SGF 2024: Previewing Funcom’s Dune Awakening, from PvP philosophy to the survival MMO label


I must admit I went into Summer Game Fest with pretty low expectations. I was MOP’s “E3 guy” back when E3 was a concern, and while it was good for connecting with small studios and indies, big titles based on popular IPs always made me cautious. I expected the same with Dune: Awakening, and while I can’t say my hands-off time fully relieved me of that cautiousness, I did become genuinely excited at several points in the demo, particularly as Social and Economic Director Matt Woodward and World Director Jean-François Gagné discussed MMOs, safe zones, and endgame, plus Creative Director Joel Bylos answered a few post-SGF questions for us.

Read on to hear what I saw at SGF in conjunction with the Dune Awakening Direct 2 showcase this afternoon.

A new world

Now, before we get into the demo, I know some people are probably wondering about the game coming out well after the second Dune movie was in theaters. Bylos told us that it would have been nice to have been on that hype train, but “Dune has been a popular universe for over 60 years,” and that Dune Awakening is “just one part of a long legacy.” He also noted, however, that “there is still the upcoming TV Show that offers opportunities for [Funcom]!”

The part about being part of that long Dune legacy struck me. While I never read the Dune books and have yet to see the second movie, one of the first things that make Dune Awakening’s world work is the lore. It’s not the Dune from the books or movies that I and others may have missed; the game is set in an alternative universe where House Atreides didn’t fall and they’re at war with Harkonnen, with “assassins” (you) fueling the war as common soldiers on both sides burn out and flee to the desert. The clip above explains the idea pretty well, from the point of view of a fairly important but missing character.

For IP fans, though, Bylos says that in game development areas where Funcom has to “make changes to accommodate gameplay at the expense of strict adherence to lore,” the team discusses it with “Legendary and the Herbert Estate,” which is where Funcom submits its work “for general approval.” While respawning players is a bit of a handwave for the lore situation, Funcom says it usually discusses things with its partners to “come up with a grounded lore reason [for mechanics].

For example, rather than having lasgun-shield interactions causing nuclear explosions in the game, Dune: Awakening marks a historical incident. “Following this incident and the threat to spice harvesting, CHOAM now only imports lasguns fitted with shield detection devices,” the studio says. “And you feel it in the game [as] the lasgun takes slightly longer to start up.” So for the most part, the balance comes “not by changing [the lore], but by finding a reasonable explanation for how it works in the game.” Well, except for the whole other universe thing, at the least.

So as an assassin in this new universe, you don’t join a faction immediately, as the devs say that other factions may pop up later. You just freelance and side with one more than the other, if you want to get the deeper faction rewards. As I was told, DA is a “game of politics,” so don’t get too cozy with who pays you. That being said, neither launch faction really wants you to play both sides, so if you want the highest faction rewards, you are gonna have to align with one eventually.

Naturally, working on Arrakis means you’re going to be dealing with sand. A lot of sand. But lucky you, Funcom looked to real-world desert biomes to help make sure the landscape changes, at least with some somewhat subtle differences. You’ve got red sand, yellow sand, black rock sand, compact sand, loose sand, bubbling sand (which is quicksand and it will kill you), dune (heh) filled deserts, grassy-patched deserts… you get a lot of desert variety.

Speaking of desert (there will be word play, people, and I am not sorry), the idea is that the war has dragged on and is taking a morale toll on both the Atreides and Harkonnen, causing the soldiers to desert to the desert, hence the need for you. Don’t be fooled though, as escaping from Arrakis means the desert-dwelling deserters will end up attacking you from time to time, among other mobs, and yes, that includes the sandworms.

Now, to be clear, Bylos told us that all vehicles attract sandworms. Funcom doesn’t “use wheel-based vehicles, but rather tread-based” ones, and that concept, like many other aspects of the game, is based on Funcom’s collaboration with Legendary and the Herbert Estate.

