Interview: Timber and Stone - Dwarf Fortress Meets Minecraft

Published by Bob Webb on Oct. 20, 2012

With the increasing number of Kickstarter projects, there is still the feeling of excitement when you find a project that is the exact game you’ve been looking for. Timber and Stone is one of those projects. Being an avid fan of Minecraft, Age of Empires, and Dwarf Fortress, it isn’t too much of a surprise that Timber and Stone would rub me in all of the right ways. Having a heavy influence of the aforementioned titles, it is the child project of aspiring indie developer Robert Reed.

If you’re not all too familiar with Dwarf Fortress (it is a bit of a niche title), it is a free to play, ASCII based comprehensive Dwarf simulator. It is also complex as all hell. At its core it is a fortress building and unit management game with several very complex systems that dictate how the game is played. Robert’s Timber and Stone is a full 3D game that incorporates more RTS elements and looks like it could promise to maintain that sense of accomplishment and artistic allure that a game like Minecraft has.

I was fortunate enough to get a hold of Robert and ask him a few questions regarding his Kickstarter and Timber and Stone:

Would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself and the people (or person) behind Timber and Stone?

Well, I'm a hobbyist game developer and I've been programming and creating game art for as long as I can remember. I've worked on several game projects over the years, nothing that anybody should recognize as I've tended to keep my work to myself, but that changed with Timber and Stone. I started showing the project to personal friends who seemed to always respond by telling me that it was a game that people would want to play. Timber and Stone has been the first project that I've shown to others, and the response has been much more than I expected. I'm now aspiring to work on the game full time and publish it myself over the website. In short, to become an indie game developer.

How long has the concept for Timber and Stone been around? In your Kickstarter you mention that you started working on it 5 months ago, but where did the idea for the game originate?

Literally 6 months ago, at work during a lunch break. I grabbed a sheet of paper and sketched out a mock-up of a grid based city building game, there were rivers, walls, fencing, farms and little blocky archers. That night I started work on Timber and Stone. I began to realize I was creating a game that I've always wanted to play, a game that didn't exist yet, so I kept with it.

Did you start building Timber and Stone with funding it via Kickstarter in mind? Was the success of previous Kickstarters an encouraging force for you to start development on the game in the first place?

Not at all, I just wanted to build a game that I would like. I didn't discover Kickstarter's existence until a little more than a month ago. And when I did, I came to the realization that I'm not alone. I saw a great many game projects that were succeeding through crowd-funding. In my excitement I threw together a Kickstarter of my own. It was all quite unplanned.

If the Kickstarter is a success, how large are you planning on growing the team? You mention getting a composer, but are there other roles you are looking to have filled?

I'm not looking to start a game company or anything similar. I'll continue to work on all my game projects alone. There's a benefit in that. I never have to run anything by anyone, never have to pitch my ideas to other team members, nor do I have to convince someone else that what I happen to be working on that day has value. I've worked with some big teams in the past and that can be more of a hindrance than a help. Plus I've never met anyone that could quite keep up with my pace of work.

Most people who have played Dwarf Fortress, which is one of the most recognizable influences for Timber and Stone, understand that there is a huge learning curve. Are you making any conscious efforts in either creating simpler systems or by providing more hints/tutorials/visual cues that allow for newer players to understand the more complex components of the game?

I'll have to imagine the problem that people have with Dwarf Fortress initially are it's ASCII graphics and complex UI. As for what I'm planning with Timber and Stone; this is where the comparison to RTS games comes in. I think most will agree that games like Age of Empires and Starcraft have exceptional controls and UI, you almost never hear complaints that these games are inaccessible. My goal is to emulate that. As few menus as possible, all organized in a logical manor, and buttons placed where you'd expect to find them. Every craftable item is displayed for the player, showing which crafter and materials are required. Nothing is hidden. I'll find ways to alert the player if something needs their attention. The absolute last thing I want is for the player to feel the need to alt-tab out to a wiki page to figure out why something isn't working.

I notice in the videos of the alpha gameplay that when resources are collected, they are immediately available for use/equipping (no "storage" areas like in Dwarf Fortress); was this an intentional streamlining or are you planning on having storage management be a part of the game?

The functionality for hauling/stockpiling is already there. It's a feature I worked on for quite some time and eventually had to "turn off". I didn't agree with the way it felt. Stockpiling seemed to slow the pace of the game to a level below my liking. It might be something I revisit in the future, the game is still in development after all, and the implementation can always be reworked.

One of the more charming, albeit infuriating factors of Dwarf Fortress was in the personality and complex AI of the NPCs. Are you planning on implementing an AI system that is similar to Dwarf Fortress or keeping them on a short leash and more like the NPCs in Age of Empires (another game you mentioned was an influence)?

Somewhere in-between. Units have variables for relative health, hunger, profession levels and of course their own equipment. So they're definitely more complex than RTS units, but not nearly to the degree of those in Dwarf Fortress.

Speaking of which, were there any features or gameplay elements that you found absolutely frustrating or lacking in Dwarf Fortress, Age of Empires, Minecraft, and other influential games that you have improved upon or intend to improve in your own game, Timber and Stone?

I think Dwarf Fortress is incredible, I have an outstanding respect for the game and it's creator. While I don't really mind the graphics of it, I have always thought it would be cool to play the game in 3D. I've also poured an embarrassing amount of hours into Minecraft, building towns with massive keeps, towers, and of course walls. But I grew somewhat tired of the feeling of being alone. I craved a real attack, and npcs to protect. It might have been at this point that the idea for Timber and Stone started brewing in the back of my mind.

