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Descent: Underground Moves Fast

Red Thomas Posted:
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Descendent Studios is made up of some pretty cool folks.  Each member of the cast has a list of previous credits to their name, and no one on the team has the sort of personality that would allow them to slip quietly in the shadows.  In a really cool way, it reminds me of some of the best development teams I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with or on over the years.

There’s a certain air to a team filled with the mutual respect you get with half a dozen or so Type-A folks in the same room.  I also happen to have been reading through a number of books on project management lately, and what Eric Peterson has built around himself is the jealously desired power team that is so rarely found in the wild.  There’s something about Austin that seems to promote these sorts of teams.  Being a Texan myself, I think I know what it is.  I’ll not bug you all with a certain universal truth all true Texans know in their hearts, though.

Regardless of how the team came to be, they exist.  What they’re doing with Descent: Undergound is phenomenal, and I had a great opportunity to swing by the studio and check it out recently.  I’d been there before, so I expected progress, but nothing like what I saw.  I think there’s a lot of potential in their product, and my recent experience leads me to think they’re very likely to tap into that potential much sooner than you’d expect.

Mapping Their Location

I remember playing Descent years ago on a computer that would barely run the game, and man it made me sick.  Sitting in a dark room and zipping around in Descent was a great way to engineer a day home from school…. Uh, not that I ever did that, Mom…

That early experience was something I worried a little about with Descent: Underground, but I’m finding that the updated graphics and higher refresh rates are making the game much easier on the stomach to play than its predecessors.  The game flew very smoothly for me, though it still managed to be just as difficult to negotiate tight corners and narrow passages as the original.  Ships have a certain zip to them that make navigating as much a game as hunting down and engaging other players.

Modular map design will allow for more maps and dynamic obstacles gives extra flavors to each.

There was a lot more of the game ready to play that I expected, as well.  The inaugural level that’s currently being used to test ships and various game mechanics doesn’t feel completely like a finished level, but it managed to get pretty close as I was playing for a bit.  It’s just a test level, and I didn’t really expect it to have the sort of detail I found.  Textures and various set pieces had obviously been designed just to look cool, and that ended up giving the level a more finished look than you usually see from developer test environments.

And lest you think they put this show on just for me, I don’t think that was possible.  See, I kind of called Eric from the elevator on my way up to his floor.  Luckily the guys were cool with my impromptu inspection, and I think it’s even more telling that there was no hesitation at all in Eric’s voice when he said to stop on by.  Even a laugh as I told him I already had.

I complemented the team on how far they’d come with the playable environment in the last couple months since I’d seen them, and Eric made it a point to compliment the technology.  Now, I’m not just pointing this out because I think that the engine used is important, in this context it really is.  I’m pointing it out because I think it’s just as important to acknowledge the confidence and professionalism of a team that pushes compliments off on their chosen tech with so much ease.

They’re using the Unreal engine to build their game environment, and Eric can’t say enough great things about it as a developer.  He tells me it’s extremely easy to use for them, and the result renders very smoothly.  Plus, it has fantastic netcode support that puts them light years ahead of where they would have been had they attempted to use another engine.  What might be more important to you readers, is that there are tons of kits and tools out there for mods. 

Modding and user-maps are things Descendent Studios looks to be supporting from the ground up, and that makes the game even more viable in my book.  Since so many modders have experience with the Unreal engine, and there’s so much support for it, there’s a lot of post-development potential for Descent: Underground, as well.

Shipping and Handling

Descent: Undergound isn’t a map-making game, though.   It’s a fast-paced, ship-based, romp through the valleys of digital death and pixilated carnage.  DU is about flying awesome ships and blowing up your friends to the modulated sounds of maniacal laughter cackling through your personal flavor of VoIP.  In short, DU is about the joyous application of carnage, and it’s the ships that make it possible.

It’s a game that takes me back to the great days of LAN parties, with all the laughter contained therein.

Eric and his team haven’t just gotten one ship completed for testing, they have several, and they all play pretty well.  Each has a specific ability and purpose that sets it apart from the others, making the stable of ships feel much more completed than I know they really are.  While the game is basically all deathmatch right now, several ships are designed for roles that really don’t apply this early in development.

Future game modes will involve mining and transporting ore in a sort of extended capture the flag style of game, and of course there are ships that are more suited to those tasks than to blowing stuff up.  That said, the folks at Descendent Studios are still looking to add mechanics to even deathmatches in Descent: Underground that create advantages to using the less mercenary of the available chassis.

Ships have weapons, and there’s been some work there, also.  New weapons and power-ups are beginning to roll out like Willy Wonka has suddenly decided to trade in his chocolates for ANFO.  With his traditional penchant for the inappropriate, Wingman has led his team in giving each new system a touch of whimsy.  The great thing about it, is that it’s not far off the mark from some of the goofy stuff I’ve seen in real life.  The caring sentiment on the business end of a howitzer shell certainly seems out of place, but the squad that put it there will be laughing long after sending it down range to its appointed rendezvous with the bad guys.

“Have a nice day.” – Descendent Studios

Access Granted

The guys at Descendent Studios are doing the Descent IP justice, I think.  I’d say it’s too early to really say for sure, except their pace of development has put them well beyond any reasonable benchmark.  It’s a testament to what happens when a development project focuses on quality people, rather than quantity, and it’s enough that you start getting a good idea of what the eventual game will look like closer to completion.

There’s certainly more that needs to be done, but I’m hearing they plan to have the game out on Steam’s Early Access early this fall.  I’d laugh were it anyone else.  Based on what they’ve done this far, and the experience in the team, I’m thinking these guys will actually do it, though.  It seems a good move for them, too.  I expect they’ll do even better as an Early Access game with a cash shop, than they did during their crowd funding campaign.  This is the sort of game that lends itself well to the World of Tanks revenue model.  I suspect that the game will do even better as new maps, game modes, and game mechanics come online.

I’d be on the fence about recommending the game to anyone in its current state, except that as rough and early in the development as it is, these guys are putting it together at an incredible pace.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see a whole new game mode out before this article even gets published.  So with that said, I think you might do well to check this one out.  If you’ve played and enjoyed Descent, I think you’ll have fun with Descent: Underground and even more as time goes on.  If nothing else, you’ll have a blast watching what Eric Peterson and his team of twisted Oompa Loompas do next.


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.