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"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?"