Dwarf Fortress' creator on how he's 42% towards simulating existence

A Dwarf Fortress, via Jeremy Nissin

A Dwarf Fortress, via Jeremy Nissen.

On the first day of GDC 2016, the creator of Dwarf Fortress stood at the front of a packed audience and explained how to procedurally generate the beginning of the world. And not just the land and trees and rivers and mountains of the world, which Dwarf Fortress has randomly generated for many years. The mythology of the world: the creation myth told in whispers and rhymes over the centuries, which determines the form of civilizations, the land and the magic in the world.

The work-in-progress creation generator is just another step towards version 1.0 of Dwarf Fortress for Tarn Adams, who has been designing and programming the game since 2006. The most recent release, .42.06, is very deliberately named, as I found out when I spoke to Adams for an hour a few days after his talk. The version number represents 42% completion towards a list of roughly 2,600 planned features or tasks for the final version. As he chips away at those tasks, Adams brings Dwarf Fortress ever closer to, essentially, simulating existence. Or, as Adams told me in our interview, the "narratively interesting" parts of existence.

Adams is fascinating to talk to because he's still so in love with Dwarf Fortress after working on it for a decade. It's just what he does. This was his first time at GDC, talking to other developers and seeing the games industry from the inside. Over the course of an hour, we spoke in-depth about how he makes Dwarf Fortress, how he earns a living wage thanks to Patreon, the upcoming creation myth generator, and why cats can get drunk in your fortress.

PC Gamer: We can start with just some more about GDC. I’m curious what it’s been like for you as your first event, coming here. There are obviously a lot of designers who were inspired by procedural generation that’s really become more common with roguelikes coming back into the mainstream the past few years, and a lot of stuff inspired by Dwarf Fortress.

Tarn Adams: Yeah, it was interesting because we have our talk on Monday afternoon, and I usually don’t look like my picture—like my Wikipedia picture has this giant beard, right? So, yeah, I shouldn’t have shaved my dwarf beard, so no one recognized me, kinda, during the first half of the day, and then after I gave my talk the room was packed, and now it’s like every 20 minutes or something I have a nice conversation with someone. It’s cool.

Do you get to have John Carmack moments where a bunch of people flock to you and say, ‘Share your wisdom with me?’

No, it’s not quite like that, but if someone notices that we’re sitting and talking for 15 minutes or something then we’ll get, like, two or three more people or something like that.

Have you been picking up anything that you’ve found interesting or informative for your own games, or has it been more sharing your knowledge?

It’s been a lot of that, but I listen to people talk about their [games], because that’s part of the thing when you inspire people, is that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily just gonna talk about your game. That it inspired them means that they’re doing something that they really want to talk about, and so most of the time I’ll just listen, and there’s a lot of cool games coming, right? We talked to the guys at Somasim [making Project Highrise], which is, like, this skyscraper thing. It’s kind of like SimTower but with all the zoning laws and stuff. It sounds really cool, right? They brought architects in...

Take the joy of building something and then just pile logistics shit on top of it.

Yeah. So it’s just, you know, talking about people that really want to do detailed simulations, but they have this completely different interest from me, but we speak the same language, more or less, so we can help each other out. And then it’s just interesting hearing their, like, business experiences or whatever, because I don’t have any experience with that.

It's funny to listen to all those strange stories about how mobile development works and AAA development because I’d never met AAA developers before. They're all over the place, right, and they’re like, ‘This is how you manage a 150-person team,’ or whatever. I understand AAA a little better and how things go the way they go, and how everyone’s working hard and it still sometimes doesn’t work. It’s really interesting.

Tarn Adams, right, speaking with developer Tanya Short at GDC 2016

Tarn Adams, right, speaking with Kitfox Games developer Tanya Short at GDC 2016

What has it felt like being at this event for the first time? You’ve been making games for a long time, but this is your first time here on the business side.

Yeah, or at all, right? I hardly have ever been to events at all. I just went to a PAX a couple years ago. That was the first event I’d ever been to. And I’ve been doing my website publicly for 15, 16 years, and, you know, it just never entered into my mind that you would go out, or that there’d been a reason to do it, because we didn’t feel like we needed business connections or anything like that. That’s what I just thought it was about, that kind of networking. I usually, or at least I was a long time ago, was bringing a kind of cynical perspective [to it]: looking at the industry and viewing myself as sort of outside of it or something like that. But it’s a much more continuous and smeared-out and interesting thing than that, right?

