Why Volition’s Closure Stings So Much

Games Features Volition Games
Why Volition’s Closure Stings So Much

Volition, 30 years after their founding, has closed. And not necessarily because of anything they did or didn’t do, but due to corporate interference: Embracer, their parent company—or the parent company of their parent company, they’ve weaved quite the tangled web over there in Sweden—closed them down on August 31, transferring their intellectual property over to Plaion in the process. For the people who just care about IP existing and perpetuating, who is making it might not matter all that much, but losing Volition hurts. 

Even if you didn’t like their last couple of outings, this is a studio that developed some serious high-quality games over their decades in the industry, and they’re closing down in no small part because Embracer finally tallied up how much money they spent for all of those studio acquisitions the past few years. The number was much higher than the revenue of the Saints Row reboot, so, goodbye, Volition. A fitting end, in the sense that Volition’s games often carried much more than a subtle undertone of dislike for greedy, exploitative corporations and a class with wealth that made them incapable of treating the people who worked for them with any kind of dignity. And like the characters in those games, not the end that Volition deserved, either.

Volition was often ambitious. That carried through nearly their entire existence. Regardless of the genre they were tackling, their goals were obvious and lofty. These goals weren’t always reached, or at least weren’t reached in the same game they were first laid out in, but that they were apparent and serious effort was made toward realizing them made it easy to overlook whatever flaws their games did have. Sure, you could say Saints Row IV was stuck in some ways in the game design of the aughts despite releasing in 2013, but here’s the thing: it knew exactly what to do to make that design sing, and to be worth not just playing, but revisiting again and again

Before they were even Volition, which didn’t officially come to exist until 1996, they were part of Parallax Software. Parallax would develop Descent and its first sequel, Descent 2, both published for MS-DOS and Mac by Interplay, which was also known for publishing the likes of the pre-Bethesda Fallout games. These were “six degrees of freedom” shooters utilizing a first-person perspective. Whereas something like DOOM didn’t allow you to look up or down and its targeting system was very much point and shoot at what’s in front of you regardless of height, Descent expected you to be exact with your aim, and to move your ship where it needed to be in order to target foes. Instead of simply strafing and running to and fro in straight lines, you could move along those six degrees of freedom, or 6DOF, to twist, to turn, to spin in place—you could essentially complete these levels while flying through them upside down, if you wanted to. And this was possible as it was the first FPS to truly be full 3D, rather than utilizing the clever (and convincing) tricks of id’s John Carmack and the many other devs who either aped his tech or licensed it for themselves. 

To put it in a way you can visualize, the DOOM Engine didn’t allow for one room to be on top of another room, which is why, when you look at a map of a level from DOOM or DOOM II or something like Raven Software’s Heretic, the map is completely flat: go up some stairs, and you go up in the level, sure, but it’s all part of something the system all recognizes as 2D, but upright—which is why you could play DOOM entirely from the map, if you wanted to, since it all still makes sense from that perspective rather than as a first-person shooter. Descent, though, created labyrinths with its levels, with rooms on top of other rooms, and twisting paths that all came back around on each other while intersecting at varying heights. It wasn’t 2D masquerading as, again, a very convincing 3D, but actual, full 3D. And it, of course, inspired other devs to make similar games, such as Forsaken, or to at least attempt to utilize this kind of technology for their own ideas.

Descent (and its sequel) would also end up on the PlayStation, at a time when console first-person shooters were oftentimes an inferior version of the product you’d find on a computer. All Descent is truly lacking in its PlayStation port, though, is the same number of difficulty options as its computer predecessor: it’s an excellent port with its own impressive graphical touches, and it made the transition from keyboard to gamepad without incident.

