It is rare indeed for a single game to become the progenitor of an entire new genre. Although it had its precedents, with some fans attempting to retcon a gaggle of faintly similar 8bit titles for the role, the world’s first realtime strategy game can be named with little real controversy.
But going back to Dune II today is an eye-opening experience, as it becomes clear how very little the genre has moved forwards – like finding out Halo had really been released in 1982. The same basic viewpoint, interface, controls and gameplay underpinning Dune II are still being reused today, with only the most minimal level of evolutionary advancement.
Lacking any of the hexes or grid squares of contemporary turn-based strategies, Dune II was loosely based upon the David Lynch movie, at least in terms of visual design. The gameplay featured three different factions (one invented for the game) all with individual structures, units and superweapons.
Although it is hard to appreciate now, being able to control each directly with the mouse – simply by pointing and clicking wherever you want them to move to or attack – was revolutionary. As was the need to harvest spice to act as the resource that feeds the expansion of your army.
“The inspiration for Dune II was partly from Populous, partly from my work on Eye Of The Beholder and the final and perhaps most crucial part came from an argument I once had with Chuck Kroegel, then vice president of Strategic Simulations Inc,” recalls Westwood Studios co-founder and Dune II producer Brett Sperry.
“The crux of my argument with Chuck was that wargames sucked because of a lack of innovation and poor design. Chuck felt the category was in a long, slow decline, because the players were moving to more exciting genres,” he explains.
“I felt that the genre had a lot of potential – the surface was barely scratched as far as I as concerned, especially from a design standpoint. So I took it as a personal challenge and figured how to harness realtime dynamics with great game controls into a fast-paced wargame.”
Technosoft’s 1990 Mega Drive game Herzog Zwei is often labelled as a primary inspiration for Dune II, but according to Sperry greater influence came from a more mundane source. “Herzog Zwei was a lot of fun, but I have to say the other inspiration for Dune II was the Mac software interface. The whole design/interface dynamics of mouse clicking and selecting desktop items got me thinking, ‘Why not allow the same inside the game environment? Why not a context-sensitive playfield? To hell with all these hot keys, to hell with keyboard as the primary means of manipulating the game!’”
The influence of MacOS (at the time the text interface of MS-DOS still held equal ground with Windows on PCs) on Sperry is perhaps unsurprising given his initial game industry experience as an Apple II programmer. “I started programming in high school when I was 16 years old and initially I did ports to the Apple II, some utilities and six ‘edu-games’. My first big game was called Terra 12 but it was never published. Around 1984 I met Louis Castle during a port of Impossible Mission for the Apple II that I was working on. Louis did most of the art and animation on that project. In fact, after seeing his superior artwork, that was the end of my computer art career!”
“Louis and I started Westwood Studios in March of 1985 as a 16bit game company. Our early games were for the Amiga and the Atari ST. We were a three-man shop initially [with programmer Barry Green]. Louis did all the artwork, all three of us were programming, and each of us did some of the audio work.”
Sperry stopped programming in 1987, though, as the demands of design work, running the new company and overseeing production on all of Westwood’s games was all becoming too much. “With the rise of the 16bit machines, the rules and standards changed dramatically. We actually had to hire two artists and an audio guy. Almost overnight the industry went from one and two-man teams, to groups of five or six.”
Apart from proving that some things in the game industry never change, Sperry also recalls that by the same period he was getting bored with programming: “For me, game conceptualisation and design was the hardest and the most exciting job of all, and I was jealous of any time I spent away from doing that.”
Conceptualisation of Dune II itself began with an approach from Martin Alper, president of Virgin Games. “Martin asked what I thought about Frank Herbert’s Dune books and the Dune movie,” remembers Sperry. “I loved the books and I loved David Lynch’s movie as well, and I told him as much. Martin told me he had locked up the licence years ago and I could use it if I wished.”
