700,000 lines of code, 20 years, and one developer: How Dwarf Fortress is built

[Ed. note: While we take some time to rest up over the holidays and prepare for next year, we are re-publishing our top ten posts for the year. This is our number one post of 2021! Thanks for reading and we’ll see you in the new year. ]

Dwarf Fortress is a type of oddball ardour initiatives that’s damaged into Web consciousness. It’s a free recreation the place you play both an adventurer or a fortress stuffed with dwarves in a randomly generated fantasy world. The simulation runs deep, with new video games creating a number of civilizations with histories, mythologies, and artifacts. 

It has turn into infamous, and rightly so. Particular person dwarves have emotional states, favourite gems, and grudges. And all of it takes place in an ASCII interface that appears imposing to newbies, however feels just like the textual content crawl in The Matrix: craftsdwarf, river, legendary megabeast. 

Your complete recreation is product of 1 developer, Tarn Adams, aka Toady One, who has been engaged on Dwarf Fortress since 2002. For the primary 4 years it was a component time undertaking, however since 2006 it’s been full time. He writes all of the code himself, though his brother helps out with design and creates tales primarily based on the sport. Up till now, he’s relied on donations to maintain him going, however he’s presently engaged on a model with pixel graphics and a revamped UI that can be accessible for buy on Steam. 

I reached out to Tarn Adams to see how he’s managed a single, rising codebase over 15+ years, the perils of pathing, and debugging useless cats. Our dialog beneath has been edited for readability. If you need extra, we additionally spoke with Tarn on the podcast.


Q: What programming languages and different applied sciences do you utilize? Principally, what’s your stack? Has that modified over the 15-20 years you’ve been doing this?

A: DF is a few mixture of C and C++, not in some form of customary obeying manner, however type of a large number that’s accreted over time. I’ve been utilizing Microsoft Visible Studio since MSVC 6, although now I’m on some model of Visible Studio Group. 

I take advantage of OpenGL and SDL to deal with the engine issues. We went with these as a result of it was simpler to port them to OSX and Linux, although I nonetheless wasn’t in a position to try this myself after all. I’m undecided if I’d use one thing like Unity or Unreal now if I had the selection since I don’t know easy methods to use both of them. However dealing with your personal engine can be an actual ache, particularly now that I’m doing one thing past textual content graphics. I take advantage of FMOD for sound. 

All of this has been fixed over the course of the undertaking, besides that SDL obtained launched just a few years in so we might do the ports. On the mechanical aspect of the sport, I don’t use quite a lot of outdoors libraries, however I’ve occasional picked up some random quantity gen stuff—I put in a Mersenne Twister an extended whereas in the past, and most not too long ago I adopted SplitMix64, which was featured in a chat on the final Roguelike Celebration.

Q: What are the challenges in growing a single undertaking for thus lengthy? Do you suppose that is simpler to do by your self? That’s, since you wrote each line, is it simpler to take care of and alter?

A: It’s simple to neglect stuff! Looking for ‘;’, which is a free methodology however shut sufficient, we’re as much as 711,000 traces, so it’s simply not attainable to maintain all of it in my head now. I attempt to identify my variables and objects constantly and memorably, and I go away sufficient comments round to remind myself of what’s occurring after I arrive at a spot of code. Generally it takes a number of searches to seek out the precise thread I’m attempting to tug on after I go and revisit some piece of the sport I haven’t touched for a decade, which occurs fairly a bit. I’d say most modifications are targeted solely on sure components of the sport, so there may be form of an energetic molten core that I’ve a significantly better working data of. There are just a few actually crusty bits that I haven’t checked out since earlier than the primary launch in 2006.

Relating to the relative ease of doing issues on my own, actually for me, who has no expertise engaged on a big multi-person undertaking, that is the best way to go! Individuals clearly get good at doing it the opposite manner, for instance over within the AAA video games context, and clearly a number of engineers are wanted over there to get issues achieved on time. I’d be hesitant to say I can go in and alter stuff quicker than they will, essentially, since I haven’t labored in that context earlier than, but it surely’s true that I don’t have any team-oriented or bureaucratic hurdles to leap by way of after I wish to make an alteration. I can simply go do it. However I additionally need to do it alone.

Q: What’s the largest refactor/change that you simply needed to make?

A: There have been some refactors which have lasted for months, redoing sure information constructions and so forth, although I’m undecided something is ever a refactor strictly right here since there’s all the time alternatives to push the mechanics ahead concurrently and it is smart to take action when the code data is recent. 

Including the Z coordinate to make the sport mechanically 3D (whereas nonetheless being textual content) was one other one, and actually essentially the most mind-numbing factor I’ve in all probability ever achieved. Simply weeks and weeks and weeks of taking logic and performance calls that relied on X and Y and seeing how a Z matches in there.

Making the merchandise system polymorphic was finally a mistake, however that was an enormous one. 

Q: Why was this was a mistake?

A: While you declare a category that’s a form of merchandise, it locks you into that construction way more tightly than for those who simply have member components. It’s good to have the ability to use digital features and that form of factor, however the tradeoffs are simply an excessive amount of. I began utilizing a “software” merchandise within the hierarchy, which began to get varied performance, and may now assist something from a stepladder to a beehive to a mortar (and pestle, individually, ha ha), and it simply feels extra versatile, and I want each crafted merchandise within the recreation have been below that umbrella. 

We do quite a lot of procedural technology, and if we needed to, say, generate an merchandise that acts partially like one factor and partially like one other, it’s simply manner tougher to try this if you find yourself locked down in a category hierarchy. Including issues like diamond dependencies and all that simply find yourself tying you in knots when there are cleaner methods to do it. If totally different elements can simply be turned on and off, it’s simpler, and lets you do extra. 

