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15 June, 2024
Dune Video Games

Spice Fights: A Brief History of Dune Video Games

The original series of Dune novels, written by Frank Herbert in the 1960s, has served as a major sci-fi influence since its inception. Despite being an early titan of its genre, Dune failed to hit mainstream popularity in the same way as Star Wars and other peers, mostly due to a failed movie adaptation in 1984. While it would take roughly 40 years until Hollywood succeeded with the most recent Dune films (directed by Denis Villeneuve), the series has been making an important mark on video games during the decades between. As legions of fans flock to check out the latest Dune: Part Two film in theaters, now’s as good of a time as any to reflect on how Dune impacted the gaming world, and you might be surprised at the level of its influence.

Dune Arrives in the 1990s

Despite the failure of the 1984 movie adaptation, video game designer Mark Alper was always inspired by Frank Herbert’s novels. In the late 1980s, Alper dug deep to obtain the interactive adaptation rights from Universal Pictures and was ultimately successful in 1990. Just two years later, working in tandem with the French studio, Cryro Interactive, Alper and his publisher Virgin Interactive would release their first game on PC and Sega CD, simply titled Dune (1992). This first foray into the wild desert world of Arrakis followed the major events of the first novel, following protagonist Paul Atreidies as he attempts to defeat the villainous faction of House Harkonnen. Combining the strategy and graphical adventure genres, Dune was a success from day one, eventually going on to sell over 300,000 copies by the late 1990s.

That said, it was the sequel that really made a splash in the gaming industry, as Dune II: The Building of Dynasty established a formula that is still seen in games to this day. Developed by Westwood Studios, now best known for their Command & Conquer franchise, Dune II was also published by Virgin Interactive and was released in 1992 as well. Removing the graphical adventure aspect of the original game and instead doubling down on the strategy, Dune II is commonly seen as the first major real-time strategy game. Although this sequel was far from the first RTS in existence, it popularized many mechanics that would become staples in the genre, including an isometric viewpoint, resource gathering and grid-style building, and much more.

Spice fights

A partial remake of Dune II, dubbed Dune 2000, was released in 1998 and brought the “refined” RTS experience to both the PC and PlayStation 1. While the 1992 version was highly acclaimed for its fascinating technology and excellent gameplay mechanics, Dune 2000 wasn’t as celebrated. Many fans criticized balancing issues and waning production quality, while others asked why a remake of Dune II was even needed in the first place. However, this lukewarm reception didn’t stop the ongoing development of several more Dune video games.

The 2000s and Today

In 2001, Westwood Studios and Intelligent Games joined forces to release Emperor: Battle for Dune, published by EA Games. Trying to adjust after their previous game failed to meet expectations, the developer opted to make a true sequel to Dune 2000, continuing the story and amping up the graphics and gameplay. In addition to refinements to their RTS formula, Emperor: Battle for Dune also featured live-action cut scenes, multiplayer, and more. While this new game was better received than Dune 2000, it was still met with mediocre response. The same fate would befall another 2001 Dune video game, titled Frank Herbert’s Dune, which was developed by Cryo Interactive. This 3D adventure game was based on a mini-series created by the Sci Fi Channel, but like the mini-series, the game was a critical flop. As Cryo Interactive was already hanging on by a thread during development, the critical and commercial failure of Frank Herbert’s Dune ultimately resulted in the studio filing for bankruptcy.

As Dune video games slipped from genre-defining to generally dull, it was clear that gamers were done playing in the sands of Arrakis. Two other Dune games were in development during the early 2000s, including a 3D RTS called Dune Generations and a top-down shooter called Dune: Ornithopter Assault, but they were both effectively canceled before release. However, Dune: Ornithopter Assault would eventually be released 20 years later as Elland: The Crystal Wars, retaining the same gameplay but without the Dune license.

Dune Video Games
Dune Spice Wars

Between 2001 and 2020, Dune video games were all but dead. However, when Denis Villeneuve struck gold with his flashy film adaptation in 2021, the gears of game development started churning once more. Currently, there is only one modern Dune game available, dubbed Dune: Spice Wars, an RTS developed by Shiro Games and inspired by the classic Dune and Dune II games from the early 1990s. Additionally, developer Funcom also recently announced a first-person survival game called Dune: Awakening, which tasks players with surviving the harsh sands of Arrakis in a persistent multiplayer experience.

Spice Fights
Dune Video Games

The Future of Dune Video Games

Overall, Dune video games were once just as niche as the novels, but they made important leaps for the real-time strategy genre. Without classics like Dune II, RTS masterpieces like Starcraft and Warcraft III would not be the same. Although Dune video games needed to die to be reborn, hopefully this new generation of interactive experiences on Arrakis will fare better than those of the early 2000s. Either way, we’re excited to see where this mammoth franchise heads next. I’m still waiting on the Dune version of Star Wars: Battlefront, but that’s probably just a pipe dream.


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