It’s safe to say the development of Nightdive’s System Shock Remake hasn’t exactly been the easiest.
Originally reaching its goal on Kickstarter back in 2016, the modernized recreation of Looking Glass Studios' influential immersive sim about a hacker on a ruined space station and a rogue AI named SHODAN was initially targeting a release in late 2017, before being put on hiatus in 2018 after the company ironically let things "get out of control".
Now, almost seven years have passed since the Kickstarter was originally launched and it is finally available to the public (via Steam), with Nightdive founder Stephen Kick hoping that all the effort over has paid off as players are now able to get their hands on the game and form their own opinions on it.
Kick spoke to Time Extension recently, as part of a series of interviews with the press leading up to the game's release, and in that conversation, he was surprisingly candid about how its development has impacted him over the last few years and the various twists and turns he has experienced along the way. For him, it's been a long and winding road, with the connection between the System Shock series and Nightdive going all the way back to the studios' roots and his reasons for starting the company in the first place.
In 2012, after leaving his character artist job at Sony Online Entertainment, Kick found himself travelling through Mexico and Central America with his partner before deciding what was next. It was during this trip that at one point he tried to load up System Shock 2 on his laptop — a title that had inspired him to pursue a career in games in the beginning — before realizing there was no way to actually run the game on his modern machine.
Speaking to Time Extension over a video, he tells us, "I distinctly remember being in the middle of the jungle in Guatemala trying to boot up the game and having it not being able to run on my laptop. And kind of going on a search for it at that point and discovering that the rights had been split between Electronic Arts and some company in the Midwest [called Star Insurance Company]. And for whatever reason, I decided to send out an email to the insurance company asking them what their plans were and having them write us back almost immediately, ‘Yeah, we don’t have a plan. What do you want to do with it?’"
It was this initial conversation that eventually led to the formation of Nightdive Studios in November 2012 and later resulted in the successful release of System Shock 2 on GOG.com in June 2013. From here, Nightdive became known for resurrecting other lost and abandoned games on modern machines, including cult titles like Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream and Trilobyte's 7th Guest, but it never forgot about the System Shock series.
In 2015, it successfully acquired the rights to the series from Star Insurance Company and shortly after produced System Shock: Enhanced Edition, a slightly more approachable version of Looking Glass Studios' original title, which included, among other things, a mouse look option (something missing from the 1994 original that had players click and drag across the screen instead).
During the development of Enhanced Edition, though, Kick and others at Nightdive began to feel like it could also take things further and subsequently decided to remake the original System Shock game to try and bring it to an even greater audience. In order to do this, it set up a Kickstarter in June 2016, with a goal of $900,000. It also released a short Unity demo via Kickstarter demonstrating a work-in-progress glimpse at what it intended to do with the project.
"We knew that there was already a large System Shock community that was enjoying the game regardless of the updates that had been done to them," says Kick, explaining the reasons for this decision. "They loved the games for what they were. But we also knew that there was another massive audience that had been introduced to the franchise via either System Shock 2 or BioShock, or any of the other number of games that Looking Glass did or would eventually inspire. And so, we recognized that there were a lot of people that if they knew that there was a remake of this game, then they would be intrigued by it, at the very least. They would have an opportunity to finally revisit a game that was maybe at the time a little bit too antiquated or a little too obtuse to kind of get into or commit to."
As anticipated, the Kickstarter was a complete success and hit its goal on July 9th, 2016, with System Shock's fans and newcomers to the series enthusiastically welcoming the prospect of seeing the old game be remade with modern graphics, an expanded script, and new sound effects. By the end of the campaign, it had raised over $1 million on the crowdfunding site. However, the development of the game quickly spiraled out of control, with Nightdive trying to do much more than it originally set out to do with the extra funds that it had received. It was originally targeting a late 2017 release, but it became clear in early 2017 that this would no longer be possible when the then-game director Jason Fader revealed to Polygon at that year's Game Developer's Conference that the project was moving from Unity to Unreal Engine 4 and subsequently announced a new 2018 release date.
"I think probably the biggest issue was making more [on Kickstarter] than we had set out to make," Kick admits. "It was like ‘Oh my gosh, we have a lot more here to work with. We can increase our scope. We can make this better than we originally anticipated.’ And I think that’s where things started to go wrong. You know, those self-imposed limitations are really important for game developers because as soon as you start going ‘Hey, you know what would be cool?’, you’re going to get into trouble. And we did. The thing that was most surprising to me was that I had been in the industry for a number of years before I started Nightdive and I saw all this happen in real-time at other studios, so I knew not to do them, but I did them anyways. It’s the siren song, you know? As a creative, you always want to make something better than is sometimes possible under certain restrictions."
