Lunar Descent post-mortem

Having spent four years working on Lunar Descent, it was released to mediocre reviews and the lowest download count of any of my mods. Was it worth the effort?

Lunar Descent

This was originally posted on ModDB, but I wanted it here for posterity. It was posted on Jan 6th, 2018.

It's been a month and a bit since Lunar Descent's release, and I can now reflect a little on the project.

Lunar Descent started serious development on September 2013. Between then and November 25th 2017, there were many distractions in my life, but the project remained in development for most of that time. It's the longest and hardest project I've ever worked on, and my feelings about the entire thing are incredibly mixed.

It's extremely difficult to make a game or mod. I didn't make it any easier for myself, admittedly; I decided to do everything myself (except music and voice acting). I wanted to make a game that looked visually striking, was challenging to play, and that featured a novel and exciting story. I elected – as I have in other mod projects – to be level designer, programmer, texture artist, story writer, and 3D modeller with minimal assistance.

It might seem like a bit of a mad undertaking – deciding to do everything myself meant juggling all kinds of tasks – but I had decided years ago that single-man projects were less risky. Back in 2006, I used to assemble medium-sized mod teams for my single-player mods. My only tasks were level design and programming. The trouble is... keeping yourself motivated on a hobby project with no financial return is one thing, keeping an entire team motivated I found nearly impossible. My one-man approach was entirely a practical decision. Still, I think Lunar Descent suffered as a result.

The mod's story direction – just to pick an example – came out extremely confused; most of the story was left for the player to discern from environmental clues, and there was a heavy reliance on narrative exposition from the protagonist. In many ways, the story-telling was a step backwards from Dissolution (though, I'd argue, every other aspect in Lunar Descent was superior to Dissolution).

The gameplay has been the most divisive aspect of all. I wanted to create a game where every enemy presented a serious threat to the player. Every single terrorist needed to be considered and approached carefully, or the player wouldn't survive the encounter. While feedback suggests the gameplay fell apart towards the end (I am hoping this patch will help rectify this a bit), I think the majority of the gameplay turned out as I originally envisioned. I'm very happy with most of the gameplay in Lunar Descent.

The art was, for once, widely appreciated. Most of my mods, no matter how much they were liked for their other attributes, were largely considered ugly and looking dated. Even those who disliked Lunar Descent mostly appreciated its art direction. I think this is one of the mod's most successful features. Considering how much time went into the art – I'd say easily 70%+ of development time – I'm glad it was well received.

One final thing I'd like to discuss is the download count. Dissolution achieved just over a thousand downloads in its first week of release, and that climbed to several thousand within a month or two of release. Lunar Descent, by comparison, has done extremely poorly.

At the time of writing, Lunar Descent received 756 downloads on ModDB. I ran a similar marketing campaign for Lunar Descent as I did Dissolution, so I believe a large factor in the reduced download count is the death of source modding – especially source single-player modding.

Modders have moved on to become game developers, using Unity and Unreal engines, and I think the mod players must've gone with them. This thought isn't a happy one, as some of my favourite gaming experiences have been had in Half-Life (1 & 2) single-player mods. I'd like to throw out a shout out to runthinkshootlive here – one of the few sites besides ModDB giving HL2 single-player projects good coverage. They put together an excellent profile for Lunar Descent, so be sure to check it out (here).

I'm happy I released Lunar Descent and it's a project I am mostly happy with. It suffers from over-ambition and, at times, confused direction; but I believe it achieved most of its gameplay and artistic ambitions. I might release more patches, but I am done with Half-Life 2 modding: I won't be making any new HL2 mods. Sadly, I think almost everybody is done with Half-Life 2 modding, too.

Thanks to everybody who played my various mods over the years.


Addendum: Since writing this article, enough time has passed for me to recover from what I now recognise as severe project fatigue and burnout. I intend to return to modding, and will post more details about this in the near future.

Further Addendum: Unfortunately, owing to a lack of time, I can't see myself being able to work on full-scale mod production again anytime soon.

Written by Aaron, Friday 30 August 2019

Reader comments

JohPosted by Joh (4 year(s) ago (42 months)):

I somehow missed this post, but I had read the original ModDB post before. It's sad to see that the modding community seems to be a shell of what it used to be. It was also sad to see Lunar Descent receive less than the praise it deserved. I really, really enjoyed the mod. It was a very refined and polished experience. The art direction was excellent and I really enjoyed working out the story. The gameplay was hard, but in a satisfying way.

It's good to hear that you are going to return to modding, as it's always been one of your big project areas. I look forward to seeing and hearing more of the new mod.

AaronPosted by Aaron (4 year(s) ago (43 months)):

Thanks, Falcon. I'll definitely be needing help with the likes of play testing, so I really appreciate your offer.

I think part of the problem with Lunar Descent was that it sort of went off the rails a bit. It was as much effort to keep it organised as it was to develop, and the end result sort of reflected this lack of organisation.

FalconPosted by Falcon (4 year(s) ago (43 months)):

It is a shame that Lunar Descent received more lukewarm response from it's players than some of your previous mods. I certainly enjoyed playing the finalized version but I can remember being frustrated during the testing stages of the bomb section, only to find there was some technical glitch at the end. No wonder it seemed impossible to do.

It is not surprising that you felt burnout developing the mod over so many years since you were doing it all by yourself. Especially as you had other things going on as well, including your contribution to and management of Write Wise. Perhaps the modding scene is slowly passing by but it is good to hear that you intend to return. I'll be able to lend a hand again for you new project in case you need any help.

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