How Long It Really Takes To Develop A Game: The Making Of Teragard

I think I was about 15-years-old when I came up with the idea for Teragard, meaning that it has been 12 years for the game to actually, finally get made. It started out as an 8-bit RPG that took place in a fantasy world called Teragard, and its central feature was that you could select one of about 20 characters, and each of them had their own adventure that took place in a different part of the world. You could choose the order that you played each adventure, and after completing them all, a new story would be unlocked that would unite all of these characters and allow them to team up and discover some of the deeper secrets of the world of Teragard.

I’m not going to spoil the story of the soon-to-be-released Teragard for you, but I will say there were some really cool ideas I had back then that will be making it into the final game that’s actually coming out.

There are some major reasons why I didn’t finish Teragard when I first started working on it. I think the biggest problem was my attention span. I loved coming up with ideas for video games, especially RPGs, and I loved having the ability to actually make games, but finishing a game is an extremely tedious, difficult, painful, and exacting process. I think I only finished one or two games when I was a teenager, maybe three, and none of them were commercial quality, and they all took massive shortcuts by using assets from other video games. So Teragard, like most games I conceived when I was a teenager, was left to gather dust.

Teragard, Mk II: How to do everything wrong

A number of years later, maybe when I was 19 or 20, I had the idea to try Teragard again. This time, it would take the form of a digital pen-and-paper RPG, quite similar to a text-based adventure game, which was quite different from the classic JRPG style it was before. Certain lore elements were brought back and expanded upon, and it’s worth mentioning again that some of these details I came up with will be included in the version of the game that I’m actually releasing soon.

This time, I actually made some progress with Teragard, but I had to cancel the project before too long because it was insanely ambitious and beyond the scope of what I was capable of. It’s kind of hard to explain this one, but there was just too much going on. For example, I wanted to literally write a novella for each of the potential storylines that could be randomly assigned based on which character you chose, and I wanted to write it in a dark and mature style (something I had never done before and had no experience with). In addition, the game would have required many dozens of high-quality original artwork, something that I wasn’t capable of (which, if you’ve seen the games I make, you already know that I’m not a skilled artist).

Another thing that was pretty devastating was that I tried to talk about this project online, to get feedback and ideas and perhaps some additional help. I knew there were trolls and awful people on the Internet, but I didn’t really know how bad it could get. Here’s what happened:

I returned to an RPG Maker forum that I had frequented for many of my early teen years as I was just learning the basics of game design. I had somewhat outgrown my involvement with such a community as the years went on, but I always thought back fondly of it, so when I started working on this ambitious project, that was the place I wanted to discuss it. I remembered how helpful and fun the community was when I was younger.

But I quickly learned after making a new forum post that whatever community I had appreciated years prior was now totally gone, including the site leadership and administrators. The topic I made blew up with disgustingly mean comments, and no one was actually talking about my game at all. Let me explain:

In the lengthy original forum post I wrote, I included a lot of detail about what the game would be like and what my plans for it would be, but at the very end of that post I mentioned that I was interested in making it a commercial project. It potentially being a commercial game was literally the ONLY thing that anyone on the forum talked about. All the replies took the final two sentences of my post, ignored everything about what this game was, and told me how stupid and terrible I was for only caring about money, how selfish I was, etc., etc. It was completely bizarre. But I was ready enough for this– like I mentioned, I knew there were trolls online, and I was a college student at this point and was taking PR classes and saw this as good practice to navigate a bad public reception. I wrote a very kind and direct response to every single hater (and they definitely were haters) who replied to my post, addressing the things they talked about, I provided an update on the game with along with proof-of-concept screenshots, and I deleted the sentences in my original post about releasing the game commercially, so that we could actually talk about the game for crying out loud.

However, my efforts were completely in vain. I got one particularly adamant doubter, who also happened to be a site administrator, to meekly apologize and dial back his tone slightly, but that was the best I could get. For the most part, everyone would continue ranting on about how stupid I was and only talked about money for some reason. I tried to be the best PR person in the world, and honestly I’m very proud of the way I conducted myself and how patient I was with these awful people, but it grew to be too much to bear after a while, and it was clear that no one on this forum was going to help me or take any genuine interest in this ambitious game I was trying to make. It really took a toll on me and made me angry.

