Spike The Earth: KeeperRL Alpha

By Adam Smith on April 14th, 2014 at 4:00 pm.

Every morning, my inbox contains at least one email pointing in the direction of a less complicated and/or complex Dwarf Fortress. There was a time when I believed in the dream of an approachable Dwarf Fortress with a friendly interface but I’m starting to think that even the slightest simplification invalidates the comparison. Dwarf Fortress is complexity, of simulation and control, and the games that do have something in common with it often have far more in common with more traditional management sims or roguelike adventures. KeeperRL, sensibly and pleasingly, plays more like top-down Dungeon Keeper than Dwarf Fortress with the edges smoothed and the corners cut. The alpha is available and crowdfunding has begun.

I’ve spent an hour with the alpha this morning and had a pleasant experience. The interface is simple, even though the tutorial-like guidelines are sometimes slightly vague. Rooms and corridors are constructed by dragging the mouse across areas to mark them for demolition, and tiles can then be designated for use by attaching an icon to them. Workers dig and construct, adding beds, prisons and the other necessary parts of a functional dungeon, and minions can be possessed, giving the player control of their actions.

As in Dwarf Fortress, it’s possible to play in an Adventure mode for a traditional roguelike experience. Dungeons can also be retired, leaving them in the world to be conquered by the next adventurer or keeper. Eventually, you’ll be able to wage war against your own dungeons by rediscovering them in the world on a subsequent playthrough.

There’s an emphasis on combat rather than management, in the current alpha at least. Tactical construction and trap placement took up most of my time this morning.

The plans for the final release are below:

Big, persistent map (about 10 times bigger than now, area-wise), where you can build as many dungeons and play as many adventurers as you like. All the previous Keepers, if they are still alive, are now your enemies.

In-game exchange of maps through an online server. Let other players try to assault your dungeon with their army or an adventurer. Various statistics and a scoreboard of the most deadly dungeons.

Many special locations to explore. Go on quests, recruit more minions and find unique items to boost your black magic.

Much more content: special armor, weapons, items, special attacks, artifacts.

Lot’s of work put into balancing and fun gameplay. Big part of this will be listening to user feedback.

Graphics and UI overhaul.

Original soundtrack.

Android port.

I’m impressed by the simplicity of the interface and even at this early stage, I reckon I could happily spend a few more hours carving into the mountain. While I said the game is more Dungeon Keeper than Dwarf Fortress earlier, a good balance may well be struck between the two. Almost $1,000 of the $5,000 target is already in place and with 42 days left to go, KeeperRL should be in full-time production sooner rather than later. Should that be the case, the 1.0 release is expected by the end of the year.

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46 Comments »

  1. Stargazer86 says:

    Look, guys, I know Dwarf Fortress is a great game. Really, it is. But you just can’t make a game like it for one simple reason: It has no graphics. It’s able to do a vast number of complicated calculations that other games just can’t by sacrificing visuals and accessibility. You really just can’t get the same sort of interesting interactions when you start making the game simpler to accommodate graphics and an easier learning curve. Gnomoria, Towns, and plenty of others have tried, but they just haven’t been able to come close to the depth DF offers.

    • Stardog says:

      What are you talking about? There are 100 graphics packs for DF.

      • Sc0r says:

        yea the tilesets can be counted as graphics.
        ok, the mess of an interface is a problem, but while it IS bear traps on the learning couve, it is managable and you’ll get the hang of it and later on, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

      • Stargazer86 says:

        I know about the tilesets, but those are still extremely rudimentary as far as graphics are concerned. Don’t they essentially just replace the existing ASCII symbols with a tiny little static image? Aren’t they still technically ASCII?

    • BTAxis says:

      DF does have graphics if you count the various tilesets. It could have fancier tile-based graphics too, if only the game supported configuring tiles for each object separately instead of just straight up mapping ASCII to tiles. And there’s no denying that the interface could be massively improved (in fact you pretty much NEED an external interface surrogate to play, and there are plenty of UI mods that make life easier). Neither of these things requires sacrificing complexity in any way.

