“I was looking up our Wikipedia page to see what happened this year,” says Nightdive Studios’ CEO Stephen Kick as we sit down to chat. That might seem like an odd thing to say about your own company’s activities. But when you look at what Nightdive have done in the last twelve months, it’s less surprising. In March, Nightdive announced they were being acquired by Atari in a deal worth $10 million. In May, they released their long-anticipated remake of System Shock, in development for eight years. July brought Rise Of The Triad: Ludicrous Edition, while August saw the release of Quake 2 Remastered, and a remaster of Turok 3 arrived at the end of November. Nightdive are currently working on an overhaul of Star Wars: Dark Forces, due out in 2024.
In short, it’s been a busy year for the remastering maestros. In the wider context of 2023, which has been simultaneously a banner games and a deeply worrying year for the people making them, I wanted to know how Nightdive view the last twelve months, and what the audience response to these projects means for the studio’s future.
That latter point is perhaps most relevant to System Shock, which is both Nightdive’s most ambitious project so far, and the most divergent from the company’s other work. It’s designed by a different team from the KEX Engine remasters, and uses different technology, namely Unreal Engine 4. Of everything Nightdive released this year, System Shock’s success or failure seemed to have the biggest implications for the studio’s future. With that in mind, what was its reception like?
“It was a complete surprise,” Kick says. “We had gotten some mock review scores from a couple of different sources, and we were kind of aiming around the seven to low eights… just based off the fact that we were creating a remake of an old game that was trying to stay as faithful to the source material as possible.” But the reception to System Shock’s faithfulness ended up being much more positive. “What we found upon receiving our actual review scores is those elements were greatly appreciated by the critics and by the fans alike. And it was almost like a return to form, like ‘oh yeah, this is what games used to be like, and this is why we love them so much. Why aren’t they like this anymore?'”
System Shock wasn’t just well received by fans and newcomers either, it was also celebrated by the game’s original creators. “One of the things that really amazed me was getting very positive feedback from Paul Neurath and from Warren Spector,” says Larry Kuperman, Nightdive’s business director. “We had shown them builds, but you never know how people are going to feel until it’s truly final. And the praise from them, some of which has been delivered publicly [and] some privately. It just really blew me away.”
Although the general reaction was very positive, there were a few elements of the remake that didn’t go down so well. Foremost among these was the game’s final encounter, which diverges heavily in mechanics to the rest of the game, stripping players of the agency they’d enjoyed up to that point. Nightdive have taken those criticisms on board, applying them to a major update intended to launch on PC alongside the game’s console release. “The ending has been completely reworked based on feedback from the fans.” Kick says.
“We’ve had a sufficient amount of time to go back and fix bugs and improve the user experience, look at all the feedback and apply that to the big update that’s coming.” As for when that update will land, that depends on the console release, which Nightdive says is down to the remake’s publisher, Prime Matter. “We’re not holding it back. We’re working with our publisher, still going through the cert process,” Kuperman says. “That release is not 100% under our control.”
Overall, though, in terms of pleasing fans and honouring the game’s legacy, System Shock was an undeniable success. But it was a long, hard road getting to that point, especially compared to Nightdive’s bread-and-butter business in the remastering space. Given the stress and the risks involved, is Nightdive likely to do something like this again? Kick confirms that, not only is he interested in pursuing similar projects, it’s already happening. “The Shock team has been hard at work on the next thing,” he says. “We decided we had spent so much time over the years building that team and had gelled so well, that we knew whatever we wanted to do next was going to be even better than System Shock remake. And so they’re in the process of working on that now.” Kick doesn’t reveal what that project might be, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it related to the studio’s other major news story of the year.
Nightdive’s acquisition by Atari came as a big surprise, and to anyone with a passing knowledge of Atari’s business in recent years, the news wasn’t exactly comforting. The last decade of Atari’s history has been a miserable tale of sell-offs, bankruptcy and greenlighting terrible entries in some of its most illustrious franchises, like Asteroids, Alone In The Dark, and Rollercoaster Tycoon.
All of this has severely damaged Atari’s brand. But it wasn’t the brand that attracted Nightdive to Atari, it was the company’s new CEO, Wade Rosen. “We had a historical relationship with Wade Rosen that predated his becoming CEO of Atari,” Kuperman explains. Like Nightdive, Rosen has an expressed passion for retro games, and is keen to change Atari’s modern perception, demonstrated through project like the well-received Atari 50. “It just seemed natural for us to join forces there,” Kuperman adds.
