Dual Universe: The MMORPG for Builders

I recently got to view a special demo of Dual Universe to see that it’s in facts not vaporware. While I was sadly unable to record any footage or take pictures, I am able to tell you what I saw, heard, and learned about the project from the game’s creator JC Baillie.

The Tech

monopoly-board

There are several pieces of tech going into the development of Dual Universe, the biggest being how the servers are run. The basic idea is that the server is arranged into squares, and depending on the population and location, the square may be divided into smaller pieces and take priority in updating client to server info based on your location. Maybe something more familiar can help me explain this though.

Think about the server like a Monopoly game board inhabited by players. First, imagine each of the four sides of the board are almost like their own server. As players inhabit these sections, they break down depending on how densely populated they are. Let’s say you’re visiting Jail and looking at players on the dark green properties. That’s half way across the board, so the server decides the information you’re getting doesn’t need to be updated as quickly. That means that even when you get to Board Walk, what you’re seeing is still almost in the past, even though you’re on a server that’s closer to the action if everyone is on, say, Bond Street.

So if you’re on Board Walk, the server has broken down into Dark Blue vs. Dark Green. If you enter Dark Green, you’re seeing the action at a better rate, but the three properties are each their own server. Closer still, on Bond Street where there’s lots of players, each player almost inhabits their own House as a server. At this point, movement is basically in real-time.

This is how Dual Universe proposes to make huge servers a reality. From afar, you can see a delayed reaction of the game world, but the closer you get to densely populated locations, the quicker you receive information from the server. While this sounds good on paper, it actually seemed to work well enough on the bot driven demo Novaquark’s JC Baille was showing. About a hundred avatars in a circle simply walked in a straight line, collided, and walked out. While there was a bit of a slow down, it was only barely perceptible, and only because I had expected it. Even better was a further, zoomed out video with thousands of bots in various parts of the game world in varying densities going about their business. While there was some erratic behavior viewable from this distance it was better than what I’d hope for, with pre-alpha technology, though still rough enough that I could understand it driving off less patient fans. I don’t believe in perfection, but compared to other games, Dual Universe’s solution seems to work the best so far.

Then there’s the universe. Instead of saving all the procedurally generated planets on a hard drive as raw data, they’re stored as algorithms waiting to generate when a players comes close enough. If a player changes the planet, the changes are what’s saved and added back later. However, to note, there are just a few planets for now, but they’re procedurally generated, so we know the system works.

The third big piece of tech I was shown was the planetary voxel engine. This is more than just the fact that planets are basically giant voxel resources that can be fully dissected. The engine allows for very, very large building projects, as it treats planets and other systems, like spaceships, in the same way. This allows for truly massive building projects. While the developers cheated a bit by giving themselves enough resources to build it, I was shown a massive space station built by the developers that reminded me a bit of bulkier version of the rebel station at the end of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. However, as we zoomed into the ship, down to first person perspective, I realized just how large this example was. This ship was easily bigger than World of Warcraft’s Stormwind, and I’m fairly sure it was deeper than Undercity. The tech makes it literally possible to create a Death Star, assuming you have enough people, materials, and time to make it.

 

Current and Emerging Gameplay

If Novaquark were to suddenly cancel the game and stop production right when I saw my demo, the game would be left in a pre-alpha state with the above tech, a game world with terraforming and crafting, specifically of working, customizable ships that can take off. To note, for the moment, there’s no item decay, but that may come later because obviously it helps the economy. However, things can be lost through war, so the team wants to see how that affects the economy first. While the ships themselves are part pre-made, they’re also part hand built through voxel manipulation. Similar to upcoming game Worlds Adrift, they have separate working pieces that also need to be balanced (no planes flying straight with a right mounted engine without a left one to stop it from spinning).

You can also script ship actions with LUA. There’s no level/in-game skill restrictions stopping you from making a cool script, just your own ability. If you’re worried about your programming skills though, don’t worry, as there will be configurations that automatically script to ensure your ship can fly. Heck, if your ship’s no good, it may even give you tips on what needs to be fixed.

But what’s space without planets to explore? As I said before, there are a few celestial bodies right now, but the team wants moving planets. It’s not hard to do, but it brings problems. For example, if planets move around the sun and you go afk in space in a planet’s orbital path before leaving on vacation, something would need to happen to that ship, and realistically it’s nothing good. It may just mean planets rotate in place instead, but its yet to be decided.

For those who missed one of the game’s biggest features in our discussion so far, I’ll repeat that Novaquark wants to launch a single, global server and not regional ones. The plan would be to not include language translation tools but force people to interact naturally, which would mean that English would probably become the lingua franca. As someone who played Darkfall, I know that this means that those who aren’t good at English may suffer, especially politically, as I recall alliances that specialized in non-English languages that didn’t work with English speakers generally didn’t keep their territory for long.

