Dwarf Fortress, ostensibly a computer game, is perhaps one of my favorite examples of weirdware. By default the game is difficult, inscrutable, and yet completely and totally addictive. The default graphics are ASCII art, the interface is all keyboard shortcuts and menus, and the gameplay is brutally difficult. The game is not open source, and it’s not particularly mod friendly either. Despite itself, it’s garnered a loyal community of modders building on top of a memory hacking utility of all things. As I said, it’s weirdware, a thing that should not be. However, once you get past these hurdles and cobble together a decently modded install (the newb packs make it easier) it becomes a very hard thing to put down.
Setting Off On Our Own
Fortress mode starts out with a basic premise: you are in command of a group of dwarves who are setting out to found a new fortress. They are braving the uncaring world to amass their own fortune. During the embark phase you get to plan out where you will go. Will you settle the plains and deal with the engineering challenge of penetrating an aquifer? Will you hunker down in the mountains with limited access to wood and above ground plants? Or will you try and settle a cursed land, dealing with the occasional reanimated corpse? Where you wind up settling will have a lasting influence on the design of your fortress. Once you pick a point of embarkation, you must then prepare for the journey. Given limited space and resources, what skills & equipment will you bring? Did you forget seeds? Better hope there are food bearing plants where you’re going. No picks? Whoops, no mining for you. No anvil? You won’t be doing metalworking any time soon. Just like forming a startup, the conditions under which you start really do matter. You get to choose the market you’re attacking, and you’d better be prepared to actually do so, otherwise failure will be fast and merciless.
Welcome To Management
Unlike most other video games, Dwarf Fortress doesn’t provide you with a way to control any of the characters. For instance, there’s no direct way to make a dwarf mine out a block of minerals. Instead you designate areas that must be mined, and then they either get mined or they don’t. You see, silent failure is the rule here rather than the exception. If work isn’t getting done you aren’t necessarily going to get notified about it. You have to go snooping around to ensure that all the right ingredients are available to get that work done. Do you have picks available? Are there dwarves designated as miners? For most things you wish to produce there’s a complicated chain of logistics that must be working as a precondition.
Startups are a team sport: your job as the founder is to build the team and then set the preconditions needed for success: culture, tools, teammates, and the right roadmap. Further, you need to know what success looks like. Is the team shipping against the roadmap quickly, or too slowly? Why? Again, no one is likely to tell you what’s wrong. This is why I’m deeply skeptical of first time founders with little work experience. The more maniacal ones will tend to whip their team into burnout. Laid back founders will let their team wander off into many different directions, with no one accomplishing anything that cohesively moves the company forward.
Dwarf Fortress would be pretty boring if it was just you and your dwarfs hunkered down in your fort alone. Fortunately, your world can be influenced by a number of Fun and exciting events. Caravans come by somewhat regularly for trade. If you’ve been spending your time productively you can trade your goods for things you haven’t yet, or can’t, produce. For instance, if you forgot to bring an anvil you can’t do any metalworking. However, you can spend your energy producing high value foodstuffs and trade those for anvils once a caravan comes by. Of course, if you neglected to build a trade depot then the caravans are not going to stop and you aren’t going to get that shiny new anvil. If you built your fortress near a necromancer’s tower you’re likely to get a visit from said necromancer and its army of the undead. Likewise, once you build up to significant enough level of wealth you will be invaded by a goblin army. So hopefully you remembered to build some defenses before mining out those rich diamond veins. Add to that the occasional were-creature, gigantic monster, kobold thief, or child snatcher and you get the picture.
Events that seem like lucky happenstance, especially to an outside observer, are actually a near certainty given enough time. Running into the right journalist, investor or customer randomly can either yield a lucky break or be yet another letdown. The serendipity will happen, and it will become a moment of lucky triumph if you are prepared for it. A prepared fortress can turn a horde of angry goblins into a pile of free weapons & armor. Likewise, a prepared startup can turn the tech crisis du jour into a ton of free customers.
There is no point to Dwarf Fortress. The game is never-ending — unless, of course, you count the framerate dropping to zero. Instead, the consensus in the Dwarf Fortress community is that you play towards the concept of Fun. Generally speaking, the more grand your ambitions are, the greater your chance of having some serious Fun. You can create mega-constructions like magma pistons, aqueducts, drowning chambers, and a surprising number of other contrivances. Get the design wrong and you might end up with a fortress full of water, or even magma. Sometimes a dwarf will go insane and throw a fit. In a fragile fortress where nerves are already raw, this one dwarf’s shenanigans can cause the entire fortress to spiral out of control. Not to mention that sometimes vampire dwarves will show up, hidden in the populace, and kill other dwarves with abandon.
Startups are hard, stressful undertakings at the best of times. You often feel like you’re fighting for your very survival, and indeed more than one startup has claimed the life of a founder. I find that applying the concept of Fun to a startup makes almost every aspect of this job much better. One of my favorite sayings is, “Let’s make different mistakes this time.” Which acknowledges that, hey, maybe we’ve fucked up before and we’ll probably fuck up again, but at least we’ll do so in interesting ways. This attitude makes it so much easier to be transparent with your team. Yes, we run out of money on such and such date. No, that isn’t the end of the world (although it may be the end of the company!) It also makes it considerably easier to detangle the company from your ego and actually admit your mistakes instead of always trying to play the superhero founder. And just like a fortress, you must be careful of unwanted tantrums because they really do have a way of spiraling out of control.
Have I mentioned that dwarves regularly require alcohol in order to be happy and productive? Dwarves will drink water if no booze is available, however their productivity and happiness fall off greatly. Now, I’m not necessarily saying we have a drinking problem in the startup world, but I’ve seen more than one company that seems to run completely off of mind altering substances.
It’s Not For Everyone
It seems, at least in the bay area, that everyone you meet has a startup. Much has been written about the current cool-off in funding, but I’m hopeful that it may restore some normalcy to the environment. Startups aren’t for everyone, and that’s ok. There’s nothing wrong at all with having an honest job with a boss and coworkers and a set of responsibilities you drop like a stone when you leave for the day. Dwarf fortress isn’t normal and it’s definitely not for everyone. It’s just plain weird to stare at a screen full of ASCII art for hours on end. It can cost you interpersonal relationships, vitamin D exposure, and physical fitness. But if you’re hooked, either on DF or startups, well there’s probably no talking you out of having some Fun.
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