Alper’s comments to Sperry had been made with the understanding that work by French developer Cryo on a Dune-themed adventure/strategy hybrid had already been cancelled. As Sperry later found out, however, Cryo hadn’t taken no for an answer. “They rushed to finish their game before ours,” he reveals. “The result was a branding nightmare – the Cryo game had nothing to do with ours and yet it was published first because Virgin was anxious for the revenue. Against my violent protests our game was called Dune II: The Building Of A Dynasty [Battle For Arrakis in Europe and for the Mega Drive version] and the rest is history.”
Initial development was hardly any less problematic, as Sperry recounts: “Joe Bostic was my lead programmer, and I remember telling him about how I wanted the units to move around on the battlefield and the basics of combat. And so he put it all together, and the resultant game was really boring!”
At this stage, though, the game bore little resemblance to the final product, with only four to eight units fighting on each side. “When we played with it, the whole game was over in no time. So we worked in obstacles on the battlefield and later production dynamics, the base and unit construction, and the fog of war effect. The production dynamics were partly inspired by Civilization. Sid [Meier]’s production dynamics gave me ideas on how to make Dune II more interesting.”
According to Sperry there was no fleshed-out game design and development was largely organic. “I wasn’t very good at communicating what I saw in my mind,” he admits. “I knew how I wanted the controls and interface to work very clearly, but some of the unit dynamics and pacing were still murky. So we basically built the game iteratively and the design documents were often made up as we went along.”
This open-ended approach to game design is clearly how Sperry prefers to work, admitting that today he spends more time as a voyeur than a player. “When I focus on watching others play, I learn more about game design and entertainment, what’s working, what’s frustrating and how much or little players are willing to put up with and why. Game design and gamer interaction is still a source of endless fascination for me.”
Sperry describes Dune II’s core challenge as “combining combat, exploration and production at a particular pace and rhythm to make it all exciting and almost out of control. That was a key part of what made it so addictive.” Indeed, the experience was quite unlike more staid turnbased strategies, where success or failure rolled in slowly rather than rushing over sand dunes at the speed of an action game.
“You had to think and respond fairly quickly, and in realtime, or else your base and forces would all be overrun. And as we developed the game further, it became clearer how the pacing and battle scenario design were all a delicate balance.”
In spite of concern over the obscure title the game was an immediate hit when released in 1992. “We called Dune II a ‘realtime strategy’ game – we did that to make it clear to software retailers and users that we had something new,” says Sperry, who seems to have been afforded the rare chance to not only create a new genre but to name it as well. “But it was a wargame at heart. You built and managed units and took out the other side. Once people tried the game, they were hooked, and soon Dune II was a huge commercial success.”
As work on the game came to a close, Sperry was working on its successor: “I was evolving my designs and figuring out how to streamline the interface even more. I had developed a new game and mythos with a modern-day setting, and that’s how Command & Conquer was born.”
Although Dune II earned itself two sequels – a remake in 1998 named Dune 2000 and the more favourably received sequel Emperor: Battle For Dune in 2001 – it is the Command & Conquer series that is the game’s true legacy. The series is still the most successful realtime strategy franchise today and its debt to Westwood’s original games is immediately obvious.
Sperry has little to offer in support of subsequent entries in the genre, though. “The few wargames I’ve played lately have left me uninspired,” he admits. “I don’t really recognise the realtime strategy genre as such on consoles.”
“That said, gaming today is still fun and exciting to me personally. I play World Of Warcraft with some friends on a PvP server. I thoroughly enjoyed BioShock and I still play Mario Kart from time to time. Mostly social games and multiplayer games are what appeal to me. The quality of games is still a mixed bag despite all the new technology. But hasn’t it always been like this? In music, literature and film we see the same thing – lots on offer, but a pretty small number of exciting gems each year. And I can assure you that, like other entertainments, every game project starts out as something new and exciting in its creator’s minds. But without a great design, critical feedback and a solid team, it’s still a dicey outcome.”