    • Zankmam says:

      Hey, maybe in, like, 20+ years we will have games with the same (or more) amount of details and content that DF has (you know, the type that creates those hilarious stories about vile beasts invading your Fortress or the ones that tell the tales of drunk dwarven mothers who kill goblin invaders with their babies as weapons) combined with “Crysis graphics” (read: generic “best currently available” graphics).

    • Sam says:

      You are correct, but I think it’s as much a case of the design requiring simple graphics as an issue of processing power, at least so long as you don’t have an infinite army of artists.

      A dwarf is fishing near a river. The bank is smooth and muddy from a recent rain, he slips and falls in. Splash!

      I don’t know if slipping on mud is simulated in Dwarf Fortress, but it certainly could be. Surface tiles can store a value for how muddy they are, increased during rain and slowly reduced in dry weather. When someone tries to walk along you do a dice roll, increased by muddiness of surface, reduced by how steady that person is on their feet, increased if they’re drunk or wearing unsuitable shoes. Probably a day or two to implement that and once done the mechanic can interact with a bunch of other stuff and fun times ensue. It can be applied to all other entities so we have goblins falling into the moat protecting your fortress and so on (that giant millipede has a much lower slip chance because of all its legs so you’d better not rely on mud to slow it down.)

      Now if you want ‘proper’ graphics you need to animate that dwarf slipping into the river. He should wave his arms about, his feet should react correctly to the form of the ground, his body should be positioned so that it looks like he’s trying to regain his balance while being angled to give the correct motion towards wherever he’s slipping. Oh and we need an animation for entering the water at that odd angle (separate from the “deliberately jump into water” animation). And we do have a set of animations for dwarf-in-water in various states of exhaustion or surprise, right?
      Even if you’re using extremely low resolution sprites, creating these animations for all of the creatures in Dwarf Fortress is a huge job. Adding this mechanic is now going to take weeks or months of laborious work, and you have to ask if it’s really worth doing. So you skip it and stick to the more important mechanics, and so you end up with a perfectly serviceable town building game that has none of the magic of Dwarf Fortress.

    • Damien Stark says:

      Your argument isn’t wrong per se, but it’s like all the people upset about the term “Roguelike” because FTL/Dredmore/Rogue Legacy/etc. isn’t sufficiently “like Rogue”.

      Yes, one of the remarkable things about Dwarf Fortress is the absurd level of simulation and complexity. But that’s not the ONLY thing that’s remarkable or interesting or fun about it.

      If we could take Dwarf Fortress as a starting point, then sacrifice about 60% of the complexity in exchange for friendlier graphics and UI, you’d have a game that was still much more complex and interesting than most current city sims and it’d be wonderful. Many indie devs seem to have figured that out, and are trying to turn it into essentially its own genre.

      I love that, and I want to see those types of games flourish just as roguelikes did. So we can identify a few characteristics of DF that make it fun without requiring you to assign militia teams with training schedules and uniform definitions before combat is allowed to occur.

      Individual units/citizens who can be inspected (as opposed to generic population flow like SimCity)
      Jobs are assigned by the player, but then performed indirectly by the individuals
      So far we’ve described Tropico and Banished, but where DF importantly diverges from those two is that it adds environmental interaction – harvesting, crafting, and rebuilding it like Minecraft or Terraria.

      If we could make those reasonable compromises to hit those three major goals, we’d have a genre I’d love and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be alone…

  2. Gothnak says:

    I’ve finished Moria and Angband, played countless RPGs, Turn Based Strategy games, Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis etc, I’ve developed computer games for almost 20 years, I’ve written AI for RTS’s and I tried Dwarf Fortress again only last week.

