Dual Universe is an incredibly ambitious game, and I wouldn't blame you if you felt a little skeptical about its promise of creating a shared universe where millions of players can coexist. It's more than just a No Man's Sky too, as Dual Universe isn't just meant to be explored, but also lived in as players begin to organize and form their own digital societies—and at the center of everything is the incredible technology powering its servers. During E3 in LA, I sat down with the founder of Dual Universe developer Novaquark, JC Baillie, to talk candidly about what Dual Universe is, but more importantly, how it works.
"The thing is," Baillie tells me, "we never could have made Dual Universe until now because the technology just didn't exist." That technology is the powerful cloud-based computing that is making it possible for a game like Dual Universe to theoretically have a million players in one location—something impossible for the current generations of MMORPGs. When he explains it to me, it all sounds incredibly simple.
Baillie is honest about how much Dual Universe is inspired by the other big space-faring sandbox EVE Online, but while they might share a similar philosophy on how players should interact in a virtual world, the two couldn't be more different under the hood. While EVE Online places every player into one instance of its world, New Eden, the truth is that those players are segregated into smaller servers that they can hop between as they travel from star system to star system. In simplest terms, each solar system in EVE Online is like its own server, and when players move from one to another they are moving between servers. In 2003, that set up was revolutionary, but it has the same drawback that something like a World of Warcraft server has in that it still can't support more than a few thousand players at one time.
In Dual Universe, Baille and his team have created server technology that dynamically sections off the world according to the amount of players within a given space. While it's hard to visualize, each server instance is like a cube that surrounds a given piece of the universe, like a planet. When more players populate that space, that cube is dissected into smaller cubes, each one a separate server that communicates with other servers adjacent to it to handle the load. So while I might be on one side of the street in a city in Dual Universe, my friend who is on the other side of the street could be on an entirely different server. Because the two communicate in real time, I can still see and interact with him, and if I cross the street I am switching servers without ever having realized it.
Those cubes will always grow or shrink to support the ideal number of players to maintain performance. So if I'm in a less populated area of the universe, the server that handles my character could encompass a really large area of space. If I'm in a busy city, that city might be divided up into dozens of smaller servers each handling the load of the characters that walk between them.
Theoretically, Baillie tells me, this could mean that Dual Universe could support upwards of millions of players in one area. At that point, the bottleneck wouldn't be the servers but a player's computer trying to render so many players in one space—but that's another issue that Baillie and his team at Novaquark are trying to solve.
While Baillie is confident the technology will work, he also admits that they haven't been able to test it at scale because that would require...well, finding a million players to log into the game. Instead, they've tested it to upwards a few thousand players and Baillie tells me that the results were exactly what they had hoped.
That impressive server technology is also paired with some other equally as impressive sounding technologies. For one, the world of Dual Universe is entirely voxel-based, meaning every planet can be carved up and converted into resources. Players will be free to build ships with any designs that they can conceive, as well as buildings or space stations. In fact, Baille is eagerly hoping a few thousand enterprising players will work towards building their own version of a Death Star.
Likewise, the entire universe is composed of billions of planets that are procedurally generated in the same manner as they are in No Man's Sky. Instead of storing the raw data for each planet on a hard drive, which would take terabytes of space, each planet in rendered by using complex algorithms that put it together on the fly whenever a player encounters it. When players mine into a planet or make changes to its surface, the server instead saves the changes and adds them back in whenever the planet is rendered.
It's all cool sounding stuff, but we'll need to wait until 2017 before we can see if Baille and Novaquark are able to deliver on their big promises. In the meantime, Baille was happy to talk more about the specifics of Dual Universe as a game, and I have to admit I'm pretty excited by the ideas he tossed around in our conversation.
For one, the ships and buildings that players can create can be sold on a player-made market similar to EVE Online. They also create blueprints of which you can create copies to sell to other players so that they can assemble their own version of whatever it is you've created.
We also talked about the the social structure of the game, which unsurprisingly, is also somewhat similar to EVE Online. But instead of the rigid corporate structure of EVE, Dual Universe will feature incredibly flexible "organizations" that players can create to fill a multitude of purposes. Furthermore, you can also belong to a myriad of different organizations at one time.
Finally, we tackled the big question of what Dual Universes payment model will be like. Once again, EVE Online was the inspiration. Dual Universe will charge a monthly subscription fee but also offer a tradeable in-game item that players can redeem for 30 days of game time and sell on the player markets. That means that many players will likely be able to play Dual Universe for free if they're able to earn enough in-game money to fund their subscriptions.
All of this represents only a fraction of everything Baille had to say about Dual Universe, and if you're interested you should read some of the developer blogs that are featured on their website and they dive into a ton of nuance of how Dual Universe will work. But for now, much of that is just talk. We'll have to wait until early 2017 when an early alpha version of Dual Universe will be made available to try, which won't have much for gameplay but will demonstrate the most important fundamentals like the cloud-based servers and the voxel-based worlds.
But Dual Universe has quickly gone from a game that I first rolled my eyes at because it all sounded so hyper-ambitious to one that I'm going to be paying close attention to as it evolves over time. Baille is honest in knowing that there's a big uphill battle ahead of him and his team, especially when it comes to communicating all the ways that Dual Universe is aiming to push the genre of MMORPGs forward. But one thing is for sure, while it might borrow more than a few ideas from EVE Online, Dual Universe is going to take those ideas to all new frontiers.