Dwarf Fortress — or “why I stopped playing”

Preface

I’m certain this entry of mine will bring many Dwarf Fortress advocates out of the woodwork to flame or argue/battle. This isn’t my intent; if DF is fun for you, that’s awesome: realise that I do see the appeal and fun of the game, but that many of the changes in DF2010 mechanics/methodologies have made the game, in my opinion, LESS fun.

Don’t even for a moment think I’m some sort of run-of-the-mill “l33t PC g4m3rd00d!!!1!”. I’m far from it and often shun that clique (too much idiocy going on in that arena). Sure, you’ll find Borderlands, Final Fantasy XI, and World of Warcraft categories on my blog — these are all games I’ve played and enjoyed in one way or another… just like DF! But I’ve stopped playing most of those (especially WoW) for entirely different reasons. Let’s try to stay focused.

Furthermore, please know that I’ll continue to keep an eye on DF (probably by monitoring the forum and watching captnduck’s videos). If I hated the game I wouldn’t bother, nor would I have donated a hundred US dollars to some random Dutch guy who uploads DF training videos to Youtube. :-) I hope my intentions are therefore deemed positive and are noted as being my opinions (oft not shared with others).

History

Many years ago, a friend of mine who regularly visits SomethingAwful (a site I detest) introduced me to Dwarf Fortress. I saw it and instantly thought “Yes!!! Another roguelike!”

Well… not exactly. Visually it’s similar but mechanically is entirely different; it’s nothing like Nethack, Angband, Rogue, Hack, Moria, or any of the other classics you might remember. Despite that fact, I still gave it a try. At that time it had a significant number of bugs (and I reported a few), most of which have been dealt with. The performance of the game (read: CPU usage) has been significantly improved, probably as a result of being moved from Pascal to C (or C++, I can’t remember). What I’m trying to say is that over the years I’ve played it off and on, and watched it improve/evolve.

Earlier this week, however, I decided to give up the game entirely. And as such, I thought it might be worthwhile, or at least intriguing to some, to try and explain why I stopped playing.

Why

Simply put: too much granularity.

One of the most prominently-loved aspects of DF is its intricacy. By “intricate” I mean its granularity, level of detail, et cetera. Roguelike games “keep it simple” (Nethack’s wild-and-silly-crazy aspects aside) — DF is completely opposite. When I tried the game 4-5 years ago the number of things you had to focus on or accomplish was pretty vast but tolerable. The game operated on a single plane/playing field/level, so your starting/embarking point mattered greatly. Dwarves were mostly (not entirely) predictable. Skills were already out of control (IMO), with a good number of them having no purpose (code utilising them hadn’t been written yet) or were confusing (no real explanation of their purpose). Certain items/equipment/stuff made the game easier. Getting “set up” was the biggest task, with the primary concern being food and if you could make a Trade Depot before the first set of merchants arrived. Fighting (read: Militia) was fairly simple (only minor improvements needed).

Now with the release of DF2010, things have gone absolutely apeshit. Where you embark doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as before — the game now has multiple levels (floors) where you use the < and > keys to move between them. As a result, new players are bound to get lost within the first hour of play, same with those who were used to the old design. The degree of granularity and control you have over the dwarves is absolutely mind-boggling; the skill list is now 6 or 7 pages long. Many of the skills now have their code written, which is great, except a bunch of them are more or less mandatory for survival now (even more so if you choose to leave the “Invaders” feature enabled). The monsters are becoming equally as intricate (with players demanding even more yet!), especially with the introduction of forgotten beasts (some of which you apparently can’t kill because they lack heads). Farming mechanics have changed dramatically with the requirement that you have muddy ground — as a result, you now spend more or less the entire first year trying to get farms in place, ash (to make potash used to fertilise your farms), etc… all during which a pack or two of migrant dwarves have arrived and decided to “help” consume all of your food/ale (not to mention confusing the hell out of you). There’s also an immense focus on magma and things pertaining to such (heck, just look at the Wiki domain name). I ceased to see the purpose of the Trade Depot given this new set of focal points, and I couldn’t even figure out how any of the trading worked. Finally, the revamped Militia feature is a complete mind-fuck — it’s practically a game within itself, and I’m not exaggerating in the least. Throw in the fact that all armour right now is treated, code-wise, the same as Steel, and players are bound to scream.

I’m serious when I say it’s almost as if the intended goal is to try and overwhelm the player with excessive choices combined with a mind-numbing UI for controlling and managing those choices. One of the beauties to Dwarf Fortress (at least when I started playing) was how a significant amount of the logistics were left up to the engine itself to decide; you had time to focus on the things you needed, one step at a time. It was still hell (given the immense focus put on the autumn caravan; and to make matters worse now there’s liasons), but once you got past that point the game sort of “did its own thing” letting you progress as you wanted. The biggest concern at that point was the dwarves going crazy and killing one another.

On the bright side, the one thing that’s remained mostly consistent is the user interface; it’s still beautiful in some regards — and a complete disgrace in others. I can’t complain too much about the UI; this is just the nature of the beast when it comes to games like this. The instant you add windows/extensive menus or a GUI, games often lose their fun. Imagine if Ultima III (Exodus) or Blaster Master had 15 screens worth of item/skill/equipment menus…

DF2010 literally feels like it’s catering to folks with excessive ADD and OCD (yes both) — and for those of us which aren’t, is attempting to turn us into such.

I’ve taken the time to listen to numerous Dwarf Fortress Talks, which include interviews and Q&A with Toady (the author) and some others. Toady has a great voice and seems highly charismatic, so you really get sucked in to what he’s talking about (well mostly anyway), but it causes one to avoid stepping back and asking “Hey wait a minute, is this REALLY a good idea? Is this going to make things more fun or more tedious?” In my experience, most of the changes adhere to the latter.

There’s a continual theme presented with DF2010 a la Toady, and that’s “Losing is fun!” I agree but only to a certain extent; my above complaints have nothing to do with losing, they all have to do with being overwhelmed. Most (~80%) of my DF2010 games resulted in me choosing to abandon a fort, NOT due to “losing”. That’s the complete opposite of pre-DF2010 releases, where getting killed was more or less the norm.

There’s also a blog-esque overview site called Dwarf Fortress Fortress which posts news items and other whatnots about the game. I didn’t know about this site until maybe 15 minutes ago. Reviewing that site should give you some idea of why I’m no longer playing Dwarf Fortress, and act as justification/validation of my opinion (re: too intricate).