“I say this all the time: The longest journey in gaming starts with the words, ‘Hey, you know what else would be cool?’”
That proverb, offered by Night Dive Studios’ Larry Kuperman, is a good way to sum up System Shock’s woes.
When it launched on Kickstarter back in 2016, it was sold as a faithful remake of the 1994 cult classic that pitted a player against the rogue AI, Shodan. When Nightdive started the project, that was exactly what they intended to make. Today, that’s again what they intend to make.
For a while in the middle, though, Nightdive Studios lost sight of this goal. It seems clear that the developers had nothing but the best intentions, but the $1.3 million they made off their crowdfunding campaign… kind of messed with their heads.
“With the massive success that we experienced on Kickstarter, we did have the opportunity to increase the scope of the game,” said Stephen Kick, Nightdive’s CEO. “That’s what led to that initial departure of the original style that we had developed and used to promote the Kickstarter campaign.”
More money meant that Nightdive could do more with the project. So, the developers took the opportunity to expand on the game in some ways, streamline it in others, and try their hand at evoking the spirit of System Shock without being hamstrung by the limitations of early ‘90s game design.
“You get influenced by the last game that you played that had this really cool feature — and wouldn’t it be great to add it to the one you’re making?” Kuperman explained.
The game’s backers didn’t see it that way. They didn’t back the Kickstarter because they wanted a new game with new features, new weapons, or new, well… anything, really. What they wanted was System Shock. They wanted the landmark 1994 immersive sim recreated faithfully with modern graphics and controls.
“You start off adding one thing, and that inspires something else, and pretty soon you’ve gone far afield from your original vision,” said Kuperman.
Every new level design, every new weapon, every change in the puzzles — to backers, it was all proof that the game Nightdive was working on wasn’t the game that they had promised — they were working on something else entirely. Eventually, Kick came to the same conclusion and chose to put the project on hiatus in February 2018.
There was no shortage of backers who assumed that this hiatus would mean the end of the project — yet another example of a failed Kickstarter that would run off with the money and leave its backers with nothing. Thankfully, their hiatus really was just that, and Nightdive came back with a new approach.
“It took a little while for us to get back on track and realize that this wasn’t what we had initially envisioned, and it wasn’t what we had promised our backers,” said Kick, “and that’s what ended with us kind of re-evaluating where we were, switching gears, and going back to that original vision.”
That vision meant sticking to the design of the 1994 original as closely as possible.
“The story, the gameplay, the puzzles — all of that was great. It was perfect,” said producer Mike Arkin. “There was no reason to change any of that.”
It’s easy to be skeptical when a company swears that they’re going to deliver exactly what everyone hopes that they will. But it pays to mention that Nightdive Studios is a bit of a special case, since they wouldn’t even exist without the founder’s love for the System Shock series.
It all started when Kick, having just left his job at Sony Online Entertainment, was on a vacation in a jungle hostel in Guatemala. He had brought a low-powered netbook with him, hoping to play some classic games. One night, he decided he wanted to replay System Shock 2.
It wouldn’t install. There were no unofficial patches that would make it work. There wasn’t even any place that he could legally buy it.
“When I went to go purchase the game on GOG, where I assumed it would be, I couldn’t find it,” Kick said. “It wasn’t for sale. But it was their top most-requested game.”
It was at that point that Kick realized there was a problem at play that was much more daunting than driver issues or system compatibility. He was dealing with an issue that has long been the bane of retro gamers: intellectual property rights.
The creators of System Shock, Looking Glass Studios, closed down in the year 2000, and the rights to the company’s franchises ended up getting more or less scattered to the winds. The rights to Thief are probably the easiest to track, as they were acquired by Eidos and later Square Enix. The rights to System Shock, however, were less simple to follow — EA filed for the System Shock trademark back in 2006, but the actual rights to the System Shock franchise weren’t even owned by a game company.
“I discovered that they had been acquired by an insurance company in the Midwest after Looking Glass went bankrupt,” Kick said.
Not to be deterred, Kick contacted them to see what was up.
“They immediately assumed I wanted to do a sequel,” Kick said. “They wanted to know if I was going to do System Shock 3.”
That, of course, was not what Kick wanted to do. He was living off of his savings in the Guatemalan jungle, and he just wanted to be able to play the old System Shock games. He suggested that they release the old games digitally, which apparently had never occurred to them. And it turned out he had called at just the right time to make that suggestion.
“They were in the midst of acquiring the trademark, which Electronic Arts had let lapse, and in order to retain that trademark they needed to commercialize the products,” Kick said.
So, Kick’s long quest to get the dang game to play ended with he and his wife-to-be creating Nightdive Studios, so named because both of them enjoy going diving. At night.
“It just seemed to kind of fit,” Kick said, “the idea of diving down somewhere deep and enigmatic, mysterious, clouded by darkness, and trying to find something of value down there.”
Searching for buried treasures is pretty much Nightdive’s mission statement. They specialize in games and franchises that have been left to languish by their original creators. “Abandonware” is a term often used, though Kuperman was quick to chime in the moment the term was mentioned.
“My attorney would have me say there’s no such thing as abandonware,” Kuperman said. “There’d be several paragraphs of legal stuff after that, but we like to say ‘the lost and forgotten classics.’”
The classics they got their hands on extend far beyond System Shock 2, ranging from shooters like Turok and Blood to absurd adventure games like Bad Mojo and Starship Titanic. Their business strategy is straightforward: think of all the games they enjoyed as kids, and re-release the games that they can get the rights to.
Re-releases don’t just involve patching the game up and tossing them on Steam though. Many games are rebuilt from the ground up using the Kex Engine, which is designed to use games’ old assets while adding modern features like higher-resolution graphics, cross-platform support, and compatibility with modern systems.
They even ported an “enhanced edition” of the original System Shock to Kex, complete with its low-resolution sprites and low-quality audio. It’s not exactly a game that the average player will want to pick up at first glance. It’s that lack of appeal that drove Nightdive to remake the game in the first place. Even when the game was new, it wasn’t a blockbuster hit, losing out to the flashier, high-octane gameplay of Doom.
“Unfortunately it was overlooked considerably,” said Kick. “It introduced a lot of systems to the first-person genre that we wouldn’t see implemented for many, many years. Probably until, I would say, Half-Life, where you’ve got a story-driven narrative gameplay focus with different levels you can return to to solve puzzles. Even to this day, despite the enhanced edition we created, it still feels dated. It’s not going to connect with everybody.”
The entire point of the remake, Kick says, is to let a modern audience see just what made the game great. And with their current direction, the only thing they feel they need to do is update the controls and the graphics.
“For the most part, it’s the same game,” Arkin said. “We have guys on the team who’ve played the original System Shock with their eyes closed. They know every single puzzle and every single step of the story, and they’re kind of keeping us paddling in the right direction.”
There’s no firm release date for the remake yet, though everything looks like they’re on track to release this year. They have even released a demo to backers that features a fully functional first level.
“Right now, we are in full production, and we are building the final content for the game. There really are no more hurdles,” said Arkin. “We just have enemies to add, animation — we’re just cranking out all the widgets and snapping them into place. We’ve got a plan. Everything is designed and ready to go.”
The big question, of course, is whether the game will live up to four years’ worth of hype and expectations. With 14,000 people having played their demo, and over 200,000 people wishlisting the game on Steam, there’s a lot of people that they’ll need to please.
“When we looked at those numbers, you go from exultation to dread really quickly,” Kuperman said. “It’s like, holy cow, a whole lot of people are playing this game, and the feedback has been great, and then suddenly you realize how high the level of expectations are.”