|Release date(s)||Xbox Live Arcade
27 July 2011
17 August 2011
May 23, 2012
|Genre(s)||God game, sandbox|
|Distribution||Download, cloud computing|
From Dust is a video game, designed by Eric Chahi and developed by Ubisoft Montpellier. Ubisoft described it as a 'spiritual heir' to Populous, a British game developed by Peter Molyneux and Bullfrog Productions in 1989. Announced on 14 June 2010 at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), Ubisoft published the game on Xbox 360, 27 July 2011 as a part of XBLA Summer of Arcade event. The PC version was originally scheduled to be released at the same time but was delayed to 17 August due to undisclosed reasons. A PlayStation 3 version was released on the PlayStation Network in September 2011. On 7 March 2012, Ubisoft announced that the game will be made available as a browser game for Google Chrome.
In From Dust, players assume a god-like first-person perspective from which they manipulate an archipelago environment in an effort to save, and enlighten, a nomadic tribe. With a spherical cursor, the user controls certain types of matter - namely soil, lava and water - in real time. Lava cools to form solid rock, vegetation propagates in soil and spreads naturally once a village is built, and moving water quickly erodes terrain. Physical changes to the world occur extremely rapidly, allowing players to restructure islands within minutes.
Campaigns in From Dust are structured as a sequence of missions, whereby completing certain objectives expedites the tribe's progress and bestows additional powers, such as the capacity to jellify water. Tribal shamans alert the player to natural disasters, notably tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, shortly before they occur. These disasters can be inhibited through creative, physical manipulation of the environment: a tsunami can be jellified, wildfires extinguished, and lava flows diverted. Although there is no 'explicit sandbox' mode, Chahi stated that each mission features a distinct map, which the player can return to and manipulate further. The closest thing to a "sandbox mode" is the game's final level, where you can create the world however you want until you must place the final totem. The game does not force you to place the final totem, so the player can continue to shape the world for as long as he/she pleases.
From Dust gives the option of two main game modes, one being the Story mode and the other a challenge mode. The former consist of a sequence of missions which play through the story of a lost tribe who are using the player (who controls "The Breath") to travel to different levels in an attempt to discover what happened to their old tribe. When all objectives on a level are complete, a gateway opens and the tribe can continue through to the next level. Levels in Story mode take approximately half an hour or more to complete.
Challenge mode employs similar gameplay to that of the Story mode, but the difference is that the gameplay for Challenge mode is faster-paced, and sacrifices any storyline in this mode. Challenge mode levels can last only a few minutes, offering more exciting yet harder gameplay.
On 14 June 2010, Ubisoft announced the development of From Dust at E3, and the appointment of Eric Chahi as the Creative Designer. Following the announcement, the company released cinematic, in-game footage featuring a variety of characters, terrains, and user interactions, with a vocal narration of some of the story. On 16 August 2010, during Gamescom and the European Game Developers Conference in Cologne, Ubisoft unveiled technical footage, showing the game's physics engine in detail. In the technical sequence, a narrator explains the user's interactions with the environment, and the effects of each physical element upon the other. During the conference, Chahi presented a lecture, entitled 'Creating a High-Performance Simulation: A Dynamic Natural World to Play With', demonstrating the world editor that underlies the environment simulation. On 6 May 2011, Ubisoft released footage detailing the various influences on, and artistic direction of, From Dust.
Ubisoft's decision to release the game via the Internet was taken partly to reduce costs, but also to enable creative options for the team and allow for future features, such as a world editor or multiplayer. Guillaume Bunier, Ubisoft's producer, acknowledged that 'some people will not be able to play it', but argued that the majority of individuals interested in the game would be using PSN, XBLA, and Steam. In the event of From Dust being a 'huge success', Bunier suggested that the company could do another, disc-based version. When questioned about the suitability of the game to the console market, he responded by observing that other atypical games were successful on such platforms, notably Flower on the PlayStation 3 (PS3). The OnLive game system, the PS3 and the Xbox 360 were 'powerful machines', and From Dust would utilise their greater capacity to operate the simulation. On 7 July 2011, Ubisoft announced that From Dust will be released on PC and Xbox 360 on 27 July 2011. However when pre-ordered on the Ubisoft Store, the release date order is listed as "pre-ordered release date: Wed Aug 17 00:00:00 CDT 2011". The Ubi Store was updated to show the PC release as 17 August, a day before the previously announced 27 July.
Following the completion of Heart of Darkness in 1998, Chahi exited the video games industry to explore other interests, and subsequently developed a passion for volcanology. During an interview, he recalled the inspirational trip to an active volcano:
I decided to create Project Dust during a trip in Vanuatu in 1999, I was near the Yasur crater and it was strongly active. I could see its explosion; the sound was incredibly loud, like an air plane breaking the soundwall. Bombs were falling everywhere and sometimes really close to us. I was at the same time fascinated by this breathtaking beauty and really scared. I remember I had two thoughts at this very moment: 'I want to create another game before I die' and 'in the game I want to convey this ambivalence of Nature, beautiful and potentially violent at the same time'.—Eric Chahi, 15 June 2010
While discussing the game's visual elements and art direction, developers revealed that they used several locations on Earth, such as the Yemeni islands of Socotra, lagoon archipelagos of Polynesia, and central Sahara as sources of inspiration. Bruno Gentile, Art Director of From Dust, stated that the world possessed strong visual contrasts, with 'rich and swarming life full of weird shapes and colors'. Inhabitants of From Dust wear masks, which serves as a motif representing mystery and uniqueness. Gentile commented that after the developers researched African and New Guinean tribes, one of Ubisoft Montpellier's concept artists developed the idea of a large mask, constructed from nacre. Chahi remarked that the team had drawn inspiration from various musical instruments, especially slit drums used on the Vanuatu islands, and indicated that music was 'a key part in the gameplay and design'. While tribes do not develop technologically, the team decided that their culture would evolve as they discovered 'their world and their past'.
