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Re-Entering the Cave

June 14th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 18 Comments · City Builder, Design

I am on the edge of returning to Dwarf Fortress.

I know it will be a big mistake, though.

Here’s the thing. Dwarf Fortress is probably the most compelling city builder in many years. Like the best city builders, you can guide the development of your habitat but your citizens have wants and needs of their owns. There is both the predictable cycle of seasons and the unpredictable encounters with natural and humanoid resistance.

But I hate how much work it is to play.

I have it on good authority that at least one publisher has approached Bay 12Games and Mr. Adams about helping develop a proper interface and iconography and letting them finally make some money on what is one of the greatest time sinks since the original Civilization. Allegedly, the developer is so committed to the open and free model that he resisted any attempt to even negotiate about how he could turn his wonderful into something everyone can enjoy and appreciate.

See, getting into Dwarf Fortress is work, as hard work as any game since the days when you needed to know memory tricks in DOS and remember the 20 hotkeys that controlled your weapons. It’s not the ASCII (well, not just the ASCII) since I’ve always had a weakness for roguelikes. There are at least three different ones on my hard drive at any given time. But the assigning of chores and jobs, never mind understanding your layout is a big curve to learn, forget and then re-learn. I’m sure I never mastered it the first time.

But the game is so great…Dwarf Fortress is one of those games where you see things happen and you’re not sure you saw what you saw. It’s the old mind trick where something happens on screen – apparently randomly – but your brain gives it meaning and context so it makes sense within the master narrative of Mt. Fuzzy Pants. These things happen so regularly in Dwarf Fortress that it is impossible to not be enthralled by the epic tales of survival in the wilderness.

There are some decent tutorial videos on Youtube, so start there if you are interested. But what I wouldn’t give for a professional team to give this game the treatment it richly deserves.


18 Comments so far ↓

  • Scott R. Krol

    I’ve always wondered why someone hasn’t tried to mod the UI.

    I think the situation with what the developer wants and what the public wants is interesting. We are so used to games being altered through mods, and in many cases then being absorbed by larger developers to apply the spit and polish, that this seems incomprehensible. If someone is offering to make your game better and more accessible why wouldn’t you do it?

    Yet we forget that it ultimately is *his* game. Do games immediately become communal property in today’s age? And if so, what are the limits? I see this with Dominions. Lots of folks modding the heck out of it, but there are many things modders can’t do that they want the devs to do, but the devs aren’t interested.

    By the way, for an entertaining DF-like PnP game check out ‘How to Host a Dungeon’. There’s a free version you can download.


  • James Block

    > I’ve always wondered why someone hasn’t tried to mod the UI.

    Because the UI isn’t moddable. It’s pretty much entirely hardcoded, from what I can tell. Modifying it would require such extensive work with a disassembler that by the time you were done, there’d be a new version out and you’d have to start all over again.

    While an interface overhaul would not be unwelcome, I think what Dwarf Fortress really needs is just to become a fully tileset-based game. You can see that most of this machinery is already in place: the dwarves, humans, elves, and goblins (etc) can all be configured to draw from a tileset image, and when you set up the game to do this it can look surprisingly good. But no such options exist for the basic stuff, like terrain and furniture. If the current tileset mechanism — that’s already partly in place — were extended to cover everything in the game, DF could look *really* nice.

    Adams wouldn’t even have to make any of the graphics himself: he just has to set up the tileset mechanism, expose it for modders, set it up initially to do something very close to the current game (easy enough to do: for every in-game item now represented by ‘O’, just set its tile to one that looks like the current ‘O’; repeat for all 256(?) characters in the current set), and watch as the community draws and releases gorgeous tilesets for him, now that they’re no longer constrained by having to use the same pictures for multiple items.

  • Tom

    I’m pretty sure that an interface overhaul has been slated for the future. I’m guessing that will take a long time though.

    But, once you get into it, the interface works fine. It’s mostly the learning the hurts, not the interface itself.

    Also, tilesets do exist, but this doesn’t get around the text-based interface, which I reckon is at least as much of a problem as the ascii. The problem with making tilesets is that currently the tiles are just a set of images. Fine. The problem is the text. Cats are represented by c. So is every lower-case c in the text. The same c. So if you make your cat tile into a pretty picture of a cat, you can’t read the text any more because it will just be a huge rabble of goblin, cat, dog, etc. images.

    I it makes you feel any better, there’s a bit of mouse support now.

  • Vim

    Need to play Dwarf Fortress some day, everyone is is praising it like it was the best thing since text mode :).

  • Jakob

    There are several graphics options available: my favourite is the Mayday one (http://mayday.w.staszic.waw.pl/df.php). They don’t seem to interfere with text in the slightest.

  • Warren

    IMHO, the first thing a professional team would do is tear the heart and soul out of it. That hard to define quirky “charm” that makes DF what it is would be mangled and reduced to lowest common denominator in the name of … something … bland, safe, corporate.

    Of course, a strong, strong lead/producer that isn’t also an egomaniac bent on putting his particular “stamp” on the thing might be able to counter the tendency to homogenize, but there are too few of those around, sadly.

    But, yeah. The interface. Ugh. So messy even with tiles.

  • Primemover

    I remember reading that the DF team was just 2 brothers, one who writes the story, the other who writes the game code. Is this still the extent of their team? (If so, then bravo to them for keeping this going, because I know at the time they were working only on donations!)

  • Sexpansion

    I just don’t find it that hard to get into at all.

    Also I don’t think there are any DOS memory tricks you need to know. When was the last time you played? In the last year or so the game has become remarkably more polished and stable.

