With the intention of wanting to take the MMO genre back to its roots, Novaquark’s forthcoming Dual Universe is a space-based game that is currently getting a lot of attention online. With a Kickstarter campaign currently in progress, the developer is promising that players will be able to do anything within its persistent universe, and that they will be able to craft anything they want as part of a fully editable voxel world. To this extent, the game is already being dubbed as “EVE Online meets Minecraft meets No Man’s Sky“.
However, there are already some concerns regarding Novaquarks’s ambitious project, not least because of how Hello Games over-promised and under-delivered with their controversial No Man’s Sky. And with this taken into account, some MMO fans are also questioning the indie developer’s design decision of focusing on PVP gameplay where players are all part of an emergent universe that is fully editable as part of a sandbox environment.
Just what safeguards will be in place to ensure that players won’t have their fun and creations ruined by those who don’t share their ideals? To discuss this and more, I spoke to Jean Christophe Baillie (Founder of Novaquark) and also got to ask him as to whether the developer has any plans of imbuing its universe with a narrative so as to help players in finding their online purpose. Enjoy!
What was the inspiration for Dual Universe? I understand that you want to take Dual Universe back to the roots of what MMOs were about. But what is it about contemporary MMOs, or the way games in that genre presently are, that frustrate you enough to the extent that you want Dual Universe to go back to the genre’s roots – like EVE Online for example?
Yeah, but that’s a very good question. Actually, there are two games that I played a lot and I loved a lot, which are EVE Online where you have all this emergent gameplay, where things are happening in this world. But I felt limited by it because everything you encounter in the game is made by the developers. So at some point, you discover the same things. All the ships are basically the same. So the scope of the universe is limited.
And on the other side, there was another game, Minecraft, that I played a lot, which was kind of the opposite. You could build anything you want. Everything was new and interesting. But it was limited because it was a single-player game. You didn’t have the sense of meaning in everything you were doing because this was not an MMO.
So I thought we should combine these two things. These two concepts of a huge, gigantic universe that is shared by everybody at the same time. So you get emergent gameplay where you can do politics, territory control, social things, economy, and all those aspects that are exciting. But at the same time, you have the capability to build everything in this game. So you can build your cities, your starships, your orbital stations with an unlimited scale of how big things are. This sounds pretty crazy because there are a lot of technological challenges.
I have a background in technology. I did a Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics. Previously, I had a company in robotics that I sold to Aldebaran Robotics, SoftBank in 2012.
Is that how you funded the company?
Partly. We also have other investors. So the idea is that I do complex technologies. That’s what I like. So I take a difficult problem. I try to see if there is a solution. That’s what I did a bit early, before 2014. And then I managed to do this technology that allows everybody in the same world to edit the world, to change the planets, to carve things out, to build stuff. And I made it work. And I thought this is the thing we have to do. And I started a company with the idea of bringing some new concepts to the MMO genre… actually not so new. We’re going back, as I told you, to the roots of the genre, a huge universe where everything is possible.
Sometimes we compare to other games. The main thing to understand is we are a real MMO. That really makes a big difference. Why? Because everything you do in the game takes another dimension because of that aspect. If you build something wonderful and you start to mass-produce it, like a successful ship, it’s meaningful because a lot of people are going to fly your ship. So you achieve something that has social significance. If you win a large battle, maybe you are shifting the balance of power in the galaxy. So it’s meaningful. It’s interesting. If you do exploration, you’re going to discover maybe a large amount of resources that are crucial for the industry. And it changes everything. So it’s meaningful etc.
So the fact that it takes place in one world that is persistent, shared by everybody, gives a lot of meaning to what you do. And I think this is the most exciting thing in gaming. When it’s entertainment, it’s nice. But actually, you do something that has an impact. So that’s the root idea…
You refer to the fact that you want to give meaning to players’ interactions and how they can go about carving out their own niche within a virtual world. But with so many games finding it hard to establish themselves and maintain online communities, with a big-budget example being Battleborn, even though it’s not the same kind of game… What steps are you taking to ensure that Dual Universe gets out there and is able to be experienced by as many people as possible? How are you going to ensure that players will be attracted to your game when they have so many other alternatives?
Well, I don’t think they have anything that compares to what we’re doing. What people brand as MMOs are just usually multiplayer arenas where you have one hundred people and they are happy when they have one hundred people. I’m talking about having millions of people in the same world at the same time. Well, it will take a lot of time… The idea is that we want to start small and build a community that will grow over years. It’s not just a game that we ship, and that’s it. It’s meant to be successful enough at the beginning so we can finance the company and then grow steadily into a larger and larger community. People will hear about the game and say, “Oh yeah, there are interesting things happening in this game. Let’s have a look.” And I think they will be convinced because the quality of the content that will emerge from the community will be an order of magnitude more interesting than what you get – even if they are very talented – by games that are made by a few people only and you have to create this content yourself and balance it and so on. This content in the game would be organically balanced by the game itself. There would be in-game markets that would decide the value of everything based on supply and demand, for example. This acts as a selective process. The most beautiful ships will be successful because people like them, and they would proliferate in the game. So you’ll tend to see beautiful things around you… beautiful in the sense that they are nice-looking. So it’s a completely different way to look at creating content in the game, and ultimately creating value for the game, because content is value. You are in the game because there’s something interesting to do in it.
So to answer your question shortly, we’re trying to get visibility. We were at E3. We showed a trailer. We have a very active community. We have over 17,000 people in our newsletter. This is really good for us at our level. So the community is starting to grow, and it’s very positive. People will take the time to look at the game and what we have in store. Then they will like it on average, and the feedback has been good.
