With the remake of System Shock having been in development purgatory since its original announcement in 2016, Nightdive Studios has faced constant challenges in getting the game ready for release. Now, with the game finally having a release window of March 2023, the development team are confident in their ability to ship the game this year, and are also hoping to meet expectations after considerable delays.

I spoke to Steven Kick (Director, Owner and CEO of Nightdive Studios) about his experiences in developing the System Shock remake, and also got his take on why development has taken so long. Enjoy!

The remake of System Shock has been going through a bit of a development hell, and has been in development for a number of years now. Why do you think the development has been so protracted?

Well, we kickstarted the game in 2016, and we originally started with a prototype that we made in the Unity engine. Once Kickstarter was complete, and we looked at the scope and scale of the game that we wanted to make, we decided that Unreal Engine was going to be a much better choice. Unfortunately, we lost some of the key team members from that Unity prototype that really helped establish the look and feel and overall direction of the game, which caused us to do more or less of a hard pivot on what we were doing. And so we hired a new team and we essentially created a new prototype, or a new vertical slice of what we were going to accomplish. But again, the scope, scale, and the direction of that was not really jiving with our community and the people who had entrusted us to do this – our backers and people who had put money down to see what we had done with the Unity demo. And we listened to that feedback and we took it to heart. And unfortunately, it was about a year and a half later when we decided to essentially reboot the project.

What led to that decision? I mean, that would’ve been a difficult decision, because you would have been throwing away years of work…

It was extremely difficult.

Plus all that money as well…

A lot of money. More than we had raised on Kickstarter. I mean, we had already gone through those funds, and so we were self-funding at that point. But we were absolutely committed to what it was that we were doing. System Shock is widely considered to be one of the most influential games ever made. It basically helped kick off the immersive sim genre, which of course led to System Shock 2, BioShock, Prey, Dishonored, Deus Ex… a plethora of titles that really helped define the industry, and we don’t take that lightly. So the reason that it’s taken so long is because we’re committed to developing an experience that’s going to be worthy of the title.

There’s a difference between raising Kickstarter money, or even raising funds for any old game. But when you are in charge of a game like System Shock, which as you’ve said, was one of the key titles that helped launch the narrative-driven sub-genre of the first person shooter. When you consider the amount of money that was given to you by all the Kickstarter backers, and then when you consider that you had to essentially say, “I’m really sorry, but we messed up”… So as someone who has been entrusted with the IP, but as someone who was also entrusted with Kickstarter funds – the funds of the average Joe, as opposed to the funds of the venture capitalists – what sort of pressures did you feel personally? Also, because it’s your company, and because it’s your money… It’s almost like a three-pronged attack in terms of stress and pressure. You’ve got the System Shock IP, you’ve got backer capital money that’s being wasted, and you’ve got your own money that’s being squandered. What sort of pressures did you go through? Because loads of people would’ve just said, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m just going to hide for the next 10 years”.

Well, to go back on that, we didn’t waste the money.

I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just that, when you had to reboot…

Every dollar that we got from the Kickstarter backers was used to pay our developers. And for the first five years of development, I didn’t take any pay. I made sure that all that money went towards developing what we promised, and unfortunately with game development, it’s just the nature of the beast sometimes… It just doesn’t go the way you plan. And then the money that we spent internally, again, I wouldn’t say we “squandered” it, I just want to make it clear…

Sorry, that was me being insensitive. I didn’t want to paint you as somebody who was frivolous with his funds. I just wanted to ask about the pressures of dealing with backers who would have reacted angrily, and who would have demanded: “Where’s my money? Where’s my product?”

Absolutely…

But it’s also your own money at stake… So like I said, it’s three times the pressure, basically…

Yeah. That’s a really fair way to put it.

Sorry, I didn’t mean it that way the first time round…

Okay. I’ve just been very careful to make sure that our messaging remains clear. There was a joke going on that I had used the money to buy a gold-plated yacht.

I did not know about that…

You know, I take that personally because this is more than a career for me, this is my passion, this is what I truly care about. I love classic games. Again, when faced with the pressures of recreating something so beloved, it’s something that we all had to dig really deep for. We’re committed to it, no matter what, and I wasn’t going to accept failure as an option. What we’re left with today, and where we are now, is something that we’re really proud of, and that we know is going to ultimately stand on its own when compared to the original. But just facing the pressure of the backers has been difficult because you take it personally, and over time, you get thicker and thicker skin, and you can deflect a lot of the negativity, but it still gets in. It still affects you. And after a while, I had to go through some personal growth, and instead of it affecting me personally, I used it to motivate me and to motivate the team. And we certainly have a lot of people, I’d say the vast majority of our backers, are on the side of, “take as long as you need, just put out a good game”. And that’s all that we’re going to do. At this point, we’ve spent so much time and so much money on it, that to release anything that doesn’t live up to our standards would be a tragedy.

You started in 2016. Based on it’s history and how long it’s been development for, was System Shock the the first game that you started, and which you based your career on?

Yeah. In 2012, we got the rights for System Shock 2, to re-release that digitally, and that’s what started Nightdive. So System Shock has been a foundational part of our DNA for almost 10 years now.

Do you think it’d be possible for you to ever release a sequel to System Shock? Like a proper sequel? Because you understand, and have the DNA of System Shock. You’ve spent more time with the IP and it’s games than most other people have.

Yeah, even more so than the original developers at this point.

You could do it like ‘Star Wars’, where you speak to the original creator and director, and then go off and do System Shock 3, if that makes sense…

We do consult with the original developers… Especially when we were working on System Shock 1, to ensure that our vision stayed in line with what they had originally intended, and to include things that they couldn’t due to the technical limitations of the early ‘90s. Right now, we could do a remake of System Shock 2. But a brand new sequel? The rights to a sequel are held by Tencent, so we would have to work with them on that. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, and we have a really good relationship with Tencent, but our limitations are just within the first two System Shock games right now. That isn’t to say that we couldn’t remake another game. We own the rights and the IP to a number of other classic titles, so what we do next is largely going to be determined on how well System Shock is received.

I think that’s everything… Do you have any last words?

I just want to reiterate that this is a labour of love, and every dollar that we’ve spent has gone towards giving the backers, hopefully something that exceeds their expectations. I know that when we did our original Kickstarter and we provided that prototype, that was more or less what they were expecting. And I personally think that what we’re doing now, and what we’re going to deliver, is going to be miles beyond what we originally pitched. And I hope that makes up for the amount of time that we’ve spent to deliver it.

Stephen Kick, thank you so much.

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