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Dwarf Fortress in 2013

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


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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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