Bay 12 Games run by brothers Tarn and Zach Adams have been developing Dwarf Fortress for 20 years, pre-and post-release. Now, the text-based simulation game is taking an important step into a whole new world, as Bay 12 Games is releasing Dwarf Fortress on Steam with the help of publisher Kitfox. One of the world’s most feature-rich base-building simulation games ever conceived is turning a page with pixel graphics.
Dwarf Fortress is an iconic game, a true cult classic among the text-based subgenre, and influential to simulation games in general. It was a powerful inspiration for Markus “Notch” Persson in creating Minecraft and was arguably an integral part of making the base-building genre as big as it is now. Game Rant spoke to Bay 12 Games developers Tarn and Zach Adams about their upbringing with computers, indie game development over the years, troubles with healthcare forcing them into switching gears, modern simulation games, mod support, post-release plans, and much more. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Let’s start with you and your gaming history, can you introduce yourselves, and tells us how you came to be interested in games and game development?
Tarn: Yeah, so I am Tarn Adams and this is Zach Adams over here. We’re brothers, so these histories are not going to be very different. So we’ve been playing games as long as we can remember, around the same time we started to read. It was all the same. We were also writing BASIC at first at the same time we were learning to read back when we were five or six years old. Making little things move across the screen and so forth.
We kind of grew up with the old RPGs and simulations back in the 80s. And we never really stopped, we were always writing games this whole time. We didn’t put anything out until 2000 when we started the webpage, which was quite a bit later. But we had been writing games pretty seriously even before then, even though we had no plans to release them. That all kind of turns into the history of everything.
Q: Bay 12 Games is mostly known for Dwarf Fortress, can you tell us how the game originally came to be?
Tarn: Yeah, so we were writing a game back in high school called Dragslay, back in the day when you only had eight letters to deal with. It was supposed to be called Dragon Slayer, so it was just Dragslay. It was just a text-based RPG, and that kind of later on turned into a big messy, messy, messy 3D role-playing game, Slaves to Armok: God of Blood, that we were working on in college. That just didn’t have any legs. We were not good at 3D tech and the tools weren’t there like today, where you can do things a little bit easier. It was just kind of bad. But it was super complex and weird as well. We had side projects at that time. Lots of side projects that we were releasing on our new website.
We did WWI Medic, and Liberal Crime Squad, and then in 2002, we started working on another one. This was a game called Mutant Miner, which was about going vertically down like Dig Dug into a giant mountainside and finding mutagen canisters to grow extra arms, so you could mine faster. This very weird little arcady side project.
It started getting more complicated, and we just had this big phone call that lasted like three days and at the other end of that phone call, the mutant miners were turned into dwarves. There were lots of them running around in real-time. And it was starting to just swipe all of our ideas from our big 3D RPG. It was sort of this RTS-type mining game, colony game, with dwarves, mixed with an RPG, where you in go afterward and see your ruined fortress and find different diaries and things that the dwarves left behind.
That was supposed to take two months, from October 2002 to December, and we were going to release it as a Christmas thing or something. No, no, it was released in 2006, and we have been working on it ever since. Within a few years, we were able to go full-time.
Q: How do you see this new project as? Perhaps a remake? A reimagining? An expansion?
Tarn: Yeah, it’s like a glow-up. It just looks nice, and it’s easier to use, but it’s the same game. All the base underlying simulation code is the same. Just everything is easier to use, and we’ve made some of the things that were confusing or annoying to deal with that weren’t strictly UI, but we’ve improved as well. The main thing is graphics. It used to be a text game like Nethack or Angband or something, and now it has got nice pixel graphics.
Q: What has the role of Kitfox been in terms of development and publishing?
Tarn: They have done a lot for us in terms of locating people that can do things, like artists. Stuff that you normally really think of as being the developer’s responsibility. Often the publisher will be just helping with marketing and so forth, and the developer still brings all the artists and music people themselves, but that’s not how this has worked at all.
We’ve gone through Kitfox for the art, the music, and also all the marketing. That’s stuff that we weren’t and aren’t equipped to handle. That’s the reason Dwarf Fortress was a text-based game because we were doing the 3D game, but it was more than could deal with. And now that other people are handling paperwork and hiring and stuff, we still do the direction, we talk to the artists about what they are doing, and Kitfox doesn’t handle that part at all. So it’s a really good arrangement for us and the game wouldn’t have gotten to this new state without the publisher’s involvement.
Q: What made you think of taking Dwarf Fortress to the next level and providing a GUI?
