I don't usually play survival games or MMOs, but almost everything about Dune: Awakening looks way cooler than I expected

 Dune Awakening.
Dune Awakening.

In the film Dune: Part Two, a key part of Paul Atreides' journey requires crossing an enormous sandstorm that bisects the planet Arrakis at its equator. To the north there is desert; to the south there is desert wasteland, so uninhabitable it makes the northern hemisphere seem cozy by comparison. The only way to safely cross the storm is on the back of a giant sandworm strong enough to brace its endlessly raging gusts of wind and dust.

In survival MMO Dune: Awakening, that deep desert and the storm surrounding it will be an extra deadly PvP zone, an enormous swath of land that will be wiped clean by "coriolis storms" once a week. It was around this point in Funcom's presentation of Awakening, that I began to think damn, this sounds really cool.

Funcom has been playing Dune: Awakening close to the vest for years, with nothing but a CGI trailer since its reveal. But the in-engine footage it's finally showing off (albeit without any UI just yet) grabbed my interest despite the fact that I don't usually play MMOs or survival games.

The combat and quest design in most MMOs just bores me to tears; I spent months trying to convince myself I liked Final Fantasy 14 before dropping it. I was obsessed with building elaborately efficient constructs in Satisfactory, but outside that creative expression I don't really want to bother with the generic resource gathering and hunger/thirst systems of most survival games.

Dune: Awakening will have some of that; water, obviously, will be a precious resource on Arrakis. It also features some ideas I'm not sure are common in survival games yet, like the ability to save a blueprint of anything you build so you can recreate it in a snap, and the ability to sell those blueprints to other players in a system called The CHOAM Exchange. Awakening aims to be the style of MMO that lets you ignore the story and combat to make your own living as a builder and designer if you fancy it.

If you know Dune, you'll recognize the CHOAM as the monopolistic marketing body that controls galactic trade. Just about every facet of Awakening seems to be plucking the pieces of the survival and MMO genres that best suit Dune, then molding them around some carefully considered aspect of the lore. One example: The ruling body of the Landsraad gives objectives to the Great Houses, rather than to you directly as a player. You'll have to go and talk to representatives of the Houses to figure out what they've been tasked with accomplishing, and those objectives may require the factions to work together to win precious Landsraad support. Player-run guilds within the factions, meanwhile, may have their own ideas of how to win the most Landsraad support for their side.

Another example: the deep desert I mentioned earlier, a very Dune take on the PvP zones common to MMOs, as explained by creative director Joel Bylos:

"This is where the coriolis storms hit the strongest and destroy everything. And I mean everything. We put very valuable things in the deep desert, so what I'm hoping is players use the blueprint system to take a copy of their buildings, take them out with them, set up logistics bases in the deep desert with the knowledge they'll be wiped every week, and they keep their home decorated and nice [back in the safer desert]. But they're continually going out to compete with other people over the spice in the deep desert and compete for harvesting operations."

Bylos, who also served as the lead on Conan Exiles, seems to intimately understand what makes survival games compelling. He's also heavily inspired by Star Wars Galaxies, an MMO from the bygone era of massively multiplayer games being more sandboxy than the template WoW later set.

Dune Awakening
Dune Awakening

Another innately Dune twist on the basics of a survival game—what Awakening is doing with spice, not just as a resource you gather for money, but as the "the thing that binds it all together."

"I don't want to spoil too much, but as the player is exposed to spice on the planet, they start to experience things," he said. "It's part of what drives them through the game. To tell a good Dune story and make a good Dune game you really need to put spice at the center of it. It drives the economy. It's what players are fighting for. It's what players are competing for. You can get addicted to spice. If you take enough spice, you can change the way your abilities work. Spice is a very strong central line.

"The more spice you take, the more spice you need, right? It's really something we want you to think about as a player."

Dune Awakening
Dune Awakening

The more I talked to Bylos, the more tantalizing bits of detail I found myself getting excited about in spite of my usual genre aversion:

  • A failed Kwisatz Haderach is one of the game's villains

  • You'll be able to craft at your base without manually taking items out of chests, a streamlining change since Funcom made Conan Exiles

  • Desert Botanical Testing Stations around the world effectively act as dungeons, but also offer a visual break from the brown environments. These vaults are full of unique setpieces, like a blight where people are high on mushroom spores, mutant experiments, and factions are battling over water.

  • The game touches on the Butlerian Jihad, a part of Dune lore related to man's use of AI, something the movies haven't included

  • Funcom has spent years working on server meshing tech to let large-scale action with hundreds of players play out across servers completely seamlessly

  • The first design principle Bylos wrote for the team is "make your designs fit Dune, do not make Dune fit your designs"

  • You'll acquire various vehicles and be able to mod them, adding things like scanners. Same with weapon mods. Both have aesthetic customization too.

  • The CHOAM issues permits that control crafting, introducing a degree of scarcity that could make the Exchange more interesting

On top of all that, Awakening looks really nice, Villeneuve's Dune blended with Destiny's penchant for capes and masks. I can't say I've always dreamed of living out the fantasy of being a hardened survivor on Arrakis, but it seems to have given Funcom a rich canvas within which to work, with the challenges of adapting the harsh desert and Frank Herbert's LSD-tinged imagination forcing a very particular vision out of the wide open potential of survival game design.

Dune: Awakening doesn't have a release date yet, but expect larger beta tests this year to give more of us our first taste of spice.