When dozens of voices are in unison telling you that you’re terrible and will never succeed, it’s pretty normal to want to give up. So I did. But if they instead had a supportive attitude and showed an interest in my project, I probably could have gotten the feedback to tweak some of my ideas to be more doable (ie, not attempt to write multiple novels to fit into this one game), and this incarnation of Teragard could have been a really cool first commercial game for me.

Teragard, Mk III: How to do everything right

From the beginning, Teragard was always an extremely ambitious game. To recap:

  • My first idea had 20 playable characters, each with their own short game within the larger game.
  • My second idea had fewer playable characters, but multiple stories for each one, and was presented like a novel.

The version of Teragard that will be coming out soon, my third attempt at making this game, is just as ambitious as my second attempt was. I have much more experience now, but it’s still been insanely difficult, and I don’t think I’ll ever make such an ambitious game ever again. But there’s a reason that about six years have passed since my second attempt at making this game.

Making Sojourner was extremely fruitful for me, in terms of my game design experience. If you’re a game designer and working on your first commercial project, I would absolutely recommend that you start simple, and Sojourner was the epitome of simple. Yet, despite being deliberately uncomplicated, I still had a very difficult time making Sojourner. That’s the reality of game design and programming: even when you’re sure that you know how to do something, it will always end up being harder to make than you think, and take longer than you anticipate. I learned so many important lessons, and thought of so many cool gameplay ideas, while I was making Sojourner. I incorporated what features I could into that game, but there were a lot of ideas I had that just wouldn’t fit, and I held onto those ideas in the back of my mind in case I would ever make another game.

So after having one commercial game under my belt, a ton of wildly ambitious ideas that came to me while working on that game, and considerably more experience, I eventually decided that my next project was going to be Teragard.

Ideas from my previous two attempts are being carried over into this final version of the game.

For example, instead of selecting one of twenty characters and doing a brief adventure as that character, as you did in my earliest vision for Teragard, now the player travels around the world and meets with many different non-player-characters and goes on an adventure with that person. This way, the player can continue using the party they created at the beginning of the game, and continue growing attached to their player-characters by seeing them become stronger over time.

The second version of the game had a reasonable number of distinct characters you select, and this newer version of the game retains that, allowing you to create a party of 4 of them. There were also some randomized elements of the second version of the game due to its AI-operated pen-and-paper stylings. In this newer game, the player can choose how much of the adventure they want to be randomized (with features such as random party members and a random starting location).

And of course the lore that I had been writing and expanding upon with each iteration of the game will finally see the light of day this new version.

There was also a lot of inspiration that came to me after working on Sojourner. In particular, while writing Sojourner, I realized that video game scripts in classic-style JRPGs don’t merely have to give the player hints or inform them what to do (that’s exactly how NPCs were used in the early Dragon Quest games), but can include messages that relate to what that player experiences and feels in real-life. Video games, as an interactive medium, can be a very powerful form of art because the player will be more engaged than if they were, for example, watching a movie or looking at a painting. So I made sure to incorporate empowering messages and deeper meaning in Teragard because it only helps to make the game into a more memorable and impactful experience for the player. And if you have the player’s attention, why wouldn’t you try to help them learn something, feel better about themselves, and improve their life in some way?

The thing is, Teragard is such a crazily ambitious game that it never could have been made as my first commercial game. I needed to start with a simpler, smaller project, and learn everything I possibly could from that experience, and then I could move on to something massive like Teragard. It wasn’t until making Sojourner that I knew what I was capable of and what my limits were. And with that knowledge, I knew how to make a game that would reach my limits as an independent developer, but not exceed them, as exceeding my limits would certainly result in another failed attempt; if a project is too ambitious, it will be overwhelming to the point that it just becomes impossible.

It’s not like I’m some game-design king now; Teragard has been really difficult to develop, and as I mentioned earlier, I’m not keen on doing such a large-scale project ever again. But I’m incredibly proud of myself for taking the game as far as I could get it, and for finally being able to wrap something I’ve been trying to make for over 10 years. If you have an ambitious idea, that’s how long it can take.