    Built the world, started the game next to a river, had literally no idea what to do next, bumbled about for 5 minutes, turned it off. It is impenetrable for anyone who doesn’t want to set aside X hours (I don’t know what X is in this case) to learn it’s charms.

    Is there space for another game to fill a simplified gap for someone like me to play? Yes… Have i tried any of the others that have tried to do this yet.. No, and i have no idea why… :p

    • frightlever says:

      Well, some games need a manual. Good luck landing a plane in a typical flight sim by trial and error. There are LOADS of guides and videos online to show you how to start into DF.

      Anyway, Gnomoria is still about the closes to DF but really lacks the secret sauce that makes DF special.

      • CookPassBabtridge says:

        If you’ve ever flown on Eastern (Sc)Airways, you would be convinced that ALL landings are trial and error.

      • Gothnak says:

        RTFM is certainly a fair response, but usually in most game I have a good understanding of the basic game, and i read the manual to see how the intricacies of the complex economy work, or why my army of 10,000 spearmen were murdered by 3,000 dragoons, or what a dragoon is. I have as yet not faced a game where i don’t know not only what i am supposed to do to build a successful fortress, but without looking at a manual, i have no idea how to build a wall. Theme Hospital sorted out wall building almost 20 years ago…

        I also played Space Base recently. Why do my people not build the airlock, why won’t they go on board, why can’t i delete stuff, how do i make food, how do i fight off the invaders, oh god the fires from meteors… And yet at no point did i read the manual, i looked through the menus, i built stuff with the interface, experimented and i died a lot, I learned things and I prevailed.

        • Cardinal says:

          I bounced off it once or twice before it clicked.
          Once you start getting some positive feedback from your actions the interface and basic presentation give way to your imagination.

          I’d recommend anyone to persevere. Set small goals for each play, to uncover another mechanic.

          There’s also an O’Reilly book if anyone’s interested… http://shop.oreilly.com/product/0636920022565.do

          Genuinely one of my favourite games of all time, and I’m crap at it.

          * Edit * – Oh yeah – and KeeperRL is fun so far, I was able to play it with my 6 year old more easily.

        • frightlever says:

          My only other suggestion re:DF is hit tab until the menu shows up. You mustn’t have been playing with it previously. Pretty much everything you want to do is right there in the menu, with clear instructions. The UI isn’t consistent, or intuitive, but it’s definitely there.

    • Zankmam says:

      Haha, after reading your “credibility” I am personally afraid to even try DF… Seriously, if you have any aspirations to play this game, you probably need like 10+ hours of just watching Let’s Plays and reading manuals (and both of those mediums should be quality ones).

      Try Gnomoria. It’s basically DF-lite or something.

      There is also Towns, but it seems… Well, “like shit” to me.

      • Gothnak says:

        I did try a friend’s very very early alpha of towns and it was fine to play, there just wasn’t much there, so was rather dull. Might be fine later.

        • frightlever says:

          I spent about 150 hours playing Towns when it was still in alpha. People are v.angry about it now, but all I can say is I definitely got my money’s worth out of it.

          • DodgyG33za says:

            Towns did two things wrong.

            They used two levels of block for building walls and then a further one for building the roof. This made building said town a pain in the backside as well as causing big problems with pathing leading to the builders starving to death on the roof. Strangely this only applied above ground, with tunneling below ground only being one block high.

            And the developers may have been talented at coding but were and still are crap at delivering.

            Having said that I too got a bit of fun out of it.

    • Great Cthulhu says:

      Oh, that’s a damn shame.

      If it’s any encouragement, it took me only slightly longer to truly grasp DF than it took me to do the same for CKII. I now consider both to be among the most rewarding games I ever played, so it was well worth the effort to me.

