PAX West 2017: Dual Universe demos its persistent, seamless, sandbox universe
If you were hoping that another title would pick up the idea of a voxel world and run with it, you’re getting your wish. I met with Jean-Christophe Baillie, the president and founder of NovaQuark, at PAX West. He showed off the pre-alpha build of his company’s voxel sandbox, Dual Universe. After zooming across the planet, building a ship, terraforming, and then blasting off to the moon to do it all again, I believe this subscription-based game (which begins its pre-alpha for backers on September 30th) may very well be the home that players who’ve been wishing for a voxel-based world have waited for.
Baillie defines Dual Universe: “We give more creativity freedom to the players: They can build the ships they want, the environment they want, the houses they want. It’s about freedon to create anything you like.”
With the death of Landmark, players lost the ability to own a piece of and shape their world in the most literal sense. That defunct title allowed players to manipulate voxels into amazing, creative shapes, filling those islands with incredible buildings, games, and adventures. And with the axing of EverQuest Next development, modern MMORPG gamers also lost that hope of a sandbox world where their actions affect the living, breathing environment around them. Those players may be some of the most excited for the development and release of Dual Universe. After seeing the gameplay in action personally, I know I am! But the best part is that Dual Universe takes those concepts and adds in many other things we only wished for in the other games. (Point of note: Baille says while the systems are similar, DU does not use the same voxel tech as Landmark did.)
As I met with Baillie, we talked about the game while zooming around the world, demonstrating all the features currently in game. The first thing he mentioned is that the world is a single shard, emphasizing that “one of the defining features is that everyone is playing in the same world at the same time.” This is vital to the game and its premise of a truly player-driven experience.
In our travels, Baillie showed off was how vast the world was. And not only is the world large, but it is completely seamless. There are no loading screens, no zones. Now get this: Not only is the world seamless, but space is too. Yup, you can lift off from the planet, aim for the moon, and fly there. (It’s going to take you quite a while, but you can!) If you remember the excitement of atmospheric flight when it was released at the end of Star Wars Galaxies, you will understand my excitement over this. Once you reach the moon, you can set up shop there or set off into the far reaches of space, discovering and terraforming other planets, building (and raiding) space stations, and the like.
Another fun tidbit I learned: If you’re slowly traveling through space and log off, your ship will remain in game, stopped at the spot you log out. That means if it is found, it can be attacked. However, as long as there is one crew member player logged in, the ship will continue its journey.
For those unfamiliar with a voxel world, the premise is that you can edit the land itself in any way you want. You collect materials by literally removing chunks of the environment and the planet itself, then use those materials to either build structures and shapes or craft items. When Baillie noted that the planets never regenerate (every hole you dig remains there forever unless someone else comes to fill it), I asked if it was possible to eat up an entire planet and move all the resources to space. He answered that while it is theoretically possible, he made the calculation and discovered “If you have 1,000 players working eight hours a day, you will need 19 years [to destroy the entire planet].” That’s a pretty huge planet! And that’s just the beginning; the game will launch with 12 planets, and the solar system will continue to expand. Baillie explained that over time, warp drives will be developed, allowing travel to speed up. After that, jump gates will allow for travel to even further reaches of the universe quickly. “In terms of real estate, there will be enough room for everyone,” he assured.
For players to have permanent structures that others can’t manipulate without permissions, there are territory units to deploy that will claim a section of land. These units will be very expensive to make (so you can’t toss them down willy-nilly or claim a full planet), and can ultimately be attacked and taken over as well as people battle for control of land and resources. However, Baille also explained that there is a way to protect one: “We plan on making simple rules like, for example, if you own this tile, and you also own all the tiles around it, then it cannot be taken.” So a player needs to deploy more territory units around his spot and claim the surrounding lands as a shield in order safeguard his or her claim. Now if someone then attacks and takes over at least half of the surrounding tiles, then your center may become vulnerable again. “If you have a large territory with many tiles,” he continued, “the one in the center will be secure by the sheer size of your buildable territory.” This then could lead to very interesting strategic battles as players build up places to try and divert attackers, etc.
