Thunderbolt logo

Battling for Arrakis: The Building of a Dynasty

“Whoever controls Dune controls the Spice” announced the narrator in the opening cutscene of Westwood Studio’s seminal 1992 strategy title, Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (or The Battle for Arrakis as it was re-named in Europe). Playing Dune II it soon becomes apparent that the inverse of this opening statement is also true, as gameplay revolves around an economic system in which the harvesting of Spice is the only means of acquiring credits necessary for purchasing units. In fact, whoever controls the Spice controls Dune.

Economies like this had been experimented with in gaming before; Sim Ant by Maxis being the most notable example. But Dune II was the first to implement this mechanic alongside a number of others that would come to form the foundations of what we now call the real time strategy (RTS) genre. Westwood Studio’s took the lore and visual design of David Lynch’s 1984 film, Dune, based on the Frank Herbert novel of the same name (Gigantic Sandworms and all), and around it molded a template that would go on to influence a generation of genre designers to come.

Its premise was simple enough: The emperor of Dune called upon 3 houses to compete in the harvesting of its most precious planetary resource – Spice Melange; an invaluable substance that forms the basis of a galactic economy. This sparked a war, which may seem like a rather odd political strategy, but hey, it provided the perfect backdrop for the events of Dune II, with you as a puppeteer of one of the three houses – the noble Atreides, the insidious Ordos or the evil Harkonnen.

Often creepy house advisors informed you of any new units and the status of your campaign for Dune.

Each took on a distinct personality, which, more than simply colouring your impression based upon their respective adjectives, genuinely affected gameplay. Dune II introduced the concept that different sides could have different units within a strategy game: House Ordos for example, had access to the Saboteur, an espionage unit that could stealthily destroy almost any structure or vehicle. And Harkonnen could build the Death Hand, an expensive ballistic missile launched from Harkonnen palaces that caused massive damage on a wide area.

It’s a simple enough concept that can most clearly be seen today as an influence upon the Starcraft series. It’s easy to imagine that the Terran, Protoss and Zerg could have been homogenously indistinctive from a gameplay perspective had Dune II not seeded this idea.

After choosing an allegiance you were presented with another of Dune II’s key elements that would later influence the development of the RTS genre – the world map. A rectangle of red, blue, green and orange sands, divided by territorial ownership, displayed your progress throughout the game. The freedom of choice you were granted to decide exactly where you advanced the war was another unique aspect in a world of linear titles, with choices being made available depending upon your current borders.

Entering one of these stages presented a coalition of ideas, of which the most initially evident was that of the ‘fog of war’ – an obscuration of terrain unexplored or currently unoccupied by a players’ unit, first used in 1978’s Tanktics. But its employment within the RTS scenario dictated tactics that can still be seen in today’s competitive RTS titles, such as scouting. And its influence can be felt as far and wide as Westwood’s own Command and Conquer franchise, Civilisation and rather literally in the Advance Wars series.

Remember the constant crackly radio chatter in response to your commands? “chhhrk Acknowledge”, “chhhrk Yes sir.”

Gameplay from here on in was controlled by the use of context sensitive mouse based inputs, another genre innovation, influenced by the Apple Mac software interface. And proceedings revolved around building a base with which to defend and attack the enemy.

Like Matthew’s bible reference to the wise man, structures could only be placed upon patches of rock, with the addition of concrete foundations avoiding future deterioration. Each building had a purpose, be it the harvesting silo, or the infantry training barracks. Players could build up defensive walls and turrets to protect their base, which might seem like a trivial element now, but back then was a radically fresh idea.

The list of subsequent titles that have used the concept of a centralised hub of operations is massive (Giantbomb composed a handy list here), and proves, yet again, another example of a gameplay element that went on to become the de-facto standard for RTS games post Dune II.

But far from the lone progenitor of the genre, Dune II was actually released after a number of other strategy games with a claim to that particular throne (including Herzog Zwei), that many would argue designed each of these individual elements in the first place. So whilst it may not have been the first game to create the individual systems, it was inarguably the first to bring them all together as one cohesive whole.

Precious blotted red spice fields stood out like a rash on skin against the paler sands of Dune.

Even today, 20 years after its release, the influence of Dune II reverberates throughout the RTS genre, as those paradigms laid down by Westwood in 1992 remain standards. The fog of war, base building, an economic balance between the collection and spending of a resource, and context sensitive mouse based unit controls. It’s hard to understate just how many genre tropes this battle for Arrakis coalesced, and the lack of advancement beyond them since tells of what a solid foundation it was.

Although Dune II does have its own lineage of direct sequels – the lacklustre remake Dune 2000 and Emporer: Battle for Dune – its true progeny was not that of its own kin. It’s the succession of understudies who took the incredibly well thought out template laid down by Westwood in 1992, and moulded it into their own games. Command and Conquer, Starcraft, Warcraft, Civilisation, Total Annihilation, the list goes on and on.

I doubt Westwood Studios were aware of how meaningful the title ‘Building of a Dynasty’ would come to bare for them with Dune II, but for all who enjoy the RTS genre in its modern day incarnation, well you have Dune II to thank for being embryonic in the creation of each of these titles. And that, in and of itself, is it’s dynasty.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2012. Get in touch on Twitter @matski53.

Gentle persuasion

You should check out our podcast.