While skateboarding has Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and snowboarding has SSX, mountain biking and video games have never really gone hand-in-hand. Downhill Domination is held up as the gold standard but that was released in 18 years and three console generations ago. Since then, there have been plenty of attempts at PC, mobile and console games but none have had the sticking power or credibility of Domination.
That is, until Descenders. What started out as a project from three Dutch action sports fans has turned into a game that has been played by more than 4 million people with a further 250,000 new people picking up the game each month.
But despite its popularity, the game hasn’t been lauded in the same way as the previous classic, Downhill Domination. To understand the success of the game and explore why it hasn’t resonated with core mountain bikers, we sat down with Mike Rose, of the game’s publishers No More Robots, for an in-depth chat.
What is Descenders?
Much like Downhill Domination before it, Descenders is all about getting from the top to the bottom of the mountain as fast as possible with cartoonishly high speeds, big jumps and wild tricks. Unlike Downhill Domination though, which had set levels to tackle, the tracks in Descenders are procedurally generated. This means that every time you play, a new track is created for you to ride.
The Story of Descenders
Descenders was designed by Rage Squid, a team of designers based in the Netherlands. They are big action sports fans and even have a halfpipe in their office. They initially wanted to design a skateboarding game but with strong options such as ‘Skate’ already in the market, they decided to look elsewhere for inspiration. Mountain biking was not only a gap in the market but something that could easily translate into a video game. Mike explains,”Whether you’re into mountain biking or not, everybody can ride a bike. So we’ve got parents who play with kids because the parents can get into the nitty-gritty of the handling of the bike and doing the tricks. Whereas the kid can hold go and turn left and right, and play as simple as that.”
Mountain biking also had a rich, untouched culture to dive into and recreate in a video game. Mike says, “You very quickly can fall down this crazy hole of watching people do crazy things on mountain bikes, on YouTube… When you see a video, especially a first-person video of someone on a bike, you already know what it feels like to be on it. So then that quite easily then translates into, ‘how do we translate that into them actually playing it’?” As a result, Descenders features landscapes as varied as ‘Highlands’ (Fort William), ‘Favela’ (urban downhill) and ‘Glacier’ (Megavalanche), all inspired by real-life mountain biking locations.
The game isn’t a straight simulation though and a lot of the big airs and tricks will look quite arcadey compared to the edits we are used to watching online. Apparently, a lot of mountain bikers have asked for a more realistic experience but this isn’t an option for Mike, he argues, “If it was more realistic then actually it would make it less accessible. The more realistic bike simulator, would automatically, on so many levels, make it so that fewer people can play it. It makes it way more hardcore, a niche. It might make people who are very specifically into the sport happier, but then you’re cutting out a huge potential audience for the game.”
When it launched in 2018, Mike describes the game’s success as “great, but not amazing.” It sold 10,000 units in the first month and could manage around 200 concurrent players at any time. However, while most games’ sales fall off after a few months, Descenders just got bigger and bigger. 3 years later, the game has now been played by 3.5 million people with a concurrent peak of 5,170 players. 75% of these sales came in 2020 alone. Mike says, “You usually find that a game’s launch revenue accounts for a decent portion of the overall revenue it ends up making – maybe 20-35%, dependent on the game. For Descenders, the launch month revenue is just 4% of the game’s total revenue to date – $200k during launch, vs $5m now.”
So where has this longevity come from? Mike has a few theories, from its relatively cheap price and its regular updates to its easily understood gameplay. Mountain biking makes a lot more sense to people than slaying dragons or flying fighter jets. “I keep going back to it, but everyone knows how to ride a bike,” Mike says, “I think a big reason why Descenders has done as well as it’s done is because a lot of people see the pitch, see the screenshots and think, ‘well, I’m pretty certain I can play that, so I might as well just give it a go.’” The game’s intuitive nature led to decent growth through word of mouth, but the even bigger catalyst was XBOX Game Pass.
