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Dune II and Genre Birth Pangs

December 11th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 8 Comments · Industry, RTS

I’m not sure how many people here remember Dune II. I do – quite vividly. I remember sitting in my friend Frank’s dorm room and watching him gather spice to build an army. Then I would play and get eaten by worms. There’s a nice history of the game and its importance at Edge Online.

When I interviewed the guys at Tilted Mill a few months ago, Chris Beatrice made the point that we never used to think about games in term of their genres, but more in terms of their subject matter. This was certainly case for us college kids in the early 90s. Every new game we played was dramatically different in interface and display than whatever we’d been playing before. It probably never occurred to us to put Dune II and Civilization and Populous in the same “strategy” category, let alone divide them into turn-based and real-time.

This is how genres are still born, I bet, not with someone claiming they invented the 4x RTS or RTS/RPG or War/RPG. Thinking of game design in terms of genres is, of course, natural and maybe inevitable. But it also subconsciously ties developers to the conventions of whatever genres he/she is drawing on. One of the things I love most about Spore is that, even in the parts that mimic other genres, it never compromises what it is in service to a role playing or city building plan.


8 Comments so far ↓

  • Sexpansion Pack

    It was middle school for me, but Dune II remains quite vivid in my memory as well. It really was the protoRTS, birthed in full-form from the womb of Strategy gaming. What’s most impressive about the game is far-reaching effect of its basic design; there are very few “RTS” games these days that don’t play almost exactly like Dune II in terms of basic gameplay.

    Which is not really surprising, because it was pretty revelatory in its time. And also really, really fun.

  • Cautiously Pessimistic

    I gotta disagree on the lack of genres in the early 90’s. Part of my freetime in college was spent checking the newsgroups, which were divided by game genre (strategic, adventure, rpg, action, etc). Maybe it wasn’t mainstream (I was a gaming nut before modems were standard equipment, and 1200 baud was the new hotness), but it was there.

  • Troy

    It’s not that there weren’t genres – there certainly were as any look at a magazine or, as you say, newsgroup, would show. Early CGW magazines divided things into two broad categories and, since board and paper games had genres it was no great stretch to move those terms to the electronic world.

    But I think the genre was not the foremost thing in developers’ or gamers’ minds. You can see this in the career of Sid Meier in that period – flight sims, Pirates, Civilization. There was, I think, more experimentation in broader form where now most experimentation is done on the margins with a few noticeable exceptions. That is, in large part, because the industry is more mature now and has a better idea of what works and what doesn’t.

    In the Edge article, the Dune developers say that they wanted a more modern wargame. But it’s nearly impossible to look at Dune and see much in the way of wargame conventions; they didn’t bind themselves to what genres were supposed to look like. They took the general idea of a wargame (kill things) and made it larger.

  • Alan Au

    Ah yes, good old Dune II. I remember playing it for the first time and wishing it had multiplayer. That and wondering what had happened to Dune I (which as it turned out, was a strategy-adventure game). By the way, I recommend Dune 2000, which is strangely much closer to my (nostalgia-inflated) memory of playing Dune II than the game itself.

    As for RTS, I remember playing an even older RTS game, although I’m not even sure it could properly be called RTS at that point. It was a simultaneous-move strategy game designed to be played over a direction connection, except that it had flaky network code and would desync a lot.

    This makes me wonder what new genres will come along in the future, and whether we’re already playing those games but simply don’t realize how influential they are.

  • andrei.dumitrescu

    Making turrets by surrounding rocket troopers (which were exclusive to the Harkonnens?) with wall was what I thought to be high strategy at the time… I very much loved the game and I think the Dune universe could be used to create new and innovative RTSes…

  • Alan Au

    I believe the “strategy” back then was a combination of turret-crawling (constructing a line of walls and turrets into the enemy base), infantry rushing (to capture and sell the enemy construction yard), and tank rushing (massed tanks). As for Dune RTS games, I was never really very excited about Emperor: Battle for Dune and it’s wacky over-the-top stylized units (like mechs), but that’s because I didn’t think it was appropriate for the Dune setting.

  • Michael A.

    Worm Sign!!

    Dune II was certainly a landmark game, and simply sheer good fun. I also have a soft spot for the unique strategy / adventure blend of the original Dune … a unique (and IMO enjoyable) game. A pity that this direction has never really been explored further.

    Speaking of Dune, I am surprised no one in your previous list with game music mentioned the Dune: Spice Opera – definitely one of the more memorable game tracks for my money.

  • Tim McDonald

    Dune II has a warm place in my heart not only for the gameplay (which was fairly revolutionary to me at the time, regardless of any Herzog Zwei comment people might make) but because it was the first thing I played after we got a sound card. Initially I thought that was pointless purchase; why not get a game instead? Who cares about the sound? But that won me over completely. The first moment of speech coming out of the card, the music, the explosions… Happy days.