The Rise and Fall of Virgin Interactive


Tuesday, August 18, 1998 - The Origin of Realtime Strategy Games on the PC

Here is the true story of the origin of "Dune 2" and the amazing series of products that followed it.

(It is not my intent here to take away from the excellent work Westwood has done on the C&C series. But I myself do deserve a certain small amount of credit as you'll see. Clearly, if Westwood hadn't executed brilliantly none of this would have happened.)

Our story starts out with Dune 1, of course. Except it wasn't called Dune 1, it was just Dune. Martin had licensed the movie (not the book, which caused a few annoying misunderstandings later on, but not showstoppers) because he liked it, with no idea how to turn it into a game. In those early days he wanted VIE to become the next Sierra Online and wanted to make adventure games. So, before I joined the company in 1990, someone had made a deal with a little company in France called "Cryo" to make a Dune adventure game.

The exact linkage is unimportant but it had something to do with a former Virgin sales guy in France who quit and got involved with Cryo or God-only-knows what.

Anyway, we would get milestone submissions from Cryo and in the very early days, things were pretty sketchy and everyone decided to cancel the game.

According to Martin, nobody told Cryo the game was cancelled, and since they were very slow, it was a long time before another milestone submission arrived.

During that time, I was given the task of figuring out what to do with the Dune license. Since I've read the book a number of times I thought from a gaming point-of-view the real stress was the battle to control the spice, and that a resource-strategy game would be good.

Coincidentally, everyone at the office, no doubt thanks to Graeme Devine (who worked at Virgin at the time before founding Trilobyte), was playing a little known Sega Genesis game called "Herzog Zwei". Only a very few people know about this game.

Herzog Zwei was the first true realtime strategy game.

As I said, everyone was playing it in the office, and quite frankly, I didn't get it. You kept clicking on stuff and then zooming off to another part of the screen. It was very hard to keep track of what was going on as an observer. Still, everyone liked it, it had fast action, and it was a strategy game.

So Seth Mendelsohn, one of my original producers (hired by Graeme, and now apparently co-designing Ultima things with Richard Garriott), who understood Herzog Zwei went with me to visit Westwood.

Westwood had a Kyrandia demo going at the time, and since Martin wanted to be like Sierra Online, Seth and I went out to look at it. (It was great looking.) We also went to talk about making a Dune game. We had many adventures on the way there, but the most amusing thing that happened on the way to visit Westwood was this:

We had pretty much just gotten off the airplane and were going out to get a cab. Or we had just gotten out of a cab. Or something. Anyway, out by the street is a huge line of limousines each complete with a driver. This drunk guy is careening down the sidewalk and he bumps into a newspaper stand which crashes against one of the limos. Instantly all of the limo drivers leap out of their vehicles and run over and beat the living daylights out of this drunk guy.

We were pretty much left standing in shock. There was no way we were going to intervene against several tough-looking limo drivers.

Welcome to Las Vegas.

Anyway, the long and the short of it was, Westwood agreed to make a resource strategy game based on Dune, and agreed to look at Herzog Zwei for design ideas.

And the rest is show business history.

Of course, as you probably know, it turned out the Dune 1 game never was cancelled, which we discovered when another milestone submission arrived several months later, and it was finished just slightly ahead of the Westwood game, and since we shipped everything the instant it was ready (or maybe even a little before!!), the adventure game (with minimal strategy elements in it) came out first and Westwood's game became Dune 2 (much to their chagrin -- but just think - would they have the cool name Dune 2000 for the remake if that hadn't happened?).

But maybe there is more to the story. What about these Blizzard guys who also set the world on fire?

It turns out that Blizzard used to be a company called Quiksilver that did lots of work for Interplay. Brian Fargo really liked working with them so we called them up to see if there was something we could do together. Nothing clicked and that was that.

But do you suppose that these Quiksilver guys started playing Dune 2? Maybe Brian got them hooked on it. Is it possible that the Warcraft/Starcraft series of games came from the same common root? After all, the Quiksilver guys were just a few miles away from us in Irvine.

Is it possible that your's truly, by suggesting that Westwood knock-off the game play in Herzog Zwei, created a revolution in computer gaming that is rolling on today?

Well, who knows. Not me. But I do know that I got at least half of the revolution started. And again, nothing would have happened if it weren't for Westwood's brilliant execution (and Blizzard's too, for that matter).

Now here’s the strangest thing of all:  “Herzog Zwei”, when translated by Babel Fish, from German to English, means “Duke 2”.  That’s only one letter away from “Dune 2”!  That’s amazing!

And so now you know. When you read half-assed magazine articles that say it all started with Dune 2 (which I suppose it did on the computer) you'll know the real truth - it really all started with Herzog Zwei on the Sega Genesis.

And that's the truth.

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