Skip to main content

Rivet Wars: Turning universe creation on its head

"It's a context for making things."

Deep inside Ted Terranova's head, he is scattering pins across a vast map of the world. "I was so excited that people in Japan and Singapore, in England, France and Germany, all over the planet, they'd all ordered these toys." he says. "It was just amazing that somewhere in all these countries there was one of my toys sitting on somebody's shelf. That blows me away." He pauses. Over Skype, I swear I can hear a creak as he leans back in his chair, taking it all in. "I'm just this dude that made these things. I don't want to sound corny, but it's really touching that someone sees value in the stuff I'm doing - when I'm just doing it mostly for myself because I think it's cool. The fact that other people think it's cool - cool enough to, like, buy into it? That's the biggest compliment."

Terranova's spent the last few years engaged in creating what the video game industry refers to rather bloodlessly as an intellectual property or - even worse - a universe. Frequently, these deep dives of the imagination seem to start in boardrooms, their fundamental cosmogonies sketched out on the canary yellow pages of a legal pad. This makes sense if you're sinking millions of dollars into a project, of course, as does - to a lesser extent - the ceaseless focus-testing that ensures you're building something that's at least palatable to as large a group of people as possible. You could also argue that it does destroy a little of the magic of creation, though. The danger is that you end up with something that offends almost nobody, but that doesn't really thrill anyone either.

Rivet Wars, however - the project that keeps Terranova toiling in his home office late into the night and has delighted all those toy collectors around the world - is different. It's a hobby that got pleasantly out of hand. It's a universe he built because he wanted to - and because of that he's built it without obvious compromise. Happily, it turns out that there's probably something to be said for this way of doing things. Early this year, when Rivet Wars headed to Kickstarter with a board game pitch, it asked for $25,000 and received, in the space of a month, $582,316 instead. That's pretty astonishing. What brought Terranova to this point? Why has his particular approach to creativity proven so successful?

While Rivet Wars may not be a video game - not yet, at least - Terranova has plenty of experience with the games industry. As an artist, he's worked in games since the 1990s, arriving via an architectural education that gave him a handy background in working - and thinking - in three dimensions. It's tempting to suspect it's his early experiences with AutoCad and Form-Z that lends even his pencil doodles a tangible sort of physicality. It certainly helped him to a job at Big Huge Games where he worked on projects like Rise of Nations.

Terranova's architecture background is evident in the tangible nature of his creations.

Rivet Wars began with a sketch. Finding himself unexpectedly unemployed a few years ago, Terranova was sitting at home when he decided to draw a tank: a steampunk rattle of cogs and pistons with a chunky, Great War vibe to it and a stoical little man sat inside. "I was laid off and I was doing contract work," he remembers. "I had a little spare time. I was thinking, what do I want to do next?"

Terranova has a quiet, almost tentative, way of speaking which sees even the most declaratory of sentences becoming a question. There's something very mild about him - something of the garage-based enthusiast surrounded by stacks of old Popular Mechanics magazine - and his descriptions of the crazy inventions he fills his sketchbooks with rarely go beyond "cool" or "awesome". His visual imagination does all the talking, though, and within a few weeks of pondering his future it had led him to an online vinyl and collectables community called ToyBreak.

"I was looking around the web at a lot of things, and I found this site," he says. "They just had a lot of cool stuff where people were customising toys and miniatures and they showed you how to cast and make your own stuff. They had this contest going: draw a character, put it up on the forums, vote, and then they'll actually make the toys of the most popular pitches. I ended up putting that picture of the tank up, and a lot of people just really dug it."

The more Terranova looked at his tank, the more he wanted a world for it to belong to. Hence Rivet Wars was born - not as an intellectual property, necessarily, but as a "context for making stuff" - anything from miniatures and toys to art and stories. "I've always loved military hardware," explains Terranova. "I used to build model kits and all that stuff. I draw all the time, and I'd drawn mechs and tanks before, but they were all unrelated and they were all random. With this particular tank sketch, it seemed that people really thought it was cool. I thought, let's create a space for all the art I'm doing on the side for fun. It kind of hit me that if I was going to spend time drawing stuff, I should sort of create a focus for all of that."

The Allies and the Blight are well-balanced foes.

The basics came together pretty quickly. Rivet Wars is a discordantly cute reimagining of the First World War complete with plucky heroes, dastardly villains, and monstrous machinery stalking the barbed wire and trenches of the battlefield. It's a conflict fought not by humans, but by anthropomorphic rivets, adorable and deadly at the same time.

