Dwarf Fortress: Figuring out how to simulate the universe, one step at a time

"If I could push a button and make it happen I would do it, but since you have to prioritize it’s like we’re more on a crusade to put the narratively interesting parts of the world. We don’t care about atoms and stuff."
"If I could push a button and make it happen I would do it, but since you have to prioritize it’s like we’re more on a crusade to put the narratively interesting parts of the world. We don’t care about atoms and stuff."

- Dwarf Fortress dev Tarn Adams

Tarn and Zach Adams have been co-developing Dwarf Fortress since 2006, and it's 42 percent done. This number comes from a new interview with PC Gamer, in which Tarn Adams discusses the game -- and his development methods. It's a revealing interview about a deep, unique game. 

Running out of ideas? Getting bored? Never

"We’ve got enough interesting things to do that burnout has never been an issue," says Adams. They keep several ideas on the burn, so that the devs can switch gears to something new at any time. The game's huge potential scope makes this possible.

Right now, Adams is working on a "creation myth generation" system, which will create the stories that underpin the worlds Dwarf Fortress generates.

"I haven’t done anything remotely like creation myth generation before. It’s exciting. It’s like starting a whole new game. And it really is a separate project. And then it just becomes one of the little cogs in the Dwarf Fortress machine. They're all separate games in a way, but then the interconnections start to grow and you have a common framework, but they’re all very different from each other."

Workaholic much?

Adams spends 100 hours a week making the game, at his estimation; this year's GDC, where the interview was conducted, was his first, even though he's been making and releasing games for over 10 years.

"I have to get out of this whole workaholic thing, right, because I work 100 hours a week sometimes, a lot of times, most of the time. I don’t have, like, a life or whatever," Adams says. But then: "Why would you take time off when you can write Dwarf Fortress?" He doesn't seem to be kidding. 

The game has moved beyond passion project to life's work; in the interview, Adams, who is in his late 30s, talks about developing it into his 50s. 

After working on the game, he... works on the game more: "You sit in front of the TV and not watch it, with a laptop on your lap, writing a myths generator or something, right? That’s kind of how it goes."

Revisiting old code is key to the future

For a living game like Dwarf Fortress, which is still being built on the original code from 2006, Adams must continually revisit the game. That's why fixing bugs is fun, he says, and so important:

"You always want to be reminded or cognizant of the whole structure of the game for Dwarf Fortress, because you’re constantly future-proofing new features for, like, ‘When I add boats that’s gonna have to tie into exploration and trade and this and that and this and that,’ and you want to respect all of that when you put the first one in."

There's a fascinating story about drunk cats in the full interview which is a must-read.

But prioritization is essential 

With such a broad scope -- from creation myths to a full fledged civilization -- Adams has to pick and choose what he can possibly simulate, as he states in the quote at the top of this story. Still, he goes off-script: "I even made eyelids work for no reason, because I do random things sometimes."

But this is the kind of thinking that's required when he really wants to dig into something new: "If you want to just say, ‘I’m doing Dwarf Fortress political intrigue now,’ we don’t have notions of law, property, customs, status, economics of any kind, and don’t really understand personal interrelationships and territories and things well enough to do that any justice. So it gets kicked down the road."The full interview, which is so long we can't begin to excerpt all of the great stuff -- like Dwarf Fortress itself, it has layers -- is over at PC Gamer.

If you want more from Adams, we have two meaty interviews from 2008 and 2013 which are well worth spending some time with, too. 

You can, of course, find out more about the game on its official website.

Latest Jobs


Playa Vista, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Senior Level Designer (Zombies)

PlayStation Studios Creative Arts

Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia
Lead/ Senior Asset Artist


Playa Vista, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Senior Gameplay Systems Engineer - Treyarch

High Moon Studios

Carlsbad, CA, USA
VFX Artist
More Jobs   


Explore the
Advertise with
Follow us

Game Developer Job Board

Game Developer


Explore the

Game Developer Job Board

Browse open positions across the game industry or recruit new talent for your studio

Advertise with

Game Developer

Engage game professionals and drive sales using an array of Game Developer media solutions to meet your objectives.

Learn More
Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more