Dune: Awakening MMO frees players to build on an Arrakis without a prophet

For lovers of Frank Herbert’s Dune novel, the Dune: Awakening massively multiplayer online game has a tantalizing premise.

What if Paul Atreides, the anti-hero who is destined to lead a jihad across the galaxy, was never born? In Herbert’s story, the young Atreides is born as a male because his mother, out of love, bore a son to her Duke Leto Atreides. The Bene Gesserit cult was counting on a daughter as part of a messiah breeding program. This decision led to a series of betrayals and plots and set Paul on the path of revenge.

But as you can see from the trailer, the story of the MMO is one of an alternate universe that plays out a different destiny — one where the players of the game don’t have to play through the details of a plot that they already know. In Funcom’s game, Dune’s destiny is unwritten.

In Dune: Awakening, Lady Jessica had a daughter.

As I said, this is a tantalizing plot, and it’s a wise one considering the developer wants to traffic on the popularity of the Dune movies from Denis Villeneuve (Legendary Entertainment) as well as the Herbert novels — which thanks to the additions from his son Brian Herbert and sci-fi writer Kevin Anderson now number around 25 novels. I have read many of them, but not all, and I have re-read the original Dune multiple times, which is a complex multi-layered tale with so much political intrigue.

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I love the universe that Herbert built, but I don’t want to play a game for dozens of hours where I already know the ending. I think a lot of sci-fi fans who are also gamers might feel the same way.

Dune: Awakening Direct

An ambush in Dune: Awakening.

Today, Oslo, Norway-based Funcom, which is owned by Tencent, is revealing a lot of the details of the MMO in the Dune: Awakening Direct event. But I caught a demo of Dune: Awakening, an open world survival MMO set on Arrakis, at the Summer Game Fest Play Days event. I had my first demo of the game from Jean-François Gagné, world director, and Matt Woodward, social and economic director, both from Funcom.

The showcase offers 30 minutes of in-depth interviews and game footage showing character creation, the MMO-like server structure, the narrative ramifications of a world where Paul Atreides was never born, and the spiritual journey the player will undergo in the game, following in the footsteps of the Fremen.

There’s a lot at stake here. MMOs take forever to make, but they can be goldmines. World of Warcraft has been out for 18 years and it has generated nearly $10 billion for Blizzard Entertainment, now a part of Activision Blizzard which is a part of Microsoft. Now consider that Dune has sold tens of millions of books.

An overland map in Dune: Awakening.

Dune: Awakening, which recently shot past a million wishlists on Steam, draws on the visual and aural identity created by Denis Villeneuve and Legendary’s recent blockbuster movies, and is deeply rooted in the original masterpiece by Herbert.

The game unleashes you on a vast and open Arrakis torn by war, where you must survive and strive for control of the spice alongside hundreds of other players. The absence of Paul Atreides has created a huge power vacuum into which players will venture, creating their own story.

Expression and customization is one of the core pillars of Dune: Awakening. To showcase a part of that, the devs showed off the robust in-game character creation tool. You can choose every detail of your appearance, then your home planet, and even your mentor’s specialization, such as Mentat, Swordmaster, or Bene Gesserit, which determines your starting abilities.

A Harkonnen village in Dune: Awakening.

Creative director Joel Bylos also dived into the server structure and the Overland Map, which connects various massive sandbox maps, allowing for a larger number of players in each, both of which set Dune: Awakening apart from many other survival games.

“Making the world feel seamless and connected has always been one of our goals on Dune: Awakening,” said Bylos. “We built this structure with the idea of making the game expandable, which is difficult with a single map. The idea with the overland map is that it allows us to just keep building the world and giving players new spaces to explore. Who knows what it will look like 5 years from now?”

Dune: Awakening has recently entered its persistent closed beta, giving access to the full breadth of the game, from the Hagga Basin starting area to the Deep Desert endgame. You can sign up for a chance to join on the official website, and wishlist the game on Steam. More is coming at Gamescom in August.

The demo

Harkonnen attack in Dune: Awakening.

In my demo, we started out at a place on Arrakis called Ecological Testing Site Number 197. It was perhaps 40 hours into the game. Since the Lady Jessica had a daughter, the events of the novel didn’t happen. The traitor Doctor Yueh was uncovered, the Atreides shield held, and the Harkonnen invaders were pushed back. War came to Dune, but the factions are still in place.

The sand animations are good, and that’s important on a desert planet. The Freman are scavengers on the planet, and you can get around the planet in the dragonfly-like ornithopters or zip around the sands in a buggy. But whever you go, you have to watch out for the giant sandworms.

An ornithopter in the deep desert in Dune: Awakening.
An ornithopter in the deep desert in Dune: Awakening.

The city of Arrakeen is in the game, but the desert has more personality than just endless sand and the occasional rock formations. There are structures and buildings and wrecks aplenty. The aim was to avoid a boring landscape, and that’s one of the creative liberties that makes sense. There are treacherous traps in the desert like drum sand, which can start shifting and cause an avalanche that can attract a worm. You can also see the spice on the sand that you can harvest for infinite riches.

There are a wide variety of weapons of the shooting kind that you can use in the game. Again, that’s a departure from the novels, probably in the name of fun.

The structures have a lot of vertical spaces that you can scale, using things like a grappling hook. You can find crystals to harvest. The space of the game scene we saw was sizable, around 450 square kilometers, and it’s normal for the size of a survival game, Funcom said. We were in an area near the Shield Wall. It was pretty, like the movie, but we didn’t get much of a sense for the whole world.

Overall, it’s not a bad place to build sand castles. Looking forward to seeing more.