I believe some recreation builders check with this as an entity element system, although it’s my understanding that harder-core optimizer folks consider that as one thing else the place you’re truly breaking issues down by particular person fields. Utilizing a single object with totally different allotted subobjects is sort of actually worse for cache misses, which is an entire different factor, however the advantages in group, flexibility, and extensibility simply can’t be ignored, and the totally different subfields of the software merchandise aren’t used so typically that it turns into an optimization subject.

Q: Did you run into any points shifting from 32 bit to 64 bit? That seems like a type of issues that was large on the time however has turn into fairly accepted.

A: In no way! I’m struggling to consider a single subject. Thankfully for us, we already had our byte sizes below management fairly effectively, because it comes up saving and loading the worlds; the format wanted to be nailed down again after we set that up, particularly as a result of we’ve needed to cope with endian stuff between OSes and all that. And we don’t do any gnarly pointer operations or different stuff which may have gotten us in bother. It simply ended up being actually good code for 64 bit conversion on account of our different practices, completely accidentally. The principle subject was simply getting the time collectively to make the change, after which it didn’t find yourself taking practically so long as I believed it might.

Q: I’ve seen different video games much like DF die on their pathfinding algorithms.What do you utilize and the way do you retain it environment friendly?

A: Yeah, the bottom algorithm is just a part of it. We use A*, which is quick after all, but it surely’s not ok by itself. We are able to’t benefit from a number of the improvements on that (e.g. jump point) since our map modifications a lot. Usually, folks have used approaches that add varied bigger constructions on high of the map to chop corners, and due to the altering map, these simply take too lengthy to take care of, or are in any other case a problem. So our strategy has been to simply hold monitor of linked elements reachable by strolling. These are fairly simple to replace even when the map modifications shortly, although it does contain some flood-filling. As an illustration, if water cuts the fortress in half, it must flood out from one aspect and replace an entire half of the fortress to a brand new index, however as soon as that’s achieved, it’s good, usually. Then that permits us to chop virtually all failed A* calls from the sport—our brokers simply want to question element numbers, and if the element numbers are the identical, they know the decision will succeed.

It’s quick to take care of, however the draw back is that the element indices are maintained for strolling solely. Because of this flying creatures, as an example, don’t have world pathfinding intelligence that’s any totally different from a walker. In fight and some different conditions, we use short-range flood fills with their precise logic to offer them some benefits although. But it surely’s not supreme for them.

I’m undecided we’ll try different constructions right here to make it work any higher. For our map sizes, they’ve all failed, together with some outdoors makes an attempt. In fact, it is likely to be attainable with a very concerted effort, and I’ve seen different video games which have managed, as an example, some rectangular overlays and so forth that appear promising, however I’m undecided how risky or massive their maps have been. 

The most straightforward concept would simply be one thing like including a brand new index for fliers, however that’s a big reminiscence and velocity hit, since we’d want to take care of two indices without delay, and one is dangerous sufficient. Extra particular overlays can monitor their pathing properties (and then you definitely path by way of the overlays as a substitute of the tiles), however they’re laborious and gradual to take care of because the map modifications. There are numerous different concepts floating round, like monitoring stairs, or performing some restricted path caching, and there are in all probability some positive factors to be made there. We’re actually on the fringe of what we are able to presently assist by way of brokers and map complexity, so one thing’ll have to offer if we wish to get extra out of it.

Q: On that notice, you’re simulating quite a lot of issues all of sudden—how do you handle so many so many actors asynchronously (or do you)?

A: If we’re speaking about asynchronous as in multithreading, then no, we don’t do any of that, apart from the graphical show itself. There’s quite a lot of promise right here, even with microthreading, which the neighborhood has helped me out with, however I haven’t had time to dive into. I don’t have any expertise and it’s a bug-prone factor.

Q: Have you ever tried different initiatives/applied sciences alongside DF?

A: Certain! The aspect undertaking folder that’s migrated between computer systems for the final ten years or so has about 90 initiatives in it. A few of them lasted for days, some for a number of years. They’re principally different video games, virtually all the time in different genres, however there are additionally just a few DF helper initiatives, like the parable generator prototype. Nothing near seeing the sunshine of day, but it surely’s enjoyable to mess around.

Q: Together with your ~90 aspect initiatives, have you ever explored another programming languages? In that case, any favorites?

A: Ha ha, nope! I’m extra of a noodler over on the design aspect, moderately than with the tech. I’m certain some issues would actually velocity up the conclusion of my designs although, so I ought to in all probability no less than study some scripting and mess around with threading extra. Individuals have even been sort sufficient to provide some libraries and issues to assist on the market, but it surely’s simply troublesome to dam aspect undertaking outing for tech studying when my aspect undertaking time is for enjoyable.

Q: You will have essentially the most fascinating launch notes. What’s your favourite bug and what brought on it?

A: It’s in all probability boring for me to say, however I simply can’t beat the drunken cat bug. There’ve been just a few movies made about it by this level. That was the one the place the cats have been exhibiting up useless everywhere in the tavern ground, and it turned out they have been ingesting spilled alcohol once they cleaned their paws. One quantity was off within the ingest-while-cleaning code, and it despatched them by way of all of the signs of alcohol poisoning (which we added after we spruced up venomous creatures.)

If you wish to strive Dwarf Fortress for your self, you may download it from their website.

Tags: dwarf fortress, solo developer, video games

More Posts