Some Inspired Designs in the Dune RTS Series

Dune 2 is considered one of the founding games of the real-time strategy genre, and as such it is often given place of pride by veteran RTS players (especially those who prefer Westwood’s style of game design). And, coming back to the game and its sequels as an adult with a more critical eye for games design, I cannot help but appreciate what Westwood did with the series.

The Dune RTS series is based on the 1984 movie Dune, by David Lynch and not directly on the novels themselves. Anyone who’s seen the film, with Sting playing one of the major characters, and whom Siskel and Ebert rated amongst the worst released that year, would not have expected it to produce anything along the lines of a memorable and excellently crafted RTS series. And, they’d have been wrong. Embracing the campiness of its topic added character to a genre that has ended up seriously lacking in personality and brightened what otherwise could have been a fairly clinical and even subpar series of games.

Within this article I will be examining the Dune series of games and the mechanics and systems that are worth revisiting in the modern era of gaming in 2015. Some older gameplay systems have relevance in the modern era, and the design limitations and missteps of older games can inform the player or designer on both how to make a big difference with limited resources, and can underscore the reasoning behind some modern design conventions. Let’s get started, shall we?

“It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of Sapho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains, stains become a warning. It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.” – Piter De Vries, Dune (1984)

Resource harvesting is non-trivial, but well balanced

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Despite being perhaps the oldest real-time strategy game series in existence, the harvesting system in Dune is incredibly nuanced in ways you seldom see in other games. Per the dictates of the source material, the game’s primary resource (the Spice Melange) is spread in fields across the map. While structures are placed on rocky plateaus, spice is exclusively located out on the open sands, meaning that harvesting operations are incredibly exposed – you can’t build turrets to protect your mining operations as you can in Blizzard’s popular -Craft series. Also, mining exslusively happens outside of one’s base, and in fact cannot happen within a close proximity to one’s structures: something not entirely common in later series (though, of course, we also see this in Command and Conquer and to some extent in the Age of Empires games). I’ll get into this in more depth a later section, but sandy terrain is also the most dangerous place to be in Dune, and is the sole province of this resource.

There are 2 potential units involved in the gathering and depositing of resources in the players’ coffers. First, there is the Harvester, a relatively sturdy but unarmed and fairly slow unit. The Harvester, of course, is responsible for actually collecting the Spice and returning it to the player’s Refinery. Then, there is an optional unit: the Carryall. Carryalls are another strong nod to Frank Herbert’s masterwork novel, and ferry Harvesters to and from Spice patches around the map. In earlier games, they were purchased separately from the Harvester, but by the time of Emperor: Battle for Dune they became standard with the purchase of a refinery.

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One of my absolute favorite things about this system is that the Carryall is not strictly necessary: taking out a Carryall will impede the player’s resource gathering rate, but will not shut down the system entirely. This also plays in well with the idea that Spice is not located in convenient locations: often, especially as a match progresses, Harvesters will have to schlep it further and further to do their job. Looking at a system like StarCraft’s worker lines or Act of Aggressions Refinery/resource carrier/depot system, I cannot help but prefer Dune’s for its elegance, and daring. I do think daring is an appropriate word: exposed operations, dangerous terrain, and a multifactor system is exciting for lack of a better word. It forces the player to be present and allows the player and their opponent a great deal of opportunity for counter-play and sabotage efforts.

More incremental systems, such as StarCraft and Age of Empires’ worker system, are perhaps a bit more forgiving and, well, incremental than what you see in Dune and Age of Empires. The result of this, for those games, is that the act of remembering to build worker units, and doing so in a timely manner becomes an act of skill. Also, knowing the correct number of units to put onto a given patch of resources to ensure optimal production is an act of skill, as is reacting appropriately to save as high a possible percentage of worker units during base assaults. But a system like Dune’s forces the player to be mentally present during harvesting operations: the lifeline, as it were, is more thin, and the management of harvesters is quite tactical and interactive (I want to say ‘visceral’ but feel I may overuse that word), making harvesting an engaging act that I think has a lot of promise in the real-time strategy space.

Lastly, and I am not entirely sure of this, but I believe in Emperor: Battle for Dune a ‘Spice blow’ system was put into place allowing for new Spice fields to appear in new places during the course of a match. I am in favor of such a system as it can alter the importance of certain map areas over time, and encouraging players to have a dynamic and evolving focus is I think one key to having a well-designed and engrossing strategy game.

Moving out on the map is non-trivial

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As I previously mentioned, the open sand that surrounds the isolated plateaus where player bases are located is dangerous. Maps in the Dune games are fraught with danger: sandstorms can sweep across armies and bases, wreaking havoc and weakening an otherwise strong player position. Sandworms spawn and will hunt down scouts, armies, Harvesters… anything treading on the desert floor is fair game.

