There would be no RTS genre without Cryo’s Dune

With one exasperated decision, Martin Alper accidentally helped to birth the entire Real-Time Strategy (RTS) video game genre. And it was all thanks to Cryo’s attempts to make a Dune video game.

Such a game had been Alper’s dream for years. He’d worked tirelessly to secure the licence, an effort complicated by David Lynch’s film and Herbert’s death; no-one was entirely sure who held the rights. But Alper had hunted them down and hired French production team Cryo to create his long-awaited game.

But a year after hiring them, Alper was having regrets.

The ‘French touch’

A screenshot of a video game. It's dark, with lots of purple. An alien arm reaches up from the bottom of the screen, pointing at nothing. There are a number of interace items around the bottom and top of the screen. The main image is of a purple alien.
Screenshot from Captain Blood

Cryo was most famous for its unlikely hit Captain Blood, a surreal video game experience steeped in an love of the aesthetic and a seeming disinterest in playability that had nonetheless been hugely popular. The Cryo team had every intention of applying this approach to Dune, planning an unusual combination of action adventure with strategy gaming.

But this unusual combination immediately set alarm bells ringing at Virgin Games. Worse, Cryo spent a year of preproduction digging into the novel, identifying the key themes, working on the story, creating sketches, all without writing a single line of code.

Martin Alper decided he didn’t have enough confidence the game would come to fruition.

David Bishop

Cryo’s planned game was ambitious, unusual, challenging and new. But without any way to show how this could possibly appeal to audiences, Virgin Games lost confidence in Cryo. Finally, Alper pulled the plug. He hadn’t spent years hunting down the Dune licence to see his efforts wasted. Better to pull the plug now and find another team to make the most of his hard-won treasure.

Of course, now he had to find someone else to make a Dune video game.

Meanwhile, two game designers in Las Vegas were facing a problem of their own. They wanted to make a new type of video game.

The trouble was that no-one would let them.

A new kind of strategy

A black and white photo of eight people. They are smiling and hugging each other. This is the Westwood Studios team.
The Westwood Studios team

The concept of Real-Time Strategy (RTS) was simple: get rid of turn-based gameplay and let everything happen at once. Every moment you pondered your next move was a moment that your opponent was advancing towards you or racing you to a target or goal. Players would need to think on their feet as events unfolded around them.

The industry wasn’t quite ready for this type of game when Louis and Brett founded their company, and so they had spent years trying to incorporate their new idea into other games, such as when they were hired to port turn-based dungeon crawler Temple of Apshai to the Apple II. Louis and Brett thought Temple of Apshai was the perfect place to unleash their Real-Time Strategy gameplay idea on the world.

Epyx did not agree.

Yeah, I was responsible for adding real-time to Jon Freeman’s Temple of Apshai Trilogy in 1985. Epyx hated it so I had to go back and put turns back in. A bit ahead of its time I suppose.

Louis Castle

Nonetheless, Louis and Brett were undeterred. They kept trying, and a few years later they created Eye of the Beholder. It was the closest they had come to creating a Real-Time Strategy game, and the title that really put them on the radar of Virgin Games’ Martin Alper.

RTS unleashed

The box, manual, and floppy disks for the video game Dune II.

Whether Alper was truly sold on Real-Time Strategy or whether he simply saw a chance to get a Dune game fast, the result was the same: Louis and Brett got their chance to finally unleash their vision on the world.

Dune II was released in December 1992, and when Computer Gaming World reviewed it in the following year, it said that the game “easily outshines its predecessor in terms of game play”1. Players agreed, buying thousands of copies.

I think the original [sales] forecast was 10,000 copies (raised to 30k before launch). We sold many times that and many times more copies were likely pirated, probably a million or more.

Louis Castle

Other game companies took note, too, and began to explore how they could get their own entries into this new genre that Westwood created.

Without Dune II, you don’t have Warcraft, you don’t have Age of Empires, you don’t have League of Legends, you don’t have DotA.2

Jeff Green, former editor of Computer Gaming World

The popularity of Dune II at Blizzard Entertainment prompted the development team to release their own RTS just two years later under a name that may ring a bell for gamers across the globe: Warcraft.

Dune II was clearly an inspiration to us. We really liked playing it, we liked talking about it, and the only thing we couldn’t do was play against each other. And that was sort of the initial design vision: go make a multiplayer version of Dune II.3

Patrick Wyatt, producer of Warcraft: Orcs and Humans

But why is it called Dune II?

But Martin Alper found himself holding a surprise hit and a hugely influential game in his hands, he also found himself with another surprise.

Despite having their plug pulled, the Cryo team had refused to stop working.

In fact, they had produced a working version of their Dune game that Virgin Games employees couldn’t stop playing.

Alper found himself with an embarrassment of riches. What was he to do?

Release them both, of course.

Cryo’s game went out with the name Dune, while Westwood’s went out months later under the name Dune II.

And what about Dune III? Unfortunately, a number of obstacles meant that the Westwood team never produced a direct sequel to their hit game.

But that’s a story for another time.

Or not. Because if you nab yourself a copy of Calling the Makers, you can read that story right now!

1 Greenberg, Allen L. (April 1993). “A Review of Virgin/Westwood’s Dune II”. Computer Gaming World. p. 84. Retrieved 6 July 2014.