Making headlines since early in the summer, and then appearing on the E3 PC Showcase stage, many people have at least heard of Dual Universe in passing. But to fully appreciate what the newly formed indie team at Novaquark is aiming to accomplish takes a bit more than just a quick summary of the sci-fi MMO. An unabashed combination of Minecraft and EVE: Online, Dual Universe is roughly €130,000 short of its €500,000 ($562,000 USD) Kickstarter goal with 14 days remaining. If it’s funded however, it could end up ranking as one the most ambitious MMOs ever made.
Behind it all is a new type of server technology developed by Novaquark Founder and Creative Director Jean-Christophe ‘JC’ Baillie. Like EVE: Online, Dual Universe is a single, persistent, shared world for every player in the game, commonly called a single-shard MMO. But it also features a fully editable world, like Minecraft, allowing players to deform the environment and build anything from houses to fully functional spaceships and space stations. For that freedom of creation to work properly, the developers required a very different approach to the game’s servers. Doing away with zones, instances, and transitions in general, Dual Universe will be the first of what Baillie calls a ‘continuous single-shard MMO.’
If everything goes according to plan, all those incredible advancements will be completely invisible to players as they explore and interact in the shared world. And that’s where the real fun begins. Speaking with Gamespresso, Baillie explained some of the finer points of what it will actually be like to play Dual Universe, and even addressed his experience of building a team from nothing for a game few believed was actually possible.
The game starts as players wake up in a crashed Arkship, on the planet of Alioth, after having abandoned Earth 10,000 years before. From there they can build, destroy and work together to recreate civilization.
As a sandbox-style game, the story and world of Dual Universe will be whatever players make of it. This includes everything from day-to-day activities to the in-game economy. “We believe in the incredible creativity of players to build things, and to create goals for themselves, either individually or collectively through ambitious large scale projects,” Baillie said. And that passion is certainly there. Players can establish themselves in clan-like groups called organizations, with quite a few having already started. There are currently over 700 organizations on the Dual Universe website. While many include only a couple members, some have dozens, and a handful number in the hundreds.
“In terms of building, look at Minecraft, look at Everquest Landmark and you will see what amazing things people can do,” Baillie continued. “The crucial point to understand is that we only need the 1% of most creative people to generate high quality content for the others, because there is this blueprint and market mechanism that will act like an evolutionary system: the best design will proliferate, the bad one will be selected out… We may add a bit of content to start, but it will really be just a spark to light the fire, not the spirit of the game.”
With the game’s robust customization tools and voxel-based crafting system, creations will even look the part, instead of featuring Minecraft-style blocks. As long as you can build them properly, including all the necessary pieces in the right places, the only limitations for ships and orbital stations is your available resources and imagination.
There will also be a backbone of gameplay to support this grander framework though. The game will feature a ‘lock-and-fire’ combat system with various weapons and a skill-based RPG progression system. While the majority of the world will allow PvP, there will also be Safe Zones to ensure the world doesn’t collapse into merciless chaos. “There will be many things to do inside the Safe Zone. Starting with scanning for resources (no rare resources in the Safe Zone, but still, some interesting ones to begin with),” Baillie promised.
“Scanning is going to be made so that it is complex and you need to develop your own technique using various tools to be efficient. Then, mining for those resources, perhaps refining them through industrial processes if we have time to add this gameplay (a bit like the IndustrialCraft mod in Minecraft), and selling them on the in-game markets… to people using them in building stuff. Spaceships, hovercrafts, houses, palaces, whatever.” The game will support a mass production system, allowing people to make use of their best designs, manufacturing them in player-made factories.
“For explorers you can hunt for interesting territories that you can claim,” he continued.
And running through it all is the undercurrent of socializing, “structuring your organization, recruiting, establishing some headquarters. Building larger and larger stuff. Underground bases perhaps. Helping other players out of the Safe Zone by supplying ships, resources, secure storage. And of course, secretly plan for the future construction of a death star!”
To generate the tight knit community Novaquark is looking for, the game will be free to try out initially but will require a subscription for more in-depth play. Much like EVE: Online’s PLEX-system, Dual Universe will allow players to pay off their subscription in-game or with real money. And once players get their feet wet, Baillie hopes that will be enough to convince them to take the full dive and stay with the game in the long run.
