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 developer of Dwarf Fortress since 2002 with his older brother Zach. He learned programming in his childhood, and has been designing computer games as a hobby. He quit his first year of a mathematics post doctorate at Texas A&M to focus on game development in 2006.

Early life[edit]

Adams was born in Silverdale, Washington, US, in 1978. 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] Adams 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. In fifth grade, he wrote his first animation game with Zach. In an interview explaining his reluctance to socialize,[2] he said, "I was a get-home-from-school, get-on-the-computer kind of kid." Adams stated that the main reason they started writing games was to be able to play them themselves, and 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 language, 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.[8]


Adams' older brother, Zach, in 2013

Adams earned a degree in mathematics at the University of Washington.[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, the professional environment and competitiveness affected him negatively. He cited the conflict between studying mathematics and developing video games as the reason. This stressful situation left him depressed and he admitted to having a brief encounter with drugs.[8]

In 2006, he 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 the same year after receiving a stipend, to devote his full attention to developing Dwarf Fortress and other games, which was until then only a hobby. He said, "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]


See also: Dwarf Fortress

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 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 said, "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 realized the need to be able to manage many miners and not only have a high score list, but also store more minute details, which 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]

Regarding the gaming industry, he said, "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] He further said working in the industry is "soul crushing".[7] Adams has shown his dislike for massively multiplayer online games and said that popular games are addictive because they make use of the player's compulsive hoarding trait.


  1. ^ "Contact and acknowledgements". Bay12 games. Retrieved 18 June 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d Johah Weiner (21 July 2011). "The Brilliance of Dwarf Fortress". New York Times. Retrieved 27 May 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c d Jaz McDougall (2 August 2010). "Community heroes: Tarn Adams, for Dwarf Fortress". PC gamer. Retrieved 18 June 2013. 
  4. ^ a b c 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 John Harris (27 February 2008). "Interview: The Making Of Dwarf Fortress". Gamasutra. Retrieved 18 June 2013. 
  7. ^ a b c 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. 

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