Dune Awakening Q&A – Creative Director Clarifies MMO Size, Hints at Beyond Arrakis


During the Game Developers Conference 2024 in San Francisco, Funcom provided the first detailed Dune Awakening presentation to the press. For the full details of what was discussed in the open world survival MMO’s overview, head to our previous article.

Here, we’ll focus on the subsequent roundtable Q&A with Dune Awakening Creative Director Joel Bylos. A 17-year veteran of the Norwegian studio who is credited for working on games like Age of Conan, The Secret World, The Park, Conan Exiles, Conan: Unconquered, and even Metal: Hellsinger, Bylos was all too happy to indulge the many questions posed to him about the upcoming Unreal Engine 5 powered game (currently in beta testing).

‘The deep desert PvP map is nine times the size of the Conan Exiles map’.

Do you have to be a female character to play a Bene Gesserit?

No. The idea is that you aren’t becoming a member of the Bene Gesserit, you’ve just been trained by people who know how to train in the ways of the Bene Gesserit. There’s a couple of examples of this in the books and of course, in the movie as well, when Paul is obviously trained by his mother. We have these examples of men picking up some of the traits as well, as long as they don’t become official Bene Gesserit. That’s how we are playing it in the game as well.

WCCFTECH: There’s the idea among some gamers that Dune: Awakening will just be a regular survival game rather than a survival MMO. You claimed the latter from the beginning, and the Steam page even mentioned thousands of players at the same time, but that’s since been removed. Can you clarify how the servers work and how many players will be online on a server at any one time?

Sure. It’s different maps. The reason we removed thousands of players at one time was that our optimization was not saying 1000 at the same time. So we were like, ok, that’s misleading. It’s hundreds at the very least, and right now I would say so.

I have written a blog for marketing to put out, which actually explains it with diagrams, but I’ll try and give you a very quick technical overview. We have multiple maps in the game: a survival map, a deep desert map, and social hubs. These are all separate maps running their own Unreal server, and they all have different amounts of players per server. A social map might have 200 players. The deep desert map might have 500 players. The survival map might have 50 to 100 players, depending on how optimized it is and how many buildings there are.

We have multiple of each of those maps on the same world, in the same way that lots of MMOs instance out once an area is full. But the difference between us and a normal survival game is that most survival games have a single map, and they stay on that map. Our game has many, many maps and many, many players across all of those maps, including shared things like the Exchange.

And the deep desert is always a shared location. In Dune: Awakening, it is nine times the size of the Conan Exiles map. While there may be 10 instanced survival maps, everyone shares a single deep desert map, so you’ll meet people from all the other maps in that location. This is just a quick overview.

When you said you have different maps, how do you travel between them?

It’s not menu-driven. I don’t know if anyone remembers how it used to work in Age of Conan, you have the world map and you pick which area you want to go to. You can imagine it like that, except it’s actually much more engaging traversal than it was in the old game. You don’t click a button, you actually fly there.

‘Dune Awakening is not about kicking down other people’s sandcastles’.

What’s the difference between deep desert desert versus survival?

They all have the same mechanics. If you think of the planet’s map, there is this thing called the Shield Wall. It’s a range of mountains, and on the outside of the Shield Wall is what they call the deep desert. The inside of the Shield Wall is basically where people build because it’s the safe space on the planet since the sandstorms get blunted by the mountains.

The game is divided into these two major sections. We have the inside and outside of the Shield Wall. The deep desert is a full PvP location. It’s completely seamless, all connected. There’s nine Conan Exiles-sized maps connected by server meshing into one area. There’s no trickery here, there’s no instancing. In that area, the sands will shift when the coriolis storms happen and completely wipe and change that entire map at least once a week.

So, the whole world changes outside of the Shield Wall. Inside is where you build your safe spaces. We’re trying to build a game that has dynamic PvP areas and safe PvE areas where people can build their base.

Is the deep desert like a procedurally generated No Man’s Land?

It’s procedurally generated with rules. There’s a specific logistics play that we want there because the deep desert is where the big spice harvests happen and where the big events happen. We expect guilds to be fighting over resources.

One of the lines we have about Dune Awakening is that it’s not about kicking down other people’s sandcastles. So many of these survival games are about just killing someone else’s base where they’re offline and destroying their fun.

Our game is about actually sending people out to fight over resources at specific locations. Bases are shielded. You can’t really destroy other people’s bases, especially in the PvE area. They’re fairly safe. And then we send you out into the deep desert. That’s where you can engage in chaos and fight over the big resource areas.

When it comes to your base building and the limited space within that area, how are you guys gonna deal with that when you have a large number of players? Is it capped per server?

There’s one version of the deep desert, but in the survival map, we can basically instance it, so there will be enough space there.

WCCFTECH: I understand the focus is mostly on PvP in Dune Awakening, but is there any sort of content for groups of PvE players, like dungeons or raids?

