To celebrate the upcoming Dune movie, directed by Denis Villeneuve, I thought I would do a small article on Frank Herbert and his epic masterpiece Dune, the best-selling science fiction novel of all time, and the games it ultimately spawned in the early ’90s.
It had taken newspaper journalist Frank Herbert the better part of six years of thinking, writing, and perfecting his elaborate science fiction novel Dune and the story of the young Paul Atreides who would become the mysterious man known as Muad’Dib that would avenge the traitorous plot against his noble family and bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream. The novel, when complete in 1965, was a triumph of the imagination but rejected by nearly every thinkable publisher before finally being accepted from the most unlikely of places, the Chilton Book Company in Philadelphia, a publisher best known for its business-to-business magazines, and automotive repair manuals.
Frank Herbert was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1920. By the late 1930s, he got his first newspaper job and worked as a photographer for the U.S. Navy during the Second World War. After the war, he returned and became engulfed in a wide variety of courses at the University of Washington. Slowly, Herbert became more and more interested in the environmental and conservation movement. While doing research for an article, in 1959, on the sand dunes near the coast of Oregon in the Pacific Northwest, he got carried away and ended up with far more material than what was needed and a seed for a much bigger and complex story than the original article was planted. While the article never materialized, the next six years would be devoted to Herbert’s elaborate story of the harsh and desolate desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, and its inhabitants trying to conserve and recycle every drop of moisture.
Herbert was able to devote himself wholeheartedly to his writing when his wife returned to work full-time as an advertising writer and became the main provider for the family during the ’60s.
In 1963 American science fiction magazine Analog published Herber’s Dune story in a number of serials, with the first, Dune World in 1963 and Prophet of Dune in 1965. But finding a book publisher proved nearly impossible. After 23 rejections, Sterling E. Lanier, an editor of Chilton Book Company, who had read the Dune serials, offered a $7,500 advance plus future royalties for the rights to publish the serials as a hardcover book. Herbert agreed and rewrote much of the text. It was released in 1965 as a hardback and the following year as a paperback.
The 1965 hardback Book Collectors Edition from Chilton Book Company and the first paperback edition by Ace Books from 1966. The cover art for both was done as watercolor paintings by John Schoenherr, who also had created covers and interior illustrations for the Dune serials in Analog Magazine. The original cover art for the hardback was taken from one of Schoenherr’s work featured in Analog
While Dune won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1965 and shared the Hugo Award in 1966, it was not an immediate bestseller. By 1968 Herbert had made around $20,000 from it, far more than most science fiction writers of the time, but not enough to let him take up full-time writing. However, the publication of Dune did open doors for him. In the coming years, he did educational writings and lectures before heading to Vietnam and Pakistan as a social-ecological consultant in 1972.
He would continue his Dune saga, following up with Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune. A planned seventh novel, to conclude the series, was planned by Herbert but his untimely death in 1986 left his Dune series uncomplete and with questions unanswered.
In 1984 Herbert’s Dune universe spawned a renewed interest when David Lynch’s film adaption of Dune heralded the epic story into the modern mainstream and exposed it to a new generation.
Despite high expectations, a big-budget production design, and an A-list cast, the movie drew mostly poor reviews in the United States. Nonetheless, it became a critical and commercial success in Europe which later helped spawn a new iteration of the story.
Following the release of the film the production company went bankrupt and with Herbert’s death it would take several legal tries to determine who actually owned the adaption rights to his story.
In the spring of 1990, the late Martin Alper, who had been trying to acquire the interactive adaption rights for the better part of two years finally managed to buy it from Universal Pictures. Alper was one of the co-founders of Mastertronic, a UK game publishing company that was acquired by Richard Branson and his Virgin Group in 1988.
Alper had moved to the United States where he had become president of the American branch of Virgin Games. Here he proposed an idea of adapting Herbert’s Dune story into a computer game format while meeting with french video game programmer and producer Rémi Herbulot. The rights agreement was finalized in August 1990, in the presence of french game designer Philippe Ulrich and head of Virgin Games in London, Frank Herman.
A team of French developers, mostly Dune fans worked for 6 months on documenting, on paper, the game project. David Bishop, who earlier had been the European Development Manager at Epyx, now a producer at Virgin Games in London, was assigned as the producer on the project. Ongoing communications with Virgin in the United States, with documents being forwarded through Bishop in London was not going all too well. Bishop really wanted to design the game himself and didn’t defend the project when the Americans criticized the game in essence for being too French also they were not convinced by the team’s mix of adventure and strategy would succeed.
