By ahoodedfigure 20 Comments
Dune as a somewhat traditional massively multi-player online RPG
My Cyclic Interest in Dune
Every once in a while I enter this strange world where I imagine I will be able to get the hard-sought Dune license and make my own game taking place in Frank Herbert's universe. Every once in a while, in other words, I have delusions of grandeur. Ah, but what a grand game it would be. Come walk with me, and I will show you the crazed architecture in my mind that gets built every once in a while as I proceed to freak myself out with how much Dune knowledge I've retained over the years. All this, and it took me three attempts to even finish the first book-- my secret was to skim the parts that dragged :).
Speaking of that, if you find you don't understand some of the terms, there's a wikia online linked below which has definitions, although a lot of the definitions are obscured because of all the stuff written about Dune after Herbert's death. Makes things more confusing if you ask me, so if you don't know what a thing is just make a definition up, since they're often archetypes of science fiction tropes anyway.
The State of the Franchise
When I suggested on another forum that Dune would be a great world to start up a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, I forgot that every half year I get Dune on the brain, trying to integrate it into whatever I happen to be thinking of at the time. All the different factions, the weird weapons, the far-future worlds and tech-- I can't imagine that NOT being a cool playground. It's not an easy license to get, though. Fantasy Flight Games recently tried to acquire the rights to publish a modern update to the grognard board game classic Dune from (the older version of) Avalon Hill, but the estate refused to license it (FFG is making something with similar mechanics in one of their in-house universes instead). Given how popular that board game was among the hard core gamers, I don't see creating other work with that license as any easier to get, so at best what's coming is a sort of fan design.
Just the other day I was prowling the web to make sure a Dune MMORPG wasn't already in the works. There was a clever Second Life area based on the books, but of course that's just a place to sit around and talk to people. You can't actually be eaten by a sandworm or cause a nuclear explosion by shooting some dude with your laser gun who happens to be wearing a force field. Other than that, I've found I'm not the only one who thought of an MMORPG in the Dune universe, and after having come up with some of my basic ideas, I found that someone else was thinking along similar lines. Specifically it was about the interrelationship of the houses and factions, and how they HAD to work together in order to make the spaceships run on time, even while they're trying to stab each other in the back. There are those other Real-Time Strategy games, the forerunner to the venerable Command and Conquer series, some of which had interesting cutscenes that sort of evoked David Lynch's version of the book. All of the established properties**, though, don't really hit the mark that I feel like a big Dune game could.
It is natural that all of these properties concentrated primarily, or solely, on the planet of Dune, but there is so much more to the universe Frank Herbert created. Just like you want to peek around the corner in Tolkien's universe, I sort of want to see what it's actually like on the technologically heretical Ix, what the Sardaukar Terror Troops do in their off time, what kind of body mods the Bene Tleilaxu are into. Maybe all of these were skeletons used to create the illusion of depth, as good crafters of the written word often do, and there isn't much to them beyond their instrumental uses as "the technological planet," "the bio-tech planet," "the ruling planet." Still, I feel like I'd like to try. I've also not read the new books written by Frank's son Brian that take place in Frank's creation, so to anyone who has read them: I'm not trying to retread or rewrite what Brian created. And as to the actual MMORPG mechanics, I'm not even sure it will work (I'm not exactly experienced in MMORPG play or design, having played such games only a month or so at a time, and of course I've never designed any), so feel free to point out how human nature will throw a monkey wrench into things.
Unlike a lot of the class-based systems, I thought that maybe players could start as customizable people from many different homeworlds. Each homeworld environment would give a player certain advantages or disadvantages, allowing a player to feel like he or she was going in a warrior direction or a weird science direction, without forcing them to be committed to things just yet. Players gain experience by completing tasks for various Houses. They are sort of a politically neutral pool of labor for the Houses and factions in the Dune universe, which the Houses can throw at the problem without wasting precious resources or fully loyal troops.
