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Descent: Underground – Devs Beware!

Red Thomas Posted:
Columns Not So MMO 0

A few weeks back, I got an excited call from Eric Peterson to let me know the team had finalized a publishing deal and were in the process of planning out the official announcement.  Eric might be the only guy I know to have been involved in one very successful crowdfunded project, and then to start a second.  There are a few other examples out there, but it seemed like a great chance to explore the challenges of crowdfunding a project with someone who’s done it twice.

Eric and I met for a conversation in Austin to talk about what the new publishing deal means for Descent: Underground, and where the project is going next.  Because the next few steps for the team will be greatly determined by lessons learned since the start of the project, we also explored some of the good and bad decisions leading up to today.  As a guy who has really found the crowdfunded and indie game portion of the industry interesting, I was really fascinated by what Eric thought had gone well, what he thought hadn’t, and what they might ought to have done differently.

The Failure

Relatively speaking, crowdfunding is a new system for launching games, and while there have been some successes, there haven’t been nearly enough of them to really develop a good sense of the “right” course to chart.  In new waters, Descendent Studios have made their share of mistakes, and Eric Peterson has enough experience in the industry and sense of business to be comfortable owning up to them.

Ships build for multiplayer roles will also offer unique challenges and rewards in single player.

The possible error that’s likely had the most impact to the project was going to Steam’s Early Access too soon.  It’s a mistake I’ve seen other projects make, and in part because it’s really hard to say no when the decision is in front of you.  Smaller projects need the revenue earlier launches provide so that they can cash-flow as much of the development as possible.  The problem is that early access demands constant updates, or you start losing users that’ll take more marketing budget to get back.

The rapid development required to successfully participate in early access programs eat up a lot of story points in even the most aggressive agile development programs.  Sprints get extended in order to include more unit testing, which then eats into development cycles for actual content.  Early access effectively slows down the development pace.  It can also have benefits, but not all projects benefit equally.

I’ve actually started to hear from a lot of developers over the last couple years that Steam Early Access is becoming less and less attractive.  One problem is games are being trolled by people buying a game to give it a bad review, and then returning it using Steam’s return policy.  Obviously, that’s not always the case, but I’ve heard it from enough developers now, that I’m pretty confident that Steam has a problem that needs to be looked into.  Though, to defend the team somewhat, Descent: Underground hit early access right at the end of the Greenlight program, and not a lot of teams had much experience with it at that time.

The Success

When I asked Eric what he sees as being key successes over the last couple years, his immediate and emphatic reply was, “My team is still here.”  Two years of little to no money (as evidenced by an office composed of folding tables, surplus chairs, and refurbished desktops) puts pressure on any project.  The fact that the team has managed to stay together and pool resources to keep the project moving is a testament to good leadership and great culture.  A culture that clearly has deep respect for crowdfunded money, I’d point out.

One less emphasized, but really significant successful move by the team, was to choose an engine with solid net code.  Eric notes that it’s common to have players in a single map from all over the planet and the game continues to run well and without problems.  The choice to use the Unreal engine with its stable net code has been one decision that continues to prove itself a great one.

Customized ship parts and paint effects are really great ways to generate revenue with no game impact.

Ship customization design decisions have also put Descent: Underground ahead.  There’s the obvious fun factor of being able to customize ships, but being able to easily design and implement customized ship parts will have longer-reaching benefits.  In fact, while Eric never expressly said it, I suspect the modular approach to ships is one of the things that makes the game particularly marketable to publishers.  Cosmetics sold as add-ons through an online store has been hugely successful for a number of recent products.  People love to customize their crafts, and when the customization is purely cosmetic, it only adds to the experience.

Another decision Eric thinks the team made the right call on was going multiplayer first.  It’s interesting, because their reasoning was the same as what I’ve heard from the ArtCraft Entertainment guys, which is that they chose to do the hardest part first.  Similar to the other studio, the tougher part of development helped the rest of the game to fall into place.  In Descent: Underground, that’ll be more single player maps based around ships balanced for multiplayer.  It’s harder to account for people, so balancing the AI second saves time in the long-run.

The Future

Descent: Underground has a chance at a second start, in a sense.  The bones of the game are in great shape, but the publishing deal with Little Orbit will give the project an injection of capital that will give the team a chance to make some large strides towards a real release.  The deal and everything that comes with it will have a large impact on the trajectory of the game.

"Viewmaster” Morlan will be working with the new art team to take Descent: Underground to the next level.

One immediate change has been dropping off of Steam’s Early Access program.  The team will still allow backers to play the last stable build of the game, but will pull back on constant releases and focus on finishing the game.  A renewed focus on the single-player experience means there’s less immediate need for the metrics you get from larger play-tests, in any case. The more complex storyline will make for a much more complete single-player component to the game. 

A better storyline also prepares the way for a Descent: Underground console release.  Little Orbit coming on board has bridged the gap and will now allow Descendent Studios to get their game out on XboxOne and PlayStation 4, as well as the PC release.  I feel the game is better with a gamepad and actually suspect it’ll be far more successful on consoles anyway.

In addition to the increased focus on single-player and expanded release to consoles, the guys will also be bringing on a new art team to enhance the visuals of the game.  Industry pro Michael Morlan will be working with the new team to bring the game’s art assets up to standard.  Visual and audio assets will be getting a pass, and that should help make the game a lot more approachable.

The new publishing deal should give the Descendent Studios team the shot in the arm that Descent: Underground really needs.  Combined with smart decisions like expanding to consoles, dropping out of early access programs, and focusing on single player, the project looks to be in good shape for launch in the next year or so.  More importantly, a team that’s able to critically inspect good and bad decisions shows a high level of intestinal fortitude and integrity.  As a backer myself, that’s something I look for in any crowdfunded project.


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.