to hide. Without the short tutorial bit you sent me over in an email I’d have been lost.
Tim: Hah, yes. I know exactly what my first 10 minutes were like, and wanted you to avoid that. It’s a little more forgiving in single-player though, and (early on, at least) death doesn’t have much in the way of consequences. You can afford to screw around.
Peter: You’ll lose some coins but can grab them back again.
Tim: The Guide [an NPC chap who hangs around an offers hints] doesn’t do a great job of introducing the specifics of how to play. Just general … well, guidelines.
Peter: Yeah, this is very much a game of the ‘look up the basics on the internet’ age.

Tim: One of the areas where this really differs from Minecraft: as you build houses, NPCs come and live in them. Merchants, and nurses, and the like, all of whom offer services.
Peter: Building houses is pretty terrific actually. The user interface takes a bit of getting used to, but the actual act of construction is really easy. You just kind of ‘paint’ blocks where you want them and take it from there. Our house had a bit of a surrealist feel by the end, but I can imagine that people will be using this function to make some crazily good stuff.
Tim: Yeah. The laws of physics can certainly be bent. Blocks have to be placed next to adjacent blocks – you can’t just start “painting” blocks in the sky – but once they’re up there, you can knock down their supports and they’ll stay free-floating. Unless they’re sand, water, or lava, anyway.
Peter: I built a sort of greenhouse to keep my young saplings safe … That’s worth mentioning actually, you can stick acorns in the ground to grow fresh trees.
Tim: Before we get off the topic of building, I have to say that there’s still some of the Minecraft feel of “Look what I did.” After we finished playing I kinda wanted to fire up one of the worlds I’ve spent some time with to show you some of my ludicrous building layouts.
Peter: A lot of this game feels like the product of “oh hey, wouldn’t it be neat if you could …” and then having that implemented.
Tim: Yeah, there’s all sorts of stuff like that. Different blocks and elements interact in interesting ways. And I’m deliberately not mentioning specifics.
Peter: Yes, sorry readers, a lot of the fun is through discovery and experimenting. ‘Acorns make trees’ shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler though.

Peter: Presumably because it’s 2D updates can be added almost at will.
Tim: I think we’ll see regular updates. The recent patch, about a week after release, added in sticky bombs. I daresay we’ll see a lot more before long, in terms of items, enemies, and environments. It feels like a game that’s going to be easy for them to toy with.
Peter: Right, it seems to be appealing to those burning human desires: collecting stuff and making stuff. Oh, and exploring.
Tim: Yes! Which the 2D makes very easy. Up, down, left, and right. All four directions have interesting things. And I doubt that’s much of a spoiler, either.
Peter: It looks quite charming too, if you have fond memories of 16-bit platformers.
Tim: It’s all SNES-era big pixels, so making new items isn’t going to require a week in a 3D model editor. I’d be lying if I said it looked amazing, or had a distinctive style. It just looks … well, like any given 2D SNES-era game. There are a lot of neat little touches though, like grass growing on plain dirt blocks.
Peter: Actually, on that retro note, I was amazed when the Steam download for this was 16mb. 16mb! That’s like two mp3s.
Tim: Yes! I have no idea how it’s that small. Taking a guess, I’d say it’s because pretty much everything is procedurally generated when you create a world. I’m fairly sure the actual “world files” are bigger than the game download.
Peter: Quite likely.
Tim: That’s another nice touch: you can make different characters and different worlds, and hop between them at will. If you want to take your super-powered single-player character online to play with friends, go for it. If he gets an amazing magic item, you can then take him back to single-player.
Peter: Do you think, taking Minecraft as a lazy example again, the devs might be under some pressure to keep coming up with new stuff? I’m just accounting for the nutters who’ll play for like 8 hours a day. It seems like a title that’ll inspire that kind of devotee.
Tim: I know a few people who’ve burned out on it already, but that’s because they played it for about 30 hours in three days. And even then, people start trying to do crazy things within the game, like building little outposts in the hardest areas of the game.
Peter: That’s neat, so people are just finding fresh ways to challenge themselves?
Tim: It’s the sort of game that offers that challenge, I suppose – it’s still pretty freeform.

Tim: It doesn’t look like there’ll be mod support. Good or bad, in your opinion?
Peter: Hm, well, I’m generally always in favour of mod support. It expands the field of creativity (and also opens the floodgates to utter shite), but the bonuses of the former usually outweigh the latter.
Tim: Mm, I’ve seen a lot of game-breaking additions made to games, which almost cheapen the whole experience. But on the other hand, there are frequently mods that increase utility, and in something like this … well, I guess it’d go both ways.
Peter: Is there a specific reason why there’s no mod support?
Tim: I don’t recall a precise reason, but I think it was something along the lines of “We plan to support the game with regular updates anyway, so if people want stuff added, then we’ll add it.” Time will tell whether that’s a good idea or not.
Peter: I’d be in favour of a ‘make the user interface a bit nicer’ mod. Although I think they’ve already tweaked it, by letting you hold down the right mouse to craft multiples of an object.
Tim: They did! You’ve been reading the patch notes.
Peter: Yes … I too have a boring life it seems. Actually I think it was just there for me to read on Steam while it was installing.
Tim: All 16 megs?
Peter: Haha, well, Steam has to pretend to install DirectX every time.

