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Dwarf Fortress in 2013

July 2, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

This post has been highlighted as one of Gamasutra's best stories of 2013.


"What we've done is lay out a framework for version 1.0, and you just have a giant piece of paper with everything on it, and there's the stuff that's on the paper, and there's the stuff that's off the paper."

Tarn Adams and his brother Zach have been working on procedurally-generated fantasy game Dwarf Fortress for around 11 years now, although if you include the DragSlay and Slaves to Armok development work that preceded it -- and essentially molded the game's early beginnings -- it's more like 13 years.

Although you can download and play the game for free right now, version 1.0 is still a long time coming. Tarn Adams recently estimated that we can expect 1.0 in around 20 years' time, although he admits it'll probably take even longer than that, "because I always underestimate release times."

But the Adams brothers have a clear goal, regardless of timeframe. The duo recognize that they have gotten stuck in plenty of development ruts before, and their solution is to lay everything out in front of them, and decide on what will make the cut.

"We try to stay on the paper as much as possible," says Adams. "When we finish the paper, that's 1.0. And there's a whole lot more to do after that. I mean, obviously, if we're in our 50s, we'll have all kinds of life decisions we're making, so there's no reason to think that we'll stick with this plan for even another five years or whatever."

But that's the general idea -- sticking to the plan without getting too deep in the weeds. "Just kind of lay out a skeleton, flesh it out a bit, but not put the little curly hairs on it like we did in the first version of the game, where we had curly hairs on every part of the body, and measured their exact flash points and everything, and you could teleport someone's nose off and so on -- although we're pretty much there in Dwarf Fortress again."

The 30-Year Plan

What's so intriguing (and perhaps questionable) about Adams' 30-year-plus plan is how exactly the designer can stay focused and enthused about a project that may potentially take up his entire adult life.

I regularly talk to developers who tell me "I've really enjoyed working on this game, but I cannot wait to get it behind me and work on something new." How, then, does Adams keep up the enthusiasm for Dwarf Fortress? Isn't his attention starting to meander to other projects?

"Not really," he answers. "I mean, if we didn't have vents for things like that, then I think it'd be a realistic expectation. But having put in the years, I kinda know where I'm at. And I kinda know I've made time for myself to make side projects, even though I haven't released anything since Dwarf Fortress that wasn't related to Dwarf Fortress... like the Cobalt Quest, the Mac porting project, or whatever."

Zach and Tarn Adams

In fact, Adams says that he has around seven other big projects that are sort of in the works but not -- "they are all sort of large undertakings that I don't have large undertaking time for," he says. "There's time when we're watching stupid stuff on TV over at my brother's place where I have my other laptop, and I work on those games, just as kind of a break."

"We don't really talk about them that much, and don't say what they are," he continues. "We don't want to build any hype for them because it's not necessarily anything that's ever going to see the light of day. It helps, though, to know that we still have other ideas that we can work on, and there are lots of other interesting things to experiment with."

There's another reason why the Adams brothers don't believe they'll ever get bored of Dwarf Fortress development -- the sheer scope of the title, and the ridiculous number of avenues that they can potentially go down at any given point.

Adams says that whenever he becomes bored of a specific element of the game, he can simply go off and work on something else completely different instead. "Like, if I got sick of geology, I wouldn't have to look at geology again for 10 years, right?" he laughs. "You can just go do something else."

This is why Dwarf Fortress development is so completely different to, say, your average triple-A or mobile game design. A regular game development team might spend months and years refining a title and polishing it up, making it "ready for market," and this is where Adams believes the enthusiasm can be lost.

"You explore new ideas in the interative development process, so it's not completely stagnant, but I can see how you can wear down a bit more," he notes. "With me, I was like 'Ohh -- I get to look up all the medieval garden crops now and learn all about plants!' I learned a lot about bananas recently. It's just wherever the mind takes you, you can explore. It's like getting tried of learning is where Dwarf Fortress is at now."

But Adams isn't convinced that he'll make the 20 year deadline, regardless of dwindling enthusiasm or not. Sitting at his computer day-in, day-out (or night-in, night-out, as the case may be) is taking its toll on the developer -- plus it's not like he's able to control how the world will work in the coming decades.

"I'm sure there's going to come a point obviously where we're kinda fading out, not really from disinterest, but just because our bodies are falling apart," he says. "And at that point, I don't know if the game is still going to be viable -- what operating systems are like, what weird headbands people are going to be wearing that let them see weird stuff with their iPhones -- and Dwarf Fortress could just be totally dead by then."

"Who knows how this stuff will work out," he adds. "But if we're still around, and we need to pass it on, then we'll probably think of some open-source solution that just gets passed along, and lets people do whatever the heck they want with it. We'll put up all our dev notes, etcetera. But that's just idle speculation, right? That's the general idea."

He sees the future life of Dwarf Fortress going the same way that the likes of Nethack or Dungeon Crawl have, with new devs teams picking them up and pushing them along.

"We've just had our mitts on this one for a long time without passing it along," he says, "but that's not going to be a forever thing, obviously. It's only going to stay afloat as long as people keep it afloat, right?"

