Saturday, April 17, 2010

Dwarf Fortress

After a year and a half of development, Tarn Adams has finally released a new version of Dwarf Fortress, one of the most incredible computer games out there. How incredible?  Well, this might give you some idea: the game is free to download and play, so the solitary developer (with some help from his brother) lives on the voluntary donations from his many fans. Yes, his fans continued to donate even during that year and a half between DF versions - and in the middle of an economic collapse, too!

Dwarf Fortress is a single-player game, a detailed fantasy world simulation with two different kinds of play. But the "adventure mode" - basically, a single-character, turn-based RPG - has seen little development so far. The meat of the game is in "fortress mode," where you take a few dwarves, and an assortment of supplies, into the gameworld and attempt to build a thriving colony.

You can't win the game, you can only lose it. That is, the game continues as long as you want, provided your dwarves survive. But losing is common - and frequently hilarious. The motto of Dwarf Fortress is "Losing is Fun," and it's true. If your fortress is overrun by enemies, gets flooded out (deliberately or not) by water or magma, or simply disintegrates socially as unhappy dwarves run amok, that's fun, too. And then you can start a new fortress somewhere else (in the same gameworld, which will incorporate your first effort into its history) and try again.

This isn't your typical commercial game. For one thing, it uses ASCII graphics - basically just simple letters and symbols which stand for animals and items in the game. There are some minor graphical add-ons developed by fans, such as the May Green tileset shown below, but clearly, the graphics aren't the draw here.

The interface is pretty bad, too. This is a complicated game, and Tarn has been busy adding even more details to it. He hasn't wanted to work on upgrading the interface until he knows exactly what features will be in the final game. Meanwhile, it's certainly playable, but you have to work at learning the commands. There's a significant learning curve here.

So, other than poor - almost non-existent - graphics and a terrible interface, what else does this game have to offer? Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that it takes a pretty decent computer to run it. Sounds great so far, doesn't it? But there's a reason why this game is famous among gamers in the know. I'll get to that - if I haven't scared you off already - after the jump.

OK. Partly, Dwarf Fortress is great because of the realistic details. Everything makes sense,... and if you can think of something, you can probably do it. Players are always developing elaborate engineering works, especially - but not always - for defense. There's a robust physics engine, a dynamic weather system, over 200 rocks and mineral types, many different crafts, and a complex body model, fully integrated with the new medical features.

A recent discussion puts it this way:

Dwarf Fortress has an extremely advanced system of variables; Dwarves have likes and dislikes, personalities and desires. The environment has an advanced physics engine, complete with its own fluid dynamics model.  Unlucky miners can cause cave-ins or accidentally expose a magma flow.

When I first heard about Dwarf Fortress, I found some old blog postings at Dubious Quality that really fired my imagination:

... let’s talk about why Dwarf Fortress is so shockingly good. It’s so good, in fact, that it’s the gaming equivalent of a disruptive technology—it transforms our notion of what is possible. This is exactly the kind of complexity, the kind of detail, that we’ve wanted in a game world for years.

Better yet, it’s coherent detail. Even at its most intricate, it’s cohesive.

Best of all, it actually works. There’s no blah-blah-bullshit about why it doesn’t quite work the way it should or why it can’t be finished. It’s far more finished (as an alpha!) than 90% of commercial software projects.

It’s not just the level of detail, though—it’s the level of logic surrounding those details. When you face a problem in the game, in almost all cases the best solution is the most intelligent one, and when you make a mistake, it’s not some fluky aspect of the game world. You aren’t punished by tricks.

The logic is everywhere. Want to build something? You need the right materials, and those materials must be hauled to the appropriate workshop. And once it’s built, you can’t just magically put it somewhere—a dwarf must take it to the location.

If that kind of logic just existed in a few activities, like it does in so many games, it would be nothing more than a cheap parlor trick, but that degree of thought is present everywhere in Dwarf Fortress—it’s a defining characteristic, not a cheap illusion.

That deep, consistent level of thought is why the game world is so coherent, and so entrancing. I think it’s the most intellectually engaged I’ve ever been in twenty years of playing games, because it requires not only thought but interesting thought. It rewards creativity, not memorization.

Note that these dwarves have personalities. They're individuals, not just game tokens. They develop friendships, they adopt pets, they marry and have children,... and they grieve. When a friend is killed, they feel bad. They have emotions. And when they get too unhappy, they show their anger. Sometimes, they go completely insane.

From that same Dubious Quality post:

Strategy games can require the direction of hundreds of units, and the detail generated by those units is overwhelming. So a key design decisions in all these games is how to best aggregate information to present it efficiently to the player. In most cases, it will be via graphs or 1-100 scales.

Something happens in the course of that aggregation, though: individual units are disenfranchised. A single unit is just a number in a spreadsheet, part of an equation. It has no meaning beyond its number. ...

In this game, this unlikely, wonderful game, a dwarf isn’t a unit: a dwarf is a dwarf. He (or she) has feelings. He feels love. He feels fear. He has needs and desires and dreams. Every dwarf has his own little dwarven version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

If these dwarves are upset, you don’t see their unrest in a bar graph. They stop working. They break furniture. They throw tantrums. They rage.

And sometimes, they mourn.

Pompous, self-aggrandizing gaming industry, do you hear me? I’m playing a game with ASCII graphics written by one person about dwarves and they mourn.

It really is a remarkable game. It will never sell a million copies,... or maybe even one. It's not fancy. It's not slick. It's not commercial. But mainstream game developers could learn a great deal from this game. Dwarf Fortress takes effort to learn, but it's absolutely worth it.

That said, if you haven't played the game previously, you might want to wait a few weeks before trying it now. The recent release of a major new version means that there are plenty of bugs. Tarn Adams knows that there are bugs, and so do his fans. Since it's a free game, releasing it for play is simply an effective way to discover the bugs. This game is a continuing project, after all. But unless you're really interested in a bug hunt, you might wait for the worst of them to be corrected.

Meanwhile, here are some resources for new players. The wiki hasn't been entirely upgraded to the new version, but most of it will still be very useful. These video tutorials will likewise be of real use, even though they were made for the previous version. And here's a newbie tutorial to guide you into your first game (again, with the previous version). There are other guides and tutorials on the wiki, too.

If you've played Dwarf Fortress before, here's the changelog for the new version. Keep in mind, if you're new to the game, that a huge part of DF is the gameworld that's complex and that functions realistically. So you might be surprised at this changelog. These aren't the kinds of improvements you'd find in most games. There is no backstory to the game, no quests or anything like that. (There is a history to the world, but it's generated when the world is created.) So the changes here mostly underlie the gameplay.

Finally, one common practice is for players to tell the story of their fortresses, this game being ideally suited for story-creation, as contrasted with story-telling (see my post on that subject here). They can often be pretty funny, and many are posted on the forum. For example, here's the granddaddy of these tales: the saga of Boatmurdered. (Note that this is a much earlier version of Dwarf Fortress, when it was still two-dimensional.) This play-through isn't the best of them, but it's probably the most famous.

I'm convinced that Dwarf Fortress points the way to the future of gaming. It's primitive, but all revolutions start this way. Certainly, there are some people who won't even try it, because of the poor graphics and the significant learning curve. And admittedly, some who do won't like it. Unfortunately, the developer doesn't have a team of hundreds and a multi-million dollar budget. But if you can ignore the surface of this game and look deeper, you'll find something truly remarkable.


Anonymous said...

Donations for the month of April: $16k
Take that game industry!

WCG said...

Wow! That's just amazing! Here's the link to the report:

I've been meaning to donate again myself, but I thought I'd wait until I had time to play the new version.