During the presentation, we got to see the Ornithopter in action. While I know some people have complained about wheeled vehicles when you’re out in the wilds near sandworms, we can all agree that Ornithopters will be the best way to stay safe from worms. There are a few potential issues with them, though, outside of acquiring them (which was not discussed).

First, sandstorms. These demos ham things up a bit, but I suspect the in-game sandstorm that appeared during our demo was genuinely unplanned; we were on too tight a schedule with obvious planned pauses, and this wasn’t one. We watched the dark clouds approach and the sand hit our demo ‘thopter. Our seasoned pilot, who had made flying the thing look easy, still seemed to be doing well in that the vehicle didn’t crash. However, I paid attention to the compass and map, and I realized we had been spun around and knocked a chunk of the way off our original path. While weather in my Monster Hunter Wilds preview added some spice, DA’s weather was just plain spicy-looking.

That brings us to our second issue: worms. Yes, the ‘thopters seem best for avoiding worms, but worm deaths are different from other deaths. If a player or NPC kills you, you may be able to keep some of your stuff or get it back. If a worm gets you, though, you lose everything you had. Gone. No getting back to the chopper. Bylos says, “The goal is to try to dash between safe areas without being eaten. It creates a tense, exciting gameplay loop where you are always surrounded by danger and you choose how much risk to take.” You’ve been warned.

There are other movement options beyond vehicles, though. Players get abilities and gadgets to use outside of vehicles. Climbing is possible, and the Sword Master skill tree gives you a knee-charge you can also use to increase mobility. The are other skill trees based on your class/mentor, such as Mentat or Bene Gesserit, which also may grant abilities that can double as movement skills. There’s also a grappling hook, which feels like a theme this SGF.

Post-presentation, Bylos told press that Dune “expands upon the climbing and building systems of Conan Exiles.” Somewhat related for lapsed Exiles players, Bylos also noted that Dune’s building interface inspired the time to “go back and improve the building system interface in Conan Exiles,” so you could go back and play that while you wait for release.

Staging PvE to stagger PvP

While gathering materials for bases and survival is fine, there’s also doing missions for the factions. Admittedly, one faction, The Sardaukar, aka “the Padishah Emperor’s ultimate military force and elite fighters,” will be scouring the sands at night. If you’re caught in their spotlight, it won’t matter whom you’re aligned with, as they’ll send down some of their weaker fighters to engage you. Or at least, “at the start of the game,” as we were told.

For the other two factions, there’s a mix of activities, one of which involves scavenging the wreckages of their ships. Be warned, as we saw at least one large downed ship that was radioactive. While you’ll be able to eventually build protective gear, you’ll have to determine the risk vs. reward of going in without it before that happens.

Getting reputation doesn’t just mean not being seen as garbage in the faction bases. In fact, high-enough rep allows you to get schematics to build the dev-made faction bases. You’ll also get faction-themed stuff, like vehicles and weapons too.

The Harkonnen base we saw had limited PvP too, so even though it’s a survival game, it looked as if Funcom has added some guard rails to at least help ensure that the PvE content has some chance to shine. It gave me a bit of an EVE Online vibe, theoretically opening the game to open FFA PvP slowly instead of right out of the box and into the respawn point, like so many other FFA PvP/survival games.

Letting people get used to combat in PvE situations while slowly opening up PvP feels necessary for survival games in my opinion, as I feel like I’ve just seen so many start with FFA PvP and then crash and burn while devs struggle to cobble together a comprehensive and fun PvE experience. Whether or not it’ll be enough remains to be seen, but I was happy to see the devs were smart enough to keep their hands on the proverbial wheel in this aspect.

Similarly, as this is an MMO, there will be no private servers, at least at launch, with Bylos confirming that Funcom is looking into the option but has nothing to announce yet. At launch, everything will be hosted by Funcom, further making this seem more of a sturdy, structured MMO than the wild-west feeling of many survival games that largely utilize player-hosted servers that shut down almost as fast as they appear.

