So I’ve been thinking a bit recently about Dwarf Fortress, and one unique quality (of many) of the game is that it is a lifelong endeavor for the Adams brothers, and therefore a lifelong endeavor for the fans.
Tarn Adams has stated that it’ll be at least twenty years before it’s finished, and it’s already been released for six years–and was being worked on for four years before its first release, making it a thirty year run before it’s even considered complete.
I don’t think there is any videogame that has that kind of staying power. Sure, we recognize the classics for their historical value, and maybe we still get a little fun out of them, but really, how often are you going to play Galaga, when you could play any number of modern shmups?
Yet Dwarf Fortress isn’t intended to be overshadowed by newer, more evolved games in its genre, partly because it’s in a genre of its own, and partly because it’s a never ending game.
Even twenty years from now, assuming that there is still technology to play it, the popularity of Dwarf Fortress will reach its apex at its final release (and perhaps even then Tarn would technically call it the 1.0 release, and might continue working on it), and it’s legacy will be more than a historical curiosity. People won’t play Dwarf Fortress for a quick thrill like you might dust off the old Pac-Man machine; I expect they’ll be playing it as fervently as ever, spending months perfecting their fortress, only to have it destroyed by some night creature invasion they weren’t prepared for.
And even though other games (Minecraft, for instance) claim Dwarf Fortress as a major inspiration, they won’t achieve the longevity. Console games die when a new console comes out, and usually far before that. PC games die more slowly, since tools like DOSBOX and resources like GOG.com exist, but they, too, peaked in popularity when they came out, not fifteen years later. Any resurgence in old games comes mostly from older players who want to relive the memories of their youth. Today’s twelve-year-olds aren’t likely to pick up Zork.
And though Dwarf Fortress isn’t going to sway any non-gamers to join the ranks, it will continue to gain popularity with the hardest of the hardcore Sim, RTS, RPG, and Adventure gamers–partly by design.
Part of the reason Dwarf Fortress will last is simply because Tarn won’t stop coding anytime soon. This is the first time (or one of the first times) that a developer lets us take the development journey with them. Dwarf Fortress is not a complete game, and won’t be for twenty years. At least, that’s what Tarn tells us. People play it now and love it, and don’t see anything missing, until the next release, when they jump right into the game to discover the latest improvements and additions.
With other games, when the game comes out, that’s the end of the line. At least, in the old days that was the idea. Now we’ve got DLC and always-on MMOs, stretching the lifespan of games into years, rather than simply days, weeks, or (if they’re lucky) months.
Yet at some point a newer, flashier game comes out that is similar to the old one, and starts stealing players. MMOs are still evolving, so when a new one comes out, players migrate, especially if they don’t have the cash for monthly subscriptions to multiple games.
Dwarf Fortress doesn’t have this problem for two reasons. First, of course, is that it’s free; there’s a donation button on their website, but the game itself has no charge. Secondly, it’s in a class of its own, and there has been nothing that has even attempted to outdo what Dwarf Fortress has done. There is simply no such thing as a flashier Dwarf Fortress, and there can’t be, by definition.
Tarn Adams threw out every principle of modern games when he started making Dwarf Fortress: he made the graphics nothing but ASCII art, and yet the programming behind the gameplay can actually slow down modern computers. This is the sort of game that looks like it should have been made in the seventies, but couldn’t have been.
In that way, it’s actually kind of timeless.
Although I think the Adams brothers are geniuses, I am surprised there haven’t been any clones. Of course they would be inferior, but that’s never stopped companies in the past.
While I think the particular gameplay of Dwarf Fortress won’t be matched for some time, I wonder how viable the business end of it is. Tarn makes a variable and modest living off donations, so it makes me wonder if others could do it too, or if Dwarf Fortress is a fluke.
What I mean is that I wonder if others might make a lifetime-long game, always releasing content, and see how far that gets them. Even the longest running MMOs dwindle after a time, shut their doors, and lock up, especially when a challenger comes. But since Dwarf Fortress has no challenger, it lives until Tarn Adams decides to kill it. Could another game developer do that, and make a living off it?
I guess my main question in all this is: do videogames have to die?
There are analog games that have had lives much, much longer than the longest running videogame, and I will even excuse outliers like Chess. But who doesn’t have a copy of Monopoly lying around? It’s issued to you when you’re born. Parker Brothers hasn’t touched it pretty much since it came out (and I don’t count various themed versions as really being any different). It has no DLC, so to speak, yet even if you hate Monopoly, everyone’s got a story about it.
On the other end, Magic: The Gathering is a game with content that comes out practically every day, and it’s still a staple of geek culture.
Yet I suspect that Monopoly, Magic, and Dwarf Fortress will still be around twenty years from now, but World of Warcraft won’t. Even though WoW is still going strong, and content is still being released, at some point the payments will dry up, or at least enough to not be able to support the product anymore, and WoW will shut down. Blizzard, in the meantime, may move on to other products, or even make WoW 2, which will bring WoW a swifter death.
But in any case, the corporate structure of big games seems to suggest that they can’t follow the lifelong model of Bay 12 Games. Despite Dwarf Fortress’ small popularity, it is enough for the developer to live off. A bigger developer wouldn’t be able to consider that a success, but a two-man team can.
I wonder if the likes of Dwarf Fortress will bring a rise of ultra-small indies, and connected to it, the rise of lifelong games.
Might more developers take players on the development journey with them?
Is this a natural extension of how games are evolving, or is Dwarf Fortress a one-time fluke?
To see this article with pictures and jokes, as well as other articles, reviews, and development logs, check out http://scattergamed.blogspot.com/
[Craig Ellsworth posted this article on sister site Gamasutra’s free community blogs.]