Tim: We should get into some specifics, though. Care to elaborate on what happened in our little two hour playtest?
Peter: No, it shall forever remain a secret! (Well, ok.) So, essentially we did what you pretty much have to do in the first half hour or so of the game. Chopped down some trees, mined a couple more resources like stone and whatnot, and then built a small hovel to cower in. There are enemies lurking about in the daytime, but (on the surface at least) these are a lot less deadly than the ones which come out at night. Nighttime is zombie time (and also creepy flying eyeball time), but if you have a house to hide in then you seem pretty much safe. Once we had that set up, we crafted a couple of basic, wooden weapons for ourselves and went MINING INTO THE EARTH. Under the surface you start to run into all kinds of other ore deposits, like copper, gold and gems. You also run into underground lakes, caches of sand (which can hilariously smother you to death) and glorious mud. I think we died a couple of times, because we ran into nastier enemies (giant slimes) and didn’t really have the weapons to deal with them. As we’ve said before though, dying isn’t a huge deal early in the game as you just lose coins which aren’t exactly vital.

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Peter: Err … so, yes, after a bit of exploring and dying we started to expand our shack into something a bit less cramped and a bit sillier looking (which you’ll be able to see in the videos). We built both upwards and outwards, adding some new rooms in the hope of attracting some NPCs. Although this didn’t actually happen until Tim logged on with his more advanced character. At which point a Merchant and a nurse (hellloooooo nurse!) appeared. By this point we also had slightly better weapons (iron broadswords) thanks to the construction of a furnace.
Tim: The logical next step would’ve been to upgrade equipment further, get some better weapons, and start looking for treasure chests and other caches of wonder. And there are a lot of wonderful items hidden away. My “advanced” character, as Peter so kindly put it, can get around a lot more easily than a starter character, thanks to the accessories I’ve found and the equipment I have.
Peter: Well he’s advanced compared to mine. You have armour and everything! I have a purple shirt.
Tim: If you watch the trailer, you can see some of this stuff – laser guns, and jetpacks, and grappling hooks, for instance. They’re not easy to get by any means, but they add utility rather than just making you a bit more powerful.

Peter: So, is there any kind of ‘end game’ with this? I have that personality flaw where if a game seems endless, I start to suffer from ennui and wonder if I’m wasting my time.
Tim: Kinda, though I’m going to have to venture very slightly into spoiler territory to elaborate. Readers! Avoid the next few lines if you want to discover everything for yourself!
Peter: Sorry for forcing this spoiler out into the open, everyone. I’m like a man with a stick, beating spoiler-birds from the bushes.
Tim: That was an incongruously brutal mental image.
Peter: I just watched a fairly horrible Dragon’s Dogma trailer today where they set a Griffin on fire for fun, so that might be why.
Tim: Mostly, you’re progressing towards two things: killing the bosses, and surviving in the harder areas. You can’t go into one of the trickiest (and, item-wise, most rewarding) areas of the game without killing the hardest of the bosses, if I remember rightly. If you’re the sort who wants to explore and get the sort of weapons and equipment that will make the Norse gods weep with envy, that’s your goal.
Peter: Ok, cool. That didn’t seem too spoilery.
Tim: It caters remarkably well to builders too, though. If you don’t fancy wandering into the super-hard areas, you can just build gigantic castles.
Peter: So it’s sort of a hybrid between setting your own goals and having set challenges to overcome?
Tim: Pretty much. The bosses add something to aim towards – for me, at least.
Peter: Yeah, I can see how that works. Presumably the bosses only show up at certain distances from your starting position.
Tim: Dodging spoilers again, I’ll just say they’re kinda hard to run into by accident. I do wish there were more of them though, and I wish more was made of them. Going back to Castlevania again – that series of games has had some of the most inventive and varied bosses in the history of 2D platform adventure thingies. Hopefully, that’ll be expanded on.

Peter: We should mention the tedious specifics of multiplayer technicalities. Namely, that it’s a bit old school at the moment with IP addresses and ports and stuff.
Tim: I believe (or just hope) that they’re working on proper Steam multiplayer integration, but we had to do a bit of fiddling to get it running. Only a bit, mind you.
Peter: If you’ve been playing multiplayer games since Quake 2 or whatever, you’re probably going to be fine. But if you’re hoping to just click on PLAY NOW you might be upset.
Tim: Yup. There’s no server browser, or anything. You need to type in an IP manually.
Peter: You couldn’t connect to me, but that’s likely just because port 7777 is closed on my router. I could connect to you fine, although there was a bit of lag (we’re on different continents though).
Tim: Joining doesn’t seem to cause problems – just hosting. Oh, and when you host, you actually need to open a second copy of the game to connect to your own server.
Peter: I think the lag could be problematic when the game reaches the stage where dying matters a bit more. Like bosses and whatnot.
Tim: Mmm. I’ve been playing it trans-atlantically (which is a phrase I think I’ve just made up) and haven’t had too much trouble, but I still don’t have the precision I want.