“Imagine you are heading a 150 players organization, preparing a massive invasion next week that will change the future of a solar system forever. Would you quit on this? Imagine you are an explorer that is closing in on perhaps the biggest resource of that rare material, you just need to wait for the stargate to open,” he offered. A huge, procedural universe, players will need to send probes to map out new planets and then build and use stargate networks to get there.
“You are actually part of the ‘New Horizon’ massive stargate network project, completing the next node in a week. Would you quit on this? The point is, whatever you will live inside the game will be part of a bigger story where you can have an active role if you want to. Dual Universe is not about doing the same quest over and over again. It’s about rebuilding civilization together! It’s never the same, because player imagination is driving the story. We hope that you will be attached to this world, because this world is yours.”
Even with how excited Baillie is about the game, he recognizes it is still a hard sell. Dual Universe is Novaquark’s first game together. And before starting the company, Baillie wasn’t in game development. He previously founded a research lab in Paris and worked with artificial intelligence and developmental robotics. But he sees his varied background as a boon to the game overall.
“I always loved games, and actually developed quite a few games as a kid already… Computers were my entry door to science, in a way. Now, the thing that you find in the game design of Dual Universe, that is not so far away from what I did before in AI or robotics, is the concept of emergence: having complex structures emerge from more simple basic blocks, be it neurons, language structures in AI, cellular automata or evolutionary dynamics. If you look at the kind of “meta” game design we have for Dual Universe, these mechanisms are not far away.
“In the history of ideas, I believe in the creative power of cross disciplinary fertilization!”
Coming up with the technical idea for the game, Baillie created a prototype and began building a studio around it. “It’s very challenging to create a new studio out of nothing, when you don’t have many contacts in the industry. I started by creating a prototype of the game in 2013, that I could use to convince people and get them interested.
“Building a 25 people team takes between one and two years, as you pick sometimes the wrong people and have to keep hunting for talents… My experience overall was, and still is, an incredibly exciting adventure, far from easy, but that’s what makes it worthwhile.”
Having launched the game’s Kickstarter campaign, it’s now time to start winning over gamers to the massively ambitious idea of Dual Universe, and it’s something Baillie takes very seriously. “We are aware of the skepticism that grew in the gaming community recently, and we understand why. My opinion is that, basically, with great claims should come great transparency. So we communicate a lot, we answer all questions, and we have opened the doors of our offices to our Kickstarter backers so that they could come and try the game in its pre-alpha stage, etc.
“It’s healthy to be at least a bit skeptic, who wouldn’t be? But we think that people should also consider that the indie community has the power to push innovation and create games that would not exist otherwise. This is a wonderful thing, and it should continue to happen.
“So, instead of total rejection of anything ambitious, I would rather suggest to demand more transparency and openness to companies that are asking for backing, so that you can make a better informed decision and keep promoting cool and high potential ideas if you feel it’s solid enough. We will see how things evolve in the future, but I think a kind of reasonable middle ground could be reached.”
Dual Universe is only just over halfway through its Kickstarter period, and looks like it will hit its goal. Aiming for a hardcore PC audience, the game is set to release late 2018, with both Alpha and Beta phases before that.
Looking forward, Novaquark already has a clear idea of how they would like to see the game grow. Though Baillie doesn’t know how soon the team can implement it, “We will work towards adding some kind of background lore that will come back in the gameplay from time to time, like for example to justify the process that will allow unlocking new Safe Zones on other planets… On the long term, we would like that there is some kind of mysteries to understand in Dual Universe. Something bigger, something really crazy for people to find out (and make tons of theories about it, of course!)”
And beyond that, “Personally, I would like to see within 5-10 years several civilizations competing for dominance or cooperating, with various political models, completely different industrial designs, even fashion,” Baillie said.
“I would love to see that Dual is capable to capture enough of the complexity of the real world so that it can perhaps teach us something about who we are. Perhaps even have people do things in this virtual world, that they thought they couldn’t do, and which gives them confidence in what they can accomplish in the real world. In other words, I hope we will be able to say one day that Dual Universe has acquired a certain level of ‘reality.’”