Terra Nil, the next game from Free Lives, the developers behind Broforce, Genital Jousting, and more, releases on March 28. I sat down with the animator Kane Forster, sound designer Jason Sutherland, and co-creator and lead designer Sam Alfred to chat about how Terra Nil took shape and its road to a full release.
Ecological Strategy Game Terra Nil’s Journey from Itch.io Project to Free Lives Next Big Game
Terra Nil started as a free indie game on the popular website Itch.io, where it had a few incredibly well-received updates. This is how Free Lives prototypes many of its projects before going into full-on development. Sam Alfred mentioned, “I didn’t know it at the time because I’d only just started at free lives when I first created Terra Nil, but this is a process that’s actually quite common at Free Lives as far as to prototype things in our own time, and then, if they show promise, then maybe give some more resources, pay some more attention to them.”
Terra Nil’s success on Itch.io proved that it could be the next major game for Free Lives, so the team moved over to developing it. Sam continued to say, “We like to test them, give them away for free. Just see if people like that.” It was clear the reception to Terra Nil’s five updates on Itch was overwhelmingly positive.
Terra Nil is what the team is calling a reverse city builder. You’re tasked with bringing nature back to wastelands and creating different fauna, flora, and biomes back to the world. However, the game is designed in multiple distinct stages. First, you need to plant and grow your biomes back, but then you need to pack up all of the buildings and machinery on the map to leave no trace you were ever here. I asked Sam how the idea for packing up your stuff came to be, “By the time you get to the end of the second phase, there are buildings everywhere. And we realized that it’s the game about nature, you can’t add more buildings, because then it’s going to start to feel like a city.”
The demo on Itch does not have the recycling phase of the game, and this is one way the team was able to take an entirely new concept and make it fit thematically within Terra Nil.
Of course, while the Itch game is on PC, Terra Nil is also coming to mobile devices. When developing for mobile, you need to keep in mind all of the potential screen sizes. Someone might play on an 11-inch tablet or scale it all the way down to a five-inch cell phone. Sam mentioned that “We have little icons representing the different animal species and, and we took headshots of the models to turn into icons, but we couldn’t use those as is because their textures are too small, the models are too low and they don’t look good close up, because they’re designed to be viewed from very far away”
The team had to redesign and repaint all of the icons to make them work for how far away the camera is.
When talking to animator Kane Foster, I learned that while developing for mobile wasn’t a massive problem for the team, the animals in Terra Nil gave the team the most trouble.
“Yeah, scale was a really tricky thing with this game because the buildings needed to be a certain size so that you could, like, use this puzzle and like move around the space. But then you’d also need to see the animals.”
Having to determine how big to make the animals against the buildings warped the perception of how big things are in Terra Nil, but since the futuristic looks of the buildings could make them any size, it worked itself out in the end. While animals were difficult to scale for the game, they also give Terra Nil’s biomes a distinct feeling thanks to some key animations.
Kane went on to talk about how the animals of Terra Nil add to the whole picture “Most animals have like a sound that they create in some way. So they have like an action that they do; like we have these Elk that have a call and new kinds of things to add to the whole biome feeling which is pretty cool.”
To add to this, your mouse cursor acts like a listening device. Hovering over the animals, forests, and other areas of the map will let you hear the sounds of Terra Nil more clearly. Focusing your cursor on one area will help hear the sounds of what makes each area distinct. Talking to sound designer Jason Sutherland, he spoke about creating the different sounds of Terra Nil.
“I’ll use a lot of variations on the same sound. So they all sound slightly different. And then also, I’ll listen to a lot of the sounds over and over again, and if I pick up subtle little details like little beeps and tones, or like a bird tweet or something like that, I’d sort of removed that because those kinds of things players tend to pick up on them and they become super repetitive.”
I also learned that the team at Free Lives pretty unanimously loves the penguin sound, and it’s their favorite in the game. That’s more of just a fun fact for you, the reader.
Terra Nil has had some demos at various events like Pax East, digital showings at Steam Next Fest, and other places players have had a chance to experience the game. What goes into picking the right vertical slice to show off a game? Especially for a game that has a prototype version on Itch. I asked Sam this question and he said, “What is fundamentally, mechanically speaking, just one of the levels of the prototype, but thematic, like visually, completely different visually, totally overhauled. And a lot more fully realized, then sort of very abstract pixel art.”
He continues on to say, “But one thing I will say that I’m very proud of what we did in the demo is at the end of the demo, we zoom out of the map and show you the whole planet, and then only one of the continents turns green. And then you can see all these other continents that are still brown. So I think if there’s a way to do that, generally speaking, wherever the demo just like put a really obviously your players face that pain.”
Terra Nil is almost ready for release. The game comes out on PC and Mobile (Via Netflix) on March 28, 2023. You can check out the release date trailer below.