Zach: This is primarily because the healthcare system just really sucks, and I got sick, and it ended up costing a lot of money, and my wife’s company was able to pay for it with their insurance. But if the same thing happened to my brother, we’d be wiped out, Bay 12 would not exist. And so, that was the original reason why we’re doing this. It’s also exposing the game to a wider audience that we haven’t reached before, so that’s pretty cool.
Tarn: Yeah, so once we had to make this decision, we’re just kind of all in. Now, we’ve really focused on making it the best we can possibly make for all the new people.
Zach: It’s so much easier now than before. I would never go back.
Q: And how are the roles shared between the two of you?
Zach: Primarily we both design it together, and I used to do more of the testing. Tarn is the programmer, Tarn has developed skills that he has actually written books about to disseminate the stuff that he has invented for the game to even work. He’s just a spectacular programmer, I couldn’t come up with that. He’s the sole programmer for this game.
Tarn: We share the design roles and Zach has like a thousand hours of testing just on the Steam version of Dwarf Fortress alone. So he’s been doing a lot of testing. We have more QA people now that we are approaching the finale, but Zach has been testing for years.
Zach: Yeah, as far as the design goes, what gives us the edge over other games is that, as Tarn said, our dad taught us to program when we were in preschool. So we just grew up with the personal computer. In the beginning, we had like TRS80 or something like that, and we went through all the stages of games as they were getting more complex, and our parents spoiled us and bought us practically every game that ever came out to PC.
Tarn: Well, every game we wanted. Zach and I really understand what we want out of the games, and we have similar tastes in games. Not too similar as far as modern games, which is interesting. Zach plays a lot more strategy games, and I’m more RPG automation person.
Zach: Yeah, Tarn doesn’t like games where you get to the point where you’ve been playing for eight hours and there’s just a situation where you’ve been strategically outmaneuvered by the AI, so your eight hours have gone to waste, and you can’t do anything about it.
Tarn: Which is kind of funny, considering the whole premise of Dwarf Fortress. A lot of strategy games don’t give you even a high score list. But in Dwarf Fortress you lose, and you keep playing. It saves your fortress and stuff, and it makes it more tolerable.
Q: For those that aren’t familiar with the original, what kind of things can you do in Dwarf Fortress?
Zach: So in the beginning you create a world with like hundreds of years of history that has all these NPCs, thousands and thousands of NPCs all interacting with each other. Then the player begins a fortress for some of these dwarves. You dig out a giant fortress underground with rooms and rooms of workshops and means to survive by fishing or farming mushrooms underground. It’s like some of these base builder games that are out now, but we started much earlier.
The idea is to dig and find and find special things underground that allow you to become the mountain home for your dwarves. Eventually to attract a king or a queen. Along the way you are probably going to get destroyed because there are so many of these monsters and hazards underground and above ground. You can also choose to start in horrible places like a glacier that is infested with the presence of evil that turns anything that gets sucked into it into a zombie or something. So you can kind of choose your own difficulty but eventually, you’re going to get destroyed, especially if you don’t know what you are doing.
Tarn: You can turn it off if you want. You can turn off invaders, you can play a peaceful game, it’s an option.
Q: Is there any modern simulation games that you’re very fond of and maybe found ideas from?
Tarn: It’s nice graphics, but it’s still a 2D pixel game. 3D doesn’t enter into it, so most of our inspirations are still ancient. Games like Civilization, and Starflight, and there must be some modern games…
Zach: For the UI, we’ve taken ideas from modern games.
Tarn: Yeah, like from The Sims and stuff. We’ve been in like a conversation with The Sims over the years in terms of memories and other needs, stuff that drives powerful NPCs and storytelling. We play each other’s games. I guess I’ve talked to some The Sims developers before but haven’t had really big conversations or anything. But it’s interesting, and we definitely have to give some credit there.
Q: You talk about an entirely simulated world, what does that mean in Dwarf Fortress?
Tarn: There’s a lot of stuff going on. There’s the world generation part which is kind of rapid, it has to crank a year every two seconds if it can, even when 20,000 people are running around. So that simulation includes diplomacy, warfare, trade, production, and little stories going on. Like someone might be plotting to steal an item and flip somebody by appealing to their shared religion or something. And getting them to go swipe the item and then that person might get arrested and locked up and so forth. There are a lot of little things going on too.
Zach: There are so many weird things happening. The goblin civilization can be led by a dwarf that they had kidnapped. They’ve been raised by goblins and gets murdered by night troll while they are fishing or something. A lot of these little stories are going on. We have this Legends mode, which is going to be in the Dwarf Fortress Steam release. It is kind of separate, we haven’t made it so that you can play Dwarf Fortress and the Legends mode at the same time. So you have to retire your fort for a little bit to look at Legends. Or you can just open up that world and look at the Legends.