In an interview with Eurogamer, Chahi emphasised that the developers initially tried to avoid including overt religious elements in the game. One journalist observed that From Dust appeared religious in an 'indistinct, cross-cultural non-denominational kind of way'. Tribal worship, totems, and animal-shaped monuments are examples of the quasi-religious character of From Dust. Chahi explained that, during one mission, the player would physically divide an ocean in order to assist their tribe in crossing it and so forth. He indicated that Ubisoft Montpellier were reluctant: 'we didn't want to take it in this direction', but the 'game kept pushing us back to it'. When asked the meaning of the game's title, Bunier remarked that 'it's just another universe, another place', "something people create 'from dust'". Separately, Chahi commented that the game centred on the fragility of life and brevity of humankind.
An essential aspect of From Dust is the environment simulation, which underlies the player's interactions with the world. Developers intended that the world appear as a 'living thing', a dynamic and spontaneous entity, irrespective of the player's actions upon it. Chahi emphasised the difficulty of balancing this technical simulation with individual enjoyment, commenting that sometimes 'it would take days to find the right value for gameplay that's also aesthetically pleasing'. Montpellier accommodated this dynamism through a system of rules, which govern the elements of the simulation: flowing water and moving soil result in the emergence of rivers. Lakes at the base of a volcano accumulate sediment, which increases their viscosity, and similar rules govern volcanic eruptions, lava flow, and the spread of vegetation. With each rule, the layers accumulate to the point at which the developers are able to create an entire landscape.
Regarding physics in the world of Dust, Chahi commented that the developers had 'worked hard to translate a vision of the power of the Earth moving and exploding in the game'. Volcanic eruptions, explosions, and lava flows function in a way similar to actual volcanoes, such as Mount Etna. However, the developers opted for more theatrical, 'visually impressive' tsunamis. Dynamic textures were used to represent water transparency, moving lava, and the real time adaptation of rock and soil to fluids.
A central aspect of the user interface is the breath, with which players interact with the world and manipulate events. When a user selects a material, such as water, the appearance of the breath changes accordingly and the fluid can be placed directly onto the surface of the world. Chahi stated that the developers abandoned the traditional head-up display (HUD), and chose an abstract form instead, the breath, which they then 'fully integrated in the storyline'. Elaborating further, he stated that a tribe's music would also affect the appearance of the breath.
In August and September 2010, Montpellier designers indicated that a variety of expansions were under consideration, including a weather simulation, world editor, and multiplayer capacity. During an interview with Gamasutra editor Brandon Sheffield, Chahi posted that the developers would eventually complete a 'real-time weather simulation', although may not package it with the initial release of the game. In September 2010, Chahi stated that From Dust was a 'solo experience', although if the game's sales were promising, he indicated that the team would consider 'adding an editor and a multiplayer mode'. Digital delivery methods, such as Steam, enabled the developers to price the solo experience at 'around 15 Euros or so', while also providing the option to enhance content later in the development cycle. He stated that he had 'many ideas' regarding new features, and a possible franchise.
Late in the development cycle, journalists offered initial appraisals of the mechanics, presentation, and appeal of From Dust. Commentators praised the physics engine, god-like powers, and scripting of the computer-controlled tribes.
While watching an Xbox 360 demonstration at Gamescom 2010, Kotaku’s Mike Fahey stated that the physics were 'incredibly impressive'. In response to a demonstration of the camera controls and sphere interactions, he remarked that it was 'an amazing sight'. In a GameSpot preview, Giancarlo Varanini stated that it was great fun 'just messing around with the world', which 'roused fond memories of games like Populous'. Looking forward, he said that GameSpot would be interested in the extent of these non-linear mechanics.
In March 2011, Eurogamer contributor Christian Donlan suggested that the simulation might be the ‘most fascinating part’ of the entire project, in that it presented a ‘convincing environment’. Corroborating one of Fahey's points, he noted that details are observable with a ‘good range of camera options’. Far from being an 'endless grind of escort missions', Donlan argued that From Dust appeared 'quick-witted, entertaining stuff'. Scripted path finding was 'surprisingly good': tribes attempted to navigate obstacles and search for alternative routes, with their intended paths highlighted in different colours. In his conclusion, Donlan noted that once the campaign ended, the game offered ‘a wonderful digital fish tank to peer into’.
From Dust received generally favourable reviews, following its initial release on 27 July 2011, on Xbox 360. The PC version, released on 17 August 2011, received less favorable reviews overall. Critics of the PC version noted the unrefined controls, limited framerate to 30 FPS, and a lack of anti-aliasing or other advanced graphics options. Ubisoft's DRM for the game in particular received many complaints, since a constant Internet connection is required when launching the game, even though it was initially reported that the game would simply require a one-time-only activation. There are also a large number of reports that the PC version has crashing issues, glitches and a small bracket of supported graphics cards, rendering the game unplayable for some. The supported video card lists are also remarkably small, excluding Intel integrated graphics, Mobile versions of any video card, SLI and Crossfire setups, Eyefinity, and the new combination CPU/GPU bridges. This means playing on a laptop, non-gaming grade desktop, or the most powerful type of gaming desktop is not supported.
As of December 2011, the game has sold over 500,000 copies across platforms since its initial release.
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