Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Pearls From the Depths: An Interview With Night Dive Studios

Night Dive Studios made a big splash in the games industry when, seemingly out of nowhere, the studio released an updated version of System Shock 2 that was fully compatible with modern systems. Since then, the company has gone on to re-release updated versions of other PC gaming classics such as Tex Murphy, Shadow Man, The 7th Guest, and many others. More recently, the studio released System Shock: Enhanced Edition. Rock had a chance to speak with Night Dive's founder and President Stephen Kick about their past, present, and future, as well as the release of System Shock: Enhanced Edition.

 Origin Story

As it is with so many things in life, it all started with a trip to Mexico. Stephen Kick had just quit his job as a character artist at Sony Online Entertainment, and he and his wife wanted to spend a year traveling through Mexico and Central America. Anticipating some downtime, Stephen planned ahead and brought along a netbook and plenty of games to keep himself entertained. Stephen remembers, "I brought the LucasArts classics, The Curse of Monkey Island, and Full Throttle, as well as Fallout 2, System Shock 2 and many others." However, Stephen would soon be met with the same frustration that many of us have experienced over the years.  "I distinctly remember one stormy night in Lanquin, Guatemala attempting to install System Shock 2 and being met with error messages, warnings and resistance from the operating system. Confounded, I visited and learned that there was no way to purchase and play a working copy of System Shock 2, one of the greatest games of all time." This led Stephen to do some digging to try and find out where the rights to the beloved System Shock series ended up. The superb article by Jared Newman (check it out here for a fascinating read) gave Stephen a solid lead. According to the article, a Midwestern insurance company owned the rights and, even better, the company was taking inquiries from parties interested in creating a new System Shock game. Stephen goes on, "I emailed the insurance company, pitched an idea to revive the existing game and within a few days we began negotiating the terms of the agreement, and Night Dive Studios was born."

Night Dive started as a one man band, but after System Shock 2 was released on Steam, Stephen says that,  "I came across a passionate individual on the Steam forums who had written up a very comprehensive guide on how to mod and get the most from the game. I was so impressed with his work that I reached out to him and had him expand on the modding guide he created. When new projects started appearing I decided to bring him on board full time to help and he became our first employee. He’s been with us since the beginning, and even though we speak on a daily basis I’ve yet to actually meet him in person!".  Since that time, Night Dive has grown to a ten person team of industry veterans whose past projects include such games as PlanetSide 2, H1Z1, Batman: Arkham City, and the Tomb Raider series (Underworld, Anniversary, and Legend), among others.

Diving Deep

So how does a little studio go about deciding which games get the overhaul treatment? Pretty much exactly as you'd expect, actually. Stephen tells us that, "It is a very organic process, at first we were using the Community Wishlist on to see what titles had the most demand, but many of those titles were favorites of ours that we were truly passionate about to begin with. A number of other niche titles we’ve picked up over the years are games I played as a kid and have a strong personal connection with. They generally don’t sell well, but it’s more about preserving and maintaining their legacy than sales numbers. One of the great benefits of finding these old games is that I often have the privilege of meeting the original developers during the process of uncovering them. Hearing stories about the development and connecting with them as a fan and a potential partner is incredible. During our weekly meeting everyone on the team has at least one, 'We should go get this game!' suggestion and that usually leads down some interesting tangents. We’ve had a couple of opportunities brought to us by other companies, but the majority of suggestions come from our amazing fan base on Facebook and Twitter."

This process can sometimes lead to some very interesting encounters, where the team gets a lot more than they bargained for. One example that Stephen gives us centers around "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", based on the short story by Harlan Ellison.  "I called his (Ellison's) agent, proposed the plan to revive the game based on his short story and in a few short hours I was speaking directly with Harlan going over the details. We drafted up the contract that afternoon and we were good to go. Harlan offered us an interview, signed original boxed copies of the game, strategy guides, and lenticular mouse pads to use for promotional purposes. Next, we reached out to John Ottman, the Hollywood composer who had originally done the soundtrack. He hired a company to go through his storage container, locate the original DAT tapes containing the master recordings of the score and record it to CD for us. We discovered a ton of brand new material as well as the uncompressed original music which we included as a bonus with the game."

Technical Difficulties

The restoration process doesn't always go very smoothly (you have no idea how hard it was to resist the urge to say "swimmingly" there. Ugh!- Rock), though. The team is often limited on a technical level based on whether or not they have access to a game's original source code. Such was the case with Bad Mojo, where "Getting it to run was so challenging we sought help from a third party. They were able to get it running but it was a timely and expensive process." Stephen shares another example of just how hard this process can be. "Even if we have source code sometimes the original language it was written in can be a huge issue. For example, we had access to the original code for Noctropolis, but it was written in Assembly which is an outdated low-level programming language. Luckily one of our programmers was familiar with it and with the help of the original developer was able to translate the code into something more contemporary."

