Dune: Awakening Wants to Turn the War for Arrakis into the Ultimate Survival MMO

Exclusive: The team behind Dune: Awakening talks to us about re-imagining the Atreides timeline to turn the classic sci-fi series into the ultimate survival MMO experience.

With the release of two blockbuster films, it’s a great time to be a Dune fan. Remarkably, things are about to get even better as development is well underway on an upcoming survival MMO game called Dune: Awakening.

Developed and published by Funcom, Awakening is set in an alternate timeline where Paul Atreides is never born and Baron Harkonnen’s planned destruction of House Atreides is derailed after Leto Atreides begins mining valuable spice on the harsh desert planet of Arrakis. This results in an ongoing war for Arrakis between Houses Atreides and Harkonnen, with the Fremen seemingly wiped out in the crossfire as the two factions vie for control of the planet and its spice flow.

At Summer Game Fest 2024, Dune: Awakening social and economic director Matt Woodward showed us an early build of Dune: Awakening and its many features and explains to us how the game itself works with the treacherously familiar elements of Arrakis, and how the eagerly anticipated online game puts players right in the middle of this shifting war straight from Frank Herbert’s classic novels.

Creating a Faithful (and Deadly) Arrakis

In the Dune: Awakening early build, the player character is seen exploring the vast deserts of Arrakis and, when navigating this landscape out in the open, they must be mindful of their temperature and water levels. When traversing Arrakis by ornithopter, players must also keep an eye on their vehicle’s fuel and which faction strongholds they can refuel at. Arrakis is a mean place that punishes those approaching it recklessly and these numerous survivalist elements are carefully managed by the developers.

Ad – content continues below

“We’re constantly playtesting and tuning a lot, trying to find the right place,” Woodward explains. “We don’t want to make it too easy. Arrakis is the most dangerous planet in the universe. It has to feel hard and inscrutable. We think players want that ‘surviving-on-Arrakis experience,’ so we need to give them a struggle to get over and keep that struggle going for a long time. It’s an interesting challenge to keep it balanced and keep it working, but we’re getting there.”

Of course, Arrakiis’ most iconic natural hazard appears prominently in Dune: Awakening – the sandworms. Generating too much noise while on the planet’s surface can attract sandworms to a particular location in a given region of Arrakis, threatening to indiscriminately swallow any Atreides and Harkonnen forces in the immediate vicinity like the destructive force of nature that it is. More than just evading the sandworms, Dune: Awakening allows players to deliberately lure sandworms to locations on the map, putting any enemies in their path at risk.

“The worm is a whole emergent system that’s running on the server the whole,” Woodward points out. “There are absolutely things you can do to manipulate it. We have thumpers in the game, for example, and use them to draw the worm away from your harvesting situation if you want. If you all happen to be running across the same bit of desert, you’re probably all going to get eaten. We’re trying to build something that feels authentic to how the planet should work and letting the players get used to that and learn how to avoid the challenges.”

Navigating the War for Arrakis

Dune: Awakening is more a simple alternate timeline rehash of House Atreides versus House Harkonnen, with each of the warring houses possessing their own internal hierarchies and infighting for power. This constant state of conflict and vicious competition does more than mirror Herbert’s novels and the movies but provides the game’s factions with a dynamic sense of balance.

“We’re pretty confident that the way it’s going to shake out is that players are going to find their own balance,” Woodward predicts. “The beauty of the political context in Dune is that everything is very feudal. There are all these different hierarchies of power and competing things within, like how the Harkonnen operate, for example.”

The developers are conscious of internal strife and have provided Dune: Awakening with a check-and-balance system that prevents either of the factions from becoming overly dominant on the map. In fact, being in a faction that is the more dominant power should have players watching their backs from seemingly friendly faces looking to backstab them to advance in their House’s standings.

Ad – content continues below

“If the Harkonnen are starting to dominate, we’re expecting more backstabbing happening there that gives the Atreides a way back in,” Woodward adds. “We’re going to keep an eye on it and make sure that there are mechanics in place to make sure that nothing gets too far out-of-whack. If you’re on the winning side, you want to be the top dog on the winning side. That creates another level of competition that’s going to keep things spicy for players.”

Threading the Needle Between New and Familiar

Through its alternate timeline premise, Dune: Awakening is neither a direct adaptation of Herbert’s novels nor the enormously successful movies produced by Legendary Pictures. However, Funcom has worked closely with both entities to incorporate elements of their narrative spirit and visual presentation into the game. This unique premise also allows the developers more creative freedom rather than being completely beholden to the literary source material or films.

“We’ve obviously worked very closely with Legendary and the Herbert estate,” Woodward shares. “They’ve both been really supportive partners. It’s really good to have our own space to play in. The timeline gives us something that we think makes sense and takes us to a fun new place that isn’t treading on the toes of each other. We have our space, the films have their space, and we’re playing somewhere that works for us really well.”

For Woodward and the rest of the development team, the journey towards making Dune: Awakening has been long, meticulous, and not without its fair share of surprises. Development on the game began before either of the Legendary Pictures movies were released, which has since significantly reinvigorated global interest in the franchise. Doing their best not to let this heightened scrutiny affect them, the developers continue to polish and fine-tune Dune: Awakening to be the best game it can possibly be as they showcase the early build at SGF 2024.

“When we started this journey, this was pre-films. Dune was a venerable sci-fi IP that we were working with, but it wasn’t setting the world on fire, and then this all kicked off,” Woodward reflects. “People are so excited about this game and, every time we show it, people are telling us that they want to see more. We’ve been packed all week and we just want to live up to it as well as we can. It’s always a struggle in game dev to land at the place where you want to land, but we’re getting there as best we can. We’re hoping that people will be happy with the result because we really appreciate the attention that everyone is giving, the interest that people are showing, and the joy that we’re seeing around this.”

Dune: Awakening is developed and published by Funcom. The game is slated to be released for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.

Ad – content continues below