To give the French development team a more defined framework, Ulrich created a new label within Virgin called Cryo Entertainment. In the autumn of 1990 Management at Virgin was going through changes and the project was on the brink of cancellation. No contract had yet been signed between the parts and the developers feared all their initial work would be lost. Luckily Herman, at Virgin Games, London, managed to salvage the project, but the Americans, including Martin Alper, pulled out.
Alper later entrusted the electronic adaptation rights of Dune to Westwood Studios in Las Vegas, a studio Virgin Interactive Entertainment acquired in 1992.
In April 1991, Sega bought Virgin’s European operations, and the new manager, Christian Brecheteau, discovered that Virgin, in all secret, had financed the French Cryo team. Fortunately, Brecheteau expressed interest in the project but realized that Sega had yet to obtain the Dune license.
Members of the Cryo team rushed to London to meet with Martin Alper to present their work samples and hopefully save the project. Alper and Bishop were excited by the prototypes and gave the go-ahead, despite having the American Dune project in full development.
In January 1992, Cryo Interactive was spun off as an independent company and the work on the game was completed. Cryo’s Dune arrived in stores in 1992, before Westwood’s game now titled Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty hit the shelves in December of the same year.
Many refer to Westwood’s Dune II as the successor to Cryo’s Dune but the two games have really no association.
Cryo Interactive’s Dune was published in 1992 by Virgin Games. It was the first licensed Dune game.
This is the European release (Amiga version from 1993)
Cryo’s Dune was released in the US for the IBM/PC the same year as its European counterpart but with cover art of actor Kyle MacLachlan from David Lynch’s 1984 movie adaption. (still using the European art for the manual)
Dune was ported to the Commodore Amiga and the Sega CD in 1993. While a number of ports to other systems and even older 8-bit consoles were planned they never materialized.
The European CD-ROM Version from 1993, in the fantastic and very unique “Sandworm” box.
Dune was one of the first games to be ported to the CD-ROM format. Thanks to Ulrich’s willingness to exploit the new medium, despite initial opposition from David Bishop (of course). The DOS CD-ROM version included snippets from David Lynch’s film, full voice acting, and new 3D rendered Ornithopter traveling animations, and support for a greater variety of sound cards
Dune became a commercial success story with 20.000 moved copies in its first week. Five years later in 1997, it had sold 300,000 units. While Dune led to the official creation of Cryo Interactive, it also led to its demise 10 years later when Cryo returned to the Dune universe with Frank Herbert’s Dune, which financial failure bankrupted the company.
The US CD-ROM version, also released in 1993, again using different cover art but still in a “Sandworm” box
Westwood Studio needed their game to differ from the one being produced in Europe, all while still staying true to Herbert’s story. Designer and programmer Joe Bostic and his small team made the decision for the game to take place a thousand years prior to the timeline in the books, allowing for some leeway. A third house, Ordos, was introduced into the mix.
While the French team combined classic adventure elements with economic and military strategy, a blend that gave a deeper gaming experience than any other Dune title released, the Americans went all strategy and resorted to core mechanics found in a variety of earlier and very successful titles like Bullfrog’s 1989 god-game Populous and Sid Meier’s 1991 mega-hit Civilization.
When Dune II: The building of a Dynasty was complete and published in North America in December of 1992 it became both critically acclaimed and commercially successful and laid the foundation for nearly all-to-come real-time strategy (RTS) games. The title would go on to sell over 250.000 copies within the next four years.
The original US version of Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty, developed by Westwood Studios and published by Virgin Games in 1992
When released in Europe, also by Virgin in 1992, the title was renamed Dune II: The Battle for Arrakis.
Despite both its commercial success, excellent and clever gameplay mechanics, and much-loved universe, a sequel to the original Dune II never came into existence. With the strong game format, Westwood wanted to create its own intellectual property without having to pay license fees. This led Bostic and Westwood to develop the Command & Conquer series, with the first title released in 1995, essentially built by reusing the code from Dune II but with added improvements and crucial multiplayer capabilities.
The format was also used in Microsoft’s Age of Empires and Blizzard’s Warcraft and StarCraft series, the latter becoming a major part in the evolution of computer gaming as an electronic sport.