The ecology labs are our dungeons. By the way, I would strongly argue against that it’s all just PvP. The end game has a very strong PvP focus, but PvP is something that I like to define in a slightly different way from just players killing players. It’s actually about giving players common things that they need and then having them compete towards that.

Our political system, for example, is about encouraging players to compete towards specific goals and not necessarily just about killing each other. I would say the game has a player competition focus, but not necessarily a just kill each other, stomp on the corpse kind of focus. That is something we’d like to avoid, which is also why we’re talking about this not knocking down people’s sandcastles thing. It’s important that people know inside the Shield Wall you can build a base, keep it forever, and don’t be too worried about it.

Are you going to be able to learn how to sandwalk?

I’ve had this conversation a few times already, which is kind of why it’s funny. Yes, eventually, but your character wouldn’t know how to do that right away. Unless you’re a duke with a hologram book that teaches you, apparently. But even then, you’re not good at it until you get to the second film and Shani shows you how. But anyway, the point is that we will have something when you get to Fremen and you start working with Fremen or learning things from them. But that’s not what happens at the beginning of the game.

We also tried it at one point and it looked ridiculous, too slow, like you can sprint and run and you can walk and then you can sandwalk and you kind of look like you’re dancing and it’s very slow.

And of course, we can fix that and try to design it in a better way. But for now, it’s not gonna be there. Besides, you should only be able to sandwalk once you get to the point where you’re one with the desert.

‘You can absolutely play the game without doing PvP’.

I know this is an MMO, but as a Dune lover who likes to only do PvE content, can I completely avoid PvP content?

Absolutely. You can play the game without doing PvP. You don’t have to care about it at all. There are spaces in the game that are PvP-marked, but others are marked as like guild peace where there is no combat. All of the social hubs are guild peace areas. Then you have areas that are like partial warfare and then the War of Assassins areas which are full PvP.

We break these spaces up and we tell people when they’re entering one, we let them know.

I just wondered if you were planning to add the riding of the sandworm.

I was waiting for that question. Not for launch. We will add it post-launch for sure. I don’t know how much I need to explain it, but I want it to be meaningful. The movie did such a good job that I’m like, now I really have to do a good job. It’s quite a complicated, expensive feature, and we need to make it feel right for the game.

Can you also carry enemy vehicles with the transport ornithopter?

Yes, actually, it’s something that was kind of funny when we did our PvP tests. You just fly down and pick up someone else’s sandcrawler when they’re in the middle of harvesting with the person inside as well. The problem is, when you get them back to your base, they are gonna jump out of their vehicle and start shooting you. So there’s kind of always an interesting interplay, but yes, you can do that.

WCCFTECH: One of my big question marks is the inevitable environmental fatigue. There’s not really much you can do while staying on Arrakis, but the Dune lore is large, and we know that there are planets with different biomes. We do briefly see them in the movies. Are you considering adding maps located on other planets post-launch to provide some much-needed biome variety?

There’s two points here. First of all, I think there’s a misconception about the desert visuals of Dune caused by the movies. This is not how Herbert described everything. In fact, I think Herbert was thinking more about southern Arizona-style deserts with a few more plants.

He talks about Saguaro cactuses all the time. We have areas in the game that are much greener. And then there’s the polar caps, which are actual polar caps on Arrakis, and they’re clearly there.  We have planned these biomes for the game’s post-launch, particularly the polar caps.

So we have a bit of variety on Arrakis first and foremost. Then, when we start to run out of that, we will start to look at other planets. We have mechanisms in place to enable that. I don’t want to talk about that yet since it’s so far out. Let me get the game finished first. Hopefully, people are playing it and liking it and then we can talk about other planets.

‘When we start to run out of variety, we will start to look at other planets. We have mechanisms in place to enable that’.

Do you have to use water in Dune Awakening apart for your own survival?

Yeah. You need water for a lot of the industrial applications in the game as well, like refining resources in the game requires a certain amount of water. It starts to put pressure on you across the board, but you also gain things like wind traps which allow you to get passive water and so it builds up over time.

That’s how survival games work. You overcome a basic pressure, and then you have a slightly higher version of the same pressure. It’s not a cozy survival game and I don’t think it ever could be, because it’s set on Arrakis. But we did think, let’s not make it a pain in the arse and a chore to play. We’re trying to find the right balance there. I’m sure that as we go forward with our betas we’re gonna continue to hear from players about what is the right balance.

Is getting caught in a sandstorm instant death?

It’s not instant death, but it’s pretty quick. You can survive in a sandstorm for about 30 seconds after it hits. We have a shelter mechanism, so you can huddle up against a wall and kind of hug yourself in an overhang. You’ll probably be okay with the sandstorms in the first areas. Later on, the Coriolis storms will kill you and everything you built.

If you’re in the deep desert during the server wipe, do you see that happen?

You’ll get kicked out. You’ll be warned, though. When we originally discussed the idea, I told the team it’s like the blood moon in Zelda. You need to know that it’s coming for a long time.

