Community heroes: Tarn Adams, for Dwarf Fortress

Jaz McDougall


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This week, we're still interviewing some of PC gaming's greatest heroes - the pillars of the community who have devoted huge chunks of time and love to make the PC a better place to game. Today, we've got an interview with Tarn Adams - one of the two brothers behind Dwarf Fortress, the ASCII Dwarf civilisation simulator that still produces some of the most amazing stories in gaming.

PC Gamer: When did you first start developing Dwarf Fortress? Was your brother on board from the start?

Tarn Adams: My brother and I have been making games together for as long as I can remember. Dwarf Fortress is now our main fantasy game, but it original started in October 2002 as a smaller project that we were hoping to finish in a few months while we continued work on our previous game Slaves to Armok: God of Blood. Armok was encumbered by worse programming than DF's and cludgy 3D graphics, and DF kept sucking features away from it like a black hole next to a star or something, until Armok was scuttled and only DF remained.

PC Gamer: You rely on donations from the community to fund ongoing development. When did you reach the tipping point where you knew you could do that? How did that feel?

Tarn Adams: It was the summer after the first year of my math postdoc in 2006 when I decided I needed to focus on DF full-time, but we didn't really have hope for donations at that time. DF hadn't even been released yet. I was just thinking I'd burn off my savings for a year and then get a job. When the game was released in August, we were making around a thousand dollars a month, and that was enough to build some hope, and the average kept going up. There wasn't really a tipping point... or if there is, I still don't feel like I've reached it. This year has been good so far, but there was the unusual 19-month delayed release in April which led to a large bump. Now we're stabilizing back down around treading water again. It's good though, since I'm able to work on the game full-time as it stands, and that's satisfying.

PC Gamer: What attracts you to this deeply complex and realism-focused style of game? Why aren't you making, say, accessible platformers for Wiiware?

Tarn Adams: We made a lot of smaller games, mostly in the days before Bay 12 existed as a website, and that's fun as well. It would be cool to do it again. There's just not enough time, and we like our ambitious projects the most. One of the main reasons we started writing games was so that we'd be able to play the games we wanted to play, and having games with unpredictable and complicated behavior is one way to ensure replayability for the developer.

Click to see the extremely large version at

PC Gamer: Why did you decide to ditch the 3D graphics you had going in God of Blood? Do you feel like you save development time by keeping the visuals concise?

Tarn Adams: He he he, first of all, it looked horrible. But yeah, development is faster and the possibilities are less restrained when you don't have to worry about rendering everything in 3D.

PC Gamer: You seem to take a very structured approach to your work – you've got an exhaustive list of features, you do regular updates on your progress, and you work for set periods of time on a rolling schedule. How do you manage to be so organised, and why do you feel the need to be?

Tarn Adams: My past is littered with the graves of half-finished projects, and I think it's safer to try to be as organized as possible. On the other hand, I recently took down part of the development list, since many of the items were languishing for far too long and becoming outdated. There just isn't enough time to keep it all maintained properly.

PC Gamer: To many casual observers, Dwarf Fortress seems pretty damn complex, and yet, experienced players all have their personal wish list of features they'd like you to add in. It's clear that you're nowhere near 'done' yet, and that you've got some expansive features in mind. What does the distant future of Dwarf Fortress look like?

Tarn Adams: The hope is that adventure mode will look more or less like a reasonably intricate RPG, with some interesting things going on with dynamic plots and ordering subordinates to do things. The fortress should be more closely related to the outside world, through war, trade and diplomacy, and the world itself will have larger populations that aren't all concentrated in isolated towns. Then there are the actual fantasy elements, and it's hard to say the rate at which we'll be getting those, but having randomly generated world metaphysics and magic systems and all that is the goal. In the ideal distant future, sitting down with a fresh DF world would be like sitting down to read a middling fantasy author you haven't read before, but with all the extras that being a video game provides, including the ability to write your own sequels.

The Stonesense overlay is probably the closest DF has come to good graphics.

PC Gamer: What's the most requested feature that you would never put in the game? Why not?

Tarn Adams: 3D graphics, I suppose, which won't be going in for the reasons I left it behind with the first Armok, but that's not a philosophical objection, assuming it could be done easily, so I wouldn't say never. There are also requests to add various modern technologies, and we aren't going to do that in DF.

PC Gamer: Your Dwarf Fortress dev log is probably the funniest and most surprising RSS feed I'm subscribed to. We posted recently when you fixed disembowelling . Do you have any favourite hilarious bugs or test results from over the years?

Tarn Adams: My favorites are the one where the farmer walked over to the furniture stockpile, grabbed a bed, walked over to his farm and planted it, and the one with the injured hammerer. The hammerer is the dwarven executioner. When both of his arms were broken and he was unable to hold his hammer to administer Dwarven Justice, he still went ahead with the punishment, but he bit his victims. This included shaking his head vigorously and tearing their arms off, which he then held in his mouth for years.

The Mayday Green tileset does a good job of prettying up the @ symbols.

PC Gamer: I gather you're quite protective of the game's direction. Have you ever had any offers from game publishers who wanted to hire you, buy Dwarf Fortress, or similar?

Tarn Adams: A few things like that have come up. I think it'll be very hard to find an agreement that both sides would be happy with, because we want to keep doing what we're doing for as long as possible and they need something that's going to be profitable.

PC Gamer: Dwarf Fortress probably couldn't happen on anything but a PC. What's your favourite thing about the platform?

Tarn Adams: I don't have a favorite thing so much as a balance of concerns mixed with inertia. I gather there are probably magical ways to download new games directly from the people that make them and get them on a console, without having to go through the console's company stuff, but it's easy on the PC. The keyboard is also cool. The rest has caught up more or less, as far as I can think of things off the top of my head. In our own setup, the PC is easier to concentrate with because it isn't in the living area. It's also way easier to develop for, for me. I don't know what goes into developing for consoles, though independents are doing that now. I have an easier time patching things on the PC, but I haven't done much with console internet connections so that's probably not actually an issue. I don't know if there are projects in ongoing development on consoles, with periodic updates like DF has, but if that's difficult on a console, that would definitely be a problem.

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