Do you have any plans on a large scale unit management that Dwarf Fortress lacked or will you simply limit the number of units to a manageable size? In some long running games you had so many units that you spent most of your time managing them instead of playing.

The way units are handled isn't nearly as complicated as Dwarf Fortress, so managing them isn't as time consuming. I've set no unit cap; the amount of food you can produce will impose a limit upon the amount of units you can keep. In my testing, I'm noticing that I'll use most of my incoming immigrants as military units. These unit types require the most amount of micromanagement, but it's not much. Equip them with weapons and armor and if you wish, you can have them train (I've shown this with archers in my second video, infantry works the same way), and they're pretty much set. You can even select several units and control them as a group.

How are you planning on having the game stay fresh and challenging once a player has constructed a formidable fortress defended by guards armed to the teeth? Will greater wealth attract greater threats as it does in Dwarf Fortress?

Yes, exactly. Goblins will be attracted by wealth. There will be levels of diplomacy with neighboring kingdoms, who might feel like you're becoming too much of a threat. And very difficult endgame monster types. Spiders that can crawl up your walls, encase your units in webbing, and drag them back to their spider dens. Great scaled Wurms that attack from right beneath your kingdom, crumbling your buildings and leaving holes in the terrain. And necromancers who attack with undead armies, adding your defeated units to his growing numbers. The last thing I want is for the player to feel bored after they've built something impressive. They should be almost forced to protect it. Timber and Stone will not be an easy game.

Do you have plans to add Day/Night cycles in the game? Having lighting (sunlight, torches) affecting how well your units can see/attack, etc.

There is a time cycle in place, currently it's only being used to regulate how often units consume your food resources. It would be quite easy to add day/night to that cycle. This will allow me to implement lighting resources: sconces, torches, lanterns and lampposts. But I'd also have to consider implementing unit fatigue and sleep, which adds another level of complexity to unit management. Would it be necessary to then assign beds to each unit? What about sleep cycles, someone has to guard the kingdom at night. And what is the player doing if most of the units are asleep? It's definitely something I'll have to think about.

On the same vein, what about seasons and other environmental factors that will affect gameplay? Storms affecting crops, lighting setting fire to nearby forests, etc.

This is also something that's on the agenda, I planned on storms, snow, and even floods. But lightning I had not thought about. Seeing the forest fire spreading in the middle of a rainy night, trees aflame and the wild animals running in every direction, all rendered in my voxel game world, it just sounds amazing. I'm now stealing the idea.

(You guys can blame me when the wooden town you spent hours building gets burned down by an errant lighting bolt -Bob)

Is there any one feature (or set of features) that you are particularly proud of in Timber in Stone?

The catapult and ballista shown in the last video. I've gotten a lot of good feedback.

Granted there are enormous numbers of features and possibilities you can implement in such an open ended game, what do you consider the "complete" feature set for the game at launch?

I'll probably never feel that the game is complete. There's just too much awesomeness that I know I can implement. This is the reason I mention updates so frequently in the Kickstarter rewards. Version 1.0 will come when I feel the game is bug free, and I'll be providing updates for years to come, I'm sure.

Of all of the things that you plan on doing in the future after the launch, what are several features you are most excited about getting into the game post-launch?

My new lightning storm, forest fire idea.
- Biomes, especially marshy swamp lands.
- I want a giant enemy, something so big that it takes several ballista bolts to down. He'll hurl boulders, yank trees from the earth, and literally stomp on infantry.
- Being able to choose a race when starting a new game. It will be a ton of work, but I'd like the player to be able to build goblin camps and undead kingdoms.
- Adventurer unit type, a unit that the player can take control of to view the game in an FPS perspective.

The Kickstarter for Timber and Stone currently is sitting at $45,000+ with a little less than 5 days left. While only 5k from the goal, if you are a fan of Minecraft and RTS games, you should get your ass in gear and pledge. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll pledge $30 or more and get yourself into the alpha (which is what I have done). I’m not usually one who gets hyped up for titles that are in their alpha state, but this one has certainly got my attention and my hopes of a successful Kickstart.


  • Avatar
    7 years, 8 months ago

    Oooooooooh shit, this could be amazing. Totally got a boner for this game now

  • Avatar
    7 years, 8 months ago

    Good read, even funny. Bob and Robert have similar humor, you guys shall now be combined and henceforth be named Bobert.

    It's great to see TaS is getting the much deserved attention (and cash influx). It looks truly promising and I couldn't be more anxious for a hands-on beta experience.

    Thanks 4p and Robert err... Bobert.

  • CyborgMaid Avatar
    7 years, 8 months ago

    I can totally see myself spending hundreds of hours in this game. Me likey!

  • Avatar
    Bob Webb
    7 years, 8 months ago

    It looks like it just got funded; Congrats Robert Reed! There's still time left to nab a spot in the beta.

  • Greg - Grgry Avatar
    Greg - Grgry
    7 years, 8 months ago

    Very Interested in this game. I really enjoy the Dwarf Fortress system and always wanted to see it in a more 3D environment. There's a game coming soon called A Game with Dwarves, but I'm not sure if it'll be updated all the time like Dwarf Fortress. So I'm glad it seems you'll be updating the game as time goes by.

  • Matt Ortega Avatar
    Matt Ortega
    7 years, 8 months ago

    This is really impressive, and I feel terrible I didn't know about it before now. The creator may have a rather monotone voice, but I can feel his passion to build the game. Definitely hyped to see this game come to fruition.