The Legends has all of these stories, there are like ten thousand historical figures or something like that. And there are stories for each one of them. It’s crazy, especially now, since in the original version there were no hyperlinks, so you had to type in the name of the historical figure to see it.
Tarn: Now it’s just a browser, there are tabs on the top, and hyperlinks everywhere. You’re never going to read all five hundred thousand or a million historical events, but it composes them into little stories for you.
Q: In the original Dwarf Fortress, there’s also the Adventure mode, is this still the case with the new game?
Tarn: In the interest of making the development cycle like three years or so rather than four, we are releasing on Steam now, December 6, which is not too far away. And we are doing Adventure mode right after that. Adventure mode is in the old text version, and nothing has changed about the fact that it works, and it’s cool and stuff. It just needs new menus, we need to redo those and add a few extra graphics for it. We don’t have a specific ETA on that, but we think it will be in 2023. Just months after the release. It’s not going to take three years, but it’s going to take some time.
Zach: The world is a giant world that you can’t see. This is the problem with Dwarf Fortress that has been since the beginning. There’s so much stuff that is going on in the background that just isn’t obviously presented to the players. Each little square in your fortress is about a meter by meter or something like that, and if you take the entire world beyond the fortress, that translates to the size of New Zealand. You can’t see that in Dwarf Fortress, though, you can only see the surrounding area. There’s stuff going on out there, but you can’t interact with it, but in Adventure mode, you can actually walk from one side of the world to the other, conceivably.
Tarn: Yeah, you can go where ever, although the ocean is a little hard.
Q: Dwarf Fortress is an ever-evolving game, what are some of the latest updates?
Tarn: So we’ve been in this Steam mode for a couple of years now, so the recent updates are mainly graphical. We added a new end game and a new labor system that is way less fiddly than before. We’ve also revamped the economy so that trade is way tighter. I used to be able to buy out wagons with like masterwork meals.
Zach: Yeah you could trade food for all the swords that they had.
Tarn: Some of it was somewhat unbalanced, so we went through all of that, and right before we started Dwarf Fortress’ Steam release is when we added all these villainous plots and stuff, so there are these artifact heists. That is the last big thing we added was the artifact heists where someone can come into your fortress, flip one of your dwarves in the tavern or intimidate them and make them try and steal an artifact. So right after the release, we’re going to pick that up like we have more plots to do, we have adventure plots to do.
Q: Do you intend on having mod and tool support for Dwarf Fortress?
Tarn: So there are so many kinds. As I mentioned the labor system, some of the inspiration for that came from a thing called DFHack, which is a modding tool that the community has. We don’t technically know how to support it in Steam Workshop, but we have supported them, and we support them going forward.
When it comes to mods like with creatures, we’re just going to have Workshop support. We added that at the beginning of the month. It seems to be working fine. Currently, we’re going to launch with that. We have had a modding community for fifteen years or whatever, there are so many complicated things that they do that we’re going to be able to support some of them officially on Workshop, and other things are way too fancy. There are still going to be .exes and things that people can download and play with.
Q: The game has been said to have inspired Notch with Minecraft, and other world simulation games, how does that make you feel?
Zach: It feels like we created a genre, but it’s like our inspiration is felt through a lot of these base-building games that come in the years after we were discovered. We never really came into the industry. We were asking for contributions instead of selling our game, so I don’t know if we even were in the industry. But it seems like all these inspirations come to pass, which is really exciting.
Tarn: Yeah, it’s hard to wrap your head around, and we just keep on going. It’s really cool whenever you see Minecraft, The Sims, and there’s the base-building genre. There’s Odd Realm and all kinds of zillions of games like that. And who knows how the DNA goes through to stuff like Fortnite? How much of that comes from Minecraft, which is partially through us? Obviously, Zacktronics needs a shoutout for Infiniminer and stuff. It’s a big soup of ideas, people had a lot of ideas before.
Zach: It wasn’t until like fairly recently that we had contacts with the industry. Way later after creating Dwarf Fortress, like halfway through the game, we realized these people talk to each other, and we had just been sitting at home.
Tarn: It was really kind of weird, we were permanently acquired by the Museum of Modern Arts (MOMA) before we met any industry people. Because we started meeting them in 2013 or 2014, maybe I’m wrong about that. It’s hard to remember.
Zach: It’s back in the day when the EVE Online people invited us into Iceland, that was very weird.
Tarn: That was because of the MOMA, because they are in the MOMA as well, right? So we went to Iceland to meet them, that was some of the first industry people that we met.
