The Battle For The First Dune Game

Tales From The Dork Web #8

What makes a story incredible? Is it world-building? Character? Intrigue? Plot? If the story of Dune has it all, stories of adapting Dune have it too. This is the story of two Dune games. It's a story of competing visions, of high art, high stakes and high profits. A story of underdogs, low tricks, and a struggle that would define a genre.

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This issue’s art comes from Miles Greb and Zak Hartong’s amazing Dune: To Train The Faithful. It was a beautifully drawn albeit incomplete Dune graphic novel. Some of this issue’s videos are in French. YouTube’s auto-translate subtitles feature is great if you don’t speak French. I reference French videos with an [F] to give you a heads up.

I can’t write about the Dune games without paying tribute to one of the greatest in-game musical scores of all time, Stephane Picq’s Spice Opera. Press play and read on.


In 1982, Louis Castle met Brett Sperry while working at a Las Vegas computer store. Hitting it off, Castle and Sperry took contract work porting games to their ageing Apple IIs. In 1985 they formed software house, Westwood Associates, naming it after an upmarket LA neighbourhood they liked.

Westwood established a reputation for up-porting games to new platforms. “Up-porting” games to better systems is unlike “down-porting” games to older ones. When down-porting, one tries to to fit in as much into the smaller system as possible. Up-ports are when an older system game is ported to a more advanced one. These need to take advantage of all the better platform’s new features to maximise sales.

Westwood built a reputation for good up-ports through work for Epyx and SSI. How was it built? 16-Bit Macintosh, Amiga and Atari ST platforms all used the same Motorola 68000 CPU. Westwood built reusable cross-platform libraries that worked across the platforms. This sped up the Amiga and ST porting process while still being able to take advantage of each platform’s features.

Their 8-bit ports tended to be turn-based. This approach lets 8-bit developers create complex RPGs on basic hardware. Castle and Sperry knew 16-bit systems could do real-time gameplay. Sometimes they even butted heads with publishers over this.

They ported many Dungeons & Dragons RPG games for franchise owner SSI. Eventually, SSI let them create their own new Dungeons & Dragons game. The result was Eye of The Beholder. Eye of The Beholder was an enormous commercial success.

The days of Westwood becoming a porting house had come to an end. It was time to make their own real-time games. They needed a publisher with a global distribution network. They found one in Virgin Interactive, led by British ex-pat Martin Alper.

Martin Alper founded UK-budget label Mastertronic, selling 8-bit computer games at £1.99. Focusing on business over quality, Alper built a global distribution network. Struggling with the move from 8 to 16-bit titles, Virgin bought Mastertronic in 1988.

More than almost anything, Alper loved the Dune series and wanted to make a Dune game. After Lynch’s Dune flopped, the De Laurentis production company went bankrupt. Then, Frank Herbert died. Piece by piece, Alper hunted through litigation to find the Dune game rights owner. The old Mastertronic couldn’t afford to make such a game, but with Virgin’s money they could. This was the time to strike. The sleeper would awaken.

In North America the PC dominated the computer gaming market. In Europe, the Commodore Amiga was king. Westwood caught Alper's eye with it’s strong Amiga port of Eye of The Beholder. Alper wanted to buy them but didn’t want to scare them off. Instead, he approached them to make a game that Virgin would distribute globally. That game was Dune. Dune would be the fully real-time combat strategy game Westwood had always wanted to make. Virgin’s global distribution network would ensure international success. Martin Alper would get to publish a Dune game.

There was only one problem. Alper had already asked someone else to make the game.

The French Connection

Philippe Ulrich could’ve been the Chris Sievey of French pop music. In 1980, the musician saw a Sinclair ZX80 in a computer shop window. It took a year to scrape together the cash to buy it. Ulrich sold several games to Sinclair, one in exchange for an 8K RAM pack. With med-school dropout Emmanuelle Viau they formed software house ERE informatique in 1983.