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Jonathan Jennings
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Honestly sounds like the dream situation ,content, working on the game of your dreams with a devoted fan base that helps cover your costs , and no end in sight. Great article! It only makes sense such unusual and unique game would be born Forman unusual and unique process!

Nick Harris
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I have spent 20 years making productivity boosting tools so that I can make my game in 10.

If I hadn't gone to all that effort I wouldn't finish the game within my lifetime...

Peter Eisenmann
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Seriously? Care to tell us more?

Jeff Leigh
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I am curious as well. I've spent several years creating my own game engine and content creation suite (including a complete mesh editor) so that my Internet-based team could be more productive.

Finding a rugged self-made hammer in a blacksmith's toolbox is a far more interesting story than finding one purchased at the local hardware store.

Maria Jayne
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The Ascii artwork is the primary reason I gave up trying to figure this out, I just couldn't identify so many different characters within the context of a layered 2d plane. Since I couldn't assimilate that, despite me enjoying its premise and managing to dig out some basic rooms in the side of a mountain, I lost interest.

I did think there were no games I couldn't play because of bad graphics, but for me, this is the line I draw. Consequently I did buy the Paradox attempt at recreating it known as A Game of Dwarves. It was fun for a while but lacked the complexity.

It's cool these guys have a dedicated fan base that will support their development so thoroughly, I do feel though this type of game would do far better with improved visuals. When you look at how popular Civilization and similar style management games are, there is an open market for managing a fantasy settlement.

Elwood Blues
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2D (actual) graphic tilesets are available and officially supported, btw.
There's also a "Lazy newb pack" that really simplifies player's life.

Steven Christian
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Even with the lazy newb pack, the map generation is still in ASCII, and the UI is still as confusing and inconsistent as hell.
Also, moving up and down slices is still of course the same.

I prefer the style of Rimworld, with a proper control method and a zoomable top-down view that doesn't obscure the play area with isometric walls (like other DF clones).
Also, a single layer helps greatly to see all of the action easily.

Tynan just need to get to work adding more depth.

august clark
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The Ascii is probably the least difficult thing to come to grips with and the abundance of graphical tilesets (there is even a isometric visualizer included in the Lazy newb pack) makes that a non-issue for most people.

No, what this game takes is time, and the patience to persevere over an aggressively bad and schizophrenic UI, and patience to learn and understand hundreds of systems being simulated at once. If you can do that, it is one of the most amazing experiences in gaming. If you cannot, go read some of the succession LPs of this game (Brozestabbed, Gemclod, and Boarmurdered all come to mind) and live vicariously through the failures of others!

Jesse Tucker
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I agree 100% with august. It took me 20 minutes to begin to feel comfortable with the ascii, but many days to even begin to get used to the UI. It drives me nuts when UIs are inefficient and cumbersome, and it ruined the experience for me.

Jack Nilssen
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Tarn Adams is my hero.

Michael Arevalo
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Tarn and Zach inspire me to be a better developer and give me hope that I may someday also make a living doing what I love, even if it doesn't make me a millionaire.

Kujel s
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We don't need to be millionaires, just successful enough to live comfortably as we work on our craft ;)

Matt Cratty
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Honestly, I played DF for the first time last year, and its better than just about anything I've played since 2004 (with probably 3 exceptions).

Its so old school that ... um... insert joke here.

I love the craft, detail, and community that has build up around this cult classic that I hope will never die.

Nathan Ridley
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"It's not like people see our $50,000 a year and think 'Hey, I want a piece of that pie.' They'd much rather look towards things like Minecraft, where there are hundreds of millions of dollars."

The brothers have this massive, massive blindspot regarding the importance of the UI. That $50,000 cap they perceive is barely scratching the surface of what would be possible for them if they made the damn thing a bit more accessible to the average person. It's great that their small niche base loves ASCII art and doesn't mind fumbling their way through a hostile interface in order to play the game, but that is the primary reason the game stays confined within a tiny niche corner of the gaming market.

They have the real possibility that if they did that seed work, even just on exposing an API into the game, as opposed to venturing into a full-on UI overhaul, that enough new people would be introduced to the game that they could hire a third developer to focus specifically on the API and UI aspects of the game, leaving them free to keep working on the bits they love.

Ben Sly
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Toady has repeatedly said that they don't want to work with another developer. I don't know how much of that is rationalizing their work style's virtue, but they are quite protective of the code that has become their livelihood.

I do also get the feeling that the code is of sufficient complexity that it's going to take a long while before said new hire stopped doing more harm than good, and it might be rather frustrating for both parties to ensure that the new developer understands the brothers' vision precisely. The Adams' are working on it slowly and painfully but steadily; tampering with the working dynamic that is so unique among game development might easily backfire.

Rob Graeber
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The API idea is interesting, but it seems clear they aren't in it for the money.

Rob Graeber
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The API idea is interesting, but it seems clear they aren't in it for the money.

Brian Schaeflein
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I enjoyed DF, but the schizo UI was just overly burdensome. I gladly traded away features that were frustrating to use in favor of fewer features that were simpler to use. Considering Gnomoria gets patched just about every week with new features, I have no qualms about my choice.

Jason Deathmunger
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I will always play DF. I will teach my children to play DF. BLOOD FOR THE BLOOD GOD.

Daneel Filimonov
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Will you name your first-born Urist? :P