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Descent: Underground Steams Ahead

Red Thomas Posted:
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There are few guys as enjoyable to hang out with as Eric Peterson.  He’s concentrated excitement in a joyous shell, and is probably the perfect developer to visit a few weeks before Christmas.  If Santa needed a Wingman, I know who I’d recommend for the job, and not just because Eric’s a solid guy to lead a project.  He’s also surrounded himself with a small team of similarly intense individuals to make Descent: Underground.

These guys are just having fun, but it’s a directed sort of enjoyment.  You’ll hear laughing and the occasional friendly taunt in their Austin offices, but it’s all driven through the joyous application of professional pride.  They’re excited because they’re proud of what they happen to be working on, and I’d say that they enjoy the struggle to make it as good as possible.  More importantly, they genuinely seem to enjoy working together to the point where I might say Eric runs the show, but I can’t really say he directs much.

Everyone seems to know their place, and all are leaning forward to produce a game worthy of the dollars backers have donated to see the game become a reality.  The great collaborative effort extends well beyond the doors of their small Austin office, though.  Today we’re going to take a look at some of the new features coming online for Descent: Underground and how the team is empowering their community to contribute.


Balance is the much sought after siren of the game industry.  Developers ply the waters of their digital Adriatic hearing the sensuous song of statistics on the wind, but outside of pure luck, few ever find balance (or perfect imbalance as I’ve heard it jokingly referred to by some developers).  DU is no exception, as these developers worm their way through collected data and internal play sessions to find just the right touch of skill and chance.

Hit boxes have been the focus of a good deal of their attention recently, and I think perhaps for the first time in the Descent franchise.  Earlier games were built on technology that supported a single hitbox shape for every ship.  That gave the game a certain feel that a lot of backers are nostalgic for, but modern games are much more complex.  Frankly, probably too complex for the simplistic mouse-clickers of old.  Modern gamers expect more accurate representations of damaging shots, so the problem becomes one of finding the right middle ground.

Changing the speed of various ships and weapons by even small increments can have massive impact on the feel of games like Descent: Underground

Descent: Underground will need to apply technology in a way that satisfies the modern gamer’s demand for accuracy with the feel of the older games.  That’s not something even remotely easy to do, but Eric Peterson tells me the team has been taking a hard look at it.  Each subtle change compared against the resulting data, and tested through hours of in-house play to gauge the feel of it.

Speed could be one way they look to solve the problem.  Changing how fast ships and projectiles move works right along with the hitboxes to define the feel of the game.  Perhaps technology that allows more fidelity on one side, requires some adaptation from another.  There haven’t been many games recently to take advantage of modern processing and rendering power to make a true skill-based game.

I recently watched a video with John Romero, creator of Doom and Castle Wolfenstein, where said topic came up.  In the video Romero calls out many of the modern action games and notes how the speeds players currently move in many of them are much slower than was more common a decade ago, while game mechanics and environments have also become much more simplistic in many ways.

I’d say Descent: Underground is in a position to recall those older games and recapture some of what we hadn’t realized we’d lost.  By creating a game based on fast-moving and reflex-based action, Descendent Studios may prove such games are still fun and viable in the current market.

New Environments

In order for that speed to make sense and feel fun, it has to be placed in an environment that suits it.  DU has offered backers a taste of the game on the test map they use in development, but they knew they couldn’t stop there.  A new map is currently in the works that takes advantage of the fast-nature of the game flow and combines with the new rise in e-sports.

Backers will become contributors soon, as Descendent Studios release map kits for custom environments.

The new map, styled as sort of a giant 3-D football arena, will come with a new game mode called “Hot Rock.”  In this mode, teams compete by trying to put a “ball” through a goal at opposing ends of the field.  There are a couple catches, though.  First, the arena layout can be changed between matches through the addition of obstacles.

To capitalize on the rising popularity of streaming, Eric tells me the team even wants to figure out a way to allow channels of fans to vote on some of these obstacles or other aspects of the match.  This strikes me as a particularly cool idea that strikes right at the hearts of two really popular concepts, and takes them a step farther by adding in even more audience participation.

The second thing that will make Hot Rock a little different than generic capture-the-flag style of game play, is that the “ball” can only be held for a set amount of time before the carrier gets blown up.  Sort of a 5-second rule, but with more C4.

Lastly, players will be able to bounce the “ball” objects for deflected passes and shots.  The guys are looking at possibly granting bonus points for banked shots into the goal, which I completely support.  In fact, I’d make it some sort of multiplier.  That should create some additional complexity as players have to choose between safer passes and straight goal shots, or more difficult banked shots that could score more points.

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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.