So I think you get half a day of warning that this thing’s building up. The coriolis storm is coming and the sky starts to change.

If you do die in the sandstorm, are you able to go back to your corpse to collect resources?

There’s different types of death penalties in Dune Awakening depending on how you die. The sandworm swallows you and everything you carry, so don’t get eaten by the sandworm.

If you’re killed in combat, you first go down but not out. If you’re with friends, they can pick you back up. If you have water, you can get yourself back up. But then if you die die, you’ll drop resources, any spice, harvesting resources, and the money currency (Solari, which you can bank at villages).

There’s different respawn points. We have three types of respawn. You have beacons that you can place out. You can place out one respawn beacon wherever you want. We have a respawn at your base and also a respawn at your last used vehicle.

Then there’s also a checkpoint respawn. When you enter the ecology lab, we’ll save a respawn point for you outside of that. If you die in the ecology lab and you want to recover your corpse, you can go back. You will drop resources. You can get them back from your corpse. In PvP areas, your corpse can be looted by other people.

‘You can survive in a sandstorm for about 30 seconds after it hits. We have a shelter mechanism, so you can huddle up against a wall and kind of hug yourself in an overhang’.

If you die in a PvP area, can someone harvest your remains?

Absolutely.

You spoke about the ecology lab. I think in the lore the goal is bringing paradise to the planet. Is that something we might see at some point in Dune Awakening, where there’s some ecology and environmental change?

We have an alternate timeline for the movies and the books. We will give a very clear understanding to everybody of why and how that came to be before we launch the game. That’s a big beat we’re gonna have later in the year.

Some of the ecology labs have had wind traps and they’ve been collecting water for 10,000 years and that water has been leaking out. Some of the ecology labs, you may have even seen in our art, are just full of plant life. They’re very vibrant and green.

I sort of describe ecology labs a little bit as Vaults from Fallout because 10,000 years ago, they sealed them off. Some of them have been found. Some of them have been used by the Fremen. Some of them have been found by other factions, like bandits.

In the first book, Duke Leto says he wants those ecology labs because they’re full of equipment and who knows what else. Maybe they were experimenting with AI in one of them, even though that’s completely illegal, according to the new law. But maybe they had an AI that they were secretly tinkering with, and it’s been left alone for 10,000 years. What does that cause?

We have this idea that these are breaks from the normal experience in the rest of Dune Awakening. They give you a feeling that there’s more to this universe and there’s something else going on.

Can vehicles get stolen or destroyed?

No. Right now, in the beta, we have a permission system. You can say, this is a vehicle that only I can use, or this is a vehicle that people in my guilds can use. So you can kind of set that permission.

In terms of being destroyed, we have what we call a backup vehicle option, which means you can backup one vehicle so that if your vehicle gets destroyed and you’re in a place that’s hard to get back from, you can summon that vehicle and use it to get back.

There are also other ways of mitigating it. If you lose a vehicle and you’re on a rock island where there’s an NPC base, often they’ll have a vehicle you can steal. They won’t last very long. They’re not very good vehicles, but you can usually steal something and try to get back.

WCCFTECH: Can you share any details on the business model and monetization for Dune Awakening?

I mean, it’s an MMO, so we’re gonna keep it running, which means we’ll probably have some form of monetization post-launch. I don’t think we’re ready to talk about the details of that yet.

In Children of Dune, Leto II becomes a sandworm. Is that gonna be later on the ski or anything like that? *laughs*

There is a main story in the game that the player follows. I think it’s an interesting backbone to the story, and it draws more upon things from Dune Messiah than it does from the original stories. So it has some quite interesting mechanics to it.

But you cannot cover yourself in sandtrout and become a sandworm in the game. That’s definitely not part of the plan.

I did once wanna make it so that when the players take spice in the game – they take it without wanting to because it’s in the air as well. But if you go to a spice blow and you don’t have gear, your spice bar will go up, thus increasing your addiction to spice. The higher the amount of spice in your bloodstream, the more things you see. One of the things we talked about originally was just making mental trips in which they would just turn into a sandworm and roam around on the map., but we decided not to do that.

WCCFTECH: Can we expect a full launch of Dune Awakening before the end of the year?

The best question. I would love to know. I don’t know. We don’t want to ship it till it’s ready. I don’t know how many of you have played Conan Exiles. We have a reputation for interesting ideas and some jank. I would prefer to get rid of the jank. I’d like to launch a game that’s really polished from Funcom. We’ve grown as a company. I think we can deliver a really polished survival experience. It’s a big IP. It’s really hot right now. When we took the IP in 2019, we just knew there’d be a film.

We didn’t know it was gonna be the films that they are right now. It’s blown up into something gigantic. That puts more pressure on us, and obviously, we feel that pressure. So, I want to make sure the game can fulfill the fantasies of Dune fans.

Thank you for your time.

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