Throughout the whole process, Terranova's managed to retain Rivet Wars' open-ended nature: it's not just toys, it's not just board games, it's whatever it needs to be as it moves along. "It's really funny because it's been an organic thing," he laughs. "I did that sketch and then I thought, I'm going to make a toy of this. I thought, I don't know if anyone's going to think this is cool, but I'm just going to do it. I'm going to make a miniature of this guy, and then I started selling it. Then people got into it and I started making more. And then, I was like, I'm going to draw a comic, because I just feel like drawing a comic book. It was me just wanting to make stuff: Hey, this tank is cool, but it needs an infantry guy. So I made the infantry guy. Oh, we need bad guys to fight against: let me make the Blight. They're like the allies and the Germans. Oh, let me give the Blight guy a rocket launcher so that he can take out the tank. I love anime and Japanese Mecha: let's make a Blight tank that's like a spider tank - a walker. Oh, man, I should probably draw a map of this world that's coming together."

At times, this approach to creation almost feels like a reaction to the way intellectual properties are so often constructed. "I think I'm just open to anything," says Terranova. "I guess it's kind of like creating an intellectual property, but I didn't want to go into it thinking of it that way. If I was going to do a doodle, maybe draw a tank or something, I'd just think: okay, what would be a cool Rivet Wars tank I could draw? Then maybe that sketch will have some kind of use or value later on in the Rivet War world.

"It almost reminds me of bands," he continues. "You know how a good band might come together? They'd get started in their garage in high school. They'd start playing in clubs, and they'd get better and then maybe they'd get signed with a record deal. Whereas you also have bands which are a big record company saying, 'Let's get four guys who can sing well together, and let's make a band out of that.' That's sort of the difference, I think?

The Monowheel is Terranova's favourite unit - brutal retro-futurism.

"This just evolved naturally. Things that didn't work just kind of died off. Because it had so much time to grow, it was just natural selection. Whereas I think if you're a big company with a big budget who want to make a sci-fi IP and just jump into it, you know, you've got to make everything at once, and that's a really difficult thing because you don't know what's going to be cool and what's not going to be cool. You don't know what's going to make sense because it doesn't have time to grow naturally.

"I feel like this is what a lot of companies are trying to do," he laughs. "They're trying to create the whole universe with one shot. I look back at Warhammer 40k, and that whole thing has grown so much since when we first got in back in the 80s. The stories have changed, expanded. It's the same with things like Star Wars - where they started and where they are now is just totally different. I don't think it's wrong for companies to try and do it all at once, but I just think it's really, really tough. Maybe part of the reason that I'm doing things the way I am is because it's just me doing it. If there was a team of a hundred artists and writers I guess you could do it way better and way faster. I don't know."

Terranova thinks for a second or two. "I do think the whole IP thing sounds a bit weird sometimes. I'm gonna create an IP and - what do they say? - leverage it. Monetise it. Maybe this is a more grassroots way of doing it. I do feel a lot of satisfaction about the people who supported this early on when I started making these toys and paid 15 bucks for me to make them the little resin figures. I always saw these as those Green Army Men I had as a kid. You'd buy a bag of 20 of them and then play with them in the dirt and lose half of them. I wanted these to be that sort of thing. My dream was to sell people a bag of Rivet soldiers for 10 bucks, then you'd be able to set 'em up on your table and, you know, look at them or paint them or whatever."

World War One probably would have been even worse if we had these.

Even as Rivet Wars started to gather a community of fans, Terranova remained committed to exploring the things that interested him personally. "An idea I had was that this wasn't a happy little world," he says. "Even though these guys are cute, they're at war and war's horrible. I wanted to do the first comic I drew just showing these guys sitting around talking about how they wish they were at home and what they'd do if they were at home, and then a bomb comes and blows one guy up. All his dreams are dashed: he's dead. That's it. A lot of people were shocked by that, but it's just what I was thinking of with this thing.

"What was kind of neat was that this was the first time I'd worked on my own kind of thing," admits Terranova. "Usually in video games you're working with other designers, other writers, and here I could just do whatever I wanted and that was a fun interesting experience. Some people said, 'Oh my gosh, that guy got blown up, that's horrible, I didn't think it would be so violent.' I thought, well, that's the way I saw it so I drew it that way. If you think that's too much, that's cool and I understand it, but I don't have to change it. I could just make things the way I wanted to. Getting feedback is great and I talked with a lot of my friends, too, but it was great just doing what I wanted. That's changed a little with the board game now, perhaps. There are more time constraints so I need to get stuff figured out. It's become more professional but it's still pretty fun."

