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Descent: Underground and Historical Context

Red Thomas Posted:
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Like nearly all gamers over thirty, I played the original Descent as a much younger guy.  I’ve always been more of a strategy or an RPG kind of guy, so while I liked the game, I’ve never been a diehard fan.  That’s why I didn’t know about the Sol Contingency project until a friend read my last article about Descent: Underground and clued me in.

Being a big advocate for indie games and wanting to support them as often as possible, I immediately started looking around for more information.  The first thing I found was a lot of speculation that Interactive sent their cease and desist letter to the SolC developers because they wanted the field clear for DU as a sanctioned project.  Well, I’m certain that’s not the case.  At the time of the letter, almost the entire Descent: Underground team was working for Cloud Imperium Games on another well-known project.

Early gameplay videos of Sol Contingency showed a very playable game, and these are the sort of people who make community-sourced projects like Descent: Underground even better.

Besides, I’d spoken to Eric Peterson when they got approval for the IP and happen to have already known that it all came together for them shortly before announcing the game on Kickstarter just a few weeks ago.  Additionally, Joep Peters, also known as Cobra6 and a developer on SolC, stated in a forum post that he’s spoken with Peterson via Skype and “a lot of things got cleared up,” though he didn’t go further into what precisely had been discussed.

Though at this point, it sounds like after what was initially a fairly cool reception with Descent’s existing fan base, Descent: Underground has started to win over its share of supporters.  There are still some who I’m sure aren’t happy about the fact that the game will be multiplayer, and certainly some will be upset about over anything like a cash shop being involved with DU.  I even understand them to a certain degree, because it’s not something that really sounds like it fits the franchise.

I know DU will not be completely true to the original, but it’s been two decades and what was cutting edge at the time, is a little dated these days.  Not just the graphics, but the mechanics and game design are more than a little behind the times.  The last decade alone has seen large improvements in game design and mechanics, and that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we learned about the art in the latter half of the 90’s.  The way we build games and the way we play games is so different now than it was back then that it’s just not reasonable to expect a game built to the earlier style to be marketable in today’s audience. 

Descent 2 was a great game, but with controls and game design, it Descent: Underground could give the IP new life.

Thus we hit the rub of the matter here.  It’s cool when fans get together and start a community project to restore an old favorite.  They volunteer their work and in some cases make a modest amount from donations, but it’s rare for such a project to be a viable business model.  In this case, the game is being developed by professionals.  These guys make a living at building games, and it’s how they feed their families.

At least it would be, if the Descent Studios guys were getting paid.  What I found out during a recent Austin trip surprised me.  The guys building Descent: Underground are currently doing it without a salary.  They believe there’s enough potential with this new IP to put their own time, and not a little of their own cash, into getting it off the ground.  The feeling is that if this is a good idea and the community wants it, then the community will help it get built, and the game will reach a point where it’ll be self-sustaining after they get over the initial hurdle of getting it out.

This tells me right up front that this is a team with a great deal of respect for the community around them, and the funds that community provides for making this game.  Very few professional developers would take that sort of gamble when starting a new project, especially ones as marketable as these.  In many ways, it’ll put the developers and the project much closer to the community around it, which suggests that we should see an incredibly transparent and community-centric development process. 

The sincerity behind what the team is saying is very apparent as you hear developers explain how they intend to work on ways to enable the community in their support of the project.  Whether assets or ideas, I’m expecting to find Descent: Underground being developed in many ways by the community itself.  By allowing backers access to design meetings and through empowering their community to contribute, DU will have a strong base to build from.

Descent Studios also have an incredibly attainable development goal despite an aggressive schedule.  Eric tells me they hope to have limited access to the game in early fall with a Beta soon after, and the final release late next spring.  Using tools built during the development, Descent: Underground will continue to involve backers through the creation of additional assets and maps to expand the game.

I firmly believe, and I think an increasing number of more hardcore fans are starting to realize, that this project is a really good thing for those who are nostalgic for Descent.  We’ve had years for a studio to pick the franchise up and do something with it, and it’s not like there wasn’t good reason to do so.  Descent blew away its competition in the early days of PC gaming, and there are still tons of people who will take a second look at anything sporting the title.

I think the problem has been how to pull the older game into a current age and make it approachable by newer gamers, while still upholding the feel of the original.  Eric and the crack team of developers around him have the experience to do it if anyone does.  The buy-in of so many members of the existing fan community and Eric’s intent to give them so much input with the game, is a model with a great deal of potential and I think one that gives them the edge they need to pull it off.

I don’t normally go for the journalist thing.  I’m really just a glorified blogger with a paycheck, but the idea that a fan project got stomped on by big industry guys just isn’t something I could walk away from.  I decided to take a deeper look, if for no other reason that ripping into people gets a lot of page views if it had turned out to be true.

After looking at it, I have to say that I think there’s a good project here.  It’s not just that I think Eric and the guys working with him are good people, because we’ve seen good people hose up projects before.  It’s that they have a solid timetable, experience, and a plan that involves leveraging the power of a great community.  We’ve seen a number of recent games with solid communities do well after crowdfunding, so I’d say the future looks brighter for Descent: Underground than some in big industry might prefer.  Perhaps that was even some of the reasoning behind the name?


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.