"We've just been assuming this risk [by making Dwarf Fortress] ever since I quit my math job. Let it go, let it go. Just run the rubber off the tires and who cares what happens," says Tarn Adams. We're talking at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, just a week after he announced that Dwarf Fortress, the Adams' brothers decade-in-the-making ASCII sim, is coming to Steam with graphics and sound and a polished up user interface. It's exciting news, but the reason for that release is somber: Adams was worried about healthcare, and realized that after years of living off crowdfunding, a brush with cancer or other serious health issue would be financially ruinous.
"You get confronted with stuff," he says. "How it's not going to be one big catastrophe that ends the whole thing. Just this miserable debt. Debtor's prisons and all that kind of stuff. That's not a very attractive way to go out."
The impetus for selling Dwarf Fortress, and the promise Adams says he’s made to fans, is that he’ll save up enough money to take care of himself. He and his brother grew up in the sunny desert of California, and as a result he says “the whole skin cancer thing is going to be a big part of my life.” But other than staying alive and out of debtor’s prison, Adams has no idea how he’ll spend money if Dwarf Fortress takes off on Steam.
I ask about what I think is a real possibility: Dwarf Fortress sells a million copies at $20 each. What is his life after that?
“There's no reason we'd get up to a million copies, but if we did, that's at the point where Zach and I would both have like 5 million dollars, and I don't know what that means,” he says. “Is that going to corrupt my morality somehow and turn me into a strange person? Because that seems to be a thing that happens. That's why I'm thinking, just try to pitch it away as fast as possible. People expect me to take care of myself, that's what I'm going to do, make sure that my health is in order, make sure that the game is in order, and the rest of it? You know, there are a lot of people and animals and other stuff that are in trouble. Kids that don't have school supplies. All kinds of stuff. It's like Brewster’s Millions, right? You've just got to get rid of it, man, that's how I feel about it.”
There aren’t many people I’ve met who can say “We just don’t know what we’d spend money on” and be completely believable, but Adams is one of them. I can think of a lot of things I’d spend money on. Our brains work pretty differently. His works in a way that pushes him to make Dwarf Fortress, and after more than a decade, it still provides all the fulfillment he needs.
“From being a really little kid, working on this stuff forever, we wanted to do the magic stuff. We wanted to do this law and property framework. The boats, we talked about the boats, right? I want the boats! That's not changed. If I'm sitting on a pile of money or if I'm sitting on 25 cents, as long as I don't die, we'll be doing it.”
He does see money changing a few things. They might hire someone to help with graphics programming in the future so he can focus on developing Dwarf Fortress’s upcoming features, like a long-gestating magic system. He wants to keep paying the artists to work on the game after the initial Steam release. And if money as a concern really does go away for life, he says, why not release the source code?
Tarn might be the kind of person who just can’t fathom a life of even some luxury, but he’s also self-aware about how that sounds.
“It’s easy to say now,” he adds to his give-it-all-away statement. “I don't know the psychology of it. It's such a hard thing, especially when you're looking at how much [medical] treatments cost. What is the line? Where do you really feel comfortable to start peeling that [money] away? I don't know. It's not a moral test I've passed.”
But if he shows up at GDC next year newly rich, blinged out in diamonds?
“You can feel free to take a picture of me and make fun of my ass and be like ‘This is the five year story of Tarn Adams of GDC, and now he's a fuckin' shmuck.’ That's cool, I dig that,” he says with a laugh.