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Dwarf Fortress in 2013

July 2, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4


"I was reading on Gamasutra about 'Is free-to-play ethical?' and all that kind of thing, talking about monetization and Skinner Boxes," Adams tells me. "We're very fortunate that we've escaped from having those concerns, and managed to make a living somehow."

Indeed, the way in which Dwarf Fortress is funded -- a completely free game that survives via donations from players -- is a far cry from the various business models that are carted around in the modern video game industry.

Adams reckons he knows exactly why his business model works for him, but wouldn't work for many others.

"We're not searching for a million-dollar hit, which is the feeling I get from other people -- what they are searching for when they release on iPhone and so on," he notes. "That's not everybody, of course. But we don't have to work that hard anymore, thinking about exactly how we're going to monetize."

"I've seen what people go through," he continues. "Rocketcat Games (Punch Quest) lives out here, and we meet up with him sometimes. And it's just a struggle, right? To decide how you wanna set up your free-to-play model. His was, what, too generous? So it didn't work out. Those kind of decisions, we've been very fortunate to have enough wiggle-room to bobble the ball completely, which is what we're doing."

Those who have followed the Dwarf Fortress story will know that Adams sends out crayon drawings to people who donate money, and adds them to a "Champions' List" -- a rather different proposition to what game developers offer nowadays.

"I mean, that's just completely weird, right?" he laughs. "But fortunately we don't have high demands, we don't need a lot of money, and we're making just enough to tread water. $50,000 for two people a year."

"I guess it's like shareware," he says of his own monetization technique. "We didn't really take inspiration from anything. Someone said to us, 'Why don't you put up a PayPal button for your birthday so I can send you $50?' And then over the next four or five months, we made around $300. I was still working then, and Dwarf Fortress wasn't even out. Then we released the game, and started making $800, $1000 in the subsequent months. And we were like, 'Maybe we actually have a shot.' Now we're averaging $4000 a month, baseline, which is crazy."

With Dwarf Fortress making $50,000 a year from donations alone, I questioned what sort of spread of donations Adams received. I'd assumed (correctly, as it turned out) that it isn't simply a bunch of people paying small amounts, but rather, Dwarf Fortress has its own "whales" -- people paying silly, unnecessary amounts.

"There's a subscriber system now, just because people asked for it," he tells me. "There's people who have given four-figure amounts. But these are not people who we necessarily haven't talked to before -- all of them send in their regards ahead of time, and they all know exactly what they're getting, because they've all been playing the game for ages -- years, in some cases -- before they send anything. They're not getting any sort of compensation for it besides some sort of story."

"I guess there are lots of parallels to be drawn between the whale system," he continues, "but there are people who give recurring money and large amounts. Some people have donated computers. Some people have donated their time -- there's a lot of volunteers handling the bug tracker and answering questions for people. There's the guy who did the port for Mac and Linux -- that was all free."

Everyone just wants to see Dwarf Fortress development continue, he reasons, so if they like the game, it's in their best interest to throw some money his way.

"I guess you could say the whale has an interest in receiving their present," he adds. "It's obviously a spectrum of giving -- a spectrum of ethical behavior. I don't know enough about what goes on in other markets to pass judgment offhand, but I know people talk about that."

Hey Scenesters

While the Adams brothers are very clearly indie developers, it's notable that the pair rarely converses with other indie devs, or gets involved with the "indie scene" at all.

"It's not a deliberate thing," Adams tells me. "It's part of a personality thing, if anything. I didn't have many friends growing up, and didn't feel the need to hang out with anybody. So with Dwarf Fortress, I don't really see the upside. I've never really been a Twitter/Facebook kind of guy. I mean, it's fun to watch people talk to each other, but it's never the sort of conversation I would participate in."

That's not to say that the brothers don't ever participate. As previously mentioned, they've met up with Rocketcat Games and sampled a wide variety of mobile games that they wouldn't ordinarily have tried. Plus, the pair went to the EVE Fanfest earlier this year in Iceland, with Adams as a speaker -- "we accepted it because, you know, it was cool!"

But in general, Adams isn't so keen on socializing with other devs. "Things like GDC to us, were not a place we were invited to go," he says. "It was a place that you paid to go. And all the expos too. And networking never made sense to us, because of the nature of our situation."

"It's not like we're going to look for a job if this doesn't pan out -- we're not going to go and work for another studio or something," he continues. "We're just not interested in doing that. So there just hasn't been a need for it, even though I'm sure we'd benefit from it a lot. We don't feel like talking about the craft of game design or whatever. We kind of have a mature process, I guess, since we've been doing it for 13 years."

Although Adams has a PhD in mathematics from Stanford University, and taught mathematics for a short while, he says that his lack of drive to socialize stunted his mathematics PhD work somewhat. As he points out, mathematics is a very social field, at times.

"As much as you imagine people in closets working out theorems in the dark or whatever, it's all about co-authoring papers and not stepping on each other's toes, and working together on things because it's so complicated," he says. "I'm just not a socially-constituted person, I guess."

But despite his lack of social skills and his hiding himself away while he works on the game of his life, Adams is perfectly happy with where he is, and how the future is looking.

"I'm really satisfied with how things have turned out," he explains. "Having spent 13 years, you can kind of talk about 20 years without seeming like a total prat [laughs]. But we fully recognize that when you're talking about two decades in the future, who knows what the heck's going to be going on, right? Anything could happen. We'll be entering the age of health problems. Economic this and that."

"But I feel more at ease," he adds. It was something I never felt in mathematics when I was working on that stuff. I never reached a milestone like that. But who knows what's going to happen next."

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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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