After almost 20 years, Frank Herbert’s Dune universe is set to return to video games. Previous forays have been both exemplary and deplorable, so the new development teams have a mixed heritage to live up to. Funcom has picked up the licence, aiming to deliver at least three games across the deal’s six-year lifespan, but can the veteran publisher live up to the expectations?
One of the games has been the recipient of preliminary details. Conan Exiles development team Funcom Oslo is set to begin production on an open-world multiplayer game this year. The multiplayer billing comes as a disappointment, but if this game is anything like Exiles, single players will be looked after.
Furthermore, following the model of the developer’s previous effort would be a wise choice. The setting of Arrakis is an inhospitable desert planet where water is the scarcest resource of all. As such, a survival game casting players as a Fremen could make for a hardcore experience like few others. Providing a sense of balance to the barren world would be the greatest difficulty, as the giants sandworms ensure that few things survive in the desert.
Successfully recreating the unique requirements of survival on Arrakis will require some fundamental rethinking of traditional mechanics. However, developers in the genre have proven themselves capable of adapting to unique scenarios—think of Green Hell. Movement and building will need to be rethought, while an absolute premium on water conservation will need to be built in. In short, a Dune survival game cannot simply be a cookie-cutter effort.
Elsewhere, Funcom is collaborating with Petroglyph Games on a Conan RTS. Notably, the founding members of that team were part of Westwood Studios, which developed the highly acclaimed—some even say archetypal—RTS Dune II. If Funcom is to expand the partnership beyond Conan Unconquered, it could result in something of a homecoming for Petroglyph. Additionally, the resource-gathering aspect of the RTS genre fits well with the overarching conflict between Houses Atreides and Harkonnen for control of Arrakis and the invaluable resource of spice.
Alongside those two possibilities is an action-adventure adaptation of the upcoming movie. However, a number of obstacles present themselves to that vision. Firstly, developers and publishers have increasingly moved away from such efforts. Secondly, Funcom has minimal experience in games of that kind, its latest being the middlingly received The Park. Finally, a year-and-a-half long development cycle to launch alongside the film would likely be disastrous, the result lucky to be on a par with 2001’s Frank Herbert’s Dune.
On the other hand, the publisher could push the release date and focus on making an adventure that fits the Dune mould, whether it follows the first book or possibly even one of its sequels. Hard-hitting action, varied locales, and the various forms of training in the Dune universe could make for a truly remarkable action RPG in the vein of Assassin’s Creed or God of War.
Nevertheless, the publisher has found success in partnering with developers capable of bringing a fitting vision to their adaptations, as in the case of The Bearded Ladies’s Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden. Even an extension of that partnership could bear ripe fruit, as a tactical strategy game, requiring players to traverse the desert and infiltrate Harkonnen bases, could make for a tense experience.
Some gamers are mistrustful of Funcom, feeling that Exiles was too bland and remains too broken to believe that the team can create a game that does justice to the much-loved Dune universe. More positively, Legendary Studios (the company behind the upcoming Denis Villeneuve-directed film) will be involved in some capacity, hopefully ensuring that a standard of quality is maintained. However, even that is no guarantee, as critics of the Star Wars Battlefront games will attest to.
Despite having more than 25 years in the industry, Funcom remains an emerging publisher. In some ways, the company has the potential to be a perfect custodian of the Dune licence, bearing the vision and wherewithal to create games that are as fitting to the universe as they are unexpected. However, the question of quality is another matter entirely, as the team is yet to prove itself capable of turning out consistently good games.
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