Dual Universe is only in pre-alpha, but players have already made their mark in its virtual galaxy. JC Baille, founder of developer Novaquark, tells me that there's only about 3,000 players who have access to the ambitious sci-fi MMO a day or two a week. During that time, they've constructed cities, erected temples, and, yes, built a McDonalds and a Subway. Because even space colonists need a sando now and again.
Yesterday, I sat down with Baille and Olivier Derache, Novaquark's marketing manager, for an hour-long tour through the live version of Dual Universe. It was a fun peek into a game that, since its announcement, has been turning heads by claiming to be the next step in the evolution of MMOs. When it launches in the next few years, Dual Universe will be a sandbox universe where millions of players all play on one server thanks to innovative multiplayer technology. They can harvest resources and shape the planet, craft fully customizable spaceships and buildings using advanced voxel tech, and even claim territory, form societies, and go to war. It's still far too early to tell if Dual Universe will ever live up to that promise, but what's there is still exciting.
In the pre-alpha version, the need to harvest resources is switched off so it plays much more like Minecraft's creative mode. Logging into the server brought us to a lush boreal forest where Baille quickly demonstrated how to gather resources. If you haven't seen it in action, it's a lot like other survival games that rely on voxel technology like No Man's Sky. Each time you zap a portion of the earth it disappears and reshapes the surrounding landscape. Baille tells me it's quite possible to dig a tunnel all the way to a planet's core. You'd just need a couple hundred hours, that is.
Turning on god mode, Baille then flew into the sky to demonstrate Dual Universe's seamless rendering technology, where you can travel astronomical distances and everything loads in as you go. It's not as impressive as it was when games like No Man's Sky first debuted it, but it's still a fun thing to see. What's cool is that all of this isn't happening in a singleplayer game or even, like Empyrion: Galactic Survival, a limited multiplayer game. Though the server was offline when we played, it's possible that your orbital trips might be accompanied by thousands of other players. That sense of scale is a little astounding.
We spent the next hour flying around to various spots on various planets so Baille could show me some of the things players have already built. Near the North Pole of the first planet, we found an ornate, alien-looking temple built over a small island on a frozen lake. Baille tells me that players discovered a 2001-esque monolith embedded there and decided to build a temple to protect and honor it. On another planet in the system, 14 kilometers into a crater the size of North America, Baille will show me another monolith that players are building a temple around. They don't know what it means, but cryptic runes engraved in each one already have them guessing.
And then there's "Dual U's" and "DUway," the in-game equivalent of McDonald's and a Subway. They're fully kitted out restaurants located in the downtown center of a player-built city complete with actual menu boards showing off cheeseburgers and turkey sandwiches. A part of me loves that players have made this, and another part of me is deeply concerned with why these sci-fi sandbox games always have to have fast food chains in them.
These detailed buildings are possible thanks to Dual Universe's crafting system, which might be the most complex I've ever seen. On the surface, there's the basic system where you can select objects in your inventory and simply place them in the world. You could, for example, hand-sculpt a spaceship hull out of metal and then place a cockpit and engine on it. Dual Universe will automatically understand your intent and wire everything together so that your cockpit will control the thrust of the engine. From there, you'll want to place stabilizing thrusters to add steering functionality and maybe hollow out the hull to add interior compartments for storage. It's all completely freeform and Baille says the system lies somewhere between Kerbal Space Program and more casual ship crafting survival games. You still have to care about the fundamentals of design, but if your rocket isn't perfectly aligned with the ship's center of gravity you won't create a destabilization that rips you to bits as you take off.
The crafting system goes way deeper than that, however. When I spoke to Baille at PAX West last year, he demonstrated how LUA scripting can play a role in tailoring how objects interact. Every object has a programming window where you can type in lines of code. You can, for example, program autopilot functions so when you push a certain key on your keyboard, your ship performs a maneuver all on its own. Earlier, Baille showed me a game of Breakout that a developer programmed that played out on an in-game monitor that also doubles as an HTML renderer. It's complex stuff that surely won't appeal to most players, but it's that kind of depth that I'm sure will keep some heavily invested.
What I love about this system is that these scripts are a fundamental part of the object they're coded into, and can be sold to other players. Baille describes his vision where players create a business out of programming and selling ships, home defense systems, and a lot more. Unlike most survival games, there's no need to be a jack of all trades. The MMO aspect of Dual Universe will create an economy you can rely on so you spend more time doing what you enjoy.
If there's one major drawback from my preview, it's that right now the rendering really struggles to keep up and pop in is a major issue. Densely built areas took up to a full minute before it finally rendered in high resolution. It's something that Baille tells me the team is constantly improving upon, and an unreleased build has already made significant improvements to it. And while the underlying tech that allows thousands of players to inhabit one area of space makes sense, a part of me just won't believe it until I see it in action and at a stable ping.
Above: a two hour video Q&A session from the Terran Union leaders.
The pop in made appreciating some of the cool things a little more difficult, but I love how passionate Dual Universe's players already are. On the website, Baille showed me a forum where player-run organizations can hang out, recruit, and share information among one another. As someone that was roleplaying in Lord of the Rings Online's forums almost a year before the game was even playable, I love seeing Dual Universe's virtual culture already beginning to sprout. The Terran Union, for example, already has 600 members and is embroiled in diplomatic drama against other nations like The Soul Nebula and Eldritch Order. It's these kinds of things that give me hope that Dual Universe could become, like EVE Online, a game that creates endless player-driven stories and drama.
It will take time to find out for sure, though. Dual Universe is still in pre-alpha and is only tentatively scheduled to release at the end of 2018—something I wouldn't be surprised to see pushed back further. I'm okay with waiting, though, because I'm intensely interested in seeing how Dual Universe continues to grow.