Zach: And I had never been out of the country before.
Tarn: There was one thing before that, because some intern snuck WW1 Medic onto a packing CD for a magazine, it wasn’t PC Gamer. It was like Computer Gamer, the magazine’s gone now. But that had no outside ramifications.
Q: There’s something very special about text-based games, they truly fuel your imagination. How have you tried to bring that aspect to the graphical version?
Zach: The graphical version is actually one-to-one, tile-to-letter, the same game. Every tile and every character is still just one little piece on the grid. And that’s why they move incrementally instead of smoothly because we’re still on the ASCII grid. The Classic version that is coming shortly after the release will change the screen right into the ASCII version seamlessly with a click of a button. The interface changes as if we had never added graphics at all.
Tarn: We can’t support two different UIs, that would be just too much work. So there’s going to be a fully mouse-enabled free version that has text graphics. That is going to continue to be in line with upcoming features, so the ASCII aesthetic is still going to be there for those that want to keep using it, and we’re going to keep it up to date.
Q: The original Dwarf Fortress has a rather steep learning curve, have you changed this in the new version? And if so, how?
Zach: We’ve spent a lot of time on the tutorial, but another thing besides the tutorial is that the genre of base building is really doing a lot of work for us now. I think people are going to pick this up way faster than if they had tried the ASCII version ten years ago or so before the craze existed. My wife was one of the first testers, and she had paid The Sims just pretty much the only game she’d ever played. She’s had this experience with The Sims, and although it’s not a base-builder but a construction or design simulator, so the first thing she did is log a bunch of trees and build an above-ground town instead of a fortress. I was saying, you are playing like an elf, what are you doing?
Tarn: One other thing we have added tooltips everywhere. We even brought a UX person which kind of looped us back to The Sims when we ended up doing our building menu. So we’ve had people that understand things far better than we do take a look at it. We have changed some menus over that, for sure. There’s a lot of stuff coming together.
If you’ve played the text version of Dwarf Fortress, then you know the minimap on the side, which is basically a completely useless minimap and is there just for flavor. Now we’ve got a pixel-perfect minimap up in the corner. Every little thing comes together to become more playable. There’s the interactive step-by-step tutorial but also lots of guides that you can read about more advanced topics from. And of course, there’s the Wiki is going continue to be useful to people that want to really get into things.
Q: Dwarf Fortress is scheduled to launch on December 6 on Steam. Have you landed on a price for the game?
Tarn: $29.99 is the price of the game.
Zach: Thirty bucks minus one penny.
Tarn: Yes, minus a whole penny. It seems to fit the genre, that’s the going rate. Seems fair and no big complaints.
Q: Can you give a breakdown of your post-release plans?
Tarn: So our roadmap. Well, we’re going to fix bugs and stuff, but Adventure mode is the big main thing coming. We’re going to make sure Classic mode is out, make sure Arena mode is out. Those things might not make it to release, especially now that December 6 is rolling up on us. The Arena mode helps modders test things. Then we will go back to our main development line, which is villains, armies, and improving sieges in the fort mode.
Then off to the big myth and magic arc, we’ve been planning for six years. It has slipped out of our grasp here and there, but we’re coming to it now. While we’re doing that, we have artists working. We have to get the baby animals there and stuff, get all kinds of new plants. We have a lot of cool underground plants that the fort mode focuses on. Those are all drawn up, but we don’t have different art for parsnips and turnips, we have generic bush art for outdoors. Once we get to Adventure mode, that starts to get a little more important. There are a lot of art projects, and the game just keeps on evolving.
I’m sure the soundscape will continue evolving as well. That’s another thing to mention, the original has a four-minute looping guitar track that loops. Sadly I didn’t contribute to new tracks, but we have actual musicians contributing.
Zach: The new tracks are inspired by the old tracks.
Tarn: The new title track is like seven minutes long and incorporates all of my old stuff as well. But then there are 14 new tracks of their own. Made by Dabu, Simon Swerwer, and Águeda Macias. Simon did like two albums of free sounds for the modding community.
Zach: He also speaks perfect Dwarvish.
Tarn: Yes. We have songs with Dwarvish lyrics in the game now. 15 regular-sized tracks, 16 smaller tracks, and 23 ambiances for different biomes and situations.
Zach: People that we’ve given Steam keys to, the soundtrack is the first thing that they notice.
Q: Well, that’s all I have for you. Anything you’d like to add or mention before I let you go?
Tarn: I just wanted to make sure I got the music blurb in there, actually.
Dwarf Fortress releases on Steam on December 6.
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