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A messy legal dispute puts the Descent reboot in a nosedive

Remember Descent: Underground? The descendant (get it?) of the classic six-degrees-of-freedom shooter Descent was announced in 2015 with an eventually-successful Kickstarter, launched on Steam Early Access later that year, was removed from Early Access in 2017 so developers could "focus on implementing single-player, tech trees, and the other cool features," and was then slated for proper beta testing (renamed as simply Descent) in late 2018, followed by a planned release in 2019. It then seemed to fall off the face of the Earth.

It's not clear whether the 2018 beta actually took place, although activity on the Descendent Studios Twitter feed suggests that it did. But the last game-related tweet was posted in July 2019, the Descendent website is gone, and publisher Little Orbit filed a lawsuit against the developer in January over its failure to complete the game.

The lawsuit claims that Descendent has missed multiple milestones and scheduled release dates, going as far back as May 2018, and failed to meet the quality standards set in the publishing deal. That, the suit states, arises from the fact that "certain key personnel" left the developer during the game's production and weren't replaced by "equally competent personnel," which left the studio incapable of delivering the game as promised.

"As a result of Descendent’s repeated failures to meet the agreed upon delivery dates, the parties discussed ways for Descendent to still be able to deliver the Game. Those discussions culminated in the Parties agreeing to a 'Terms Sheet' dated November 28, 2018," the suit states.

"Pursuant to the Terms Sheet, Little Orbit committed to continue funding Descendent’s monthly payroll in the amount of $60,000 per month ... The Parties also agreed on a new extended delivery date for the final PC Version of the game of January 25, 2019 in order to release the game in February. Descendent failed to meet the extended delivery date given the deliverable actually provided by Descendent on January 25, 2019 was rejected as the Final PC Version, having failed to meet the definition of 'Final Version' in the Original Agreement."

The suit also alleges that Descendent CEO Eric Peterson has made "multiple false and disparaging statements" about the publisher in order to cover up the mess it's made, including that Little Orbit is "holding it hostage trying to get the rights from us," that the publisher can't actually afford the marketing and console development costs, and that Little Orbit has an abusive "pattern of behavior" toward developers when projects run into trouble.

Complicating the situation further, Little Orbit also believes that Interplay has canceled its Descent licensing deal with the developer. "That means Little Orbit has now lost the rights to this valuable trademark as a result of Descendent's repeated breaches of the Agreement and Term Sheet," the suit states. "The loss of the Descent trademark also further devalues what work has been done to develop the Game."

If the allegations are accurate, it sounds unlikely that the Descent reboot will ever see the light of day, which is a shame. Fortunately for anyone who was looking forward to it, there are some other good options out there: The 2018 spiritual successor Overload is quite good, and personally I really like the more narrative-focused Retrovirus from 2013 (which is also quite a bit cheaper).

The lawsuit says that the "significant and extensive damages and financial injury" suffered by Little Orbit hasn't yet been determined, but is not less than $2 million. I've reached out to Little Orbit and Descendent for comment, and will update if I receive a reply.

Update: Little Orbit CEO Matt Scott has posted a message about the legal action at gamersfirst.com apologizing for the frustration and lack of communication with Descent Kickstarter backers.

"Little Orbit remains under non-disclosure, and we are engaged in an active lawsuit, so we are severely limited in what we can share at this time," he wrote. "With that in mind, I do want to say the following:"

  • Descendent Studios has shut down their website/forums and ceased working on the game. This was made public by their CEO Eric Peterson some time ago.
  • Since then, we have made every attempt to resolve this matter without legal action, but all of those efforts have failed.
  • We did not receive any of the Kickstarter money, so we cannot refund any of those funds.
  • Since we do not yet have a release date for the game, we have processed refunds for all of the pre-orders we took.

Scott added that Little Orbit has put "a significant amount of time, money, and effort" into the game, and in spite of all the troubles still intends to launch Descent as soon as possible.

Update 2 (March 6, 2020): Developer Descendent Studios has filed a response to the lawsuit, accusing Little Orbit of not meeting promotional obligations, failing to pay vendors, adding new console ports that required increased technical work, and "demanding additional budget-busting, delay-creating work-product and development efforts without paying for them nor allotting sufficient time for their completion."

Addressing Little Orbit's claim that it committed to funding Descendant's payroll to the tune of $60,000 per month, the studio alleged that only one such payment was made, after which the publisher "ran out of money and never paid the remaining 11 payments due." The filing also disputes Little Orbit's claim that the developers missed multiple milestones and scheduled release dates, saying that the "terms sheet addendum" in which the publisher committed to supporting Descendent's payroll "contained no completion deadlines for anything."

"There was good reason for that which was discussed at the time. Little Orbit had demanded a new and different Application Program Interface (“API”), had agreed to develop the new API itself, but had totally failed do to so," the suit states. "Until Little Orbit fulfilled its agreement to develop the new API, there was no way to test anything that Descendent was developing, so it was impossible to commit to a development or completion timeline."

The lawsuit also confirms that Interplay canceled the Descent licensing deal, as Little Orbit alleged in its own suit, but claims that it was "due to Little Orbit’s repeated breaches of the Development Agreement and Terms Sheet."

Descendent Studios is seeking $60.6 million in compensatory and punitive damages, plus legal expenses.

Andy covers the day-to-day happenings in the big, wide world of PC gaming—the stuff we call "news." In his off hours, he wishes he had time to play the 80-hour RPGs and immersive sims he used to love so much.