Game Design Dialectic: Dwarf Fortress and Goblin Camp

This is only the beginning of a story, but it could prove to be a very interesting story if it bears out. I think it already contains instructive lessons for game development and design.

On the left, Dwarf Fortress. On the right, Goblin Camp.

I hope you know about Dwarf Fortress, the very complex roguelike-lookinglike fantasy world sim / citybuilder. From a development perspective,  DF is a very long-running obsessive project coded by one guy, Tarn Adams, who makes more money than I do (not difficult) entirely by donations from his fans. I admire Tarn’s goals and his creative freedom which lets him indulge his whims – I wish I could do that. I even had fun playing some Dwarf Fortress until I explored most of what there was to explore. It was sweet while it lasted, but I grew tired with the tedium of a very rough user interface and tedious gameplay.

This brings me to a common criticism of Dwarf Fortress: development over the last year, year and a half has focused on revising very low level details about the game’s simulation of how materials interact, particularly how creatures bodies are built with layers of bone and muscle and hair, what properties these each have, etc. It is true that part of the charm of Dwarf Fortress is about the ridiculous level of detail. But it has been over a year and I still have to press a series of awkward keyboard shortcuts to build things, I need to hand-designate every square of ore to be mined, I need to tell each workshop exactly what to make. Frankly, the user interface achieves mind-blowing levels of confusion and  unnecessarily repeated actions which lead to a sense of tedium and frustration that overwhelms my interest in continuing the play the game – so I don’t. Many people don’t even manage to fully learn to use the interface (or don’t want to)  due to – I’ll say it – how bad it is. And further, most new players are overcome by the sheer detail and volume of information that needs to be processed and managed by hand: To speak for my own experience (to those of the DF community that hold in high regard their ability to manage an extraordinarily complex game), it’s not that I am incapable of running a complex Dwarf Fortress game, it’s just that I don’t want to because it’s boring to have to hand-tweak every little thing to keep the place running, and worse still, it actually hurts my hands to press the same keys again and again and again as is required.

I love what this game could be and reading the development page it is full of admirable, sky-high aspirations. But I can’t bring myself to play it. It’s a beautiful idea but an extremely flawed game.

To get the Dwarf Fortress Experience, you’re better off reading the stories people write about their games in forums, eg. the classic Boatmurdered. This removes the frustration of playing the game itself and gives you the high points of amusement at the absurd details and situations which arise during gameplay (which inspired a good deal of the silliness we have in Dungeons of Dredmor, I should add).

And then, if the post’s timestamp is correct, just two days ago on July 14, Ilkka Halila announced Goblin Camp in the SomethingAwful forums.

Now things are getting interesting.

Goblin Camp looks like Dwarf Fortress, uses the same ASCII-graphics, and starts from a foundation of the same sort of gameplay built upon semi-autonomous agents collecting and processing resources in a world build of tiles, but it makes several important departures in terms of project development and design philosophy.

  1. The code of Goblin Camp is released open source. In interviews, Tarn Adams has expressed concern about releasing DF’s code because he could lose control over the focus of the project, lose financial support, and he is not interested in supporting other people modifying (and breaking) the code. Goblin Camp has already been extended by coders other than Ilkka – if the initial interest maintains its present momentum, the game could develop at an extraordinarily rapid pace. I must observe though that GC’s appeal is somewhat cannibalistic on DF’s – It is frustrated DF fans that are excited about CG.
  2. Goblin Camp streamlines play. For example, there is a central depository of craft goods in GC which the player gives orders like “Maintain a stock of 500 wood planks”. Workers are automatically assigned tasks to fulfill this requests, they are sent out in the woods to cut logs which are returned to a carpenters shop to be processed. In DF, one would have to designate a single worker as a lumberjack, scroll out into the map, designate an area of trees for chopping (using the keyboard, by the way), then queue tasks in a carpenters shop by-hand. When designated trees run out, the player has to re-designate more trees – and the player is not told when they run out of designated trees. GC handles the minutiae for the player, reducing the hand-interaction required from perhaps 10 actions to one action, at least. To be frank, this design ethos of streamlining interaction blows DF out of the water in terms of playability already (Dwarf Fortress was released four years ago, by the way).
  3. Goblin Camp abstracts details. While DF has spent a year of development time simulating the material properties required to properly model the penetration of an iron bolt through leather armor, flesh, and bone, as appropriate to the details of a given creature’s anatomy, GC was coded in its entirety in two months and uses simple die rolls for attack skill and damage. The resulting playability of each game’s combat is not a radically different experience: guys swarm each other and people get chopped to bits. The idea of abstracting small details to implement fun features more quickly appears to lay behind every aspect of GC’s development. Further, the mod-friendly and open source nature of the game allows other people to fill in small details at their whim while the primary developer concentrates on the more general framework of gameplay.

