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Descent: Underground - A Winner in the Making

Red Thomas Posted:
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I first met Eric Peterson back when he was working on a previous project.  I’d say he was quietly working behind the scenes to make things happen, but anyone who knows Wingman, knows that he doesn’t do quiet.  He’s an open and personable guy, which is why it didn’t take me long to understand what Eric is all about.  Peterson is a guy who loves producing video games, has a long track record in the industry, and really loves interacting with the fans of his projects.

All of those are reasons enough for why I had a lot of interest in his new project, but there was a tear in my eye when Eric let me in on the IP they’d just acquired the rights to use.  While Ships That Fight Underground is the working title, the new game just announced on Kickstarter will be called Descent: Underground.

Borrowing a bit from modern advances, the team at Descendant Studios has taken up the standard of that fantastically nostalgic title that once rocked the world with their innovative form of combat in all three dimensions and is carrying it to the modern battleground.  Central to their plans is a revitalization of Descent’s maze-like 3D environment and gameplay, now termed “six degrees of awesome,” by Eric and his team.  We’re exploring many degrees of awesome today as we take a look at the Descent: Underground project and whether or not it might be something you should consider checking out.

What Kind of Game is DU?

Descent: Underground will be a session-based action MMO in the vein of World of Tanks.  Talking about it among friends, I recently explained the idea as being WoT matches and systems of advancement, with Battlefield respawns and probably pace of play.  Of course, it’s too early be too sure of what the gameplay will be like exactly, but I think I have a good guess based on what I know so far and from talking with Eric.  I expect something fast and likely filled with action, but with the strategic overtones I’ve been missing since Battlefield 1942.

The game’s persistence will come in the form of vehicle improvements similar to what you find in games like WarThunder and World of Tanks.  Unlike other games, players will be able to gain access to each available drone chassis off the bat.  Advancement comes in the form of improved weapon systems, sensors, counter measures, and engine capacities for the drones.  Eric says some of the other improvements specific to DU’s unique gameplay will be things like mining speed and efficiency improvements, and hauler capacity upgrades.

Which leads us into what actually makes this game unique from the other similar ideas out there.  The match-based combat of Descent: Underground takes place inside asteroids where various corporations are competing for the resources locked within the orbiting chunks of rock and ice.  Once the resources needed by the resource-depleted Earth have been located in a given asteroid, multiple corporations dispatch teams of drones to acquire them. 

The Auger is the mainstay of mining operations with upgraded sensor packages for finding hidden tunnels and rare materials.

Arriving at about the same time as each other, the corporations compete to extract the most resources from the cavern-laced interior of the asteroids.  Players play the role of drone pilots attempting to extract the desired minerals and haul them out, while attacking and sabotaging other players attempting the same.  The choices of attack, defense, and subterfuge should combine well with the resource extraction mechanic to make room for a wide array of play-styles.

Also speaking of divergent gameplay, DU will use a voxel-based environment.  Eric tells me that he thinks this will really allow for some serious trickery in matches.  Do you sneak your resources back to your extraction point via newly mined tubes in order to avoid ambushes, or do you mine through to ambush opponents on the way back to their own extraction points?  When you make the terrain itself dynamic in a game, there’s no end to what players will come up with strategy-wise.  I expect it’ll lend a great deal of replayability to a game that’s hardly likely to be lacking in it to begin with.

How Does Advancement Work?

Things could obviously change between now and the finished product, but Eric’s gone over some of how they expect the game’s persistence and advancement to work.  It has to do with their expected revenue model, so it’s a doubly-good thing to cover as their crowdfunding campaign kicks off.

Through the crowdfunding campaign, players now have a choice of several tiers that grant access to a varying number of drone types.  The current selection includes the Wasp, Auger, Goliath, Predator, Panzer, Typhon, and also the Shaman and Warlock if stretch goals are reached.  Each chassis has it’s specialization that defines to some degree the role it’ll fill in a match.  That said, I suspect part of the fun in the game will be attempting to use ships in non-obvious ways, and modular ship design should support doing so.

As players compete in matches, they’ll accumulate resources based on what they were able to haul back to their extraction point.  Winners of the matches will also get a bonus of some sort.  Exactly how it’ll function is still being worked out, but it sounds like you could expect something similar to WoT’s use of silver and gold currency.  The difference will be that “gold” currency, called Pals or Palasite in DU, can be won in matches.

Parts can be switched out to build individualized ships, optimized for your own style.

The general currency called “Scrip,” in addition to Pals in some situations, can be spent on a variety of upgrades for your drone.  Eric tells me that players can expect a healthy mix of tree-based options to upgrade through, as well as a large number of cosmetic options.  Personally, I think the cosmetic piece is often missing from these sorts of games, so it’s really cool to see Descendant Studios putting early focus on it.

Ships are modular and can swap out noses, fuselages, and tails.  Each section comes with an array of customizable options of various cosmetic and function distinctiveness.  Taking ideas from World War II fighters, Peterson tells me they specifically want to ensure players have the chance to customize nose art and put company logos on tail sections.  It’s another really intelligent move that may facilitate e-sports on down the road, if that happens to develop.

After thinking about it, advancement could be a future concern I’d have with the game, though.  I’m sure they’ll have it worked out before launch, but as it stands I’m a little unsure how sustainable the game’s economic model is with the current advancement system.  If they have a cash shop and don’t put access to some chassis behind others, is it possible that players might upgrade too fast and outrun the need to purchase items from the cash shop?

Even with all the cosmetic options, and a plan to involve the community in expanding said options out of the gate, I’m not sure that’ll be enough to generate a solid and sustainable revenue stream for the game.  That said, I know the team already has ideas for expansions that likely address that concern before it’s really an issue, and that’s even ignoring that there’s certainly more to the system that hasn’t been designed yet, much less unveiled to the public.  It’s something I’ll be watching out for, but a concern I expect will be addresses quickly.

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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.