Amateur Development
Making Levels For Descent


My earliest days of game development came in my youth, designing and coding my own primitive games on home computers in BASIC. My computer programming background starts even earlier, with my friend and mentor Mark Massey and my video gaming background started even before that, but designing my own games began on the Atari 800 home computer, complete with magnetic cassette data storage. (20 minutes to read or write 16k worth of data? What a nightmare.)
Making the leap from junk games to real video games required knowledge of Assembly Language, machine code, a leap that I dabbled with but never jumped across. Growing up, I had wanted to get into a programming career, but I also lost my enthusiasm for that eventually. Imagination attracted me even more, and I turned to writing, a decision I have never regretted.
From my high school graduation in 1985 until making my way onto the internet at the start of 1996, I played games but made no effort to develop them. Consumers in isolation cannot do much with game development anyway. The days of one-man game design were short-lived. Improving technology allowed for more and more complex games, which came with ever-rising standards for what a game ought to entail. By the early 1990s, anyone wanting to get into game development needed help to do so.
By 1996, even trying to work on expanding existing retail games required help. I never could have gotten started on making levels for Descent if not for building on the works of others who came before me.
Descent was such a great game, it inspired Jay Cotton (kali.net) to design a gaming platform to enable playing Descent over the internet. His program, Kali, transformed Descent packets from Local Area Network protocals (IPX) to internet protocols (TCP/IP) to transmit them across the internet, then translated them back into IPX on the other end. The game believed that it was playing on a LAN, when in fact the game was being played over the net. Descent was one of the few games with LAN network programming sleek enough to allow for this. (LANs have a lot more data transfer bandwidth, and most game designers relied on this, creating bulky, even sloppy netcode, but not the developers of Descent. They kept it simple.)
Kali enabled me to play Descent on the net, and it was the first modern PC game to be truly playable on the net, for those who had Kali.
Once I got onto the internet, I realized that the available selection of levels for Descent was pretty crappy. The single player levels were not ideally designed for multiplayer gaming. Only a handful of the single player levels were being played in multiplayer, the same ones over and over again.
So I and a few other brave souls among my peers set out to create our own levels for Descent. Yet how can one do that? Tools are needed. Luckily, Lars Christensen programmed an editor for this purpose. Like Jay Cotton, like me, Lars was just another Descent fan desperate for better gaming and willing to take matters into his own hands. His editor (called Devil) by today's standards is awkward and primitive, and quite buggy, but it was powerful enough to get the job done, although took quite a bit to learn how to use effectively.
With a place to play Descent and tools for making my own levels, I had enough to stick with it, to build my own gameplay.
I started by porting a Descent 1 level into Descent 2. Devil enabled this to occur, but the textures inside the level did not translate properly, so I spent my first level-making efforts trying to clean up all the distorted and missing textures. Wow, what a mess that turned out to be. My early results were godawful amateurish, sloppy, ignorant, careless and ridiculous. BUT IT WORKED, enabling me to play one of my favorite levels from D1 in D2, regardless of how bad it may have looked.
I did several more level ports from D1 to D2, including a second pass at my first effort, after I finally figured out enough about texture handling to do a decent job with it.
One could not see the results of work done in Devil, so I spent a lot of time moving back and forth from working in Devil to playtesting my levels in Descent. This proved to be a slow, painful process, but I wanted good levels badly enough to go through with it.
Finally I decided I had learned enough to make my own unique levels. I started with a simple design inspired by one of the single player Descent levels, Secret Level 2. S2, as it was called, was a big square with a room in the center, a hall above the center room, and one room off to the side. There were six ways into the center room, one on north, south, east and west, but it was playing in the big square outside the center room that had inspired me. For my level, I created two rectangular sections not unlike the square, and I criss-crossed them one above the other. Thus there were four places where the two rectangles intersected, and the whole thing made a big fat plus sign: +
I added only laser guns and a few other minor weapons, so that players would have to fight with the lasers. (Most levels had all of the weapons! I left out the more powerful weapons so that all players would be using the lasers. This created not only a compact level in which to play, but regulated the game balance in a way that differed from existing levels.)
I called my first level Laserdeath. Technically, it was a godawful mess. The lighting was broken, the textures misaligned in some cases, the segments not always handled efficiently (decreasing the framerates for players.)
Despite all these flaws, the level was a success, played many times by the Descent Rangers in league games.
Around this time, another Descent player called Karash was also making levels. He made the first new level for Descent 2 that I really liked, called Speed Racer. Then he made a second version of the level with an improved weapon balance and called it Speed Racer Pro. That level became THE most popular level among the Descent Rangers, and it was also heavily popular on the open servers in random pickup games.
Inspired by Karash's Pro version of his level, I made a Laserdeath Pro with an improved weapon balance (and lots of technical fixes) and this level became truly popular, though never anywhere near as much as Speed Racer Pro.
Around this time, a new level developer named Spaz appeared on the scene, making a huge splash with levels for Descent 1 called "Tribute" and "Vesta". These levels revolutionized the game of Descent, and Spaz's next level, "Minerva", changed internet gaming forever.
Minerva became the most-played level for Descent of all time. It was compact, like Speed Racer, yet even more interconnected, fostering a game balance of constant action mixed with interesting strategy. Playing in Minerva meant nonstop action, as the level was small enough that after dying a respawning, a player would be thrown directly back into the action. This fast-paced gameplay topped that of all other Descent levels produced to that date and set a precedent that lives on in great shooter games to this date.
Spaz made many more levels, including one called Athena that I consider to be the best all time 1-on-1 level for Descent ever made. The thing is practically perfect.
My own level-making activities slowed after Spaz arrived, as other level makers were learning from his successes and creating better and better levels, sticking with the kinds of layouts that Spaz had inspired in us all. With great levels to play, we could spend our time playing instead of torturing ourselves in primitive level editors.
Not until after my star had risen within the IDL was I bit anew with the level-making bug. My experiences playing on the most intense Descent Ladder led me to the desire to have even more good levels for 1-on-1 play, and I started to make more new levels, now at a much higher quality level than any of my early efforts. I managed to graduate from the most simplistic designs to ones with more strategic subtlety.
My best achievement was probably Black Rose. This level became the D1 favorite of Birdseye, the only Descent player I can say for sure became flat-out hands-down better than me on BOTH LAN and the internet. There were many who were better on LAN (in part because I got so little access to LAN play), and a few who compared on the net, but Birds not only topped me at both, but broke most of my IDL championship records, too! And the first time that he beat me in a match was in Black Rose, which he mastered to an appalling extent. Only two players ever beat me in there at all, and Brian was the first. That was also the turning point in our rivalry. I had owned him until that match, and thereafter I never managed to beat him again. He simply passed me in ability.
Black Rose was a small square level with an extremely fast pace, a careful weapon balance with special care paid to where the missiles would respawn, and with as much interconnectivity as possible short of making the level into a single open cube. Great stuff for 1-on-1 and not bad for up to four or five players. Eight players in there is completely insane, but possible.
I mastered the art of varying the game balance in subtle ways, with layout features, with item loads (weapon balance), even with lighting and player spawning points. My levels were not the same ideas over and over, but the same core elements adjusted in subtle and distinctive ways, creating a unique experience for each level.
By the time I was done, more than half a dozen of my best levels were considered classics and widely played, both on the net and at LANs.
I cut my game development teeth on making levels for Descent. Many lessons learned there continue to apply to my game development endeavors.
You can visit My Descent Archive to check out any of my levels for Descent 1 or Descent 2.

- Sirian

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