At this time Rémi Herbulot was a financial controller, who wrote his own accounting software to save his employer costs. In coding Herbulot found an unscratchable itch. To scratch it he wrote a new kind of pinball game. Instead of pre-designed tables, players designed, saved and shared their own tables with friends. Macadam Bumper (known as Pinball Wizard in the US) was an international hit for ERE. This was followed up with another Herbulot hit, Crafton and Xunk (also known as Get Dexter).

Although they’d achieved success, they weren’t good with money. Ulrich and Viau sold ERE to French software giant Infogrames. Infogrames would handle the money, and they’d make amazing games for new 16-bit computers. Nothing could go wrong.

With ‘mad scientist’ Didier Bouchon, ERE and Infogrames released Captain Blood in 1988. It had a giant universe with procedurally generated landscapes, nods to HR Geiger and even a Jean Michel Jarre soundtrack. Ulrich didn’t care about the lack of gameplay, infuriating controls or bugs. Conceptual originality and visual appeal was more important. Ulrich called this, “The French touch”. Captain Blood was high art. As one of the first games to really push the Atari ST it was a hit. MegaHz’ Les Classiques Du PC [F] tells ERE’s story well, with all the trappings you might expect.

In 1988 Ulrich launched their new label Exxos at the Maison de la Radio in Paris. The event’s MC was Ulrich’s friend, Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Ulrich declared that Exxos was the god in the machine and the real inspiration for all ERE’s games. He saw himself as a true artistic innovator, leading a band of independent artists to create pieces of genius.

After more original but barely playable games, ERE was in financial trouble. ERE started acquisition discussions with Epyx, unaware of Epyx’s own problems. Epyx had overspent on it's Lynx console, and was negotiating it's own exit with Atari. Needless to say, talks fell through and Infogrames stopped paying ERE’s bills.

Ulrich needed to rescue his remaining team, turning to Virgin’s French subsidiary Virgin Loisirs. Together they'd create a new studio called Cryo Interactive. In 1989, Herbulot met Alper to discuss possible Cryo projects. In passing, Alper told Herbulot that he hoped to secure the Dune game rights, but that it probably wouldn’t happen.

On his return, Herbulot told Ulrich, who believed this was fate in action. Dune was the name of the shop where he bought his first ZX80. Dune was the name of the Vegas hotel they stayed in at the last winter CES. His friend Alejandro Jodorowsky even tried to make a Dune movie. This was no accident. It was fate.

Ulrich believed it was his destiny to make the Dune game. He was the Kwisatz Haderach who would fulfil the prophecy.

Virgin assigned British journalist and game designer David Bishop to manage the French team. The relationship started out strained and only got worse. Virgin insisted that Cryo storyboard the game before writing code. Over time, design elements fed back to Bishop were rubbished by both Bishop and the rest of the UK/US Virgin team. Les Classiques Du PC [F] covers this period from the French perspective.

Communication issues plagued production from the start. The core problem boiled down to two misunderstandings. More than anything, Cryo wanted to make a faithful artistic adaptation of the book they loved. More than anything, Virgin wanted a playable conversion of David Lynch’s movie.

Convinced that Cryo’s game would never materialise, Virgin’s Alper decided to offer Westwood the chance to create Dune. Convincing them was easy: Dune was Westwood co-founder Brett Sperry’s favourite novel of all time. Westwood had been playing with ideas for a real-time war game and Dune was the perfect franchise. Alper signed Westwood to the Dune game a month before Virgin canned the Cryo game by fax.

Upon receiving the fax Ulrich went directly to his Virgin Loisirs boss Jean-Martial LeFranc. LeFranc told Ulrich he’d find the money and that they were to make the game anyway. If the game was truly great, LeFranc would smooth things over with his superiors and the game would be published.

At the same time, Westwood started work on the Dune game. Alper loved what he saw and became convinced that Westwood’s Dune would be a success. To the best of his knowledge, Cryo’s Dune was nothing more than a fading memory.