Goblin Camp was made, to paraphrase Ilkka, because he loved the sort of game that is Dwarf Fortress but he is impatient and wants to play the game DF could be, that he wants DF to be, now rather than waiting for Tarn to add certain features to Dwarf Fortress – if he ever does. A game like Goblin Camp was bound to happen in response to Dwarf Fortress, and I think Tarn and many others knew it would come. I’m pretty sure similar attempts have been made (there was an Elf Forest joke-game, I believe), but none seem to have really taken off. Maybe Goblin Camp will.

Goblin Camp, as a game and an approach to development, is a critical response to weaknesses in the game and development of Dwarf Fortress. Maybe Tarn will have to react to Goblin Camp out of a need to save his source of income, maybe he will re-focus on making Dwarf Fortress a playable game rather than a complex simulation lost in it’s own obsessive detail, accessible only to an extremely dedicated few. It’s like Josh Petrie’s advice to beginning game developers: “Write Games, Not Engines” mixed with the ethos and methodology of Open Source software, Wiki-style content, and the absurd power of the internet.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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6 Responses to “Game Design Dialectic: Dwarf Fortress and Goblin Camp”

  1. tenach Says:

    Thank you for this post! It has opened my eyes to a game I probably would have otherwise not seen. That it is open source, really piques my attention.

    Thanks again! I hope to find more usefulness from this blog. 😀

  2. Chris Says:

    man, you’re in the minority with your criticisms of df. that read as if you’re being pressured into giving the game a fair go by other people rather than having the desire to play it yourself. the game’s countless fans have such a passion and patience for it and its development because they love the tedium and scope of it. it’s meant to be epic and thorough.. and damn, it’s essentially a branch out from the roguelike genre so it’s a bit much to complain about keyboard shortcuts.

    get a bunch of seasoned gamers in a room and by far n large you’ll find you’re missing the point on this one. if you don’t like it, you don’t like it.. no need to whinge!

  3. James Says:

    well, you have to remember that it is still in alpha stage. the only reason it has a interface at all is for toady to test it.

    even though it’s has more content then any other games out and is very playable, it’s not even half way finished. so adding a pretty UI would do more harm then good really. I rather development continue on with the core aspects of the game then worry about UI’s. It maybe 10+ years before its in beta stage.


    “Goblin Camp, as a game and an approach to development, is a critical response to weaknesses in the game and development of Dwarf Fortress. Maybe Tarn will have to react to Goblin Camp out of a need to save his source of income, maybe he will re-focus on making Dwarf Fortress a playable game”

    while I have nothing against Goblin camp and wish that the project continues to mature…

    you have to realize that tarn could care less if he makes money off DF(Dwarf fortress) or not. other wise why would he be making a game like DF, the target demographic is near non existent. he instead would be making another clone fps game that’s watered down to movement keys and head shots. so to say he has been making a game for 7 years for money is absurd. it’s his game and if he chooses to remove the interface completely that’s his choice…he just lets people play his game out of kindness and for testing.

    tarn&zach are not your average developers. hell, their just two brothers that wanted to make a game. what their doing is out of love…not for profit turning.

    I’m happy there is still people like them around, the last couple of years have been nothing but cash grabs and soulless remakes….dwarf fortress is a shining example in a sea of corporate lies and greed that is called the “game industry”.


    frankly dwarf fortress is one of the only games out today that even challenges me. I’ve been playing dwarf fortress for years, its the only game that has sustained my interest longer then 3 hours.

    why keep spending $40-$60 for something that going to last for 1-2 days max*even only playing it an hour or two after work, not none stop* when you can get a game like dwarf fortress…stop pouting about the learning curve and scale it and see a great story be made right before your eye while you play and all for $0.00. I’ve never had the same game twice..even starting from a backed up saves.

