Tarn Adams

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Tarn Adams
Tarn Adams.jpg
Adams at PAX 2013
Born (1978-04-17) April 17, 1978 (age 37)
Silverdale, Washington, U.S.
Alma mater University of Washington (BSc)
Stanford University (PhD)
Occupation Computer game programmer
Years active 1996–present

Tarn Adams (born April 17, 1978) is an American computer game programmer, best known as the creator of the computer game Dwarf Fortress in 2002 along with his older brother, Zach. The game is known for its intricate details and persistent world generation and attracted a cult following. He learned programming in his childhood, and has been designing computer games as a hobby with his brother since. He quit his first year of a mathematics post doctorate at Texas A&M to focus on game development. He founded the company Bay 12 Games with his brother, and on his website posts freeware games developed by them, most notably Dwarf Fortress.

Early life[edit]

Adams' older brother, Zach, in 2013

Adams was born in Silverdale, Washington, US, the younger of two children. His father, Dan, worked at a waste water treatment plant and used to manage data. Adams credited his father for teaching him to code and his closeness to his brother, Zach, to their family's constant shifting due to their father's work. In high school, he formed a close friendship with Alan Ames, an aerospace engineer and a supporter.[1] He and Zach grew up playing computer games and, with notebooks in hand, drawing their own renditions of the randomly generated creatures they encountered and logging their journeys in detail. Adams coded animations, and in fifth grade, wrote his first animation game with Zach. In an interview with The New York Times,[2] explaining his reluctance to socialize, he said, "I was a get-home-from-school, get-on-the-computer kind of kid." Adams said that the main reason they started writing games was to be able to play them themselves, as complicated and unpredictable behavior guaranteed replayability.[3]

In high school they created a spacecraft game that simulated sections of a rocket blowing off and released their first publicly available game on America Online.[4] In sixth grade, they started their first fantasy game called dragslay written in BASIC.[5] It consisted of single battles leading to a final one with a dragon. A few years later, he rewrote it in C, and it featured minute details and kept track of populations of units in the world generated.[6] He cited books, movies, pen and paper role-playing games and other computer games as their inspiration for the various games developed.[7] He said that Dungeons & Dragons and J.R.R. Tolkien interested him and indie games like Cyberpunk 2020. An interviewer pointed out his preference for living in minimal conditions and sleeping during the day while programming at night.[8]


Adams earned a degree in mathematics at the University of Washington. During the final year, the faculty named him best math major.[2]

He applied for his doctorate at Stanford University, completing it in 2005 with a dissertation titled "Flat Chains in Banach Spaces", which was published in The Journal of Geometric Analysis. During his first year at Stanford, he was under pressure and the professional environment and competitiveness affected him negatively. This was due to a conflict of interests concerning studying mathematics as well as developing video games. This stressful situation left him depressed and he admitted to having a brief encounter with drugs.[8]

He then started his post doctorate in Texas A&M, which was his goal since his undergraduate days. He decided to leave during the first year due to the increasingly stressful situation[3] and is said to have broken down in the head of department's office. He left in 2006 after receiving a stipend, to devote his full attention to developing Dwarf Fortress and other games, which was until then only a hobby. Regarding this, he told The New York Times, "At the end of a math problem, you have a paper and maybe you publish it, and the paper can be a building block for the edifice of mathematics, but to me that’s not so important. But working on a problem and having a game when you’re done? That’s pretty damn cool."[2]


Adams and his brother started a company called Bay 12 Games, where they posted freeware games and attracted a small following. Adams assumed the name "Toady One" and his brother "ThreeToe". His background in mathematics helped in algorithms with spatial considerations. With his skill in programming and Zach's background in ancient history and creative storytelling, together they designed and developed various projects.[3]

After the game dragslay, which was similar to the adventure mode of Dwarf Fortress and had a persistent world map including creatures and towns, they started working on another adventure game, focusing on world generation.[7] The role-playing video game Ultima inspired him regarding world development. For four years, after working on the adventure tile and rendering it in 3D graphics, they completed Slaves to Armok: God of Blood. "Armok" was the name of the game's deity, and it received its name from the variable "arm_ok", which was used in dragslay to indicate how many arms were left on a particular unit. The random story generator was originated by both of them writing stories.[6] Adams told The New York Times that during the game and in between battles,"you could zoom in on your character, and it’d tell you how curly his leg hairs were, and the melting and flash points of various materials, It was insane."[2] They posted it on their website in 2000 and by 2004, since the game featured complicated aspects of 3D graphics, the project faced increasing problems. Adams announced in 2004 on his forums that he was going to shift from Armok to Dwarf Fortress.[3]

While not working on Armok, he also worked on some other small projects during graduation and he released some on his website.[4] Mutant Miner was a game which he developed and was inspired by Miner VGA. It's a turn based game where players have to look for minerals and dig out tunnels while dealing with threats.[6] He found the need to be able to manage so many miners and to not only have a high score list but also store more minute details was the beginning of the Dwarf Fortress project. Side projects like Corin and Kobold Quest were made in a few days and Squiggles was made in three hours. There are other games, such as Liberal Crime Squad and WWI Medic, on his website.[9]