Players accept missions for little pay or recognition for the chance to slowly gain favor and prestige with the groups they work for. They could work as guards for the Spacing Guild, making sure no one starts fighting while being transported from world to world. They could help smuggle minor technological components from Richese to the Imperial City at Kaitain (if caught, the Emperor will disavow any knowledge of your actions, of course), or working as a Spice miner. Every completed mission helps show your loyalty to a given faction. As their favor increases, you will begin to gain advantages that that faction can give you: cheaper space transport, cheaper Spice (which could give you powers of prescience or other in-game advantages but will kill you if you don't keep taking it), access to advanced tech, that sort of thing. Working with the Bene Tleilaxu will mean you will be able to get the Dune version of resurrection a lot cheaper, with some safeguards against them tampering with your body (a justification for less recovery time).
(And as far as retaining the character's memories when they're born again, they're just put through rigorous training programs which approximate the stuff they learned from before, again a justification for recovery time since the new ghola isn't familiar with its old role right away. You could even roleplay a change in personality after resurrection, if you wanted to.)
Despite my enthusiasm I find that a lot of the ideas above seem to run along established lines, but what I think is a bit different is that you gain levels IN factions. When you go up a level, what you're really doing is gaining the trust of a given faction. If you concentrate on a single faction, say the Fremen, you will eventually find it REALLY hard to get work from the other factions, and they may try to kill you once in a while. You will also start to look like your favored factions have some influence on you. If you're hanging out with the Harkonnen a bit too long chowing down on exotic food, you might need an anti-gravity suspensor or two to keep your gut from slapping your knees. If you're friends with the ghola-producing Bene Tleilax you might have those weird pupil-less-seeming eyes that their clones have. Hang out with Fremen too long and your skin will look dry and cracked, and your eyes will appear blue-on-blue. You'll be marked by your association and locked out of certain sources of power, and so it will be harder to manage these interdependent resources on your own. This is where teamwork comes in.
You can level in several factions at once, but only specialists get all the resources of a given faction, and only generalists will have the ability to play fully on their own without, at least, NPC assistance. If you try to please all factions at once, you will achieve a sort of diplomatic status, allowing you to explore the universe fully, which would be focused on the people who like to tour online worlds without being killed (like me), even if they don't get the game play depth they might otherwise have access to. Folks like the Suk Doctors, Mentats and Bene Gesserit NEED to have access to several groups to be of much use, the Doctors just for trust's sake, Mentats for knowledge, the Bene Gesserit for skullduggery. And yes, males could serve the Bene Gesserit too.
Dune is all about plans within plans. You can betray others in your group, but this would be a heavily controlled mechanic that would have to take several missions to reach fruition. Simple betrayal would be done too often and cheapen the game, so instead players, because they often need each other to get things done, will have to work together knowing that eventually one of them, or many of them, will stab the others in the back. The rare group that can keep together and cancel any plans they have for betraying their fellows, or never starting them in the first place, will have the option of forming a minor house later on, which allows them other privileges that backstabbing couldn't manage, but backstabbing will still be a viable option for taking specific equipment (and perhaps giving it to your minor house).
Since a player will likely create several characters, they will often want to benefit one of their characters more than the others. The subterfuge takes on an interesting meta-gaming tangent, where a player will create a character, build up a relationship with others, only to betray them at some point, hindering their immediate chances at a house (until they can find someone else with the same amount of resources), and bringing the stolen victory back home.
This backstabbing wouldn't be allowed in all environments, though, so players who want to create minor houses without the intrigue could still do that, although there would be other ways to sabotage each other there. And I think the mechanic works to distance players a bit from the idea behind it. So if there is betrayal they know it's part of the game, and don't have to get the game-quitting displeasure of someone actually running away with your company funds.
The environments themselves would have several different spots on each world that would be of interest. People who can't get over their habit of hunting down monsters and taking stuff from their corpses could hunt on a variety of worlds who have whole forests dedicated to sport hunting, and you can still sell these things or exchange them for minor quests, but this is NOT to be central to the game play. It's only a mini-game for people who have been conditioned by other online RPGs to expect that sort of thing.
The art style would be grand and try to be a bit crazier and far-futuresque than the TV version felt for me. I like the Lynch version of Dune in that it felt awkward and strange (I do hope that was on purpose), making it feel more like these were humans who had developed different habits and tics over many thousands of years of training and growth after the age of intelligent machines had ended. Capturing that alien-ness would be vital. Players could play just about any other MMORPG when they wanted pleasant surroundings, but could go to Dune when they wanted to get their freak on, so to speak. Not so much the sex, though, cuz I guess you can find that elsewhere, too.
