E3 2016: Sci-fi MMORPG Dual Universe is FFA PvP for builders

That headline may sound strange, but after a long, hard talk with game creator JC Baillie of Novaquark at E3 this week, I feel it’s the most accurate. Initial rumblings about the game hinted at a huge, single server game with seamless planet-to-space action plus voxel-based world building. I was admittedly skeptical when I heard about it, even more so when I saw some of the pictures. Then we got this week’s E3 video, and to the demo, Baillie brought a treat with him: the actual game.

First, keep in mind that what I saw couldn’t be filmed or pictured. The team is aware that some gamers see any preview as a finished product, and Dual Universe is not that. However, the demo I saw included terraforming, crafting, space travel, and “player-built” structures. It reminded me of Landmark during its alpha, but with more realistic graphics and a rougher edge — that is, rough, long loading times, with a core focus on crafting and building.

Breaking it down

The first thing I was shown, though, was the server tech and how it works. Think about a server like a map of North America. On most servers, as people group up, you get lag. Dual Universe’s answer to this is to split up space into a series of regions, which continue to get smaller and smaller based on population density. Dense areas are broken up into smaller pieces. Think countries, then states, cities, and then blocks, all of which are like their own server.

If you’re in Canada, and everyone is fighting in Los Angeles, you’ll see something’s happening, but in truth, it happened in the past, as your part of the server, being far from the action, isn’t being updated as swiftly. If you go down to Washington, you’ll see the action more accurately, and that’ll increase more as you get closer to LA. Once there, the server is broken up into blocks (each almost its own server), so you’ll be seeing the action in real time. Though this means your intel from the Canada wasn’t perfectly accurate, it does mean you at least have an idea of what’s going on, and when you’re close enough for it to matter, you should be able to interact with it just as you would in your average action-based MMO.

In theory, I can see how this would work. It’s already been tested with a group of bots, and while not perfect, it was relatively smooth. The worst case scenario I can image is that it means combat needs to be tab targeted and dodging is based more on approximated character location, if not just dice roles. However, combat, in some ways, might not matter.

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PvP without combat

As I hinted at with my writeup on Chronicles of Elyria, one of the first things I look at when analyzing the actual goals of a game in development is the systems it’s focusing on. Obviously a game needs a world and the ability for characters to interact with it (from moving to playing cards), but once you have that, the most important systems need to go in. If you tell me your game is story-based, but you put in combat first, I’m going to question your pitch.

Dual Universe currently has terraforming and crafting. Combat isn’t in yet. In fact, I was told that, as with Landmark, the alpha may launch without a combat system. This is a big deal, because if you’re building a FFA PvP game but focus on the non-combat aspects first, it shows you might actually be working on systems that motivate players to play with each other rather than just kill each other. The game will most likely initially lack enemy NPCs, but if the game devolves into civil wars rapidly, safe zones are already a thing. In fact, for the moment, you won’t even be able to draw a weapon in these areas, so if there were cows or chickens, you couldn’t kill them there.

Safe zones aren’t just for newbies though. The game wants to have natural skills, like diplomacy, market trading, linguistics (or at least, English for global communication purposes), and LUA programming for AI. To support exploration, you’ll need to actually go out and explore, but rather than get experience, you’ll learn knowledge of anything from (rare) resources to safe zones far from your starting location.

You also need several skills to make weapons. Unlike, say, a survival sandbox like RUST, Dual Universe doesn’t just let you spawn and kill people. Since the currently planned game won’t have NPC enemies for you to worry about, there’s no need to give you a starter weapon. Players would have to go out of their way to make one, then travel out to the PvP area to find people to use it on. There’s much more of a process involved for a lone wolf to cause issues.

What’s good and bad is that the game will rely on community efforts. If you want to just be a pilot, you may want to join once people are easily building ships and giving them to guild/company members for missions. At the start, people will be more concerned with housing. Society will need to be built up around players. As players progress, the server can offer more playstyles. However, just because you missed the first day of the game doesn’t mean you lose that opportunity to build a world. You could get a ship and fly out to a distant planet with your friends and try to recreate the experience.

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Community interaction

Baillie’s constant theme during our meeting is that he wants fans to understand that the game isn’t vaporware. The technology’s in place to do some cool stuff, but understandably, showing the community all the raw information may scare some people off, and it’s a legitimate concern. When you talk to Baillie or read his devblog, you’ll notice he can get scary deep in terms of mechanics. There’s a lot of real-world demand for some of the planned systems, which kind of reminds me of Mortal Onlinein that you can actually learn some interesting stuff about making things in real life, but it’s not something everyone wants to do. In fact, I think it scares some people away.

This is where you, the community come in. I’m told that about two weeks from now, Novaquark will have forums for people to introduce their characters, build their alliances, and talk about what they want from the game. Baillie’s pretty flexible about specifics, but don’t think Novaquark will be a slave to the community. For example, if players wanted realistic solar systems based around a sun, Novaquark knows it would need to start with making heavenly bodies move at all. As another example, if LUA based AI programming is something the community dislikes, that might be a big problem — because the devs really do want it. However, they would be willing to simplify it to the point that people may not recognize LUA’s being used.

The problem, though, is the same for anything that relies on player-made content: quality vs. quantity. And Dual Universe needs big communities to make its various systems work. At the moment, there’s no plan for developers to create some kind of quest or event content beyond a tutorial experience. If, like a PvE RUST server, people just build, get bored, and walk away, the game will suffer. If the PvP folks have no one to PvP, they’ll leave too.

However, as in Worlds Adrift, vehicles have physics and need to be balanced. As in Landmark, there’s plenty to build. But there are also multiple planets you can fly between, on or off a ship, without seeing a loadscreen, and that’s harder to find in an MMO. There’s enough there to at least catch builders’ attention, and there are safe zones for them to experiment in. There may be talk about survival mechanics and breeding, but ignore those for now. They’re down the line, like combat. Try to see the game for what it is now, and get ready to voice your opinion on the direction the game may take. Novaquark’s got its tech nearly down and is clearly listening to fans.

Massively Overpowered is on the ground in Los Angeles, California, for E3 2016, bringing you expert MMO coverage on The Elder Scrolls Online, Black Desert, and everything else on display at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo!
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