Bylos insists that Funcom is using the term MMO survival in marketing as opposed to MMORPG to hopefully connect more with old-school sandbox MMOs, which doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense since old-school sandbox MMOs were called MMORPGs and in fact coined the term. “While the game has levels, equipment is not level-gated,” he says. “While enemies become more powerful based on their region, you can’t see a name floating above them or a recommended level for fighting them.”

But really, he just doesn’t want people to think this is a World of Warcraft-style themepark; and as he put it, players “looking for a quest hub to quest hub type progression with very clearly defined gear limitations and long quest chains” will be disappointed as “this isn’t [Funcom’s] primary focus.” He warns that if people dislike survival mechanics, well, “This game has a lot of those.”

In the demo, however, we didn’t focus too much on the survival aspects aside from water (you need it, and as Bylos notes, “What happens in the stillsuit stays in the stillsuit!”), and combat wasn’t terribly memorable. It looked like decent action-combat, but I’m someone who values hands-on time, and we didn’t get any. That being said, when our demo led to a giant canyon in the middle of the map called the Hagga Rift or Graben, it did help give me an idea of what PvE looks like.

Instead of dungeons, you have Imperial Testing Stations, or “Eco Labs” for short. Our demo leader flew into the canyon, warning us that deserters were living in pockets of the fault walls, then jumped into an Eco Lab. It reminded me a little of open-world MMOs like Asheron’s Call, where dungeons were built into the overworld instead of players just portaling into an instanced zone. As Hagga Rift is a PvP zone, I fully expect that live play will involve both cutting through mobs and players to retrieve the loot inside.

While water and other materials were among the treasure we saw, there were also unique schematics. Basic schematics let you build unlimited items, but the unique ones allow for a one-time-build of said item, such as a gun. How good these items are is hard to tell without my spending more time with the game, but the concept isn’t terrible.

What did catch my attention was the endgame. In the Deep Desert, players (especially guilds) will find tons of rare materials. However, Coriolis Storms will hit each week, not only wiping out player structures but reforming the layout of the land and its resources. This means not only do you have to rediscover the map each week, but you also must determine whether you want to gamble your (or your guild’s) resources by rebuilding and replacing base materials after each reset. PvP endgame stuff is OK, and guild-focused battles feel a bit better, but random maps, scattered resources, and having frequent land-grabs theoretically seem like good ways to keep things fresh, if you’re into PvP and group play.

That’s kind of an important thing to consider. From the outside, I know people may look at Dune Awakening like a new Conan Exiles, but that’s not entirely accurate. Bylos noted that “people who enjoyed Conan Exiles will probably find that Dune Awakening incorporates a lot of the learnings [Funcom has] made along the journey of that project.” While both games are thematically very different, Funcom believes what resonates with gamers is the ability to explore and live out their fantasies, so “roleplayers should feel right at home” – as will “builders, crafters, and explorers.”

So if you’re not into group PvP, don’t fret, as there’s other stuff for you to do. For example, Bylos told us that MMO players who enjoy “social interaction, exploring with friends, and being a part of something larger like a guild or faction conflict” should have faith that Funcom “has you covered.”

For those interested in story and lore, there’s a “main narrative told throughout the game.” The contracts (quests) and eco labs (dungeons) shown in the demo were neat, but Bylos warns that Funcom doesn’t think they are the “defining elements” of Dune Awakening, which to me drives home that in spite of the PvE elements, we should expect this to be a PvP game, even if it doesn’t necessarily involve direct combat.

In fact, post-SGF, Bylos continued to emphasize that Funcom doesn’t believe player vs. player just means players killing players.

Players can compete over meaningful objectives in the game without ever coming to blows. Just like we compete in sports – who is fastest, who is more efficient – we believe that PvP can involved proxies.

In our game this kind of competition is handled through the Landsraad – where factions and guilds compete to control the decisions that the ruling body is making. And while some of this does involve direct combat, it isn’t the main point.