    P.S: “I need to hand-designate every square of ore to be mined, I need to tell each workshop exactly what to make.”

    you know you can press “enter” drag a box around walls you want mined and it will select them all, hell you can even use a mouse to select or draw selections.. which brings into to question how long you played the game before reviewing it. at least attempt the curve before reviewing. Look for “captain duck” on youtube, he has a 2010 tutorial video series.

    dwarf fortress is hit or miss…some people like the challenge of controlling a complex simulated society…You should try adventure mode, especially since alot of the development progress is aimed at it now. when they incorporating all the Adventurer Roles, it’s going to be the best rougelike game out.
    |||||||Sorry for the Wall|||||||

  4. dbaumgart Says:

    Alright, I’ll finally reply to this,
    I assure you, your assessment of my introduction to DF is off – for all of what seems like criticism above, I really did enjoy playing DF. The thing with it is that I see and care far more about the flaws in something I really like (eg. Dwarf Fortress) than in something I don’t care about at all (eg. … … … some other game. Gears of War?)

    I disagree with the gist of your post in that you’re saying “if you don’t like it, don’t talk about it” — I think that it’s important to critique and discuss interesting things like Dwarf Fortress, whether being critical or giving praise. The alternative is that no one should talk about anything ever and we should all just sit alone and take whats given to us. Or something. That wouldn’t be fun at all, it wouldn’t promote all the fascinating discussion and innovation that’s come from Dwarf Fortress.

    re Alpha:
    I disagree that it being “an alpha” is really meaningful at all because the traditional software development model does not actually apply to DF because it will not enter an actual beta and then be released – it IS released, non-commercially, and is being iterated all the time. This is something else, and we can talk about what it is for what it is (though yes, with understanding for where Tarn is at in the process of developing it, of course).

    re. UI development as a priority:
    Whether the game is finished to Tarn’s ideal state or not, people are in fact playing the game and people playing the game and enjoying themselves is why Tarn can work on the game with so much of his time. Imagine if he never released it for other people, just locked himself in a room for 10 years to make DF — 1. this would be impossible because he wouldn’t get donations, 2. he wouldn’t receive testing, feedback, critique, and discussion, so the product would be extremely flawed.

    Whether it’s ideal or not, DF is a game that people play and it is funded because people play it. Playability is essential to DF, and the UI is a fundamental factor in playability.

    re. Tarn and money:
    It is true that Tarn clearly doesn’t care about making very much money (if he did, as he’s said, he could have sold DF to all kinds of interested parties or taken a job on with a larger studio … and ended up like Will Wright, maybe), and that’s cool – but he *does* need to make enough money to live somehow. Whether he admits it or not (I don’t recall a specific comment he’s made on this point), releasing playable versions of DF for other people is absolutely necessary for his continued funding.

    re. Pouting about the learning curve:
    I assure you that I did overcome the learning curve. I did put the work in and did learn DF. I do however observe that /most people/ are put off by the arcane opacity of the interface, so /most people/ do not get a chance to have this awesome experience.

    Because something is difficult does not mean that it is good. Because something is easy (or, at least, /easier/) does not necessarily mean that it is dumbed down. My contention is that DF has a poorly designed interface and interactivity scheme and that not enough effort has been put into making it good. This puts people off the game and makes people who do play the game have to jump through boring micromanagement.
    Yes, many DF players are proud of overcoming the harsh learning curve – this does not however mean that DF’s UI is good.

    re. crappy $40-$60 games that are dumbed down:
    Oh, I agree with you completely here. They suck.

    re. enter, dragging a box to mine:
    This feature was created after the period during which I played a lot of DF. It was near the end of my major play experience that /mouse support/ was even added! – doubtless this was implemented because players of the game requested it from Tarn. Feedback works. Slowly.

    (So please, don’t get the impression that I did not learn the game, that I only played it for a little while and got put off because I’m a stupid noob that can’t handle DF. Seriously, I played it a lot and got the breadth of the experience. It’s been changing and new iterations have come out, but I haven’t had much time to put into playing games lately – I’m too busy making them. 😀 )

  5. b_boy_212 Says:

    Wow this was a huge rant against DF have you ever stopped to look at dwarf fortress and realize the best part is how hard it is?

    • dbaumgart Says:

      Well, yes. But there is a difference between a hard game (which is wonderful) and a hard-to-use interface (which is not wonderful).

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