Thursday, July 28, 2011

Competitive Advantage

Dwarf Fortress is an insanely complex computer game that two brothers have spent the last couple of years designing and updating. The fan base is tiny and extremely loyal. The premise is to manage a fortress of heroic dwarves in a hostile environment. There is no way to win; the only questions are how long you can hold out before being obliterated by enemy forces, and how glorious and awesome your eventual demise will be. Says NYT Magazine:

Though its medieval milieu of besieged castles and mutant enemies may be familiar, Dwarf Fortress appeals mainly to a substratum of hard-core gamers. The game’s unofficial slogan, recited on message boards, is “Losing is fun!” Dwarf Fortress’s unique difficulty begins with its most striking feature: The way it looks. In an industry obsessed with pushing the frontiers of visual awe, Dwarf Fortress is a defiant throwback, its interface a dense tapestry of letters, numbers and crude glyphs you might have seen in a computer game around 1980. A normal person looks at ♠§dg and sees gibberish, but the Dwarf Fortress initiate sees a tense tableau: a dog leashed to a tree, about to be mauled by a goblin.
I've been through pretty strong game-playing phases in my life, but Dwarf Fortress is not really my cup of tea. Still, I respect the heck out of its creators. I could never bring myself to mock Dwarf Fortress or the people who play it, except good-naturedly.

There was a time when Tarn Adams, the programmer half of the Dwarf Fortress team, thought he might be headed for a career in academia. But he decided it just wasn't for him. I'm sure some people will decry this waste of talent. I disagree. Tarn and his brother have put a tremendous amount of work into a project that represents exactly what they want to do with their time. And if Dwarf Fortress - this detailed, intricate world engine that seems to work, to a surprising degree, and which counts among its fans many designers of much more commercially-oriented games - turns out down the road to spawn actual benefits to fields of computer science outside of gaming, I won't be even a little surprised.

To control your world, you toggle between multiple menus of text commands; seemingly simple acts like planting crops and forging weapons require involved choices about soil and season and smelting and ores. A micromanager’s dream, the game gleefully blurs the distinction between painstaking labor and creative thrill.
VR and holodeck worlds of the future may well be based on the pioneering work done on Dwarf Fortress.

If you think Tarn Adams is wasting his genius, then I can only say that you should make sure everyone has a chance to find what they're good at and do it. Including poor kids working in Third World sweatshops who would make brilliant programmers (or medical researchers) if only they had a chance. I want a world where people are allowed to specialize and realize their competitive advantage.

Also, I'm heartened that Tarn's able to make a living off of the Long Tail. Jaron Lanier and other pessimists have had me worried. That said, Tarn's not exactly rolling in money; it helps that he apparently never developed expensive tastes and doesn't live in Palo Alto. But he's managing to achieve some modicum of income doing what he loves, and I respect that.

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