Bylos points back to the Deep Desert, saying that “territory control in Dune is mostly about controlling harvesting spaces such as spice fields,” which primarily takes place in this dedicated PvP area. As it’s wiped out every week, he hopes that players know they are “mentally prepared” to lose what they build there and “far more prepared to battle it out over the spaces in there.”

But once that space is acquired and a base is built, you’re protected by House Shields, which “prevent them from being damaged at all for as long as you maintain your power generators with fuel.” A key thing Funcom says it learned from Exiles was “just how devastating it is for people to spend hours building a perfect home,” only for other people to “just show up and kick down their sandcastle.” It’s why the studio offers a base copy system that lets you copy your built base as a blueprint so you can go place it elsewhere.

“The philosophy here is simple,” he says. “Create in safe spaces, then make it as simple as possible to bring that creation with you into more dangerous PvP areas of the map” which hopefully makes the loss less devastating.

The team also believes it has a “fairly comprehensive solution” to the usual survival pitfalls when it comes to PvP. “Rather than putting the fox amongst the chickens, [Funcom has] tried to find a good set of incentives to have players move between playing as foxes or chickens depending on where they are and what their objectives are,” Bylos says.

Again, that means there will be direct PvP, but the game at least seems to be trying to aim at different PvP communities, and as an auction-house PvPer in PvE games, I get that. There are MMO-inspired social hubs (banks, trade markets, quest NPCs, vendors, etc.) and the Deep Desert, so the idea is the game can hold more players than your average survival game. It’s also not entirely about brutality. While flying around the map, we saw some NPC slavers, but unlike in Conan Exiles, you don’t own or take any slaves. You can help them out. If exploration is more your thing though, there’s that too.

The map we saw was apparently one of several. If you hit the edge of the map on an Ornithopter, you get the overworld map where you can move around to other areas, such as PvE areas or high-risk, high-reward PvP zones. The map above actually looks smaller than what we saw in our demo, though maybe it’s extremely zoomed out. While the trailer indicated that the Fremen may be gone, the devs teased that maybe that’s not the case, and the large map makes it seem as if they may be out there hiding somewhere.

I went into the demo thinking this would be another survival game with a light MMO theme, but that seems inaccurate now. It’s not Conan Exiles 2.0; it’s closer to Conan Exiles having a child with an MMO that has more of a PvE leaning. We were told development time has taken a bit longer because Funcom is using all its experience for the game, from Anarchy Online to Conan Exiles. The usual Funcom “jank” is hopefully going to be less of a factor, as Bylos noted the game is in a “closed, persistent beta” and that the devs are working with core testers to clean it up: “There is always jank, but the goal of having a long-term persistent beta is to smooth it out.”

Bylos gave us two clear examples of how these testers have helped fix some recent “jank” issues:

[…] we recently had a series of beta issues with large locations that would cause building loads to take up to 600ms. This caused, at best, client stuttering issues and at worst, long freezes. Refactoring that system to get it below 1ms has eliminated a lot of stuttering while playing the game.

Now that is not to say something this severe would have been overlooked in past projects, but just that these are the kind of issues we are actively squashing in the game which results in a more responsive experience when playing.

Another example is the interaction system, where interacting with some objects requires absolutely perfect positioning of the character/cursor in order to interact. This is something I see in many games and is allowed to pass because, eventually, you can actually interact.

That may not seem earth-shattering to many players, but MMO players will know that these are exactly some of the mundane bugs we would hope would be fixed during testing phases, and yet many companies push it out the door unfixed with post-launch promises that may or may not materialize.

Ultimately, DA seems to have the Conan Exiles soul, but with more guardrails to hopefully prevent degeneration into yet another tedious gankbox. Yes, it’s still a PvP game, but it does feel like Dune Awakening may the destination for players who want their PvP to be a bit more structured, slowly tiered from safety to FFA PvP, and take place in one of the 20th century’s great sci-fi settings.

MOP’s Andrew Ross was on the ground at Summer Game Fest 2024 – catch up on all our coverage!
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