      • Gothnak says:

        Well, in CK2, i took a single dukedom in Norway and just messed about with some buttons, gradually learning enough to go ‘right, got it’ and then jumped in as the King of Scotland. In DF, i look at the screen, don’t even see any buttons, even the mousewheel, my trusted friend of zooming in and out ended up making me scroll through a bunch random screens which i shortly worked out were height levels, i still didn’t work out how to zoom in…

        I had some dwarves and some geese, i brought up the command menu, went Derp, and turned it off…

        • Great Cthulhu says:

          Ah, then it seems the difference between our experiences is that in both cases I started with a tutorial. Unfortunately that’s pretty much a necessity for DF, I think. Worth it though, IMO.

          • DodgyG33za says:

            The problem is not just the complexity though. It is also the inconsistent commands that are so frustrating. The keys used for marking an area of a stockpile, say, would be different from the keys used to mark an area for troops to gather.

            I loved the couple of long-running fortresses I built but eventually got too frustrated with the difficulty of trying to get to the information. And that was WITH the lazy newb pack.

            It is a real shame the devs don’t get someone else in to do a proper UI. The graphics wouldn’t have to be that fancy.

    • DantronLesotho says:

      I’ve tried DF and many of the DF-likes, and I still don’t think that anyone has nailed it yet. To me, all the DF-likes are either very intuitive and buggy as hell, or not intuitive and just as impenetrable as DF and are boring because there is just room-building but none of the conflict, discovery, and sophisticated AI that makes DF so special. I’m really hopeful for Dwarfcorp, but development on that is super slow right now. I know it’s a stupid thing to say, but how hard can it be to get it right? I’d try and make my own if I knew a good artist to take some of the load off for creating assets.

    • Kaffka says:

      Well, from own experience I’d say the best way to learn dwarf fortress is to watch a (popular) Let’s Play of it.
      Estimating that one (good) episode is about 30 Minutes, I’d say it should take about 10 episodes to get a good grasp about how Dwarf-Fortress works.
      After that you should know the basics and some advanced stuff and you should actually be good to go on your own and discover your own fun (http://dwarffortresswiki.org/index.php/DF2012:Losing). ;)

      So all in all I’d guess x=5 Hours watching some videos. I can only say its really worth it! ;)
      PS: For better graphics without much hassle try the Lazy Newb Pack – http://dwarffortresswiki.org/index.php/Utility:Lazy_Newb_Pack

      PSS: I’d personally really prefer it if DF’s core-code would be detached from the “rendering” such that the community could build a “real” rendering-engine around dwarf-fortress internal workings, but well… :(

      • Kaffka says:

        *replaying to self*

        I think Dwarf-Fortress itsself isn’t inherently that difficult but it really suffers from missing a tutorial and most importantly from really bad -interface design-.
        For everyone disagreeing don’t tell you are aren’t using Dwarf Therapist after a certain population size. ;-)

        This might sound a bit controversial, but I think that Gnomoria, although impoved and still doing so, has missed on many opportunities to hit the perfect spot…

    • Trif says:

      If you ever want to give Dwarf Fortress another try, start in Adventurer Mode. Like any other roguelike, you just need the command list to get started (http://dwarffortresswiki.org/index.php/DF2012:Adventure_Mode_quick_reference).
      It’s tough to get a successful adventurer, but starting in Adventurer Mode lets you get accustomed to the basics of combat and the way Dwarf Fortress handles geography without digging through the endless menus of Fortress Mode. And once you understand how slopes and z-levels work, tutorials for Fortress mode get a lot easier to follow.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      Hang on… Are you me?

      • Gothnak says:

        No, but i think i might know some people that you might have worked with at Firefly?

        Andy McNabb, Bob Kang?

        • JamesTheNumberless says:

          A little bit before my time there, but extremely familiar names! Andy’s exploits in particular, are legendary.

          The difference I see between a game like DF and a game like Crusader Kings, or Europa Universalis is that although they’re both hard to get into, the reasons for it are different. EU and CK have fundamental systems that just don’t exist in other games and learning the game is about learning what they do and how they interact. Those games might have a confusing UI, but it’s only confusing because you don’t initially understand what all the things its showing you are.

