Ten years ago “Terraria,” a simple-looking video game about digging, building, and fighting monsters, released on PC. At a glance, “Terraria,” which plops new players into a whimsical forest with a few basic tools and little in the way of direction or an overarching goal, doesn’t seem much different from the myriad other action platformers on the market. But as its legion fanbase knows, there’s significantly more to “Terraria” than meets the eye.
For the uninitiated (though at this point you’d be hard-pressed to find a video game consumer who isn’t familiar with “Terraria”), the game plays like an old school Metroidvania mixed with the sandbox design and limitless building possibilities of “Minecraft.” There’s a stunning variety of weapons, armors, building blocks and everything in between — entire systems for fishing, golfing, and home decoration exist, among other features — to loot and craft in the world, which is teeming with unique biomes and diverse enemies and friendly NPCs. On one hand, it’s easy to explore “Terraria” for 100 hours without experiencing all of the game’s content. On the other, the primary gameplay loop of gearing your character, killing antagonists, and looting their corpses for exponentially stronger items is more than fleshed-out enough for players who are primarily interested in gratifying action. That loop is as addictive as it was back when “Diablo” popularized the concept more than two decades ago.
“Terraria” has endured as one of the most critically and commercially successful video games in the medium’s history. The title, which hails from 10-person Indiana-based indie studio Re-Logic, has sold over 35 million copies and has been ported to phones and every major video game console on the market. “Terraria” has steadily increased in popularity since its 2011 launch and is typically played by tens of thousands of players on PC on a daily basis, according to Steam data. The longevity of “Terraria” is almost unheard of for a game of this style and scale and its popularity has made Re-Logic one of the biggest success stories in indie gaming.
“Terraria” is an outlier in the video game industry, and not just because of its lasting popularity. Re-Logic has supported the game with several free patches that have added thousands of new items, new gameplay mechanics, and other additions. Skeletron, a floating skull with a pair of skeletal hands, once served as the final boss of “Terraria”; so much content has been added that it is now one of the earliest bosses that players face. It wasn’t until the game’s fourth major content patch, the “Journey’s End” update that released in May 2020, that Re-Logic announced its intent to begin focusing on other projects. “Terraria” found a large fanbase shortly after launch, but the game’s success grew exponentially as Re-Logic continued to support it with free content updates over nearly a decade.
“We’ve just rolled from one update to the next and though there wasn’t some giant five-year roadmap, it was always our plan to add content to the game,” Ted Murphy, Re-Logic’s head of business strategy and marketing, told IndieWire. “It was kind of spontaneous. The fans supported us along the way, which allowed us to do things in a way where we weren’t charging for DLC, doing microtransactions, or any of that mess. We can keep giving content and they keep giving us the love, support, and sales that we need to keep going as a company and developing the game.”
That kind of decision is a rare one in the video game industry. Many video game companies, particularly the industry’s larger publishers and studios, have taken a liking to microtransactions (game content that costs additional real-life money beyond a game’s initial asking price) such as battle passes and gambling mechanics like loot boxes, in the years since “Terraria” originally released. The increasing prevalence of microtransactions has become such a contentious issue in video game communities that game publishers have made a point to highlight their products that lack microtransactions for positive press.
Microtransactions have proven profitable for many companies despite the controversy surrounding them. Regardless, Murphy noted that the strong early sales figures for “Terraria” enabled Re-Logic to actively support the game without charging customers additional money for new content.
“Andrew Spinks (president of Re-Logic and creator of “Terraria”) and I joked around the launch of patch 1.3, ‘Say we charge 50 cents for 1.3,'” Murphy said. “Would’ve made millions of dollars. Probably wouldn’t have made people that angry. We are a business, of course, so we need to make money, stay in business, and be successful, but we don’t need to squeeze every drop out of everybody out there to do that. We’re plenty successful as is. Everybody can get paid and we can keep developing games without having to do those things. We appreciate that not every studio is in that situation and some studios have been backed in to doing those sorts of things to keep the lights on or to be able to move on to other games. It’s great for short-term profits but it’s not a great thing for the industry. Just because it’s the way things are doesn’t mean that we can’t showcase a different example. Our fans have been so supportive over the years that it has enabled us to stick to our philosophy and we’re hoping that we can continue with that.”
That philosophy has also extended to how Re-Logic, which sourced most of its employees from the “Terraria” community, interacts with its consumers; the Re-Logic team regularly mingles with its audience on community forums and social media platforms. The company is also one of the few in the modern gaming industry that has given the OK to consumers to mod their game; modding, fan-created content for video games created using official or unofficial development tools, used to be prevalent in all sorts of video games. Game studios and publishers began clamping down on the practice as microtransactions became more common in the industry but “Terraria” has served as one of the industry’s few modern exceptions to the rule.
“Terraria” has had a bustling fan-driven modding scene for years, and though it’s difficult to quantify how important modding has been to the game’s longevity, it’s clear that a significant fraction of the game’s audience enjoys playing modded versions of “Terraria”; Steam data states that tModLoader, the Re-Logic-approved modding app for “Terraria,” has averaged around 10,000 daily players since launching on Steam one year ago. “Terraria” fans have created a variety of massive mods for the game that have added hundreds of hours of new content, and the success of those mods has effectively amounted to free advertising for Re-Logic and “Terraria,” such as the several songs from the Calamity mod’s soundtrack that have garnered millions of views on YouTube.
It’s been one year since Re-Logic announced it was done supporting “Terraria,” which is coded in Microsoft XNA, an archaic tool kit that Microsoft stopped backing in 2013. Murphy said the company has been setting its sights on the future and though there’s no timetable for the company’s next game, he added that Re-Logic’s developers, programmers, and artists have kept busy in interim since releasing their final patch for “Terraria.”
“As we look towards potentially doing a second project and beyond we have to modernize and learn new things,” Murphy said. “Since the end of last year there has been a lot of learning activities going on. There are ideas that are floating around but we haven’t coalesced around, ‘This is the game, this is what we’re gonna do next.’ It’s an advantage that ‘Terraria’ is still successful… It affords us a little more time to sit back and think about what the recipe is going to be. We’re taking the time to up the skill level of the team. It’ll probably be awhile before we come out and say what we’re doing but in the meantime I don’t think the success of ‘Terraria’ is going away.”