Dune: Fear is the mind-killer

Syed Ali discusses why the RTS game series Dune, despite being hugely influential in its genre, has been forgotten by even the most seasoned gamers.

Perhaps due to the recent announcement of a possible rebirth of a new Dune TV series or a movie, or just simply because I love Dune (1969) the novel, I wanted to discuss the game Dune and its impact. It’s themes and ideas are something that hark back to the 60’s concept of understanding the relation of the mind and body, but yet dreaming of a future shaped by the events of the past. This lead me to look into the second Dune, ‘Dune II: Battle for Arrakis’, which is largely considered the grandfather of the real-time strategy genre (also called RTS).

The story of Dune is odd given the game is based on the movie Dune (1984), not the actual novel. At the start of the game you pick one of three houses and although they had limited differences between them, they each had certain unique units, themes and colours providing replayability and the illusion of choice. There was also the importance of ‘Spice production’, which in the novel allows for travel between different worlds – a sign of wealth, power and status. The more spice you gathered, the more units you could build and the more units you had, the more likely you were to crush your enemies. The idea of tiers of technology in the form of construction of new buildings allowed for players to tier up slowly and so added an element of risk/reward (Game Theory). Would you wait till you had just enough spice to buy the most powerful units, then striking and defeating your foe? Or would you try to find any weakness in your enemy before sneaking your way in? These core ideas helped lay the foundation for the RTS genre and perhaps the most important element was micro management. This is where each unit focused on a specific task, implanting the idea of the Clausewitz concept of ‘Economy of force’, where instead of having one unit for another, the idea was to outnumber and overwhelm the unit, ensuring that each unit was being used affectively.

So then the big question is why is Dune 2 forgotten, or the very least not known by many gamers? Its due, firstly, to WarCraft (1994) and Command and Conquer (1995) being able to build on what Dune 2 had initially laid out, that a game can focus on resource production, micro management, choice and Game Theory. This allowed Warcraft and Command and Conquer to focus on polishing the mechanics and adding their own unique flair, with Warcraft having a focus on high fantasy and pre-rendered cutscenes and Command and Conquer offering a 90’s look at the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The amazing work of Frank Klepacki added to this weird mix of techno and militarism. He was only 20 years old but this cemented his legacy and skill (and funnily enough he actually worked on Dune 2 as well, being only 18 at the time).

This lead to possibly the second killing blow to the Dune franchise, that it never had as big an impact on the gaming industry as Dune 2, as it was too successful for its own good. Even the reboot of Dune 2 called ‘Dune 2000’ (1998), which had an amazing soundtrack from Klepacki, never had the ability to be as influential. It’s follow up game ‘Emperor: Battle for Dune’ (2001) failed, and that was arguably the most mechanically well-tuned. This is sadly something a lot of games go through, in which they make a massive splash in the video game industry once, but can never recapture that initial feeling.

The last major killing blow for Dune was simply copyright, as a number of games in 2001 were released for Dune. There was the aforementioned ‘Emperor: Battle for Dune’ (2001), Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ (2001) and the cancelled ‘DUNE Generations’ (2001). Dune was never a financial success and it has largely disappeared from the public eye and wandered into the desert of the forgotten, having been blinded by its success, searching for its eventual return. It is impossible to live in the past, difficult to live in the present and a waste to live in the future.

Dune 2 is one of the most important games in video game industry history, as without it there would be no Blizzard or Westwood Studios, meaning no Overwatch (2016), World of Warcraft (2004), Command and Conquer Red Alert 2 (2000) or Starcraft (1998). All of this from a tiny game, by current industry standards, with it playable on most computers online, and it’s total file size being only just over 5MB (in comparison, Total War: Warhammer (2016), a modern RTS, is around 33 GB). It shows that the best ideas come when the stars are aligned, with the right skills at the right time, and you have to make every bit of space count due to the limitations you face. Or perhaps you need to have the luck of a mouse, a mouse that jumps in the shadow of the moon light.