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Sneak Peek Interview with Matt Toschlog - 04/24/98

 

In 1995, Descent was the only 3D shooter to rightfully elude the "Doom clone" label. While many other companies were scrambling to produce The Next Big Thing by basically copying id Software, Interplay launched a truly innovative game that took the action genre one step further. Developed by Parallax Software, Descent was the first game to give gamers a full 360 degrees of freedom, plus revolutionary features such as light sourcing, directional sound effects, eight-player multiplayer support, a robust editor, and a CD-quality soundtrack.

Arguably, Descent's greatest achievement was the level of player immersion. It was not uncommon to literally feel the effects of vertigo after plunging through Descent's gravity-defying mines. After a heated gaming session, players would even report "seeing" the twisting mine shafts behind their closed eyelids before drifting off to sleep (replacing rotating Tetris pieces, of course). Hey, even Gamecenter named Descent the number nine download of all time.

After collecting a handful of industry awards, Interplay realized it was sitting on one fat franchise. Over the ensuing years, the company released a number of sequels and game bundles. Descent II, The Infinite Abyss, and Levels of the World brought more creative and complex level design, improved lighting, more robust editors, better music, and even new enemies, the Guide Bot and Thief Bot.

In the midst of all this activity, Parallax Software decided to branch into two smaller development houses to concentrate independently on its next two major projects, Freespace: The Great War and Descent III. Freespace is an open-ended space sim, created by Volition Inc., while Descent III is currently under development by Outrage Entertainment.

Few have challenged the Descent franchise. Eidos' lukewarm shooter Terracide and Acclaim's upcoming Forsaken are the exceptions. After playing a few levels from the Forsaken demo, I think it's fair to say that the entire gaming community is wondering what Interplay can do to rival Forsaken's jaw-dropping graphics and fluid gameplay. Now is the time to find out...

After weeks of nagging and pestering, Gamecenter snagged an inside look at Descent III and an exclusive interview with Outrage Entertainment's Matt Toschlog, project leader of Descent III.

 

Da Basics

Let's get the boring but necessary stuff out of the way. I first asked Matt to go over the minimum requirements for Descent III and what 3D cards it will support. Will you be left out in the cold? Read on to find out...

Gamecenter: When will Descent III be released and what will the system requirements be?

Matt Toschlog: Descent III will be released for Christmas '98 for Windows 95. We haven't finalized the system requirements yet. We want to get as much cool stuff in the game as we can, but we also don't want to exclude too many people with older machines. Whatever the final requirements are, we'll have enough customizability to allow the game to run well on a broad range of machines.

GC: Will it be hardware accelerated? If so, what chipsets will it support?

M. T.: Descent III requires hardware acceleration. We're supporting OpenGL, Direct3D, and several popular chipsets directly. There are a lot of new cards coming out this year, so by the time Descent III hits the shelves, there should be a good choice of accelerators.

GC: Is there a story to Descent III?

M. T.: We don't want to give too much away ahead of time, but we can tell you that the Material Defender is rescued from certain doom, finds out what's really been going on, and (somewhat reluctantly at first) helps the good guys set things right. And it's a safe bet that certain people get what's coming to them!

GC: Can't you tell us a little more?

M. T.: We left Descent II with a cliff-hanger and I don't feel it's fair to those that made it to the end to reveal what happens to our Material Defender just yet. Players that did not make it to the end of Descent II or new players need not worry. We establish the plot early on.

What's really cool is that the story is totally integrated into the game. Each level is another part of the story, and when you complete a level, you're moving the plot forward. This means that each of our levels are different, without the repetitive blue key, yellow key, red key, reactor progression of the first two games.

 

Gameplay Breakdown

Considering that Freespace: The Great War is a wide-open space simulation, I was curious whether Descent III would stick with indoor environments like its predecessors. Plus, I've still got that snazzy Rock-N-Ride chair and need to put it to good use...

GC: Will Descent III's gameplay be reminiscent of Descent I and II? Do you still navigate through tunnel- and cave-based environments en route to some reactor you need to destroy? Any changes or additions to this gameplay premise?

M. T.: The most obvious difference is that we've opened up the mines--Descent III takes place indoors and out. Most levels will take place both on the planet's surface and under it. Smooth transitions between the mines and the terrain give the game a whole new feel.