Another example I’ll give you, we started a community website, which is about you stating your character. And then you can create an organisation that starts to recruit people for your organisation based on your requirements. We’re going to have space pirates. We’re going to be have an empire, or whatever. We already have more than 320 organisations declared by players. So at our scale, this is already a big success. And I expect it to grow and continue. But we don’t need to start the game with one million players to be profitable. We don’t have a publisher. We’re independent. So we don’t need to have millions of people on day one. Actually, we prefer to have a smaller-sized community that is very involved in the game. We are talking with people a lot. We have open questions, forums and things… So we prefer to have that kind of community which we grow steadily into bigger stuff. So we can’t compete with the brute-force marketing of say, a giant publisher. But we can build up from small to big.
Like Minecraft or EVE Online. Actually, if you look at the story of EVE Online, it’s a very interesting one. And they had a steadily growing community over the years where people have been faithful to the game or really like it. And to me, it’s good. It’s good business. I like to do that. If we had just one tenth of the success of EVE Online, it would be a big success for our company. And we’re talking to a lot of people. Slowly, the message is spreading. And what we can show to people is very convincing.
What engine is the game made on?
We’re using Unigine, which isn’t a super famous engine, but it’s wonderful for what we are doing – which is capable of handling super large landscapes and super large environments – which other engines don’t do so easily.
Is it scalable, where it can take into account different hardware configurations in terms of how powerful they are?
Yeah, of course. It’s actually a bit more low-level than the mainstream engines. So it’s a bit faster. We have a closer access to the card, actually. So with our engineers, we can optimise things a bit better. So we hope to be able to run pretty good on middle-range cards when the game is out.
When is the game out?
In principle, if everything goes well, we aim at something at the end of 2018.
How long has Dual Universe been in development for?
It’s been three years.
So it’s coming out five years after development first started?
Well, you know, there’s a lot of R&D that we’ve done because we reinvented the core technology for MMO. There was a lot of work to make this work. So yeah, three years of R&D, and that’s a lot of money spent on trying to…
How are you financing all of this?
We’re financing with my money and the money of investors – private investors that believe in the power of creating this virtual world that will be shared by millions of people.
For example, there is a space station that is eight kilometres long. And it’s editable. I don’t know of any game that can handle an eight kilometre long giant space station that is completely editable by the player in a world where everybody lives in the same world at the same time with potentially tens of thousands of people around at the same place.
At the end, why would people like to come in this game? Because it offers something new, something that is exciting in the line of creating a world where you can become anybody you want, where there are no limits, where you have a sense of believing that this is somehow real, that there is no artificial barriers or limits and so on. So you can build anything you want. You can create political organisations. You can be an explorer. You can build star gates to expand the network of connections of your empire. All those types of things will be possible.
Will players be able to edit from the get-go, or would players have to reach a certain authoritative level? Basically, there have got to be controls in place that stop malicious players from creating malicious content…
Of course. There are a lot of things on the gameplay side…
What safeguards do you have into place?
There are a lot of things. First there are things called a safe zone around the spawn point that is about 20 kilometres wide where nothing bad can happen to you, where you are free to build without being annoyed, basically. So this is a place where you can start peacefully. If you go beyond that safe zone, then you have to be careful because you might be killed. If you don’t put the proper protection, someone can take your stuff and so on. But it’s fair. You know what you’re doing.
The other thing is that on the planets, you would be able to isolate territories, by planting what we call territory units. And that would actually give you control on who has the right to dig inside the territory, who has the right to build stuff on it. So you can be controlling your environment with your friends in an organisation, for example. So it’s not going to be total chaos. We’re going to give tools to the players to organise themselves and to make sure that they can control what happens… at least on their territory. But there will be fights. There will be wars. So there won’t be a balance between the desires of one group and other group of players. It’s a game. There are emerging goals that would happen, things that come from the players themselves.
For example, if somebody wants to build the Death Star, the giant space station, the amount of material you have to assemble to do that, the amount of security you have to put in place to secure the construction site, maybe the political deals that you have to seal with the people on the planet. I don’t know… This will probably give jobs to thousands of players in the game. So instead of having steady quests that are artificial and boring – like fetch quests – you have quests that come from the players themselves because they want to build the Death Star. So it gives a lot of jobs to a lot of people.
So when you enter the game, maybe not at start, but after maybe a few years, you will have job boards where you will be able to look at what’s offered, what is possible, who you want to join, what kind of projects you’re interested in. And that will be something that is, I think, much more interesting than what is offered in standard games.
Last question, will the game have NPCs? Will the game have storylines such as where the universe gets invaded by, say, an alien organism that’s intent on wiping out numerous solar systems… a bit like Independence Day?
It’s not planned at the moment. We would probably have at some point. We will at least have animals that you can kill or who you have to defend yourself against. Organising large-scale events is complicated because there’s only one world. It’s not like you’re going to spawn an instance where you are able to kill the guys and they respawn forever. So if you have an Independence Day attack, once it is dealt with, it’s gone because there’s only one reality. So I’m not sure how to make that really work. But it’s an interesting point. We have to think about that. We have to dig into this. But not at the start. This is something for a bit later in the future.
At the start, we want people to create their stories and imagine what they want to become, and do that. And games like Minecraft have shown that people can set themselves in motion by themselves if you give them the right tools and the freedom to do it. So they’ll feel that there will be no limits, where they can really let their imagination speak.