  • Paul Stephanouk

    There is usually a correlation between the effort it takes to achieve or acquire something and the satisfaction of having done so. Trying to make most games appeal to everybody is little more than a race to the bottom. Just love it for what it is and be prepared to rue the almost inevitable day when it will stop being that.

  • Troy

    Sexpansion, the DOS memory thing is not a reference to DF in particular but to how demanding every game used to be of gamer skills. There was a time when DF wouldn’t have been that big a deal. Edited for clarification.

    I’m not persuaded by the “pros would have ruined it” since (a) the studio in question was not suggesting cutting Adams out of the arrangement, but partnering with him, and (b) these were not people known for taking the easy way of mass appeal.

    But even if it were, say, Flashy Games Inc, Dwarf Fortress is the kind of game you would only approach for commercialization if you grokked it. Anyone can make a DF-lite game without even talking to Bay 12; no one owns the idea of dwarfs building mountain forts. The only reason to even sign on with them is to get your hands on what makes the game tick, and once you have that, why would you make it anything else?

    In short, I’m not convinced that keeping the game inaccessible makes it better or special. It keeps the community tighter, which is great. For now. I think a lot of people would love the idea of a fantasy city builder with real character.

  • Andrew

    I think I’ve seen a 3d renderer for it, that will let you fly around the fort you have created. You can’t interact with it, but it is still pretty cool.

  • Warren

    Right you are, Troy. I was groaning and moaning more in a general way, I suppose. I know nothing of the details about the “who” of the publisher, and now that you say it, of course, that it flies in the face of reason that a publisher would seek out the developer specifically and then change DF wholesale.

    The specialness of DF is in spite of its inaccesability. RoBurky has a AAR (http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2009/06/14/roburkys-dwarf-fortress-diary/) of sorts up over at RPS, and in it he includes some dev notes as tooltips on the images in the article. Reading the close to crazy yet somehow brilliant little blurbs captures that spirit in DF of “anything could happen” that I so enjoy in DF. And I was thinking that edge-of-acceptability quality to the dev statements like “16th April 2008: Um, well, we’ve got slavery, mass executions bordering on genocide and corpse mutilation reminiscent of Assyria now.” would likely scare off a lot of publishers, and/or be muted some by the corporate machine. If the publisher in question was on board for the wackiness that is DF, more power to ’em!

  • Don

    I’ve played a couple of games of DF and you can see the potential. Whilst I don’t care too much about prettier graphics I did find the current visuals don’t do you any favours just when things get interesting. My most successful fortress (the first one was rubbish as I hadn’t learnt how to build stuff properly) was ok to oversee during normal times but then a bunch of goblins arrived and it was chaos. It was difficult to even see where the goblins and military dwarves were so getting a defence organised, which should have been a fun part of the game, was just frustrating.

    But I’d hate to see the game handed over to a mainstream studio as you can bet they’d focus on creating ‘cute’ animations while chopping away at the complexity and elements that might be though controversial. Perhaps one day the dev will open it up more to allow a more OS approach to the development.

  • Sexpansion


    Ah. I get it now.

    More to the topic, I agree with the assertion that a professional hand wouldn’t hurt DF. It’s not that Toady isn’t very good at what he does, it’s just that he’s only one guy. I don’t really agree that too many cooks would spoil the meal in this case, but he is certainly in a better position to know that than anyone else.

  • Tom

    What would be neat is if you could pause the game, then rewind a replay a bit. Just because I always seem to miss stuff and there’s no log of everything that happened.

    Not sure why I’m mentioning this here. But I suppose it’s an interface issue.

  • Cibbuano

    I’m playing it right now!

    The interface and the ASCII were only an issue when I first started playing… now, I find great pleasure in seeing my military troops smack a kobold thief 20 feet in the air, his severed arm flying in another direction.

    My imagination fills in all the blanks! Seeing that pack of ‘m’ (rhesus macaques) come streaming towards my unprotected trade depot makes me seethe in anger. I draft all my dwarves into the army. The damned apes make off with a few masterwork necklaces that I could have traded for bars of steel, or another black bear cage.

    All through the development of DF, there have been people howling for a better interface, but the game has changed so drastically from its conception that the interface would have be rewritten over and over. Let’s see where this baby goes…

  • rsm

    What would be neat is if you could pause the game, then rewind a replay a bit. Just because I always seem to miss stuff and there’s no log of everything that happened.

    There is a log of key events. But it takes effort in the game to create it, and then you have to explore it after. Iirc. there is a log that tracks events, but it is mostly hidden, although I do believe it’s just stored in a text file somewhere. I haven’t looked, and I just recall quotes from the history logs that where posted to the Dev. log during the recent reworking of the world generating.

    As for a replay function… there is a movie recording function, but ‘takebacks’ are clearly not in the design at all. The motto for the entire development is ‘losing is fun’.

    As to the size of the development team, there are only two people developing the game (Tarn and Zach Adams), but there is someone helping them with some of the graphics/display coding optimization that has been causing lag. See the development diary (http://www.bay12games.com/dwarves/dev_now.html) for June 3rd and 4th.

    All of this of course slowly dragging me back to DF… I have however sworn off it until I can get it to run at 60fps with 100 dwarves in my fort. I hate playing at 20-30fps. I end up reading a book while waiting for my rock clearing activities to finish.

  • Sarkus

    DF is a fun game, but I really couldn’t get into it until recently when I applied one of the tileset mods. It really disappoints me that what has the potential to be awesome on a wide scale is going to be awesome on a small scale simply because the developer isn’t willing to let someone else get involved (assuming the terms weren’t too absurd). After all, a game is never really done. I hope the DF guys realize that. It’d be one thing i they had plans and the capability to develop this into something fully accessible, but I don’t think they really do.