Tim: Is it verdict time?
Peter: I think it is!
Tim: Then, to craft an atrocious but relevant analogy, let’s chop down some trees and build a wooden bridge to Opinion Town.
Peter: Nice, Tim. Nice.
Tim: What’re your thoughts, from first impressions? Would you play more?
Peter: My first impressions are positive; I’m a big fan of the sort of ambition on show in Terraria. It’s a real “here is the world, here are your tools, you can pretty much do everything you’d expect to be able to do” game. As I mentioned up there, it’s appealing directly to the human desires of building, exploring and collecting, which is probably why the two hours we played disappeared so quickly. I think the scope for expanding (even though it’s already pretty huge) is a great thing too – something obviously aided by the decision to go with 2D. What I don’t love is the user interface, which is pretty fiddly (though you can get used to it). And it has a bit of a learning curve, so I’d recommend reading a basic ‘how to start’ guide before diving in. A better guide should have been included with the game, really … But to answer your other question, yes, I would play more, because I want to dig all the way to hell itself! And in the game, too.
Tim: One last question, before I venture forth my own opinions: based on what little you’ve played, would you recommend to both those who want to play by themselves, and those who want to play with friends?
Peter: I think that depends on personal preference, like a lot of games. Speaking for myself, I think multiplayer has more scope just because you can show off your buildings and loot, as well as celebrating in little collective victories over enemies and stuff. That seems more appealing than doing it alone, but other people would probably feel the opposite. Ayn Rand, for example. The miserable cow.
Tim: I probably shouldn’t be quite so astonished that you managed to reference Ayn Rand in an article about an indie 2D platforming/crafting game. Nonetheless: I’m astonished that you managed to reference Ayn Rand in an article about an indie 2D platforming/crafting game.
Peter: Blame Adam Curtis. But yes, be sociable, play Terraria with friends!

Tim: Annoyingly, I think you’ve taken most of the points I wanted to make. That’s the last time I graciously let you go first.
Peter: Just make them again, hopefully people won’t notice.
Tim: The tutorials definitely need improvement. Not in the sense of telling you how everything works, because that’d ruin the fun, but just little things. Like “you can only place doors in spaces three blocks high,” and “walls paint the background instead of blocking things off, although using them is actually important.” As it’s a game based around discovery it’s not a huge issue, but I get the feeling that finding this stuff out while avoiding spoilers is going to get tricky. Once you get the basics down, however, everything flows pretty well. It really is just the first half hour. It’s the simple stuff that’s the most confusing, because you’re not quite sure of how the world works. The controls can be a little fiddly, but having played for as long as I have, I don’t have a problem with them anymore. They hadn’t even crossed my mind as a potential issue until you brought them up and I remembered the troubles I had early on – again, mostly with simple things, like placing torches. Those two issues aside, though, it’s a fantastic little game. It’s clever and generally pretty well-designed, and it caters to both those who want to build towering monoliths and those who want to explore caves and blat monsters with swords.
Peter: Yeah, it’s just the simple fact that bringing up your inventory doesn’t pause anything … which is fine in theory, but not while you’re still kinda struggling with things.
Tim: There’s a tonne of stuff to do, and it’s £5.99 GBP. Again: I’ve played this for 12 hours so far. If we’re going in terms of pure value for money, I’ve so far paid 50p per hour of enjoyment, and I’m nowhere near done.
Peter: Hours of fun for $10 USD is not to be sniffed at.
Tim: There are some grind-y aspects, particularly when you’re looking for particular ores, but … well, you can always just generate another world to see if you can find some more easily there. Being able to hop your characters between worlds is a great little feature, and the same goes for swapping between single-player and multi.
Peter: Terraria: if you don’t like it, you’re a terrariable person.
Tim: I still don’t feel I’ve recommended it enough, so: I adore Terraria. It constantly amazes and amuses in new and spectacular ways, it caters to players of different ilks, and there’s a lot I still want to do with it. (I mostly want to build giant doom castles, admittedly, but still.) And it’s only £5.99. Why haven’t you bought it yet? It’s brilliant. Unlike Peter’s pun.
Peter: Hey now.
Tim: Which makes me want to pun-ch him.
Peter: Hoist upon your own puntard … no, that doesn’t even work on a basic level.
Tim: Unlike Terraria, which works on oh-so-many levels!
Peter: Nicely done.
Tim: Thanks.

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