Dune: Awakening devs explain “alt history” approach to Conan: Exiles’ vast, intricate follow-up

It’s hard to think of a science fiction universe as inseparable from its canon as Dune. And yet at the same time, it’s a universe where so much can vary from one interpretation to the next (as you’ll be swiftly reminded any time you catch a stray set photo of a greased-up Sting.)

With that in mind it probably makes a lot of sense for Dune: Awakening, the survival MMO from Conan: Exiles developer Funcom, to take its “alternate history” approach. Dune: Awakening takes place “a few years” before the events of the books, but those events are entirely different timelines, with Awakening imagining a scenario where a “significant moment” in the books, where someone makes a decision of some kind, is decided differently.

Joel Bylos, Funcom’s chief creative officer and creative director on Dune: Awakening, was coy about what decision that was, let alone what the consequences of it might be. “It’s not Paul that makes the decision,” he would at least say, referring to protagonist Paul Atreides. This was after I’d asked whether it might be his drinking of the Water of Life that decision was referring to – the moment where Atreides effectively chooses the path of war in Frank Herbert’s novels, and now Denis Villeneuve’s films.

“Things are slightly different in our universe. Many events are still the same, so it’s not like we’ve gone all ‘thousands of years ago, a rock slid in the wrong place and changed everything’. It’s just a few years back. But the significant thing – it’s really close to spoiler territory, which I can’t really go through – but let’s just say that for the large part, we sort of sidestep religion.”

Cover image for YouTube videoDune Awakening Survive Arrakis Trailer 4K

At this point I can hear the Dune nerds’ alarm bells ringing. The Dune Encyclopedia’s also out, while we’re on the subject, which means no biologically-powered machines, but while that’s “not exactly canonical” in the eyes of Funcom and the Herbert estate anyway, Dune is in many ways nothing without religion. It’s a series built on, amongst other things, a borrowing of Islamic themes, and is very explicitly engaged with the complexities of religious war. One of the books is quite literally called Dune: Messiah. But it’s worth pausing the concern for at least a minute.

In one sense, it seems the decision to “sidestep” the more overtly religious aspects of the main story has been out of consideration for Dune’s lore, a way to work around it that was approved by the Herbert estate, via Legendary Studios. For one, by “religious aspect,” Bylos is seemingly referring to a very specific part of Dune’s plot, which he isn’t able to talk about (at least on the record). But religion as a concept, and seemingly a major theme, is still present: Dune: Awakening will zero in on the Butlerian jihad – the historical war of the Dune universe, between humans and artificial intelligence, “topical,” as Bylos notes – for instance.

“I found a point in the universe – like it was a really fun thing to go back to the Herberts and be like, “Hey, if we say this happened in our universe, and then this is the flow of consequences from that, so at this point, things changed, are you okay with that?” Because then I can kind of position everything for a video game, and they were like, “Yeah, actually that’s great”, and then you’re not stepping on the lore.”

There is also a “very spiritual set of things that happen to the player in the game as they take spice,” with spice consumption and addiction a central mechanic as well, and so it seems that Dune: Awakening’s skirting of religion centres on quite a specific point. When I asked if Paul Atreides was in the game at all, Bylos replied “No comment.”

It’s probably worth stepping back for a moment just to explain what exactly Dune: Awakening is. Until now we’ve had drips of information – it’s a survival MMO set in the Dune universe, it’ll have some kind of alternate history – but not much in terms of detail. The latest trailer finally goes into some detail, which Bylos expanded on a little more.

Originally slated for release before even the first of Villeneuve’s two films back in 2021, Dune: Awakening now takes significant inspiration from them. Bylos and others from Funcom went on set visits while the first film was shooting, and borrowed heavily from designs for vehicles like the thrumming dragonfly-like ornithopters (Dune’s director of photography Greig Fraser, meanwhile, actually used the same engine as the game, Unreal 5, for the film’s pre-visualisation).

But some visuals aside, Awakening feels largely separate to the films. You’ll begin, much the same as in Conan, with nothing but the clothes on your back, scrabbling to make a name for yourself. Eventually you’ll be able to create a guild, which in turn sits under one of the game’s two factions, Harkonnen and Arrakis, which you must choose between. “There’s a third faction that’d like to get in,” Bylos says, “but that probably won’t come until post-launch.”

From betas alone, some of these guilds on the game’s Discord server have upwards of 150-200 people already, Bylos explains. By the late game, the goal is to have these huge factions full of thousands of players vying for resources. The core cycle seemingly being the same as most online survival games: build a base, go out hunting for resources, come back and craft things that allow you to do that same thing even better. In Awakening specifically that’s about collecting, you guessed it, spice, the glittering oil-slash-cocaine resource that fuels humanity’s multiple addictions in Herbert’s idea of the future.

Servers are split in such a way that there are safe areas and risky ones, with them all stitched together through a bit of technical wizardry called “server meshing” that means seamless movement across the whole thing. Funcom expects to start at about 40 players per server with “at least 10 times that” in the deep desert areas where you’ll face the proper conflict, with the goal being to have “at least several thousand” players online together at once. The big twist is the game’s Coriolis storms, which turn up once a week to wipe everything in the dangerous part of the world map, effectively acting as a kind of weekly reset. Theoretically then, you’ll be building more permanent bases within the shield wall and then temporary ones, of growing quality, each time you venture out – all of that bundled in with this idea of a living world where huge groups might receive alerts that something’s going down out the deep desert and come to fight over it all at once.