XBOX Game Pass is basically Netflix for video games. It has 20 million members who all have access to a library that contains hundreds of games, including some of the most popular series such as Halo, Forza and Final Fantasy. Despite this huge library, Descenders consistently finds itself in the top 10 most downloaded titles, making it one of the most popular titles on the console.
Why Aren’t More Mountain Bikers On Board?
Despite this, the game seems to have been largely ignored by the mountain bike world. It doesn’t feature any branded bikes or kit, and most of its audience seems to come from outside of the sport.
Whether it’s because mountain biking’s higher cost of entry tends to attract an older crowd than other action sports or its outdoorsy participants simply aren’t a video game audience, Descenders is popular within the world of gaming but not as much so with most mountain bikers. Mike was initially expecting mountain bikers to embrace the game, but the main attitude seems to be ambivalence, especially from older riders. At least once a week he hears, “Well, why would I bother playing that when I can just go outside and ride mountain bikes?”
The game also hasn’t attracted much interest from the mountain bike industry, despite its huge audience. The closest the game has come has been with an energy drinks company but they pulled out at the last minute after all the assets had been made and ready to go. Mike gave up approaching brands a couple of years ago after repeated knockbacks and he puts that down to Rage Squid’s small size, saying “because it’s not from some massive studio with hundreds of people, a lot of the brands that we’ve attempted to talk to in the past, have just not understood. They’ve been like, ‘Oh, these guys are small fries’.” He adds that Rage Squid would still be happy to include branding for free and could do it in an afternoon, but nobody has approached them about it or has responded to their inquiries.
Some good news is that the same doesn’t seem to be true in the other direction. Mike says he hears stories regularly about gamers who have tried mountain biking for the first time after playing the game, including the game’s biggest YouTuber, Sam Tabor, who made a series called ‘Descenders in Real Life’ for his 500,000 subscribers.
What next for Descenders?
Descenders is four years old and continues to grow, but there’s a looming threat on the horizon. For its entire lifetime, Descenders has enjoyed its own niche as the only sizable non-mobile mountain bike game around but that is about to change. Ubisoft, the developer of the Assassins’ Creed series, has a new game on the way called Riders’ Republic that combines mountain biking, snowboarding and wingsuiting. The game was scheduled for release on 25 February but has now been delayed indefinitely.
This game will bring a much bigger budget and officially licensed kit to the genre and has the potential to eclipse Descenders, but Mike isn’t too worried for now. He says, “I don’t know whether to be concerned or actually see it as an opportunity. You know? This game, it’s going to be $80. And so for us, we’re a little bit like, well actually are we going to look favorable? Descenders has incredible reviews online, so part of me wonders, well, is it going to be that their game comes out, people see that they can literally pick up four copies of our game, one for them and three of their friends, for the same price of one copy of Ubisoft’s game. And they can see how much content our game has got in it, and they think, ‘why don’t we just pick that up instead?’
“Of course it could completely kill our game as well, it could just completely go the other way and if Riders’ Republic is amazing, then people might start picking that up instead of Descenders. If that does happen then, to be honest, we got a lot more out of this game than we thought we were going to. The number of sales has been absolutely insane. So, for a small team of three, that’s more than enough. I actually do not know what’s going to happen and I am fascinated to find out either way.”
Whatever happens in the future, Mike believes Descenders is a game that a lot of mountain bikers would enjoy. He explains, “A lot of people who ride mountain bikes have maybe just assumed that Descenders is probably not for them. You know, it’s probably a bit crap, or they’ve decided, ‘why would I play this if I ride bikes’? But I mean, we’re pretty proud of it. We think actually a lot of those people who probably do look down at it a little bit would probably actually really enjoy it. Especially at this time, when we can’t bloody get out of our houses! Just imagine being able to actually go for some rides. Just stick the first-person mode on, stick a helmet on, and get an exercise bike in front of you. And you can recreate it in your living room. So why not?”