Sunday, July 5, 2009

Dune: The Ultimate Strategy Game

I'm a big fan of Dune. The original six novels by Frank Herbert are the pinnacle of modern literature. I'm also completely baffled about why no one yet has made an accurate adaptation in other forms of media. Ok, the Sci-fi Channel miniseries was pretty accurate to the storyline, but it got a lot of small details wrong for no real reason. The David Lynch film got so many aspects of the details and atmosphere correct, but completely dropped the ball on the storyline. The "weirding modules" undermined the whole theme of environmental shaping and human ability triumphing over technology. I don't even want to talk about the continuation books by Brian Herbert.

Since this is a video game site, though, I'll talk about my problems with the Dune games. The first Dune game was a graphical adventure game which was alright, but of course took a LOT of liberties with the story. Dune II has the distinction of being the first RTS game as we know the genre today. Dune 2000 is mostly a graphical upgrade to Dune II with a better GUI and more usability features, but not much new. Emperor: Battle for Dune once again sets the bar as Westwood's first 3D RTS, but it was still very similar to the other games. Through the course of the series, environmental aspects such as sandstorms and sandworms were added, but they just serve as random ways to lose a few troops here and there. And these games all share the same very major problems: they feature large armies consisting of gun-wielding soldiers and tanks and walking mechs battling on the open sand of Arrakis.

In Dune, personal shields will block the movement of any fast-moving object. Guns, explosives, fast-moving knives and swords are all useless against shields. Lasguns are useless because they cause a reaction with shields which blow up both shooter and target in a nuclear-sized explosion. The only way to penetrate a shield is a slow-moving blade, usually covered in poison of some kind. Sword and knife fighting is the prevalent form of combat, with a particular style of fast defense and slow offense used to penetrate shielded enemies.

On the open desert of Arrakis, shields can't be used because it drives the giant sandworms crazy. They'll come and attack everything in the area. Know what else summons a giant, hungry sandworm? Any rhythmic vibration on the sand. This means anyone walking around on the sand (except Fremen), as well as vehicles on the sand, will get eaten within a few minutes.

What does this mean? It means that open warfare between large armies on the plains of Arrakis isn't feasible. The only people trained to walk without rhythm on the sands are the Fremen. It is possible, of course, to battle on rocky surfaces, such as in sietch or in the mountains, but then land vehicles would be fairly useless and soldiers would be able to wear shields. In the books, all major fighting takes place in the city of Arrakeen or in the mountains. Combat in the desert is relegated to guerilla attacks by Fremen, or ornithopters outfitted with lasguns. Everywhere besides the desert, warfare consists of shield-fighting.

In the games, large armies fight all over the open sand using tanks, walker mechs, and guns. If a worm comes, it will randomly go after one or two units at a time and kill them if you don't simply run away. The worms in Emperor: Battle for Dune appear to be about five meters wide and don't move very fast. The worms in the books are at least forty meters wide and are probably the fastest things on the sand. When they eat something, they commonly attack from under the sand below their prey, swallowing before the target can even move. The only escape is for a carryall to carry the person or vehicle into the air.

Now, I understand that Westwood would make Dune games be very similar to their Command & Conquer games. Set C&C in the desert, add random sandworm attacks, rename some units and you've got a Dune game. Problem is, this just isn't accurate to the books and I think it can be done better.

Here's my ideal Dune game:

  • Rather than straight RTS, I'd make a mix of a galactic map and real-time battles between armies.
  • The galactic map would function similarly to the Total War series, but real-time rather than turn-based, in a way similar to Sins of a Solar Empire.
  • Your great house would be tasked with taking over planets and gaining share in CHOAM and seats in the Landsraad. Politics would be an important part of the game.
  • Different planets would have environmental factors which recruit different types of units. The environment shaping people and cultures was a major theme of Dune, and it would be a large part of the game as well. People recruited on Caladan or Kaitain might be weaker soldiers than those recruited on Arrakis or Salusa Secundus, but would be cheaper to maintain or take a shorter amount of time to recruit. This could affect resources as well on a per-planet basis, depending on the environment. Of course Arrakis is the home of the spice. Giedi Prime might be a good source of slave labor as well.
  • There would be a way to deal with the Tleilaxu, Ixians, and Spacing Guild. Illegal technology from the Ixians; gholas, face-dancer assassins and twisted mentats from the Tleilaxu, and bribes to the Spacing Guild for secret enemy orbital surveilance.
  • Special agents, such as those found in Total War games, would include Bene Gesserit, Mentats, skilled swordsmen, and various types of assassins. These might help improve the effectiveness of your resource gathering or upkeep costs (mentats), or help with diplomacy (bene gesserit), or improve the effectiveness of an army (swordsmen), or of course kill rivals. It might be an interesting idea for mentats to open up new strategic options based on their intelligence, or perhaps to give advice from time to time on what an opponent is probably up to.
  • When armies of opposing houses meet at a planet (they cannot fight in space, the Spacing Guild owns all space travel), the game goes into a real-time battle. The coexistence of the galactic map and real-time land battles would work similarly to Total War or Star Wars: Empire at War. The galactic map would be paused while a battle goes on. The units you have on that planet in the galactic map will be used in the battle, and the environment will determine how the battle plays.
  • The real-time battles should play out in the style of Total War mixed with Dawn of War. Due to the nature of combat in Dune, battles would consist of smaller squads of highly skilled shield fighters, perhaps with larger squads of less skilled, non-shielded fighters to lead an attack. This would naturally consist entirely of melee fighting - swords, spears, knives. I think Dawn of War/Company of Heroes does smaller-scale squad-based infantry combat very well. Battling over strategic points of the map would fit Dune's more cerebral form of warfare. I would also like the units you start a battle with to be all you have, like Total War. This makes the strategy of the galactic map more important, and makes battles more chess-like.
  • The disciplined legions found in Total War may or may not be accurate to Dune. It could work, but faster movement with more micro would make a better game I think, and especially considering the smaller numbers of units. Total War works the way it does because of the massive armies which seem out of place to me in Dune. On the other hand, no real-time recruitment during a battle also means much shorter battles due to the smaller numbers and faster movement of units. I think that due to the shields, it would take a while for squads of equal skill to kill each other, so strategy in the galactic map would be especially important to ensure you have a superior fighting force going into each battle. Among equal armies, superior strategy should always win out. I suppose each system of combat has its advantages and disadvantages, and the books don't get specific about which is more accurate.
  • Regardless of the specific combat system, I like the stamina and morale system of Total War, and this would be included for each squad. There would be many factors controlling how fast a unit becomes tired or how fast they will rout when losing a battle.
My idea is pretty similar to a once-in-development Dune MMO that has long ago been cancelled, although I'd prefer it as a single-player game with multiplayer battles like Total War. This game could also potentially come about as a mod for one of the Total War games (Rome?). If you're a modder reading this, GET ON IT ALREADY!