6 months later, Virgin UK replaced LeFranc. At the same time, an audit exposed LeFranc's Cryo payments to the UK. London summoned Ulrich while Alper was in town. LeFranc’s replacement hung him out to dry. Desperate to impress, Ulrich delivered a demo. Angry at going behind his back, Alper gave Ulrich less than 6 weeks to deliver a polished, playable demo. The team worked round the clock to deliver it, still unaware of Westwood’s game.

Within Virgin's offices the demo was an enormous hit. This left Alper with two amazing but completely unrelated Dune-based games. Having paid for the Cryo game already, he pushed ahead with it. His solution was to present Westwood’s Dune as a sequel. To Westwood, this was a commercial kiss of death and a rejection of everything they worked for. Their success would be dependent upon Cryo’s success.

At Virgin's insistance, Cryo tweaked the game to look more like Lynch’s film. Thanks to Lynch’s Twin Peaks show, Kyle MacLachlan was a rising star. Alper capitalised on MachLachlan’s presence in Lynch’s Dune film, featuring him on the cover.

Virgin released Cryo’s Dune Game in 1992 to great reviews and hit sales on PC and Amiga. The game was so successful Virgin released PC CD-Rom and Sega CD versions the following year. These versions featured voice acting and extra animations.

Cryo’s Dune is a joy to play. There are few games to which I devoted so much time. I played the Amiga version from 1991 to 1997 and still replay it now. It’s both an in-depth graphic adventure and a casual strategy game with real-time elements.

As Paul Atreides, you arrive on Arrakis. You're sent out to meet the Fremen who agree to provide you with stillsuits. Fremen leaders will decide if they want to align with you as you green mined-out desert lands. You need their support to crush the Harkonnen, liberate Arrakis and become the Kwisatz Haderach. After Frontier: Elite II, Chaos and a few others Cryo’s Dune is one of the few games I’ve spent decades playing.

Stephane Picq’s soundtrack is genuinely a rare dream in game music. Although badly cut for the Amiga, it was unlike anything else around at the time. The version at the top of this issue is from the out of print CD Album.

The also-beautiful Ad-Lib gold version (h/t to DosNostalgic) above is also worth a listen. If you want to hear what Dune sounded like on different sound cards, try this video made with real hardware, below.

Westwood’s Dune II: The Battle For Arrakis was also well received but not as big a hit. It wasn’t the first game to feature real-time strategy - Utopia and Stonkers are probably among the first. Even Cryo’s Dune had real-time strategy elements. What Westwood invented was a unique real-time mix of combat and resource management. Drawing from Eye of The Beholder, Populous and the Mac Software Interface, Brett Sperry created what he called a “Real-Time Strategy” game. Sperry never claimed he invented the genre, only the term Real-Time Strategy.

As shown above, Dune II … no, wait that’s 1989’s Herzog Zwei by Technosoft…

Herzog Zwei was an early Mega Drive/Genesis game released first in Japan before the US launch. Altered Beast, Ghouls and Ghosts and Thunderforce II dominated the Genesis US launch. Herzog Zwei didn't fit into the line-up and sold poorly in the US.

Both Sperry and Castle claimed they hadn’t seen the game till long after Dune II. Former Virgin exec Stephen Clarke-Wilson claimed that, “Westwood agreed to make a resource-strategy game based on Dune, and agreed to look at Herzog Zwei for design ideas.” Sperry and Castle were poster boys for good industry behaviour. I'm inclined to believe them over Clarke-Wilson.

Virgin handled Sega’s European Megadrive launch. Their staff will have definitely seen Herzog Zwei. I would be unsurprised if Virgin wanted elements of games Westwood never played but we’ll never know for sure. Regardless, Dune II was well-received but not the hit Westwood hoped for.

Two years later, Blizzard released Warcraft, which was to Dune II as Star Wars was to the book. It was a huge success and the RTS genre was born.