Since there is no healing of the land, there is no command to heal a territory tile to its original state. However, players will have easy access to an undo feature in case things don’t turn out as desired while building.
Besides just shaping and manipulating the world into static buildings on the ground, players can also use materials to build vehicles. Ships for air travel, spaceships that can traverse space, and hovercraft that speed across the ground can all be crafted. Using materials, players can craft components necessary for the ship, such as a cockpit and engine. You can then add these to the most creative of structures. These ships can be crafted out of the most creative of shapes; Baillie built one out of random shapes during the demo. (Be aware if you try to take a ship without space engines up, it will lose power out of the atmosphere and fall! You can eject, though, and the ship will land itself.)
Scripting and puzzle building
I was very excited to learn that player are able to script things in game. There is a very easy linking system players can utilize for things like attaching doors or lasers to pressure plates or buttons and such. There is also more detailed programming players can use called Lua when building ships or properties. Baillie demonstrated a game of Breakout (remember that old Pong-like game on Atari?) on a screen on a territory. He is looking forward to the puzzles that the community may build. I am already starting to think of some adventures I could create. My underground maze with hidden treasure may yet live again!
As for ships, players will be able to use Luaprogram maneuvers, auto-piloting, and the like using the in-game. Players who don’t want to can just purchase programed things from others or simply play without as they aren’t truly necessary.
Although it’s not implemented yet, Baillie assured me that combat will be a part of the game, both avatar vs. avatar and ship vs ship. This will actually help foster the player-driven world and its economy. Players will spawn in a safe zone, and that zone will be significant enough that some could actually claim land, build, and live their lives without venturing out into the danger. Baillie explained, “If you are a more creative type and just want to build beautiful things, you don’t have to leave the safe zone.” However, the best resources will be outside of the safe zone. These, of course, can be acquired from other players through the market. Baillie also noted that they will likely have more than one safe zone, such as on other planets, so it could be possible to relocate in space (although getting there could be dangerous!).
A player-driven economy
Folks looking for a really player-driven universe may appreciate the devs’ philosophy about the game. Baillie stated, “We don’t want to set the rules beyond the basic rules.” That includes the economy. Dual Universe has a fully player-driven economy. There aren’t NPCs standing around to give you items. Players will obtain riches by trading, selling the location of resources, gathering and selling resources, selling prime territory tiles, building and selling ships, using ships for transporting, pirating transport ships, and so on. Baillie emphasized, “At every stage of the industrial chain you could insert yourself, specialize there, and make money within the game with your activities.”
“If you don’t want to craft or mine or do things like that, you just go to the markets and get your stuff, he explained. “So some other players will provide you with what you need through the markets.” Although not yet developed and in game, the markets will be physical places players will have to travel to to retrieve the goods, even if they possibly buy them from another area. This opens up the possibility for a transportation business (which of course opens up pirating!).
One thing Baillie stated was that it is expected and just fine for a large number of players to never touch the majority of game play available in DU. The game is meant to foster specialization, which will drive the economy. He noted that maybe 1% of the population will build ships, and maybe .1% will do scripting, but it will all work because of the in-game economy. Not everybody will do all the things, but all players will have things they like to do, acquiring money from their activities and then can use that money to get the goods they need that they don’t want to get/do personally.
Dual Universe is basically like the best parts of EVE Online and Landmark coming together. Let’s just hope the negatives of those two titles don’t manifest in this game! I am really excited to watch the progress of this game and will be watching it even more closely now that I’ve seen it in person, and I’m not alone: Baillie told me that there are already 1,500 guilds (organizations), with membership in them moving up to 500. Each of these organizations also has an agenda — from wanting to create space fleets to building commerce — and that means plenty of player-driven story is ready to start playing out. He emphasized even builders will contribute to the world history by creating landmarks and tourist destinations. “It all has meaning,” he says.
If your interest is sparked and you might want to look into investing in the development of the game, there’s still time to nab a pack to secure access to either alpha or beta ; the on-site pledges can be purchased through September 7th.