In late summer of 1999, three of the four primaries running The Invitational Descent Ladder decided to collaborate on producing mission packs for Descent 3 team mods. We three included Joe Brown, Matt Mueller and me. Since I was both the most prolific level maker among us and the most experienced and most knowledge person anywhere with using D3edit, I took the lead role. We called our team 300baud Productions, after #300baud IRC channel, the chat channel where the IDL staff conducted all of its business.
Descent 3 had a fun team mod called Entropy. Entropy was for two teams only and involved special rooms, "bases", three types: one to restore ship's energy, one to restore shields (health), and one to produce viruses. Players had to accumulate at least three kills on the enemy (in a row, without dying) to gain enough "virus capacity" to capture rooms from the enemy. So the strategy involved scoring kills without dying, then having your teammates cover for you while you tried to capture a base. On the other side, you had to keep track of who had how many kills and how much capacity, and guard your own bases against the true threats from the other team (as opposed to letting yourself be distracted or decoyed). This was a simple mod that involved lots of good strategy, but it needed good levels that had to be tailored specifically for this mod.
So Joe, Matt and I set out to produce the definitive mission pack for the Entropy mod, and that is precisely what we accomplished. We produced a nine-level mission pack for Entropy as our first project. Our designs were driven by three key directives. First and foremost, we aimed to create compartmentalized levels, to take advantage of lag-reducing features in the "Fusion" engine that powered the game. Levels were broken into rooms and rooms were synthesized with "line of sight" calculations. Players in one room who could not see players in another room would not receive information from them. This allowed more players to be able to play, presuming that they were generally scattered. Lag could get very bad if everyone bunching in one central location. 300baud Productions products would be (and are) the lowest latency team levels ever produced for Descent 3. Secondly, we dedicated our designs to provide variety of game balance, so that each level should have its own flavor, its own unique character. Finally, we decided to test our products extensively before releasing them. We held closed betas and subjected our work to rigorous examination by dozens of top players, and we listened to their advice. "300baud" proved to be an irony in that our mission packs played with low lag, while most other levels available played like you had a 300baud connection (very very slow internet connection -- a "56k" modem has 56000 baud rate!)
Joe designed three levels for the set. His first level featured the instant-hit guns, his favorites, the Vauss Cannon and the Mass Driver. The repair bases are the most vital in this one. His second level was dark and spacious, and it has a single cloaking device to allow players, on occasion, to be enabled to sneak into the enemy base undetected. The lone energy base is the key to this level. His final level is cramped and difficult to navigate, with the virus labs tucked into sniping nests perched in corners above the main fighting area. The virus labs are key in this one, because if a team loses control of all labs, its lone energy center will be transformed into a lab by the mod, and that is a problem that is virtually impossible to overcome once allowed to happen. Joe's levels are numbers 2, 3, and 8 in the 9-level set.
Matt produced only one level, but it's unlike anything else out there. He created a very spacious design with large pipes running all over the place and big mechanical sounds rumbling through the level. One really gets the feel of playing in an industrial mine here. The lone repair base is the key to this level, although the three viral labs are vulnerable, too, and losing them all can be a back breaker. This level is very large and difficult to defend. Matt's level is number 6 in the set.
I produced the other five levels. Three of my levels are variations on a single design theme, though. I drew out race track patterns on paper when I started, and I came up with a two-loop pattern like a capital T, with one loop's end intersecting the middle of the other loop, and this became the core of my layouts. Levels 1, 4, and 7 have the T-loop patterns. Level one has one T-Loop per side; level seven has one and a half per side but no internal connections, and level four has two per side, including a Headquarters Room with half the player spawn points and most of the bases, which connects the upper and lower T-loops together. My first level features the fusion cannon (the heaviest gun, capable of one shot kills but fires very slowly) and is the smallest, fastest level in the mission pack. This is the only level suitable for less than eight players (four per side), and the lone repair base is the key -- placed at the intersection of the two loops, in the very heart of each team's territory, it is extremely difficult to capture and fairly easy to recapture. Level Four is the biggest level in the mission pack and has the most bases (eighteen total, nine per side). There are four labs, three energy bases and two repair bases per side. Five of each team's nine bases are located in the HQ room. Capturing anything in there is extremely difficult, as half the time an enemy is killed he respawns in there immediately, making it nearly impossible to empty that room of defenders. The wise strategest actually saves for last one of the easier bases to target, because it is next to impossible to capture the last remaining base if it's in the HQ room. Level Seven is the hardest level in the mission pack on which to play defense. This one is all about fast moving offense, as the side who takes the most initiative will win.