If you don’t fancy that, you can go and do something entirely peaceful, like be an architect, with some seemingly thoughtful approaches to systems there. You’ll spot a form of mining in the trailer, with a player shooting a laser at a pile of rocks, but actually that’s part of an “active” or “passive” approach the player can choose, Bylos explains, where picking the more active approach will get you better resources. But the real hope from Funcom is that through these sweeping, faction-led objectives, the political intrigue Dune is known for alongside its many other themes will organically come to the fore. That’s alongside the explicit parts of the main story, which plays out optionally through missions after you’re thrown into the open world following a quick 15-minute tutorial. “People will create a guild and then they’ll meet someone else, and they’ll talk and they might want to join up, and then someone will drop the guild to join the other Guild, and you end up going up with a confluence of people,” Bylos explained of what he’s seen from players so far.

“I think the one of the major things that we’re doing with the politics is that the factions themselves are like, highly mired in the politics. So the objectives aren’t always guild based. They’re faction based, right? So it doesn’t matter if there’s 50 guilds on the Harkonnen side, those 50 guilds are working towards the same objectives.”

Many of these objectives come from the Landsraad Council, the kind of superseding group that controls much of the Dune universe. You’ll have to talk to members of the great houses, or even spy on them, to find those out, since both factions want votes from that council behind them. On the topic of conflict, meanwhile, in terms of combat, there’s a choice of melee, ranged, or vehicular combat, with clever interactions between guns and shields (no nuclear reaction as per the official lore by the way). And mysteriously, there are abilities – including the Voice, which could be used to, for instance, command someone to come closer so you can give them a good old-fashioned stabbing. Consuming spice, Bylos explans, can help make those abilities stronger, at a cost.

“Spice is kind of at the core of everything we do – that’s why you go to the deep desert, you’re fighting over the big spice blows, trying to harvest it.” It’s also “key to the economy of the game,” Bylos explains, which will feature a Chome Exchange as a kind of intra-player auction house (no word on if or how that’ll be monetised, for those curious). “But also as an individual player, when you take space it’ll mutate some of the abilities you have, and they do different things – you’re also guided to things… maybe spice dreams towards the single player story and how that can work. And the more spice you take, the more addicted to spice it becomes, the more spice you need.”

Interestingly, Bylos also mentioned another tonal deviation from Villeneuve’s films when talking about spice. “One of the things I think the movies don’t do enough of is the weirdness of Dune – and we are definitely trying to capture some of that in the game. So spice plays a bigger part, and I think the player’s interactions with spice can be pretty fucking interesting, so that’s cool.”

Cover image for YouTube videoDune Awakening Creating Worlds

Bylos was similarly opinionated about the survival genre and its recent success – or at least the right ways to approach it. He wouldn’t talk about the game’s monetisation, and so it’s still unclear whether Dune: Awakening will be free-to-play, a one-off payment, a subscription or something else – Bylos pointed to the sort-of battle pass system currently being used by Conan, as well as major DLC packs, as something he liked – but he was very clear there would be no loot boxes or other randomised mechanics.

“I actually think just the loop of survival is super compelling, right? Like it starts smaller, keeps growing bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. I also think there’s nothing more addictive for humans. And I don’t mean this in the ‘exploit people’s psychology’ sense.”

“I know that Twitter says that, like the first tweet is the most important tweet for them. Instagram, it’s the first time you post something for them. It’s about when you create something that’s personal – it feels more meaningful to you. And I think that the building systems and things like that, survival games actually play to that in a way other games haven’t for a while, right?”

And how do you separate the compelling nature of that loop from compulsion? “I mean, you just try to make it fun, right? I think at the end of the day, you can put down almost any behaviour where people are doing something for 1000s of hours to a level of compulsion. So it’s more a question of intent.”

Bylos mentions how Dune: Awakening’s game director, Viljar Sommerbakk, talked with him about this in some detail. “He worked at King, right,” referring to the developer of mobile mega-hits like Candy Crush, “and he left King because he couldn’t handle the exploitation of people. Like he really didn’t like that. And he told me like, there are ways that people can do this, where you actually are tricking people’s brains. So there are ways to do it, where it’s just, you’re trying to make a fun game and a fun experience. And we’re very adamant about this kind of stuff together.” In terms of Dune: Awakening, it’s as simple as making sure that when you are, say, shooting your laser at a rock to mine it for resources, you know the same resources are going to come out.

Despite the concerns some Dune fans – or just literature fans – might have about the “sidestepping” of Dune’s bigger themes like messianic religion, there is a thoughtfulness in Funcom’s approach to design here, which is enough to reassure me for now. Much of Dune: Awakening’s most intriguing decisions are buried beneath spoiler blockades, but there was another little fact Bylos shared that seemed especially apt for a game based on Herbert’s work. “I think we’re gonna get probably, you know, early criticism from people who haven’t finished the story – because they’re gonna be like, “Oh, it’s another chosen one story,” and then I think they’re gonna find out that they’re wrong.” I wonder what Stilgar would’ve made of that.

This preview and interview is based on a press trip – Funcom covered travel and accomodation.

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