As often happens, the other night as I was drifting off to sleep, my mind started wandering off to strange places and I realized that there is a direct, traceable link between Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune… and World of Warcraft.
Say what? How can an esoteric sci-fi eco-parable (with overt religious and messianic themes thrown in for good measure) from the 1960s possibly be considered a progenitor of the most successful MMORPG of all time? What madness is this? Read on, and prepare to be dazzled! (Or, undoubtedly, bored, if you find this type of exercise pedantic and uninteresting.)
1. Point of Origin: Frank Herbert’s Dune
In 1965, Frank Herbert’s seminal novel, Dune, introduced the world to the spice mélange, giant sand worms, Fremen, and their homeworld of Arrakis — otherwise known as Dune. Much to my embarrassment, although I’m familiar with the main story and some of the lore, the books remain on my list of must-reads, and not my list of have-reads. But I’ve played most of the computer games and seen all of the movies based on it. That’s gotta count for something, right?
2. Diversifying into other media
Once in a while, a book, song, movie, or game –that is, a piece of art or culture — is created that is too spectacular in its artistry and craftsmanship, too far ahead of its time to be widely accepted. The first Dune film, by David Lynch, was not widely accepted, but not for those reasons. But it did probably help keep up awareness of the novel, which helped pave the way for the first Dune computer game, which was one of those spectacular creations that was too far ahead of its time.
Released in 1992, it featured engaging hybrid gameplay (strategy, resource management, and some adventure-game elements thrown into the mix), great voice acting, and an incredible soundtrack. Sadly, as is often the case with trailblazers, the world just wasn’t ready for something as unique as this game, and it never achieved the level of popularity that it deserved. However, like the movie before it, it did help pave the way for the next step, by bringing the universe of Dune into the world of computer games.
3. The rise of the RTS: Dune 2
While not the first actual RTS game to be created, Westwood Studios’ Dune 2 (formally titled Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty, as well as other names, depending on the country and gaming platform) was the game that established real-time strategy games as a genre. Also released in 1992, the second Dune computer game deviated wildly from the storylines of both the book and the film, jettisoning almost all of the plot and established characters, and using only certain elements of the setting and the various warring factions before introducing a new one, House Ordos — because hey, if you’re going to basically gut an entire story line, what’s the big deal about introducing new content? (Of course, the introduction of the Ordos made sense from a gameply perspective, as it added more variety and options to the game, with the Ordos being the “fast” faction, compared to the slow but powerful Harkonnen and to the Atreides, who possessed a balance of speed and power.) It was only one game, but the floodgates to an untapped genre were about to be thrown open.
4. The Golden Age of the RTS: Blizzard and Westwood
Aware of the success of Dune 2, Blizzard Entertainment, who up to this point was a relatively small player with no major hits, tried their hand at making an RTS of their own called Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. Released in 1994, it went on to spawn an entire franchise of video games that you may have heard of. In what makes for a fascinating “what if?” scenario, Blizzard originally wanted to license the Warhammer IP from Games Workshop in order to help Warcraft appeal to a larger audience. Luckily for them and for the legions of World of Warcraft players worldwide, it didn’t pan out. But that’s skipping ahead.
Westwood followed up in 1995 with the first game in the eponymous Command & Conquer series, which became an instant classic. While having nearly identical mechanics and some similar themes as Dune 2, Command and Conquer was light years ahead of its predecessor in terms of production values, as was Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness, released at the end of 1995. Dune 2 codified the modern RTS, but it was Command and Conquer and Warcraft 2 that made them mainstream.
The golden age of the RTS was at hand, but as with any golden age, numerous contenders for the crown appeared; many RTS games were released during this time, some good, but many that were mediocre or worse. In a crowded field, Westwood and Blizzard stood out as the two rival powerhouses of the time, putting forth during this era such notable titles as Command & Conquer: Red Alert, Starcraft, Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun, and Red Alert 2. (Honorable mention goes to Cavedog’s Total Annihilation, one of the few examples of a great RTS not made by either Westwood or Blizzard, and another example of a game that didn’t achieve the level of popularity it deserved.)
So we’ve gone from a science fiction novel to RTS games in the 1990s, but what does that have to do with World of Warcraft?