Now, to be fair, in Dune 2000 these events tended to be relatively uncommon and Sandworms would only eat a single unit at a time. But they would and could eat vehicles, Harvesters, and other importune targets. Emperor: Battle for Dune upped the stakes with both a killable, army-munching Traveling Worm (which Fedaykin units could capture and ride!) and a much larger, much deadlier Worm Attack by the Old Man of the Desert himself, Shai’Hulud (pictured above) that would kill anything in its vicinity and leave behind a Spice field in its wake. Death and life in one event, as it were.

Again, we see systems in place that encourage players to be mentally present in the game: attack moving across the map (not that the idea of the attack move existed in Dune 2 or Dune 2000) is a recipe for disaster – in addition to player set ambushes, the map itself can punish your inattention. The same sort of convention can be seen in some of the custom maps in the OlimoLeague tournaments that prominent YouTuber TotalBiscuit hosts on his channel: one of these maps has areas that fill with acid on a routine basis, another has clusters of missile turrets in air lanes, and another (or maybe the same one with the missile turrets) has bridges which open and close on a set interval, changing the layout of the map and sending units that happen to be on them when they open to an untimely fate. Far too many RTS games treat their maps as flat (or mostly flat) and largely static play spaces, while games like Dune 2000 and Emperor: Battle for Dune prove through their systems design the value of interactivity and an evolving play space.

Players are forced to think about base design

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This is mostly true of the older Dune games, but is largely (though not entirely) unique to this series, in the humble opinion of this writer. in Dune, especially the older games, it is very common for build area on a base plateau to be severely restricted. And, yes, in many RTS (including 2015’s Grey Goo by Petroglyph) you will see starting locations be restricted in building space, though typically this is to encourage expansion. In the Dune games, expansion is typically either not possible or relatively difficult, meaning that on average a restricted build space will have more impact in the Dune games than in other RTS designed to support expansion into other areas of the map.

Additionally, in the older Dune games, the player had to build concrete slabs before placing buildings. In Dune 2000, the slabs were optional, though structures would be built with partial health unless constructed on slabs. This slowed down the already fairly slow C&C build model of “only one structure at a time, all structures also require Power” (compared to games like Tiberian Sun or Red Alert 2) making the timing and placement of each structure very important.

Arguably, concrete slabs were an annoying mechanic, and I understand why they were ultimately dropped from the series, although the dynamic of having them not be required makes for interesting player choices when in dire need. However, the Power mechanic and concrete mechanic were both limiting factors on base building on top of the single thread building production, and something had to give in that tottering stack of requirements. Power and single-thread building production being the more interesting mechanics, I’m glad in retrospect that Westwood decided not to drop one of these in favor of the slabs.

Conclusion

The oldest RTS series out there is unlikely to see any new entrants, and for that I am sad. From base building to resource gathering, Dune had a lot of really neat ideas that encouraged mindful, present play, planning and allowed players to make some interesting economic and base construction decisions that are underrepresented (I think) in many later games. And this article didn’t even go into the campaign system from Dune 2000 and Emperor: Battle for Dune that allowed players to pick their course of conquest on the planet, the delightfully campy cutscenes that injected so much character into the factions and world, or the sub-factions, unit veterancy, terrain types, super weapons, and more that the series embraced to such great effect. Design decisions like the ones mentioned above are interesting to consider in the context of playing and making RTS games, and it is my hope that we may see these sorts of player choices introduced mindfully by modern game studios to delight and challenge the RTS players of the present and future.

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8 thoughts on “Some Inspired Designs in the Dune RTS Series

  1. What is the timeline of this series? I wasn’t aware of Emperor:BfD until now, only briefly played Dune 2000 on a friend’s computer at its release, and wasn’t playing RTS until Warcraft 2.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One could probably write a short article dedicated to environmental hazards in RTS. At the extreme closest to being an actual opponent are hostile “civilian”/AI bases or units, at the other are random storms. In Total Annihilation: Core Contingency were hail or meteor showers. In Warcraft 3 were mobs. In Age of Empires were hostile animals. You mentioned sandstorms and Sand worms here.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This article reminded me of a Total Biscuit video I watched a few weeks back in which TB played Open RA (it was an older video, from a year or two ago). At first, the video was pretty standard, extolling the virtues of the three games in Open RA (C&C, Red Alert, and Dune II). But as the video went on, TB shifted gears, and started showing off all the aspects of those games, of the original RTS pioneers, that were wonderful but have vanished or been cut out of modern RTS titles to favor the E-sport scene. He spent several minutes showing off aspects of these old RTS titles and going “That’s gone, that’s gone, that’s gone …” It was a little disappointing.

    Things like shifting spice fields, exposed economies, natural hazards, all the stuff you talked about here … those are things that make a game of strategy come to life! Not just the world that involves the player, but the game between the players.

    Stuff like shifting resource fields adds complexity—real complexity, not the fake complexity of modern titles that insert extra steps and multiple keyboard hotkeys into what was once a simple point and click operation. Strategic complexity! Shifting battlefields, tactical adjustment based on shifting conditions! The fun stuff!

    This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve been on here, so you’ve definitely earned a follow. I look forward to more articles digging into the complexities of RTS design. Thanks for the write-up!

    Like

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