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Postmortem: Outrage's Descent 3

October 8, 1999 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

Descent 3’s creation was a long and arduous task that was both a joy and a pain. Exciting technology coupled with inconsistent design and almost nonexistent management had all members of the team exhausted by the end of our 31-month development cycle. When the game finally did ship however, we knew we had a winner.

Developed by Parallax Software and published by Interplay Productions, Descent was released in 1995 and took the world by storm with the first first-person shooter offering 360 degrees of movement. No longer were players constrained just to walking around a 2D world — now they had complete freedom of movement in a true 3D space.

Players were able to fly their Pyro ship in any disorienting direction — up, down, and everywhere — and top became bottom, bottom became up, as players plummeted down never-ending tunnels blasting mechanical robots and saving imprisoned miners.

This innovation in action gaming was immediately successful and garnered The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Best Title of 1995 and Best Computer Game of 1995. And PC Gamer voted it Best Action Game in the World. One year later, the sequel Descent II was released, which added another 30 levels to the mix and improved the game’s AI, thanks to the addition of the Guide-Bot and Thief-Bot. The game ended with a cliffhanger cinematic that almost certainly guaranteed another sequel. That’s where the Descent 3 project began.

Who the Hell Is Outrage?

Descent was developed by a small group of programmers and artists at Parallax Software in Champaign, Ill., headed by Mike Kulas and Matt Toschlog. After the successful completion of Descent, Toschlog moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., and established a second office for Parallax Software. He took three designers with him and hired two additional programmers. Both offices then began to work simultaneously on Descent II. While Descent II was deemed a successful project, the process of trying to get teams located in two distant offices to work effectively together took a heavy toll on both teams. It was at that time that Matt and Mike decided that each office should work on separate titles and eventually become separate companies. Thus, Outrage Entertainment and Volition Inc. were born.

It was another eight months before the production of Descent 3 began. After the release of Descent II, Outrage immediately began work on The Infinite Abyss (a Windows 95 version of Descent II, along with a new level add-on pack entitled The Vertigo Series). Meanwhile, Volition concentrated on development of FreeSpace. It wasn’t until after the release of The Infinite Abyss and Descent Maximum (the Playstation version of Descent II) that the developers here at Outrage began focusing all our energy on the design and development of Descent 3.

Another Sequel And Why Descent 3?

Descent I and II had the makings of a franchise for Interplay, and with any franchise, successful or otherwise, sequels are sure to follow. Technology had taken a big leap in the year and a half that Descent had come out: notably Windows 95 and hardware-accelerated 3D. It was easy to see how Descent 3 could be dramatically improved over its predecessors.

By the fall of 1996, we began to compile a list of features that we would like to see in Descent 3. By November we had created a design document detailing the new features that would be implemented for Descent 3 and submitted it to Interplay for approval.

Interceptor
Initial conceptual drawing of the Phoenix Interceptor.

The initial design and programming work on Descent 3 began in December 1996. Some of the team had just completed work on Descent IIThe Infinite Abyss and Descent Maximum for Playstation, while others were involved with research and development for Descent 3, where they learned about new tools and technologies. We were excited about taking the Descent franchise to the next level and eager to begin, but little did we know that our over-eagerness would impair the game’s development.

About six months after starting development, we stepped back and took a long hard look at what we had and where we were going. Originally, it was deemed that Descent 3 would have both a software and hardware renderer. After checking out the competition, it was apparent that, if we wanted to be visually stunning (and maintain interactive frame rates), we would either have to scale back our technology design or go with a hardware renderer only. We chose the latter. In retrospect this was a good decision, but it was unfortunate that we had to make it six months into the development, since many of the tools and software rendering technology were already developed.

At this point, not only did we decide to go with a hardware-only renderer, we decided to scrap the engine that we had been developing. The engine we had going was an enhanced segment engine — a portal engine that used six-sided deformed cubes to represent geometry. Essentially, it was the same technology used in Descent II, with some additional features thrown in for improved geometry modeling. If we had stuck with this engine until the game shipped, we would have been way behind the technology curve with respect to our competition. Instead, we went with a "room"-based engine, which allows designers to create just about any geometrical area within a 3D modeling program, such as 3D Studio Max or Lightwave.

Shortly thereafter, the terrain engine was developed. We were seriously considering the idea of creating outdoor areas for Descent 3, but we worried about the high polygon count associated with such a large rendering distance. Fortunately, we used a good level-of-detail (LOD) algorithm to combat the frame-rate problems. Unfortunately, the decision to include terrain would adversely affect the overall design in ways that we couldn’t possibly have foreseen, such as the scale of the terrain dictating how fast the ship appeared to move while outside.

For the next 18 months, work continued on Descent 3 at a frantic pace. We were learning how to use our custom in-house tool, D3Edit, so in the process we ended up creating and then throwing out an incredible amount of our content — what looked cool one month looked dated the next. This was largely due to the fact that we were developing a cutting-edge engine at the same time we were trying to design the game itself — a pitfall many developers have fallen victim to. Unfortunately, throwing out so much work also cost our team a lot in terms of our morale. What we should have done is freeze the design of the engine about a year before the product shipped and then worked on the game. Unfortunately, in our lust for sexy technology, we just couldn’t do that.

When we finally did ship, we were exhausted in a variety of ways. Working on the same game for two and a half years is emotionally depleting, to say the least. Although we knew the game was cool, we didn’t know how the public (or reviewers) would receive it. Thankfully, it turned out that our fears were unfounded — Descent 3 has received incredibly good scores from a variety of sources, including print magazines and gaming web sites.


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