A few days ago, game developer Volition announced it was closing its doors after over 30 years. The studio’s parent company Embracer Group had decided to shut down the Champaign, Illinois-based developer as part of its previously announced restructuring.
Ironically, just two months before Embracer closed the studio, the official Volition site posted a celebratory post and video to commemorate its 30 years of operations. The post added, ” . . . we can’t wait to see what the next 30 years will bring.” Ouch.
This week’s almost casual closing of Volition is, for me at least, a relatively poor way to shut down a game developer which has personally given me many great and entertaining games over the decades.
Volition was first started in 1993 as Parallax Software. In late 1994, the developer released the shareware version of its first game. Descent. published by Interplay. was promoted as a sci-fi first-person shooter, but it definitely was not a Doom clone like so many other games were trying to do at that time.
Rather, this was a game that put the player in control of a small flying craft where they had to defeat some rebellious mining robots in a series of caverns across the solar system.
I loved, absolutely loved, both Descent and its 1996 sequel, Descent II. The gameplay, where you have to navigate a true 3D map, made it more challenging than most Doom clones with their 2 and 2.5D viewpoints. I love the game’s visuals, and that it took some extra skill to not only defeat the robot enemies but also to escape each level before the reactor that you had to destroy at the end of each map blew up, with you in it.
After Descent II, one of the co-founders of Parallax decided to leave and form Outrage Entertainment, where Descent III was made (and which, in my view didn’t hold up to the first two games). The other co-founder stayed put in Champaign and renamed the studio Volition.
In 1998, it released Descent FreeSpace; The Great War, again for Interplay. This space combat game remains, in my eyes, perhaps the best example of such a game in that sub-genre. You can have your Star Wars: X-Wing or your Wing Commander, but to me, the action and the gameplay in Descent Freespace, and its 1999 sequel Freespace 2, top all of these titles.
In 2000, Volition was acquired by THQ. One interesting side-effect of this event is that Volition could not make any more games in the FreeSpace series as the IP was owned by Interplay. Since FreeSpace 2’s game engine couldn’t really be used by Volition anymore, the studio released its source code in 2002. This has led to a lot of mod creators using the engine to make their own free space combat games, which is pretty cool on its own.
Another game franchise that I loved that Volition developed was the Red Faction series, which originally started as an idea for Descent IV before THQ bought the studio. You can definitely see the influences from the Descent series in the first game, as it mostly takes place underground in a mining post on Mars.
However, the first Red Faction game, released in 2001 was a ground-based FPS, which included a lot of destructible environments. That was the main selling point of the first game and for the sequel, Red Faction II, which launched in 2002.
In 2009, the series was revived at Volition for Red Faction: Guerrilla, and in 2011 for Red Faction: Armageddon. Both of those games were third-person shooter but still had the GeoMod destructible environment engine at their core. Both were still fun to play but perhaps lacked some of the urgency of the first two Red Faction FPS titles.
Under THQ, Volition made a ton of other games, including the two titles in the fantasy RPG Summoner series, and even a licensed Marvel game in The Punisher. In 2006, Volition released the first game in the open world, and over-the-top, Saints Row franchise.
I will admit to not having played many of the games in this series, as I am not a fan of open-world games as a whole. However, I know that it has its fans, and I also like that the series wasn’t trying to be a Grand Theft Auto clone.
After THQ shut down in 2013, Deep Silver acquired Volition where it continued to develop and release more Saints Row titles, along with a spin-off, Agents of Mayhem. Deep Silver would later become part of the massive Embracer Group that now owns a ton of different developers and publishing groups.
In 2022, Volition released what turned out to be its final game. It was reboot of the Saints Row franchise that was met with low critical and sales response. While it is a shame that a poorly received game may have been the reason why Embracer decided to close Volition’s doors, I do wish there would be some way to keep this 30-year-old studio going, perhaps with a smaller team.
As it stands, Volition’s legacy of great game franchises is still something to be proud of, and I do hope the team members that were affected by this closing find work quickly. They certainly gave me a lot of great gaming memories and experiences.