Sometimes, work on a given project needs to stop for other reasons. For example, the team had been hard at work on re-releasing the horror-action game Dark Seed when revolutionary artist H.R. Giger (whose artwork is used heavily throughout the game) passed away. The team felt obligated to stop, first out of respect, and later because of legal/rights issues. "While we were working on acquiring the rights to Dark Seed, H.R. Giger passed away. I’ve been a great admirer of his works for many years and it was a dream come true to give these games which were so heavily influenced by his vision new life. We were very close to a re-release and our plans have been on hold since."

Bringing a Legend Back to Life

As I'm sure is the case for some reading this, System Shock is one of my absolute favorite games of all time. Given the fact that System Shock 1 and 2 have consistently been the third and second most requested games on's community wishlist, respectively, I think that I haven't been alone in this. As told in the G4 article above, the rights to System Shock eventually ended up in two different places: Star Insurance Company and Electronic Arts. So how did Night Dive actually start the process of re-releasing this classic series?

Pictured, many gamers' dream come true

It's actually a lot more straightforward than you might think, given the relative lack of movement on the series before Night Dive's re-release of System Shock 2 in 2013.  Stephen tells us, "We had originally licensed the rights to re-release System Shock 2 from Star Insurance Company, which is a subsidiary of Meadowbrook Insurance. They acquired the trademark after EA let their ownership of the mark lapse around 2012 which is when we began re-releasing SS2. After a number of years we acquired the rights from Star and had started work on the Enhanced Edition of the original System Shock after determining we had the rights to do so. It was fairly simple and straight forward!"

Behold! The busiest (and most useful) HUD ever.

But wait, if it was so easy, why hadn't anybody done it before now? Stephen chalks it up to timing. "The issue that was plaguing a re-release or a sequel for so many years was that the rights and the trademark for the series were in the hands of multiple parties, EA and Meadowbrook. When we had contacted them and proposed a plan, Meadowbrook had just filed for the trademark that was recently abandoned by EA. When you file for a trademark you have a limited amount of time to utilize that mark in commerce. This prevents individuals or corporations from sitting on them and preventing use. Since we were able to execute our plan within that time frame Star was able to claim complete ownership of the trademark."

Thankfully, some of the technical groundwork had already been laid.  "We teamed up with an exceptionally talented modder from the System Shock community that had started work on a version of Shock that ran natively in Windows a few years earlier. We got together, went through the work he completed up to that point and proceeded to polish existing features as well add some of our own to create the Enhanced Edition we have today. We went through an extensive QA testing period that unearthed countless bugs with the original game that were remedied for this version."

What is Kick's take on the popularity of the System Shock Series? Why have so many fans been begging for a re-release for years now. He sums it up nicely, saying that "System Shock was released during a time when Doom was at the height of its popularity and the two games were so vastly different that a slower paced, methodical shooter with RPG elements was easy to overlook when compared to the speed and brutality of Doom. The high system requirements also played a large role in limiting its audience. The floppy version had none of the amazing voice over work and not many people had CD drives that would allow them to experience the vastly superior enhanced CD version of the game. Fortunately Shock would have a strong influence on future titles that were well received such as Deus Ex, Thief, and of course System Shock 2. These titles have been enjoyed for years, but the original System Shock was forgotten due to inaccessibility which stemmed from a very difficult and aged control scheme to lacking support for modern operating systems. Still, fans of System Shock 2 and the countless other games that were influenced by its innovative mechanics wished for a version of System Shock they could play with the modern conveniences that had become second nature over the years, such as mouse look and higher resolutions to name a few. The Enhanced Edition we released this September has made Shock available to countless fans and newcomers alike and we hope they enjoy it!"

The team has done some truly awesome work to make this classic work on modern systems. Better resolution, too!

So what's next for Night Dive? Thankfully, things don't seem like they're going to slow down any time soon! The list  of games that they would like to revive grows long, indeed. According to Stephen, "Of course there is No One Lives Forever and its sequel, but our relationship with that title has been well documented (The short version: unwillingness or inability to communicate on the part of Warner Bros, Activision, and 20th Century Fox led Night Dive to abandon their plans to re-release this series. Check out the excellent article on Kotaku for the full story - Rock). Besides that we’d love to work on Westwood’s Blade Runner adventure game from 1997. We’re talking to the right people, but because a sequel to the movie has been announced and is currently in production it’s made the usual process more involved. Other titles I’d love to revive include, The Dark Eye, Drowned God, Morpheus, The Space Bar, Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K.², Emperor of the Fading Suns, Dark Seed…the list could go on forever." I'm sure it could, Stephen, and it should.

Very special thanks to Stephen Kick for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk to us.

To  commemorate the re-release of System Shock, we're running a contest where two lucky winners will receive Steam keys for both System Shock 2 and the newly released System Shock: Enhanced edition.

This contest is actually super easy. Just head over to our Facebook and comment on the post for this article telling us why you should be chosen. Make us laugh, make us cry.

 Rock is ready for the cybernetic future.

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