You'll be flying through a valley and you'll see a building at the base of a cliff. You can fly into the building and discover a huge room carved into the mountain and miles of tunnels swarming with robots. And the mines have windows looking out onto the surface.

The mines in Descent III are worlds different from those in Descent and Descent II. Our new engine allows us to do awesome new geometry. Each level is distinctive--when you fly into an industrial site or a military base or an office complex, you can tell exactly where you are. Plus we've got great new lighting, which enhances the menacing atmosphere that Descent is famous for.

The gameplay in Descent III is as varied as the environments. Each level is an important part of the story, and you have to complete a unique task on the level to move the story forward. In Descent and Descent II the levels could start to feel the same, but in Descent III each level is truly special and memorable.

GC: Can we get some examples of objectives and level motifs?

M. T.: Some levels are all inside, and some require flying in and out. Most levels will have multiple objectives, rewarding the thorough player. The environments are also a lot more interactive. Besides fighting the robots, you'll be fighting the environment. Outside, players will encounter rain, wind, fire, and other environmental elements. Inside, you'll be threatened by gravity wells, dangerous machinery, and wind tunnels.

GC: How will these environmental factors affect gameplay? Will they make the game more difficult and physically affect your ship?

M. T.: Maybe not more difficult, but certainly challenging. Rain can affect your visibility, wind can knock you off course, etcetera. Our office is based in Michigan, so we have a lot of experience dealing with weather climates and environmental obstacles.

 

Gamecenter Readers Demand More

Matt had already told me more than I expected to hear, but I pried further to get even more out of this veteran designer. Hey, when you're granted the first interview for one of the top franchises in the computer game industry, you've got to milk it for all it's worth...right?

GC: Tell us about other unique, new, and particularly strong features in Descent III.

M. T.: 1)All new graphics engine: We wrote Descent III from the ground up to have the coolest engine out there.
2)Great lighting: Descent was the first game to have cool, dynamic lighting effects, and DIII ups the ante.
3)Enhanced AI: In Descent II, we added the Thief and Guide Bot--robots with real personality. We're taking that a step further in Descent III, making the robots a lot more real than last time.
4)Dynamic environments: Levels are full of moving machinery and working robots.
5)Multiple ships: As you progress through Descent III, you'll acquire two new ships, letting you pick the best ship for each mission.
6)Ambient and 3D positional sounds: All the levels have ambient sound, inside and out, and we're using 3D sounds to enrich the audio environment.
7)Environmental effects: We've got rain, steam, fire, smoke, fog, and wind.
8)Scripting language: Our built-in scripting language means we can create complex interactions between the player and the environment, including cool puzzles.

GC:Can you give us examples of some of these puzzles?

M. T.: We have a level that requires the player to find an entrance into a mine from the [outside] terrain. The entrance is through a steam-vent shaft that emits [varying levels] of steam from three separate openings. In each of these shafts are a set number of doors that open and close depending on the release of the steam.

 

Future World

M. T.: If the player flies down one of the shafts and the door opens, steam comes flying out. You only have a few seconds to dodge the steam before it pushes you out of the shaft and damages your ship. Our scripting language controls the varying amounts of steam, opening of the doors, force applied to the player, and the damages it causes.

GC: You mentioned earlier that there are new types of ships in Decent III. Can you tell us what players will fly this time around?

M. T.: We're not at liberty to discuss the specifics of each ship at this time. They're closely related to the plot and level missions, and we feel revealing too much too soon may ruin a good thing.

What I can say is that the flying experience for each will be totally different. Each ship has an affiliation to a group or company within the Descent universe and will reflect the style of the said group. Each ship will have different flight mechanics, armament, size, and weapon fire.

 

The Fine Line Between Flattery and Rivalry

OK, I admit it. I really wanted to know how Matt felt about the incredible Forsaken demo that's probably causing marital breakups as you read this. Does the Outrage team think they have an uphill battle? Apparently not. Read why...

GC: How do you think Descent III will compare to other Descent-inspired games like Eidos' Terracide or Probe/Acclaim's Forsaken? Speaking of Forsaken, everybody is talking about its frame rates and graphics. Have you seen the playable demo? How will Descent III top it?