Like Darkfall, or the more relevant EVE Online, Dual Universe is aiming to be less of a level based game and one emphasizing resources, skills, and real world knowledge. For example, you shouldn’t expect to be able to make a galactic sized organization from day one. The system will have options for multiple leadership options in addition to how resources are shared and territorials are governed. However, if you aren’t good with people, you won’t have many diplomacy “skill” benefits. This allows for direct translation of real life and gamer skills combined in a system (hopefully) emphasizing the need for multiple players with various talents, unfolding in a world large enough to literally hold its entire player base together. It sounds very promising, but naturally we’ll have to see how it plays out.

While certain skills will use real life information, others won’t. Novaquark has a basic building game but wants other systems implemented down the line, such as survival mechanics or chemical play where players figure out how to make volatile substances more safe before crafting. The crafting plan is to require several people to progress through building even bare basics like weapons and ships. The hope is that big building projects means there are lots of “jobs” to be had, which means there’s potentially less need for quests. In fact, Novaquark currently doesn’t plan on pumping out a lot of quests or developer led events, mostly just a tutorial to give players the basics. Naturally, though, that requires players to want to be a part of sandbox play, and I know players who just log into games looking for arrows to follow.

 

Community and PvP

cockpit_space

You may have noticed at this point that I’ve said little to nothing about combat. Well, that’s because the game currently doesn’t have any, and I think that’s important. To note though, Novaquark is very open to community feedback, but they have their own ideas too. For example, LUA’s going to be in, period. Features are also dependent on related systems, so don’t expect space combat before basic combat’s even in it.

That being said, there are no plans to include NPC enemies beyond possibly aggressive animals, and even those aren’t planned for the alpha or beta as part of the survival/food systems. Maybe we’ll see them later to add more of a Minecraft feeling, but the current emphasis right now is on the building tools. Survival needs to be done right, and Novaquark will put the question to the community (in fact, it could come before combat if players want).

For now, the plan is that when combat goes in, safe zones will remain 100% safe to the point where you won’t be able to use a weapon in them. No killing someone’s space-chickens when the guards aren’t looking. The emphasis is on player interactions, either through building together or fighting (economically, verbally, and eventually through direct combat), not killing a high tech alien empire through quests. While player generated content can sometimes be a weak point, the hope is that the game’s possibilities will encourage players to “do stuff” instead of seek out developer generated content.

This is why the team is focused on gameplay that gets people to do things together. However, the world is big enough that you could potentially feel like you’re building a society from the beginning by going out and finding a remote, uninhabited planet or digging a hole and living underground where no one will find you. That being said, the game isn’t meant to be a single-player game. If the game doesn’t have enough players in the world doing “stuff,” it will suffer.

While I’d wager most MMO players these days are nomads jumping from game to game, the”glue” that Novaquark is hoping to sticks is having not just good PvP but safe zones for people who want to build massive projects. Safe zones won’t just be in starter zones, so knowing and finding those (or having someone else do that) will hopefully not only help players avoid combat, but give them travel options. There needs to be a safe place for the non-direct combat activities, not just building and crafting but also diplomacy. This also helps ensure that explorers have something to do beyond figuring out where there are rare materials. The hope is that being able to build something, physically or socially, will keep players around.

Understandably, most games with great building systems and PvP suffer, as we’ve seen in the survival game genre. For PvP, or combat in general, the “problem” in Dual Universe is that you don’t just spawn with a weapon. You’ll need to buy or make a weapon first, which requires some social work in the current plan. I must admit that as the game is hoping to use an EVE like system and even have ships for sale on the auction house, a new player could potentially “buy” game time, sell it on the market, and buy a weapon. However, then the player would need to leave the safe zone. You’re not supposed to be able to jump in as a loner and destroy the established world around you.

In fact, the problem is that emphasizing crafting is supposed to emphasize an arms race, where a new player going around killing people with a hand crafted weapon will be taken out by a veteran with a bigger gun, hopefully forcing that loner to work together with others to overcome their disadvantage. Survival games have a similar mechanic, but usually don’t require other players’ help in the crafting process, as each player can do basically everything. While players are free to just leave the game if they get too frustrated, the social play with large projects and safe zones are supposed to be what keeps them around. Whether or not that actually works remains to be seen.

What does stand out is that Baille acknowledged, without me asking, that safe zones also help encourage role play. As there’s no combat in the alpha but there is robust crafting, there’s hope that the building will focus on community first and strife later. Dual Universe aims to be a hardcore gaming experience that is hoping to be accessible but have very deep systems that are difficult to master, which is theoretically how you’d get good balance between Bartle’s Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, and Killers. Achievers would race to build the first ships, Explorers would find new safe zones, Socializers would inhabit them, and Killers would seek to prey on those who leave the safe zones in their search for glory.

That being said, at the start it may take a few weeks or months before players begin to see ships that allow for some of the more interesting activities. Being level-less, however, means that when other people join the game later, it will be possible to just give them some supplies or for them to find organizations that help them jump into their area of choice and function in a niche needed by the player base. Considering the magnitude of Novaquark’s dream, Dual Universe seems to have both a need and the theoretic space to house it.

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