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Dwarf Fortress in 2013

July 2, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next
 

Impenetrable

Dwarf Fortress was rather tricky to get into from the get-go, thanks to its ASCII art style and general lack of tutorials. But to an outsider looking in on this game so many years into development, with such a wide scope of features and potential play styles, it's fair to say that getting into Dwarf Fortress is perhaps one of the most daunting tasks the video game industry as a whole can provide.

"I think the game has actually gotten easier compared to what it was in 2006," Adams reasons. "It's not really the mechanics that matter so much, since a lot of the mechanics in DF are under the table. A lot of the updates don't matter either -- I mean, I spent a month on beekeeping, but you're not confronted with beekeeping, and you don't need to learn how to do it, but if you want to make wax crafts and honey, then it's an avenue you can explore."

The designer argues that there are different types of impenetrability, and that it all depends on what a player focuses on.

"There's the basic interface problems, such as not using consistent keys," he explains. "Then there's using graphics that aren't graphics, that kind of thing [laughs]. And those have gotten slightly better, rather than worse."

"But when it comes to things like indecision -- like not being goal-orientated, or requiring people to set their own goals -- I guess you could argue more features make that worse. Really, the fundamentals of staying alive haven't really changed much at all.

"So I think the more time that goes on, the better the Wiki is, the better the tutorials are, the more videos get put out, the larger and more helpful the community is. So I think it's probably easier to get into Dwarf Fortress now than it ever has been. Not that it is!"

When the game reaches the aforementioned version 1.0, Adams envisions tutorials, a more consistent interface, some context-sensitive help -- all these things are on his piece of paper, although he has no intention of including isometric, supported or packed-in tiles or 3D interfaces, given the great job that the Dwarf Fortress community has done on the visual side of things already.

In fact, Adams has already attempted to start work on tutorials for the game, but has found that this is an element of design that can really impede development progress.

"We talk about the graphics slowing down development, and it's one of the main reasons why we don't have them," he says. "Tutorials are sort of the same way, in that they are an anchor that you need to keep updated. But that's definitely a sacrifice that I'm willing to make, just because I think they would make a big difference just to get people started."

For now, he's happy to let the Dwarf Fortress community do the job for him. "There's a lot of people dedicated to helping others get into the game now, and if I were to become one of them, that would be even better," he laughs, adding, "I'm not laughing at people's pain -- it is hard, and it is all my fault. It's just when you've been talking about something for years, you start to get flippant, sometimes."

I asked Adams whether he believes it would be possible to build a game with the insane depth of Dwarf Fortress, that would feel more accessible to the average gamer.

"Surely," he answers. "It would be about delivering depth quickly. I mean, think of something like The Sims -- how many copies did that sell, right? That's not an uncomplicated game, and yet it's still played by millions of people. The Sims is a really good example of a game that is complicated yet accessible."

"And I mean, I've never played Minecraft, but I assume there's some depth to the game, if you wanna have it, right?" he adds. "Yet the base game itself is playable by an eight year old. So I think it's already here."

Fan Drought

It's a godsend for the Adams brothers that they have such a dedicated fanbase that is not only happy to keep playing the game and help newer players out, but also donate tens of thousands of dollars simply to keep the brothers afloat. But what happens if, in the years to come, the player numbers begin to fall away and the income is no longer sustainable?

"I'll probably have to join that group of people who can't get a job," laughs Adams -- although he's well aware that that most likely wouldn't be the case. "I think we probably are at the point where if we started hyping a new project, people would pay attention."

"We could always trade in our reputation on a Kickstarter," he adds. "There's all kinds of choices these days, so it's not like I feel that I'd need to go and immediately do Dwarf Fortress part-time while I seek a job. There's alternatives. We'd still want to do Dwarf Fortress."

It's not really something that Adams likes to think about too often, given how incredibly depressing the thought is -- that people would just stop caring about your life's work.

"But it's also a foregone conclusion, right?" he says. "That's how these things always work. There are some things with staying power, like if you look at these roguelike games. But those communities are fractured a million times over. So who knows."

It helps the long-term reality of Dwarf Fortress that the game was recently chosen as one of the Museum of Modern Art's historial video games -- an event that really spurred Adams and his brother onwards.

"It made us feel like it's not like the floor is going to suddenly drop out behind us, even if support for the game dries out," he notes. "It also makes you feel like maybe support for the game won't dry out. It was a good milestone. And we've hit these milestones along the way, all of these things were stepping stones up to a feeling of confidence in our continued existence, and that's been nice."

Of course, there are methods by which the Adams brothers could potentially make their future more secure. One would be to get Dwarf Fortress on Steam, putting it front and center before millions of potentially new pairs of eyes. That process would involve going through Steam Greenlight.

"It's things like Steam Greenlight that have made the world a little weirder for us," Adams reasons. "Our policy is like well, it's like Field of Dreams, the Kevin Costner movie -- if you build it, they will come. Everything has been coming to us, all the press -- we've never placed an advertisement, never gone to a conference, or expo, or whatever."

Adams notes that he's not trying to make himself out to be selfish or arrogant -- it's simply that he didn't care about getting publicity when he first started developing the game, so when the hits began to roll in, he just sort of accepted what was happening.

This is where he isn't too sure whether Greenlight would be a good idea for Dwarf Fortress. "When you have things like Steam Greenlight -- I don't know if it's to that point where we're like, is this a low-hanging fruit that you should just reach out and say 'Okay, we'll be distributed on Steam,'" he says.

"I don't know enough about it, and it's the kind of thing that, from the years of inertia, we don't have these business instincts that kick in and say, 'Yes, we need to get on that.' So it's sort of the thing where, if enough people bug us because they want Steam to track their user hours or whatever... if our current fan base wants it on there, it'd be more of the kind of thing we'd be interested in, rather than increasing our audience."

So getting Dwarf Fortress on Steam would be more of a fan service move than one aimed at pulling in new players?

"I guess so, yeah," he answers. "I don't know if I sound incredibly selfish when I say that, because people work to get their games put up on Steam and work really hard on getting people to see their games. I wouldn't say we got that stuff for free, because there was a lot of work put into the game to get it to the point where people would start talking about it. But now that I'm not concerned about that, I just don't know if it's a total waste, or whatever."


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