My other two levels are big, spacious levels. One is a big dogfight level with massive rooms, featuring the EMD Cannon and secondary weapons (missiles). This level has only four total rooms, on the corners, and each room has one big hallway connecting to the other rooms, including catty-corner. I have high-speed tunnels in this level, and there is only virus lab. The virus lab is the key because you MUST NOT capture it too soon. Unless it is saved for last, you can actually help the other team out by capturing it, because that will turn one of their other bases into a second lab for them, and that will make it easier on them to turn the tide. The key limitation in this level is that players are always running around with more virus capacity from kills than there are viruses available. Often players must camp out in their lone virus lab waiting for new viruses to spawn one at a time. An effective strategy for racking up kills is to raid the enemy virus lab with one-shot kill missiles and take out the other side's leaders with hit and run shots.
The finale of the Entropy mission pack, level nine, is a huge ring, with only four bases per side (the least of any Entropy levels ever made). Each team has one base apiece at the North, South, East and West points on the ring, and this level features (and requires) teamwork above all the others. The team who works together better will win, unless the combination of talent and ping is unbalanced (lopsided).
300baud Entropy mission pack was so successful, it replaced the built-in missions in the minds of most fans as the levels to play for the Entropy mod. The reduced lag levels and the sharper game balance were widely hailed. So, 300baud moved on to creating other mission packs.
We designed the only mission ever produced for three-teams play. In addition to red and blue teams, green was added to the three-team mission. Our mission pack for three teams including six levels.
Joe produced one level for 3-teams, level two in the pack. This was an all-new level with big rooms, wide halls, some dead ends, and multiple narrow choke points connecting everything together.
Matt produced one level for 3-teams, an adapted version of the level he produced for the Entropy mission.
I produced the other four levels, including two all-new levels and two levels from the Entropy mission adapted to add a third team area and appropriate connecting rooms, along with adapated weapon balances as well.
Descent 3 did not ship with any missions for three teams, so ours was the only one ever made.
We also produced a mission for four teams, the maximum allowed. The built-in four-team mission pack featured four levels designed by the developers, which all four had players from each team meeting in the center of the map. This failed to compartmentalize the gameplay, failed to take advantage of lag reduction from the game engine, and rendered the maps unplayable online.
The four-team mission included only three levels, all adapted from other levels we had already made. Joe adapted one of his levels and I adapted two of mine. Only the most decentralized designs (working on the ring layout, mainly) could support four different teams by channeling players into "two front wars", with one team coming at them from each side, and no "big room" in the middle where everyone would meet.
I designed a team mod called Guardian, which fused gameplay elements from all the top mods into one fused design, an Entropy hybrid that could be enjoyed with more than two teams at a time (unlike Entropy). After guardian was released, I adapted the 300baud Entropy mission for it and released it as a new set. Our 3-team and 4-team missions already supported the mod (I built in the support in advance, the mod design already formulated in my mind).
300baud Productions also produced a three-level mission pack that ported three classic levels from Descent 2 to Descent 3. Of the three classics we picked, Joe had designed one in 1996, I had designed one in 1996, and the third was by an unknown author in 1997. I did all the level work on this mission, but Joe consulted on the adaptation of his old level, including weapon balance, textures, and lighting.
All told, 300baud Productions released five large mission packs for Descent 3. All technical specifications (including texture alignment, lighting, weapon balance, mod support, error-free assembly, bug-free performance, and compartmentalized design for lag reduction) are second to none, including when compared to the retail missions.
In addition to leading the design team and producing many of our levels, I also served as the editor for our projects, helping Joe and Matt with some of the technical details on their levels, managing promotion and distribution, and writing all of the text files. Our missions are available in My Descent Archive.
Although we received no pay for any of this work, I considered it to be my apprenticeship into the world of game development. I knew that I had learned enough and reached a level of quality to warrant being paid for doing this kind of work. I vowed to myself never again to work this hard for free. I had paid my dues and I was ready to graduate to bigger things.
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