Dual Universe: a SF sandbox
They all left for Space. That was my younger son’s first comment when I sent him the link to Dual Universe. It’s true, we are on the verge of resurrection for space games. So many, in fact, that soon the interest may be exhausted. Still, the promises of Dual Universe sound very… promising.
Part of me wants Dual Universe to succeed. The other half says that I should not expect much. You see, I put my money on Star Citizen, I am not sure now how many years ago, and I don’t feel that I will see much of a finished game there. It’s always growing, to be the next big thing, it’s even two games now, it seems, and apparently I bought the wrong one of the two. I am at a point that I don’t even bother much to update the game (are there any updates?), I just don’t care. Sometimes I just feel as if I threw my money out of the window, when I hear the words Star Citizen.
On the other hand, I am very glad I invested in Elite:Dangerous and that I opted — and convinced my sons too — for the Lifetime Expansion Pass. I started on the beta and I am not tired of the sandbox that I had already played 30 years ago, on a 8bit Spectrum machine. Traveling through space in the modern Elite is a way to fill the “holes” in the wireframe images from three decades ago. Modern machines allow to create a graphical experience that we could not even dream about back in the 1980s.
I am also waiting for No Man’s Sky, which promises a rainbow like experience in terms of colour, and recently I bought Apollo 11 VR on Steam — without the VR, just the desktop experience — because I love space exploration related stuff, both fiction and serious. I even looked with curiosity to the recent strategy title Stellaris, from Paradox Interactive. As my son says, everybody is going to space. Even Call of Duty could not resist, and the recent Infinite Warfare has space fighters. The game, developed by Infinity Ward, immerses players in a war that “for the first time in franchise history, extends beyond the reaches of Earth into the vast expanse of our solar system.”
It’s in this scenario that Dual Universe appears. The project has been in development since 2014 and is not to be released, in Alpha, before 2017, but the developer, Novaquark, has decided to start sharing the team’s ideas through some static images that, we’re told, represent what the game will offer.
Dual Universe” is a sandbox Sci-Fi MMORPG currently in development for PC, set within a continuous single-shard universe where players can freely edit the world and build any construction they like with no size restrictions, from space ships to cities to giant space stations. Played in first person view, Dual Universe takes place in a vast realistic universe made of millions of planets, and focuses on emergent collective gameplay based around exploration, mining, crafting, trade, politics and warfare.
Coming into a market where the idea of flying seamlessly from space to ground seems to be the Holy Grail of any space simulation, Dual Universe promises just that, adding that there will be no load screens or zones to interrupt the immersion as you traverse the universe. It’s one of multiple promises of this game, which is an ambitious title, offering, in what is a first time in a single-shard MMO, a world which is entirely modifiable and an unlimited number of players will be free to build together, cooperate or compete. The focus has been made on giving the keys back to the MMORPG fans: using the building blocks provided by the game, the in-game community will make the choices and create the content they will play in.
Dual Universe is in fact, gamewise, contradicting its name, as it is best described as a “Mega MMO”: based on an innovative server technology called CSSC (Continuous Single-Shard Cluster), the game enables everybody to play in the same world, at the same time, without any slicing of the game universe into instances or zones. So, it’s a Dual Universe in a single world!
The secret to make this possible has a name: Unigine 2, engine of vritual worlds. Novaquark announced recently that they changed the underlying game engine from Unreal Engine 4 to Unigine 2. On the company’s website one reads that “Unigine 2 is designed to handle virtual worlds of unprecedented scale without limits: double precision of coordinates, supersonic speed of data streaming and huge visibility distance.”.
The team at Novaquark thought that: “Well, that’s exactly the kind of technology we needed for Dual Universe“. Jean-Christophe Baillie, founder and president of the French company, says that “we had been working with Unreal Engine 4, which has lots of incredible features and excellent rendering quality, but some of the things we wanted to do were more complex, or would have required us to branch the source code of Unreal to basically make our own version. Unigine 2 is much more low level and thus provides us more flexibility and computational power. Unigine 2 is perhaps less developed than Unreal regarding the game engine side (level edition, assets integration, etc, even if this is progressing rapidly and should improve in the near future), but as we generate everything procedurally those features are less relevant for us.”
However, continues Baillie, “the freedom in low level modification and the clear focus of Unigine 2 towards large scale open world rendering was a perfect match for us. It also gives us a great platform to develop our own PBR (Physically Based Rendering) shading framework. We have already started to work with our engineers on many other rendering technologies on top of Unigine 2 features, that will enable us to provide really cool stuffs visually.”
The idea for Dual Universe is not exactly new, being, in fact, and old dream of gamers and a project that Jean-Christophe Baillie has nurtured since 2010. The technology available at the time did not allow to create a gigantic universe but everything from computers to high speed bandwidth and cloud-based scability make the dream viable now. That’s the reason behind the creation of Novaquark, formed in 2014 with veterans from Ubisoft, Sony, Apple and Aldebaran Robotics, united around a goal: to revitalize the MMO genre through technological innovation.
The information available and the images — the images are pre-alpha game engine renderings — are what excites me most and makes me wish Dual Universe becomes real. Or playable! It’s a fascinating idea, but the industry is full of projects that fail. Dual Universe had a first Alpha announced for 2015, then 2016 and now 2017. I hope this means Dual Universe is more than a project that keeps on being delayed to the point it has lost all meaning. If the Novaquark team puts their “Universe” together, I will be one of the first to leave, as they say, my mark on their world.
Note: article first published in May 2016 in a Wordpress blog that I decided to move to Medium this March 19, 2017