Minor Houses, if they manage to be founded, actually get to set up private meeting places where resources can be stored without risk of theft (mostly) and can avoid some of the listening devices that would otherwise thwart well-laid plans. That might mean actually making mission plans part of the game mechanic, where a percentage of what you're going to do is revealed ahead of time, forcing players to put energy into hiding what they're going to do, which takes away from the mission's general effectiveness.
Buffs, which so many people like to use, would be strategic in nature. One thing I've tended to dislike about what online RPGs I've played is that they force you to keep track of how many support spells you've cast. In a sense they're kind of nice though, because they add some urgency to the battle, and you know you have to keep things going for everyone to be able to get the edge over the competition and survive. In Dune there aren't spells, so what I think might fit is strategies that get laid out before a mission is begun. There might be several stages to a mission, and players will have to plan out where they want to allocate their resources so that they will be protected by anti-snooping devices at this stage, while in a later stage they might be guarded by a few remote-controlled poison drones. These are, in effect, buffs, but they're managed ahead of time so you don't have to worry about the Dune equivalent of recasting. There would still be tools you could use mid-battle that might change the course of a mission, but you wouldn't have to depend upon these things to succeed all the time.
Finally, I thought it would be neat to have a mechanic where the lead players and the lead organizations tend to be targeted. In games like EVE Online this happens naturally, with real betrayals, real embezzling, real teaming up against the dominant groups and individuals. I wouldn't dream of duplicating that*, but instead I think it would be cool if the game itself sort of made you NOT want to be too well-noticed. Minor houses that achieve the most notoriety might be graduated to Major Houses, allowing them a lot more resources, but also making them and their planetary keeps subject to NPC attacks, as well as their locations being broadcast for everyone to find out and attack. Once they're defeated they lose their House status, though they still get to retain some of what they had earned. Then some other group gets promoted, with priority given to those who haven't been promoted before.
The same with individuals: a player who achieves some top ranking will be considered to be a possible Kwisatz Haderach, or however you spell it, and they'll have a rough time of it for as long as their current body is alive. When killed, they'll retain some interesting optional powers, but the Bene Tleilax will prevent this status from happening again during the next incarnation, similar to the way fallen Major Houses work.
This all probably sounds like ideas that have already come about in other games. If so, please let me know. While I'm not big on MMORPGs, I still think they're interesting in many ways (having to deal with the psychology of a bunch of players at once always brings about strange design decisions). I also think these sorts of games have a ways to go as far as the diversity of game play, so I figure if I put this out there, at least there will be some outside chance it might push the discussion forward a smidgen.
As an aside, it seems like Peter Berg will be trying to restart the franchise for the big screen. I'm actually sort of fond of the Lynch version, and would love to see a tighter version of Lynch's original theatrical release WITHOUT the internal monologues, just to make things weirder. But I'm always happy to see someone give that unfilmable book another go :)
Whew, now I feel better. No more Dune for me for a while :) Thanks to Leeto for the accidental encouragement. A couple of footnotes below to address some concerns a friend of mine brought up after reading the article, then the links.
* ("I wouldn't dream of doing it" because I don't see much of a point in improving upon a general system that EVE has done so well in developing. I also think that if I was going to design an MMORPG I might try to avoid griefing, and might make more of an escapist game where you get to side step a common tendency of human beings online, which is to mess things up for others. Thinking about a free-form betrayal system, I imagined it being too chaotic to yield the stately pace that I imagined these conspracies unfolding, sort of betraying the immersiveness of the game I had in my head)
** (I didn't feel like mentioning Cryo's games here, as the FPS and adventure/strategy games, while having interesting takes on Dune, still concentrate mostly on Dune the planet. I chose to mention the RTSs by name just as a footnote. Mentioning the other games didn't feel like it was adding a whole lot to what I was saying, since I was trying to get on to what a Dune game could accomplish if it didn't concentrate on Arrakis. I still think their adventure is probably the Dune game I consider to be the most intriguing in terms of atmosphere and creativity, but I'm enamored with Cryo's body of work in general).
Here's a light version of the Dune board game, free to print and play
A collection of informal data on what kind of MMORPG Dune aficionados would like
A well-made page that focuses on David Lynch's version, as well as Jodorowsky's version that never was
Brian Herbert's official site for the novels
Many Dune collectibles and resources