M. T.: We're flattered that Eidos and Probe thought enough of Descent to be inspired by it. I think the market is big enough to accommodate us all. I played a few levels of Terracide, and I liked it. And everyone here has played the Forsaken demo and is looking forward to the full game. Forsaken looks great and should be a lot of fun. I think it will keep the Descent fans busy until Descent III comes out, but I think Forsaken is basically Descent II with colored lighting and better effects. Descent III is a lot more than that--we've got the most complex geometry engine out there, plus the integrated terrain engine, and gameplay that really makes the most of our engine. Descent III has a lot more depth of gameplay than any similar game.

GC: Part of Descent's appeal was its extensive multiplayer support. What types of games will Descent III support and where will you be able to play (LAN and Internet)? Will it be exclusive to Engage?

M. T.: We're supporting all the games we had in Descent II (Anarchy, Capture the Flag, and Hoard), and several new ones. One really cool feature of Descent III is that the logic for these games is coded using our scripting language, which means that users can create their own multiplayer games.

Right now we've got LAN working, and we'll have Internet play built-in, using our own connection service. We're setting up a service that will be the definitive place to find a game, get the latest Descent news and downloads, and see who's the best Descent III player. Just as Descent was the easiest game to play over a LAN, Descent III will be the easiest game to play over the Internet.

GC: Can you tell us about some of these new multiplayer games? Also, for those gamers who haven't played Anarchy and Hoard, what are they?

M. T.: I can't elaborate on the new multiplayer games at this time. As for Anarchy, it's best described as the Descent equivalent of a deathmatch. Hoard, however, is a much different game. Each time a player is destroyed, they emit a hoard orb worth one point. Now, a player can pick this orb up and score one point or they can "hoard" it and attempt to collect another orb. The more orbs a player has the higher their score will be when they reach a goal.

GC: Will gamers be able to create their own levels? Will there be an official level editor shipping with the game?

M. T.: Whether we'll ship an editor with the game is still to be announced, but I'm sure we'll release the level specs, so people can create their own editors.

GC: Who is doing the music for Descent III? I thought the music in Descent I and II was exceptional! What style of music will it be?

M. T.: I'm glad you liked Descent and Descent II's music! It was one of my favorite parts of the game. We're directing the Descent III music in-house, but we'll probably be hiring several out-of-house musicians. We haven't started the music yet, but the style will probably be pretty similar to the previous games.

GC: How many people are working on Descent III?

M. T.: We currently have 15 people on Descent III: one project leader/part-time programmer (me), one producer, three animators, four programmers, five designers, and one audio designer/musician. Everyone is working here onsite.

 

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

As the interview started to wind down, I asked Matt which of Descent's many awards meant the most to him. Speaking as a true propeller head, he pointed to the Technical Excellence Award from PC Magazine. With this in mind, I asked how it is to try and top a classic.

GC: Do you find it intimidating to release another Descent game, considering the success of its predecessors? How do you feel about sequels, in general?

M. T.: I think it's great to have the opportunity to work on a sequel. By the time you finish a game, you've always got a ton of ideas on how to make the game better if you had more time to work on it. The success of Descent meant we were able to use all our extra ideas in Descent II, and now were able to do a complete rewrite and make Descent III the Descent of our dreams.

We've never been that intimidated by what we do. We do the best we can and hope for the best. Making a good game is a real mix of inspiration, hard work, and luck.

GC: More generally, how do you feel about the state of PC gaming right now? Do you admire its rapid evolution, or do you think there's less quality proportional to the number of games? Any current trends you like or dislike?

M. T.: I think there's a lot of great stuff going on and a lot of cool games coming out. Hardware acceleration is really starting to change the look of games, which is exciting. We're currently seeing a bit of overkill, with games drowning in colored light and lens flare, but pretty soon people will learn how to use these tools appropriately and games will really start looking good.

I'm tired of Doom and Quake clones, but who isn't?

GC: Thanks for your time and insight, Matt. Good luck on the project!

M. T.: Thanks, and no problem.

 

The Last Word

Based on its new features, Descent III promises to be one of the hottest stocking stuffers this holiday season. But will Acclaim's Forsaken preemptively steal its thunder? It's obvious all eyes will be on Interplay come December, but keep in mind that these are the folks that started it all. If Interplay's track record is any indication, Descent III will offer plenty of stomach-churning excitement for PC action fans. (Barf bag not included.)

Marc Saltzman is the author of Gamer's Web Directory: Sites and Secrets (QUE/Brady), which will be released in October. He contributes to over three dozen magazines, newspapers, and Web sites.

Marc Saltzman
gamecenter.com

taken from gamecenter.com

 

 

 

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