Cryo would re-use and expand their Dune engine in games such as Lost Eden. They made excellent games such as KGB and Megarace before stranger and less successful ones followed. Cryo’s first Dune game is probably the most faithful adaptation of Dune we’ll ever see in any medium. While not initially successful, Westwood’s adaptation is probably the more impactful on broader gaming history.

The Dune curse would eventually strike Cryo as it did Dino De Laurentis. Yes, earlier I mentioned Cryo’s first Dune game. In 2001 they made a second game, Frank Herbert’s Dune. It was a bug-infested mess based on the Sci-Fi channel miniseries of the same name. Cryo were already heavily in debt as the game neared completion. Shortly after the game’s rushed PC and PS2 release, Cryo collapsed.

As for Westwood, Alper and Virgin? Virgin bought Westwood. Sperry, Castle and Alper had a wonderful relationship. Together they created RTS game series Command & Conquer. Alper even lent his voice acting skills. Westwood also went on to remake Dune II as Dune 2000, and a sequel, Emperor: Battle for Dune.

As to which game is the worst, Cryo’s bugged Frank Herbert’s Dune is the obvious choice. Personally I find Cryo’s first game closest to the novel and the best of all games. Dune II is good for the time, but Dune 2000 is better.

My fundamental issue with Westwood’s games is this: For such a loved story, they care so little about it beyond the spice melange as a commodity. In Westwood's Dune games, the entire Dune universe is only a foil for combat and resource management. No intrigue, no layers, no plans within plans. Dune II even added a non-canon house to spice things up. I struggle to reconcile this with Cryo’s total love for Dune.

Are Westwood's games closer to Lynch’s movie? No. Are they closer to the novel? No more than Star Wars. Maybe that’s the problem. You could swap the Dune universe for Star Wars and have the same game. Still, Dune, Dune II and Dune 2000 are all worth your time and there’s plenty in the games for you to reach your own conclusions.

Things you might’ve missed

I can’t write about the history of Dune games without referring to the Digital Antiquarian’s 3-part series. Parts 2 and 3 were major sources for some of the above. Westwood aren’t the only expert porters. People (including Christine) have been making brilliant ports of Super Mario 64.

Raphael Gaschignard wrote up a high-level gameplan to start playing with FPGAs. JG Lim hacked his Game Boy to control his air conditioning. Rather than pay for an expensive flash card, Shogihax hacked an N64 game’s memory to debug his own code.

Avantgarden hooked an AmigaDOS shell up to a browser, welcoming people to have a fiddle. Steff made a web-based version of ProTracker, complete with MOD tunes.

Matthias Endler wrote up Hacker/Programmer terms and their origins. Serge has an opinionated guide to Tmux for mere mortals. Josh Branchaud wrote up TILs for all kinds of stuff. Hellmood’s Revision prize-winning size-skimming 256 byte megademo now has a writeup of all the tricks used to keep it tiny. This WPA key and password prediction writeup is beautiful.

Twitter has been gendering accounts. Soatok, like me keeps their gender strictly EICAR. Anti-virus software usually removes files and records containing the EICAR string, so be careful with these EICAR QR code stickers. Finally, in mobile news that will shock almost nobody, Xiaomi is tracking it’s users’ web browsing.

Iron Maiden wrote to Frank Herbert for permission to name a song after Dune. His agent responded saying he’d sue if they did, that Herbert hated Heavy Metal and hated Heavy Metal bands like Iron Maiden. Here’s that song, named, “To Tame A Land”.

I’ll end with a final Brian Herbert quote:

“The mystery of life isn't a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed this issue. Please feel free to share it with others as you see fit. The Dork Web is for you to experience on your terms. I don’t know about you but I’m all Dune’d out now! If you’re reading this in a browser, get Tales From The Dork Web every fortnight by subscribing below. Otherwise I’ll see you in two weeks.