          DF, however, has a lot of detail but mostly concepts that you immediately understand. You survive, craft, mine, build, manage resources, fight in turn based combat and have an ASCII rouguelike world. What makes the game difficult to get into is the bad UI. It’s not that it’s complicated, it really is bad. You understand the situation, the goals and the factors involved but then there’s this horrible layer of confusion that makes it unnecessarily difficult to get an overview of these things. DF apologists tell you that the UI is fine once you get used to it, meanwhile the developers admit that the UI is a problem and that they don’t know what can be done to improve it. Thus that part of the game remains in perpetual ennui.

    • ZephyrSB says:

      I’m kinda glad I started to get into DF in the final 2D versions. And even though the simulation has come on leaps and bounds since then, I feel the game has suffered considerably from the transistion to 3D. And become totally impenetrable to new users.

      I also miss the mesmerising beauty of a well-laid out 2D fortress; the 3D ones just don’t seem to have that same quality, no matter how they’re rendered. I’d kinda like to see a psudo-2D mode in DF, with the same semi-static progression as the 2D DF, but with all the new shineys from the 3D version.

      • MellowKrogoth says:

        Finally, someone who feels the same as me. I really enjoyed the small touches in the 2D version, such as the river floodings, crocodiles climbing up from the well, cave-ins, and so on. And as you say, laying out your fortress in 2D was kind of more fun. I have a hard time finding purpose in the latest versions and I haven’t played regularly for severals years.

        I’d seriously suggest newcomers to try the last 2D version first.

    • MellowKrogoth says:

      It’s not that hard… learn the commands to navigate the map, go up/down levels, and examine stuff. Examine your starting wagon with the proper command and dismantle it. Then learn those to designate a digging area (d, d), and to designate trees for cutting down. Burrow a few tiles long 1-large access hallway leading to a 10×10 area in soil (right below ground), not stone. Designate a 3×5 farming area in that room, find the command to go into its properties (q cursor I believe) and activate Plump Helmets to be farmed all year long. Finally build a carpenters workshop and set it to use the trees you cut down to make a door to block off access to nasty creatures. Also build a still workshop and have it brew some booze from plump helmets on repeat.

      There, you’ve won the game. Or at least as long as you don’t seek trouble you should be fine for a while. You might want to learn how to designate a stockpile so that workshops are not cluttered. And you can start catering for the whims of your dwarves.

  3. Tei says:

    My favorite no-dwarf fortress game is RimWorld. Its like a much simpler Dwarf Fortress, in a sci-fi settings, with prison architect graphics.

  4. tsff22 says:

    …Those are Quest of Dungeons sprites!

    • DantronLesotho says:

      They came from an open license graphics set that someone (the name escapes me but it’s in Tigsource… O- something) put up.

      • RedViv says:

        Oryx Design 16bit Fantasy sprite set, ye.

      • tsff22 says:

        Wow, really? I’m used to Oryx’s stuff being 8 bit, so I didn’t make the connection.

  5. Memphis-Ahn says:

    Turn-based Dungeon Keeper?
    Why?

    • RedViv says:

      So you can take over and play the minions roguelike-style. Yes, it also has dungeons that can be explored by properly equipped minions, their riches to be exploited by the Keeper.

  6. RedViv says:

    This is almost what I wanted. I need to concentrate harder and wish for more Majesty in a game like this.

    • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      Majesty. The game that made me hate heroes. I consider it to be the premier MMO GM simulator. Constantly whining heroes who want you to sweeten the pot before they’ll even consider lifting a finger to help anyone.

      I’m going to go and play Majesty again.

  7. ebyronnelson says:

    Everyone, stop talking about Dwarf Fortress and play this game. It’s really good! Seriously, I hate almost everything, and this is really fun, really well made, and free. You should give the guy money too, as he plans on expanding it while keeping it free.

  8. christonian says:

    Great game keep up the great work