Dwarf Fortress[edit]

Main article: Dwarf Fortress

Dwarf Fortress was started as a side project to Armok on October 2002. Hack was the influence of it with its randomly generated levels, mechanics and primitive graphics. He credited Dungeon and Dragons, works of Tolkien and Conan as being the inspiration of the game's world and its full title is Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress.[10] After starting the project, most of the features that were thought of were implemented to this project rather than, at that time's main project, Armok. It kept growing and Armok went into difficulties and was abandoned in favor of Dwarf Fortress. Since this wasn't rendered in 3D, Adams was more free to develop it with more possibilities. It was released in 2006, when his following was relatively small.[3]

It is a colony-building management game where players start with a small group of dwarfs and gather resources to build a sustainable fortress while creating a utopian society, defending against invaders besides wildlife being a constant threat and dwarfs going insane due to the lack of alcohol. His brother, Zach did the story writing and mixing up various factors in the whole history generator including world generator and body part models. The game builds a history for each new world, gives each player a unique legacy to build on. The feature of goblins hanging the skins of their foes on their towers was from a book on Assyrians which was the idea of Zach. The characters in this game are generated having a unique personality which involves factors such as traits, physical appearance likes and dislikes and each of their anatomy is described in clinical detail, such as bone size, muscle and fat tissue and various organs that are important in combat, which is violently described. Adams has said Cyberpunk 2020 was his inspiration for the wounding mechanism. Alan Ames, his close friend since school, told The New York Times, "The processing power that Dwarf Fortress uses is on the same scale as modern engineering software for designing aerospace hardware. You have more complicated simulations in Dwarf Fortress than when you model the aerodynamics of a wing."[2]


Adams is primarily known for creating Dwarf Fortress and is known for its cult following, having received popularity in spite of not being owned by any company. The fans have formed a community which has been growing, have maintained a wiki for the game, podcasts and meetups. On his Bay 12 forums, he takes suggestions from them. One fan has claimed to have made 'a crude but functioning' computer within the game. In 2006, a saga named "Boatmurdered," after the randomly generated name of the fortress; where fans passed around a single fortress and each played the game and saved it before sending it to another, was portrayed in detail from its start to destructive end. This spread around gaming sites and boosted the game's popularity.[7] In 2013, The New York Museum of Modern art featured it in a design exhibition.[2]

He maintains that he has no plans to charge for the game and is content with PayPal donations from his fans telling the New York Times, "I like that it's free, and if you care about it, you pay," and is happy as long as the game is self-sustaining and about releasing the source code, he would likely do that if financially secure.[2] He has said that he had a few donors who never played the game and were there just to check the stories and that he rejected an offer from a major developer and an offer to license the name Dwarf fortress.[3][6] In an interview with The Escapist, "From what I've seen from the transcripts from these conferences and stuff, mainstream developers really are trying to do all kinds of interesting things, but their most important thing always has to come back to the money... It's kind of depressing. I'm not going to sit here and toot my horn, but as far as design is concerned, I just think that I've happened to fall into a little sweet spot where I get a lot of freedom, but I guess the cost is my livelihood."[4] and he called working in the industry "soul crushing".[7] Adams has shown dislike for massively multiplayer online games and said that popular games are addictive because they make use of a compulsive hoarding trait of people in terms of getting points or collecting things turning the gamer into a slave, something he has stated that he used to value but not any longer.

Adams and his brother routinely give out short stories or crayon art requests to their donors. These stories are written by Zach, and the crayon art is drawn and colored by him. These gifts are said to make the game feel more handcrafted and personal. Since they lack an advertising medium, they are very appreciative of journalists and bloggers who cover their work.[4]


  1. ^ "Contact and acknowledgements". Bay12 games. Retrieved 18 June 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Johah Weiner (21 July 2011). "The Brilliance of Dwarf Fortress". New York Times. Retrieved 27 May 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Jaz McDougall (2 August 2010). "Community heroes: Tarn Adams, for Dwarf Fortress". PC gamer. Retrieved 18 June 2013. 
  4. ^ a b c d Chris LaVigne (4 March 2008). "For the Love of the Game". The Escapist. Retrieved 18 June 2013. 
  5. ^ "Tarn's post on his old projects". Bay12forums. Retrieved 18 June 2013. 
  6. ^ a b c d John Harris (27 February 2008). "Interview: The Making Of Dwarf Fortress". Gamasutra. Retrieved 18 June 2013. 
  7. ^ a b c d Elijah Meeks (22 December 2010). "An Interview with Tarn Adams". Stanford University. Retrieved 18 June 2013. 
  8. ^ a b "Blood for blood god few words with tarn". dinosaurcity. Retrieved 18 June 2013. 
  9. ^ "Bay 12 games". Retrieved 18 June 2013. 
  10. ^ Alex Bielski. "Interview with Tarn "Toady One" Adams on Dwarf Fortress". AlterGamer. Retrieved 18 June 2013. 

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