It's the board game - and its Kickstarter - that has been keeping Terranova busy for the last few months, in fact. "David Doust, one of the guys from the website CoolMiniOrNot emailed me and said, 'Hey I saw your stuff on Facebook. We'd like to carry your stuff.'" He laughs. "I wrote back and said, 'You know I can only make so many of these? Because it's really me going in the basement, like a mad scientist, pouring the resin, waiting for it to cure and all of that kind of stuff.' He was like, 'Well we do production. We've started producing our own stuff with Super Dungeon Explorer. Why don't we do a board game with you?'"

That sounded pretty good to Terranova, and he started hashing out an idea. "It was a little more chill at first, we weren't sure it was actually going to happen," he laughs. "So I talked with my friend Bill Podurgiel from Big Huge. We talked about the game design and then showed it to CoolMini and one of their designers, Kevin Clark, said, 'This is pretty good. It makes sense, keep going with it.'

Players should expect a fast-paced game with a sharp tactical edge.

"Then it got to the point where they said, 'Okay is the game ready?' and I was like, 'Nope!' We started to have timelines and schedules. That's where it changed, where it reached the point where we had to get stuff done. At this point I'm having to outsource some of the 3D modelling and stuff, and that's a new thing. Not every piece is done by me, and that's a big transition."

The Rivet Wars board game is heavily inspired by Terranova's work on RTS titles, so while much of the fun comes from wielding an army, you don't have to build your forces in one go before you start battling. Rather, you start with nothing, and then gently accrue resources, which allow you to spawn increasingly deadly units. This simple design, matched with the Rivet Wars tin-pot aesthetic has lead to a Kickstarter than can only really be characterised as madly, even gratuitously successful. If Rivet Wars has eventually become an IP, in other words, it's the kind of IP that the boardroom crowd would appreciate.

"The Kickstarter was pretty crazy, especially the first night," remembers Terranova. "I messaged my friends and we just watched it go up. Whoa, it's at 10,000 already, that's halfway to 20,000. Whoa, it's at 20,000, 30,000, 40,000. Oh my God, this is ridiculous. Crazy. It was great. I really looked at it like this: the more money we could generate, the more stuff we could make - the more RIvet Wars stuff we could make. When I got to draw these things, I knew that if we hit these goals, we would actually make them.

"I think a huge part of the reason it did well was CoolMiniOrNot, of course," Terranova admits. "They've done successful Kickstarters, and they just have so many people they know and are in contact with. People know they've done this before and that they are going to get a certain degree of quality. I think I was super fortunate to end up working with them, and their knowhow really helped get the word out."

Stretch goals meant even more units to play with. Terranova was designing them right up to the wire.

That's certainly true. If nothing else, CoolMini knew how to put a winning pitch together, and how to keep the stretch goals rolling along when the money started to flow. There's also something about Terranova's basic approach lying at the heart of the Kickstarter success, though. Not just his art or his eye for detailing, but his obvious uncomplicated enthusiasm for what he's creating - the fact that he'd still be tinkering with Rivet Wars even if he wasn't pitching a Kickstarter and rushing out new designs for units.

One of the best pieces of advice a writer will ever hear when they're starting is this: Write with no attachment to outcome. It's powerful stuff. Write because you want to, write where your impulses take you, and don't worry - just yet, at least - about what else it's going to lead to. There's a lot of that spirit inside Rivet Wars, and it ensures that, even though he's now had to start approaching things in a more professional manner, Terranova still relates to this imaginary world the way he always has. It's still a hobby as much as a job, and it's still the place his mind naturally heads to when he's not working.

This is never clearer than when, at the end of our conversation, I ask Terranova to pick a favourite unit from the world he's created. "It's tough," he laughs, before running through three or four possible choices. "I really try to throw everything into each unit. I really try to outdo myself: that was cool, the next one has to be at least as cool, or cooler. I think the Monowheel's my favourite, though. There's something crazy about that. It's a guy in a huge wheel vehicle, and there's something brutal about it, like it's a circular saw, just a saw blade going down the battlefield. The guy has a sabre, but that's just ceremonial. The real damage is this thing chewing along. Then there's the fact that you look at old Popular Mechanics and old Popular Science covers and you see that there are people who built these things, who thought that they might be the way we get around. Instead of a car, you'd drive around in a Monowheel. Of course, if you can drive it, people will turn it into a weapon, too. There are paintings of people driving them through battlefields.

"It's just awesome," he concludes, and it's not clear whether he's only talking about the Monowheel any more. "It probably wouldn't work, but there's a sense that maybe - just maybe - it could work. Maybe you could build that kind of thing if you had enough time or enough passion.

"It's just possible."

Read this next