Do you think the change from being very much by yourself, insular for a long time is more: the industry has changed from what you reacted to negatively 15 years ago, or is it more just your awareness?

Well, since I [didn't see] with my own two eyes what it was like four or five years ago I can’t really speak to that, but certainly it seems like there’s a lot going on. The independent games have been booming for a while but it’s ongoing, right? It’s continuing to grow. I mean, they’re growing so much everyone’s worried about how they’re gonna make it, right?

I was looking at the industry and viewing myself as sort of outside of it.

There’s too many now.

Yeah. I mean, you can’t say there’s, like, an apocalypse of independent games or whatever when the problem is there are too many. It’s like that saying about the restaurant being full and that’s why no one goes there, right? There’s just a lot of interesting things going on.

I don’t know if we’ve really become more tangled with it or anything. I mean, we’re just hanging out here and we’re not making any deals or anything or actually networking in any kind of way, but it’s not bad to just kind of be a part of it even if it’s just sort of, like, flush against it without actually becoming enmeshed.

So Dwarf Fortress isn’t becoming a PlayStation 4 exclusive in the next year? You’re not gonna be programming on a yacht a year from now.

Yeah, no no no [laughs].

So how has the Patreon stuff gone? Has it been less than a year? I know before the way you survived was people would donate for the game.

Just about a year now. In April, at the end of April, it’ll be a year. It’s basically the same thing.

Now there’s kind of this service that has grown up around giving people that kind of model. Has that increased awareness for the game?

Oh, it’s increased our income by two times, so it’s great. I mean, it’s amazing when you actually have professional people design a front end for you. As everyone knows, then suddenly people will click the big orange button, right, and we used to have a drop-down menu where you had to pick your currency and stuff, because we were just like, ‘Well, they need to get us this information somehow,’ and that was all we cared about, right, because we didn’t think about anything. And yeah, it’s just a little more difficult, and just even a few steps is enough to drive everyone away.

Dwarf fortress 2

One step is enough to drive people away.

Yeah. So the big orange button approach changed everything about how we operate now. We still have PayPal, so it’s actually whatever number you see on the Patreon you can add 50% to that and it becomes, like, livable all of a sudden, which is something we didn’t think we’d really ever get to. Maybe it took ten years but, you know, it’s good to be there now. I mean, it’s not necessarily a 100% stable situation, because you never know what’s gonna happen online, but I like it. It’s working well. It’s great.

If you weren’t making a livable amount of money on Dwarf Fortress before, were you doing odd jobs on the side to make some catch?

Well, ‘livable’ is such a...

It can mean a lot of things.

Yeah. I mean, I was full time, but I was full time on Dwarf Fortress since 2007. If the laptop broke during a given six-month stretch that would’ve been it for the whole full-time thing and we were just lucky about when our computers broke. I had my bank account skim zero a couple times. I never did the whole, like, mortgage... I don’t own anything to mortgage, first of all, [we haven't gone into debt], but we were at nothing several times.

Was that scary?

I don’t know. I developed a weird attitude about it. When people threaten you with nuclear war when you’re growing up you sorta don’t care at all. Or at least that’s me.

The stakes are slightly different.

Yeah. It didn’t bug me, I guess, but it’s how our Patreon account came about. The numbers dropped below 3,000 for the first time one of these months, and we were like, ‘Maybe we should start thinking about, an expanded strategy or something.’ And then our whole expanded strategy was like, ‘Oh, we’ll make a Patreon account.’

We just sort of have a pathology about not thinking about money carefully or something, but it’s worked so far. And now it’s great because we think about it even less.

That’s the perfect scenario, right.

Yeah. I mean, it’s the whole thing. And I think that’s why a lot of people appreciate, even if they don’t play the game, I think some of our fans among game developers are just like, ‘You have this setup where you can actually work on what you want to work on and not really have to think about any of the sort of day-to-day stuff that makes game development so stressful.’

On the next page: Tarn talks about working on Dwarf Fortress for the rest of his life, and the game's most popular bugs.

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).