Following the release of these two games, Parallax Software would split into two different companies: part of Parallax would become Outrage Entertainment, which would go on to develop Descent 3, while the remaining Parallax devs renamed as Volition and made a different kind of Descent title. Descent: Freespace — The Great War is much more than a confusing title, but instead, a space combat sim. No more tunnels, but instead, the vastness of space, and with the expanded control scheme to match. As I write this, I’m looking at post-it notes, plural, that I stuck to the bottom of my monitor: they’re full of keyboard shortcuts for me to remember while I play, as I fired up Descent: Freespace—and its critically acclaimed sequel, Freespace 2—following Volition’s closure. Sometimes you’ve got to remember what the first key to press is (it’s C) to bring up the menu that allows you to direct a ship (1) or an entire wing (2) to disable the engines of an enemy freighter (2 again) so it doesn’t escape while you’re targeting hostile fighters (H to get the closest to you) while matching their speed (M) for true dogfighting action. You can fire on them with CTRL, but don’t forget, you’ve got secondary weapons, like missiles, awaiting a press of the space bar. Afterburners are Tab, full stop is Backspace, full speed is backslash, counter measures for evading enemy missiles is X—you see why more than one note was necessary, yes?

Freespace 2 won multiple Game of the Year awards, and holds a 92% on GameRankings and 91/100 on Metacritic. It remains a joy to play to this day, and not just because a community sprung up around it to continue to build on the game’s available source code, in order to keep the graphics up to snuff over time. The dogfighting, the fact that you’re actually in danger constantly even if you are doing things correctly, the presentation in terms of both the voice acting (Robert Loggia! Ronny Cox! Kurtwood Smith!) and how the story is conveyed… Freespace 2 is a special one. And if you’ve never heard of it before, well, it did a lot better with the press than it did at retail, so that makes a depressing amount of sense. And while it might be too late for Volition, it’s not too late for you: You can get it on Steam, GOG, whatever your preference is, for all of $9.99, and you’ll feel like it’s money well-spent before you even finish up with the extensive training missions. 

Volition would move on from space and into the realm of fantasy with Summoner and its sequel, which is known either as Summoner 2 or Summoner: A Goddess Reborn, depending on the platform. The ambition that drove them to create the Descent and the Freespace games remained, as the Summoner titles focused on crafting a deep fantasy tale with narrative twists and turns, and, for the time, massive cities to explore, full of NPCs to interact with. The less said about the graphical pop-in for Summoner the better, sure, but remember that bit about the ambition and the successes that were there covering for the flaws? Many such cases. The first game was in the style of computer role-playing games standard for the platform, with the AI handling combat for you outside of deciding to cast spells or perform special attacks, while its sequel had more of an action RPG design with a heavy emphasis on blocking and then countering attacks. 

None of this might sound like the Volition that many people knew, but it’s what they were before the Red Faction and Saints Row series took over basically everything on their schedule for the last two decades. And those two coming to the forefront did make sense, given Volition had always made ambitious, critically acclaimed titles, but the sales were never quite where they deserved to be. So, when Red Faction sold, and Saints Row did better than anyone on the team expected a game they didn’t actually like that much to do—in case you ever wondered why the sequels were so different—their future was set. And since we got Red Faction: Guerilla as well as Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row IV out of it, well. More Descent or Freespace or a Summoner game built using tech that could handle its ambition, like Guerilla being made so the “Geo-Mod” destructible environment tech introduced at the start of the aughts could be put to its full potential, would have been lovely, but… Saints Row IV, baby. It’s got a Dubstep gun and a dildo bat and Keith David playing himself—what more do you need?

More games by Volition, mostly, but that’s not happening. At least not under that name any longer. Maybe they can form a new studio, out from under Embracer’s grasp, and see about reacquiring the rights to their pre-Red Faction and Saints Row properties, which Embracer is certainly going to keep a hold on unless they get real desperate for cash. (Hey, at the least, continually remastering the hits is going to make money.) Maybe we’ll get a modern Freespace or the kind of Summoner game mentioned above, like when Volition co-founder Mike Kulas left the company for a spell and developed a spiritual successor to Descent, titled Overload, for modern platforms in 2018 alongside Parallax Software’s other founder, Matt Toschlog. Or maybe they’ll want to make something completely new, the kind of game they would have made if the direction of the industry didn’t force them to keep making Saints Row and Saints Row-adjacent games just to satisfy stockholders. 

The end for Volition has come, but it doesn’t have to be the end of what made that studio special. Second chances aren’t a guarantee in game development, especially not in this era of ever-rising costs, but Volition has come back from failure before to astound audiences once more. Maybe they can do it again.

Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.

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