Kick still maintains that if the company had stuck to the scope of the original Unity demo, it would have been possible to complete in an appropriate time scale, but it gradually drifted away from the initial pitch, which led to the team burning through all of the money it had raised through Kickstarter. Then, as the project shifted over to Unreal, it became clear that Nightdive would need further outside investment to finish what had been started. So, as a result of all this, the project was put on a temporary hiatus in February 2018, with Fader and others leaving Nightdive around this time.
"We brought on people that kind of had their own vision of the game that was different from what we originally pitched with that Unity demo," says Kick, "And so, from there, our costs and our budget ballooned even further than that $1.5 million that we had managed to raise. And we burned through that quickly."
He continues, "I think it only lasted for about a year after the Kickstarter had become successful. And, at that point, that team was looking for outside funding in the $5-10 million range to complete what they had started. And you know, there’s a lot of retrospective introspection, and ‘Oh yeah, maybe I should have cut that off before it got to that point’, but the fact is I didn’t and it got to a point where the project was longer sustainable and that’s when we had that first hiatus where we essentially let everybody go."
At this point, you might be thinking that Nightdive would try and abandon the project, but instead, it took a risk, rebooting it with a new team and diverting funds away from other projects within the studio to keep it on life support while a publishing partner could be found. According to Kick, potential publishers at the time included Starbreeze Entertainment (the publisher originally slated to release Otherside Entertainment's System Shock 3) and Telltale Games, who shut down unexpectedly just weeks after talks began.
"That felt like a gut punch," Kick tells Time Extension, "Because we really loved the people over there and we loved the games that we did and there was some talk about, ‘Oh, if we do System Shock with you guys, maybe you can do an adventure game that explores what happens before SHODAN took over.’ So, there were a lot of interesting, collaborative possibilities in that instance as well. But yeah, we spent months just travelling to different studios and pitching the game that we had, and for lack of a better word, they all said ‘No’."
The studio continued funding the project itself to keep it going, before eventually finding a new publisher in 2021 in the form of the video game company Prime Matter. Prime Matter would be able to help the studio fully honor its commitment to Kickstarter backers and help Nightdive offer the game to more fans through digital and physical releases.
Speaking to Time Extension about the reasons why they didn't abandon the project, Kick explains, "The number one thing I didn’t want to have to happen was to cancel the game. So many people had put their trust in us on Kickstarter that that really became my number goal was to not disappoint them and not be that person that said, ‘Hey, thanks for all that money, sorry,’ you know? I would be personally just devastated. I mean, I lost a lot of sleep over the years just trying to come to terms with where we were in the project at certain points. When we put the game on hiatus, I got death threats. I had people come after my livelihood. They tried to start class-action lawsuits against me. I got reported to the BBB (Better Business Bureau) and both Oregon and Washington’s respective divisions for — You know, it was just a rough time. I basically just had to try and remove myself from all that and just dedicate ourselves and the small team to fulfilling this goal."
Because of the prolonged wait, there's been an unimaginable amount of pressure on Nightdive to deliver something extraordinary and Kick knows there's the potential of letting people down, but he hopes that those who have supported Nightdive over the years will appreciate what they have come up with in that time.
He tells Time Extension, "My number one feeling is I hope it was worth the wait. Ultimately, I feel like the game that we are releasing now is what I wish we had been able to do back then in 2016. Like I said, we had this scope of the Unity demo and how the game was going to be back then, but even back then, I was hoping that it would be more. And that’s what we’re getting now. We’re getting our unrestricted vision more or less. We’ve put in the money, we’ve put in the effort, and we’ve put in the time to make the game that we really wanted to make, and I just hope that people enjoy it."
Reviews for the game have already started to pour out at the time of writing, and the response so far is incredibly enthusiastic, with the game now sitting at 1266 reviews on Steam with a "very positive rating".
Critic reviews are also similarly enthusiastic, with The Guardian, Eurogamer, and VG247 all awarding the title a score of 4/5. It's been a long and difficult journey to get to this point, but it seems like Nightdive has delivered something that finally lives up to the original's incredible reputation.