Simply put, Dual Universe is a ludicrously ambitious game. An MMO with a single shared universe, limitless mining and crafting, a player driven economy, governments, companies, industry, planetary exploration… the list goes on and on. Yet it feels like we’ve been here before, with the seemingly endless potential of No Man’s Sky that players were ultimately disappointed by, and it’s something that creator and Novaquark founder JC Baillie is keenly aware of.
The game’s Kickstarter campaign, which passed it’s funding goal over the weekend and wraps up in the next day and a bit, has obviously set out to describe everything that the developers want the game to be, but they’ve also aimed to show that it’s actually possible. In fact, they wouldn’t be here if JC hadn’t already been able to prove to himself that this was doable, that the Continuous Single-Shard Cluster server technology could make all of this possible.
JC said, “The message I want to send, it’s like our manifesto, is to say we are living in a post-No Man’s Sky era. Half of the comments we have on everything we do is, ‘Oh, another No Man’s Sky. No thank you. Goodbye.'”
So, in this post-No Man’s Sky world, it’s a case of developers being more open. “We are going to be very, very transparent,” he explained. “We already opened our offices for backers on Kickstarter, so they could come and see and play with the game and see the demo, just as I’m doing with you, actually. We are totally honest, we are telling them that we don’t have all the gameplay yet, we’re just building the gameplay and we have the technology that supports everything.”
That in mind, what he demonstrates is truly impressive. Put in the time and effort and what you can achieve is vast. If you want to design and build your own space ship, you can; if you wish to pool your resources with a faction and build a vast space station, you can; if you want to be an explorer, living on the frontiers and discovering new planets, you can.
The key to making all of this possible is to start small and grow as needed. Every player starts at the first planet, Alioth, coming out of a huge arkship that was sent out from Earth to create a new beginning for the human race. From this safe zone, in which there is no potential for PvP fighting, destruction or theft, they can branch out and start to explore and set up the first foundations of a new interstellar civilisation. It’s like building the OASIS from Ready Player One, JC says.
All of this is built upon the barest of building blocks. Carving your way into the world is easy enough, using voxel technology to mine the landscape, as is placing then turning these into basic building blocks for structures, but to go from that to making a space ship is also very simple. All you need to do is to have a core unit at the heart of the ship, add various elements like engines in the right place, a cockpit to sit it and, depending on how sensible your design is, it will fly, letting you take off and head seamlessly from the planet surface into space.
The beauty of this is that, you can then take that ship design blueprint, manufacture it and sell it to other players, or buy a ship that another player has designed. That goes from the smallest single-man rockets, right up to the largest capital ships, with space for hundreds of players to run around in and their own custom Lua scripting. The whole idea is that, while Novaquark are providing the building blocks, everything in the game will be created by players.
Governments, corporations, cities and so much more is built in a similarly modular fashion. In many ways, Novaquark have reverse engineered real world structures and organisations in order to see what makes them tick, offering up the individual parts that are then needed to build them up again by players.
“That’s the sort of design principle,” JC said. “It’s a back and forth mechanism. We look at different things, we try to imagine the building blocks, then we play with those building blocks and we try to reconstruct them, but if something is missing we add and go back and forth until we have something that stands.
“We’ll probably also add some templates that are predefined based on those building blocks. So we’ll add some ‘Democratic Structure 101’ as a simple starting point for people who don’t care about that, who don’t want to bother designing their own structure.”
And some people have already bought into the idea. Before the game is even out, a community has sprung up, forming hundreds of organisations that will, once they’re allowed into the game, start to vie for power and influence. With a player driven economy, similar to Eve: Online, it’s these kinds of factions and groups that will surely come to shape the universe.
Looking beyond the immediate building of cities, space stations and growing territories, it will take a lot of resources and effort to broaden the range of the known galaxy. Planned for an expansion after the game’s release, building a star gate network will be a serious undertaking. Sending a probe out to a nearby system takes weeks or months, but it’s just the first of several step in building these fast travel star gates, so that the masses can make the same journey. Explorers will naturally want to be the first ones through. It’s they who will land first on new worlds, charting the biomes, the natural resources and scouting for new safe zones that players can return to.
“Building a star gate is a sort of strategic thing to do, and you will not do it lightly, I would say. The consequence is that the universe is going to fill slowly with more people and more planets, but there’s a difference between the existing universe and the known, explored universe, which is the part that people will have explored.”
It’s a clever conceit, because it allows the game to start small and grow, with Novaquark able to add new and interesting content on the edges. This isn’t going to be populated by NPCs, JC says, but just with players – though AI bots will help to amplify and boost the game’s economy in various ways initially – and so having just a single system to start with and making expansion a cooperative endeavour is a clever decision.
Honestly, it still all sounds too good to be true, but that’s where Novaquark’s efforts at transparency come into it. JC explained to me how they’ve already been testing with thousands of players on their servers – one amusing video simulates tons of AI bots in a field performing a gigantic hokey-cokey – before projecting that up to tens and hundreds of thousands. He takes me from one planet to its moon and back to a space station, always keen to demonstrate that each of these is easily modifiable, that this whole galaxy is at the mercy of the players.
“I think in our case, 25 [developers at Novaquark] is both small and big,” JC said. “It’s small because there are a lot of challenges, obviously, and it’s big in the sense that we don’t create content. That’s a fundamental thing to explain why it makes sense, why we’re not completely crazy.
“We’re not building content, we’re just creating the building blocks and the biomes, and things like that. It’s something – we have a bunch of artists working – but it’s not like we’re going to create whole cities, populate it with NPCs, each of them with their own story… That would cost a lot of money and a lot of people to do it.
“In a sense, we’re a platform company. We’re building this machinery that allows people to invent their own story, and that makes the whole thing, you know, believable.”
Dual Universe is a fantastical daydream of a game, but it honestly looks like we’re ready to see it be made into reality.