The acquisition has meant some changes in how Nightdive operate, but this mostly revolves around the nuts and bolts of running a business. “Now we have legal in-house. We have finance teams. Some of the stuff that kept us from doing more creative things have been taken off our plates,” Kuperman says. In terms of Nightdive’s modus operandi, he stresses that Atari’s message to use at acquisition was keep on doing what you have been doing, only bigger and with more support.”
None of this stopped fans and followers of Nightdive from fretting about the company’s future anyway. But six months on, does Nightdive reckon these concerns have been allayed? Kuperman relates a story of one follower doomposting at Nightdive on social media. “[They] posted that how tragic it was that they would never see great games [remastered] like Quake 2 and Turok 3. It took all my forbearance not to respond back and say ‘Wanna bet?'”
Where the first half of Nightdive’s year was dominated by these two major events, the second half has seen the studio on more familiar footing. July saw Nightdive work with FPS publishing icon Apogee, and the progenitors of the retro-shooter revival New Blood Entertainment, on Rise Of The Triad: Ludicrous Edition. “That was a lot of fun. Everybody needs to play a game that’s just silly every once in a while,” Kuperman says. “It really does capture the zeitgeist of its time.”
Following Nightdive’s work with Bethesda on remasters of Doom 64 and Quake, August saw the release of Quake 2 Remastered, featuring a technical overhaul by Nightdive and a new campaign developed by MachineGames. But Quake 2 Remastered isn’t purely business as usual. “There was two really important behind Quake 2 which has influenced Nightdive going forward,” Kick says. One of these is the addition of the Vault. “It’s supplemental material from the history of id Software and the Quake franchise, basically anything we could find…so that there was some contextual materials for people to look at and enjoy.”
The other was a technique Nightdive experimented with in the Quake remaster, namely editing the game’s 3D models to make them smoother and more sharply defined. “If you had never played the game before, you wouldn’t notice anything. But if you had, you could recognise that the silhouettes are a little bit more defined, and there’s a little higher texel density in the textures that really make them pop. And it was almost like playing it for the first time again. So we pushed that a lot further with Quake 2.”
Nightdive adopted this approach with their remaster of Turok 3, for which – alongside the addition of things like widescreen and HD support – Nightdive’s artists redrew the game’s textures from scratch. “This is something I’ve always wanted to do, aside from just making the game playable and including all the features that make it enjoyable,” Kick says. “Now we’ve truly hit that next step in our evolution as a company where we can make the game look good too.”
The strength of Nightdive’s year is demonstrated by the fact their next project is a remaster of Star War: Dark Forces. Like System Shock 2, Dark Forces is one of those clarifying games of Kick’s childhood “I remember being a kid and going into computer city with my family…trying to sneak a copy of Doom shareware into the shopping cart and getting as far as the checkout conveyor before my mom saw it.” Kick says. “Instead they’re like, well, there’s a Star Wars game over there. How about that?”
Dark Forces might not seem that different from other projects Nightdive has done, but the crucial element to consider is who owns Star Wars now, and what it took to get permission to remaster this LucasArts classic. “It was years of begging on our part,” Kuperman says. Kick doesn’t believe Disney ever “doubted our abilities”, but that “it took a while for our gravitas to reach that level where I think they truly felt comfortable engaging with us.”
The Dark Forces Remaster is due out early next year. But it’s far from the only project Nightdive are working on for 2024: Kuperman says they have five games slated for next year. Nightdive won’t reveal what those projects are, but Kuperman says that “if fans look at what we’ve done so far, and accept the reason for our working relationship with Atari is to do more of the same, they’ll be able to deduce, or at least speculate, on what some of those projects might be.”
Nightdive’s prospects for the future look bright, which is a relief to hear in a year that has been beset by so much grim news of losses, layoffs, and studio shutdowns. Kuperman puts Nightdive’s own successes down to not over-scoping, not pursuing growth too fast and too hard. “We ran our company lean and mean” Kuperman says. “The projects that we did were all cash positive for us.” But that hasn’t made it easier to witness the human cost of the post-pandemic slowdown, to see so many peers used and then cast aside by larger studios and publishers. “It really hurts me when I see the number of people that are being laid off in what has been a banner year for the game industry,” he says.
“For a lot of the big companies, they can lay people off, and they’ll be able to hire people back, either new people are lower wages or the same people at lower wages… if games are art, then the people that make them are artists. And we deserve to be treated better than that.”
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