Dwarf Fortress: 2 Months Later

A post-partum and publishing retrospective

Kitfox Games
Kitfox Games 🦊


By Tanya X. Short, Captain of Kitfox Games

How Many Did You Sell???

Dwarf Fortress released on Steam on December 6, 2022.

Before launch, an economist used historical Kitfox Games sales data to project that, if Dwarf Fortress followed our usual trends, it would sell around 160,000 copies in the first two months.

Instead, we sold that many in the first 24 hours.

In the first two months, which ended yesterday, we’ve now sold exactly 606,342 copies of Dwarf Fortress, almost exactly 5k of which are from itch.io.

Launch day photo! Fun fact: Tarn did try to shave his beard for the occasion but the shaver he mail-ordered arrived broken.

As seen in Bay 12’s monthly report, just last week Tarn and Zach finally received their due of over 7 million USD into their bank account, as opposed to the usual $15k. There will be taxes to pay and so on, but it’s safe to say it was a very good success.

They added:

The appreciation you give us is part of our being now. It carries us in the cars we drive. It sustains us as the food that we eat. There is now no longer any existence except the one that you have provided. When we pass from this world, you will be the reason we are remembered.

— Bay 12 Games

Aww. And hooray!

How’d That Happen?

First, a warning: Anything I say about Dwarf Fortress probably will not apply to your game, for various reasons. See this more like a tour of a model home — interesting, possibly historically remarkable as a moment in time, and ultimately not meant to be a navigational aid. Kitfox has a history of being transparent with our past games, so I feel obliged to continue the tradition.

But please note: Kitfox did absolutely no design or UX work on the game. Any and all gameplay improvements in graphical Dwarf Fortress are due entirely to the hard work and insight of Tarn and Zach.

I believe there were a few important factors:

  • the game has a long legacy of both solid, compelling design and proactive community management
  • with this version, Bay 12 were able to build on the game’s strengths and soften some weaknesses, in ways they couldn’t previously
  • Kitfox was able to build on Bay 12’s existing community strengths to maintain both trust and relative peace between the different factions
  • Steam offers additional visibility and promotional opportunities to games that are already succeeding

With that in mind, let’s look at where the sales came from, as best as we can guess, and how they got so high. The economist themselves expressed hesitation about the quality of the forecast, and we mostly decided to post it as an interesting thought-experiment in public.

You’d be hard-pressed to draw a clear line between how many of the “extra” sales were a result of the environment (the game’s legendary status, brand name, internet fervor, weather) and how many were due to the Steam algorithm. There is no way to have a control group in this experiment. But for those among you who would like to try, here’s the marketing analytics exposed:

the Steam Store Traffic Stats page, showing sources of Visits Over Time (first 2 months)

And here’s the source breakdown for JUST the first 48 hours:

Breakdown of sources of traffic to the Dwarf Fortress Steam page (first 48 hours)

Marketing Message means the pop-up marketing window in the Steam client, which we received the 2nd day due to kind Valve support. The first such promotion granted to a Kitfox-released game!

Not only did we sell a Lot of copies, but we got the coveted Overwhelmingly Positive note very quickly:

Whoops only Very Positive at the moment, I guess we gotta patch it soon eh?

Despite some mutterings in some corners (there will always be some), and lots of work left to do, it’s hard to complain about that kind of response. Everyone(ish) was excited for Tarn and Zach, and everyone(ish) was accepting of Kitfox’s role as midwife in that admirable outcome.

And I like to think we made it look fairly easy. Maybe even effortless.

I’m here to tell you this midwife worked dang hard, and I’m glad that some of the risks we took paid off, but they weren’t always easy at the time.

But What Did You Do?

As a reminder, in 2019 Kitfox’s biggest release to date had been Moon Hunters, and we didn’t have a ton of money in the bank (we still don’t, comparatively, but that’s a different story). It was possible we were signing on to a fanbase that was going to tear us apart, send us personal deaththreats, boycott the game, and all in exchange for a game that would never actually be finished or in fact workable, since Tarn himself admitted he’d never really tried putting graphics into the Dwarf Fortress engine.

But I chose to be optimistic and wade deep into that river, with faith in both Bay 12 and ourselves in overcoming the many challenges we’d face.

The biggest factor in the success is of course the game itself. It is not only brilliantly made, but the Steam version is very clearly the best version yet, and that is all owing to the Adams.

I won’t go deep into detail about our many initiatives and decision-points just now, but as a broad overview, here are some of the actions we took that I believe helped make a successful launch more likely, in terms of both numbers and sentiment:

  • proactive announcement of the game ASAP, anticipating fan suspicion about a new element (Kitfox) and need to understand the nuanced reasons behind the decision
  • continued old Bay 12 processes of transparency and self-directed communications with their inner circle, untouched by Kitfox
  • public collaboration with known and trusted community contributors, including Clinodev, Mayday, IronHand, Simon Swerwer, Putnam, Lethosor, and Meph (though that last didn’t completely work out in the end, sadly)
  • selection of trustworthy and talented yet previously-underappreciated contributors who could also bring something fresh and notable to the table, such as Omar, Carolyn, Neoriceisgood, and Thea Kent
  • a primary point of gathering for the new version’s community in the Kitfox Discord, which humanized the Kitfox devs and mods (Victoria and Alexandra bore a heavy load here), while also encouraging propagation of announcements across other communities of Steam, Reddit, mailing list, Twitter, etc
  • holding off on announcing a release date until we were able to guarantee its feasibility
  • cutting certain highly-anticipated features from the initial release to instead launch before trust and potentially visibility had been lost

It’s easy to look back and believe with hindsight bias that everything was always going to turn out the way it did. But I choose not to believe in fate, because I have to take responsibility for my mistakes and failures in at least equal proportion to my victories.

Snap from the Kitfox holiday party, a little over a week after DF launch

So, it’s only been two months, but as a game designer, I am humbled. I’m so genuinely proud that we were able to help Tarn and Zach achieve a new level of success. Even if Kitfox never accomplishes anything else, at least we contributed to an important moment in the history of art. I am content.

Thank you to all who cheered us on, and who continued to support us.

Yes we’re still working on Adventure Mode. Please be patient.



Kitfox Games
Kitfox Games 🦊

Games with dangerous, intriguing worlds to explore. Currently: Boyfriend Dungeon, Lucifer Within Us, Dwarf Fortress, Mondo Museum • kitfoxgames.com