Nightdive is Still Alive

By Shamus Posted Sunday Sep 30, 2018

Filed under: Video Games 32 comments

Last February the System Shock remake / reboot project shut down. If you don’t remember, the Nightdive team did a kickstarter campaign to do a remake of the 1994 classic System Shock. They had a slick demo made in Unity that was a faithful re-creation of the original using modern rendering techniques and design sensibilities. In terms of technology and presentation, they were using 3D assets with the relative complexity of (say) STRAFE with rendering complexity in the ballpark of Doom 3.

That’s a pretty good balance in terms of getting the most bang for your buck. Models are detailed enough that you can tell what things are and they can evoke the original assets, but they’re also coarse enough that small team can feasibly develop the game. The rendering was hitting the sweet spot on the tech curve where you get cool shadow and lighting effects without needing to chase photorealism. I loved it.

Then a few months into development the team threw away the demo and started the entire project over, aiming for a total re-imagining of the property as a AAA shooter. It looked less like System Shock by way of Doom 3, and more like one of the modern Deus Ex games. It looked very expensive, but it didn’t look anything like System Shock. Then the project shut down because (surprise) they ran out of money.

At the time I predicted that the project was dead. I am very happy to have been proven wrong. I stand by my criticism that they shouldn’t have thrown away their first design to chase AAA glory, but I’m happy I was wrong about the project being over. The team has returned to their original designAlthough they’re sticking with the Unreal Engine and not going back to the Unity build. Is that smart? I have no idea. and are once again trying to recapture the flavor of the 1994 original.

They seem to be doing pretty well. Check out this door:


Yeah, an industrial door. Big deal, right? You’ve seen a million of these in videogames, I’m sure. The thing is, this is an extremely faithful re-creation of the large doors in the original System Shock. When I watch this animation I can’t help but hear the sound effect of the original.

I don’t want to trivialize the work the team is doing. Despite this being on the “sweet spot” on the tech curve, this is still a lot more work than it took to make the original 25 years ago. Back in 1994, this door was a flat 2D image. Think of it like an animated .gif of an opening door, slapped onto a polygon. Here in 2018 someone needs to make a fully 3D model of the door with all those moving parts. And then they need to texture it. And create bump maps and specular maps so the surface has all those fine grooves and the whole thing looks like smooth metal.  And then they need to create the animation for all those moving parts. This may be an order of magnitude easier than making a modern AAA asset, but it’s still a lot of work.

On one hand, I’d really hate to get my hopes up for this project only to have them dashed a second time. On the other hand, things are looking pretty good so far.

Fingers crossed.



[1] Although they’re sticking with the Unreal Engine and not going back to the Unity build. Is that smart? I have no idea.

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32 thoughts on “Nightdive is Still Alive

  1. 4th Dimension says:

    INBF next update is them saying they spent the last x months on ANOTHER version of the same door…

  2. Synapse says:

    Cautiously Optimistic again, gonna try real hard not to listen to the original OST that will get me too excited.

    1. Echo Tango says:

      Ditto on the cautious optimism. I never played the original game, but loved System Shock 2. A couple years ago, when I heard about the heavily-modded version of SS1, which will run on modern machines, and has a somewhat-modernized control scheme (within the limits of modding the original game), I gave it a shot. For me, the controls, UI, and maps were all still janky enough that I couldn’t really enjoy it. Here’s hoping! :)

  3. Wiseman says:

    It seems like stuff built in Unity has problems keeping a good performance even in powerful machines. Although with assets not so detailed it would likely be easier.

    1. guy says:

      I’m given to understand Unity can be used to make reasonably high-performance games, though Unreal will probably be better for an FPS (and worse for a space sim) but that requires directly getting into graphics scripting; the out-of-the box behavior looks good but has performance trouble because it doesn’t cull aggressively or otherwise make the sorts of optimizations you can do with a good sense of what’s important.

      Though some of the reputation is probably because it’s easy to use so it’s possible to make a game without knowing a lot about graphics or the various design tricks used to keep performance high by controlling what’s present in a given scene and building environments to feel spacious without being all that big.

  4. BigMoss says:

    For the benefit of all readers of this blog, can someone link the door opening sound effect? I can only find Let’s Plays when searching for it on YouTube.

    Edit: Is it perhaps this? I’ve never played System Shock.

  5. John says:

    Oh, man. I can’t follow games as they develop. My nerves can’t take it. There’s too much potential for heartbreak. As a general rule, I’ll watch announcement trailers and release trailers but no more because getting invested in stuff I have no control over sucks.

    I broke the rule recently when I watched some gameplay footage for Rebel Galaxy: Outlaw. I wish I hadn’t. The game looks amazing. I’d buy it in a heartbeat, at launch and even at full price. (That’s a big deal if you’re me.) Then I read the FAQ and found out that they’re never going to release a Linux version. Ouch.

    1. The Rocketeer says:

      Someday, I’ll stop thinking there’s going to be a Rogue Galaxy sequel by glancing past comments like this. Someday.

    2. Decius says:

      I had to stop following the “development” of Star Citizen. I figure that I’ll see something comparing it to Duke Nukem Forever if they ever release a game.

      1. Droid says:

        *stands up*

        “Hello, I’m Droid!
        I entertain the thought that Mount and Blade 2: Bannerlord will release one day!”

        1. guy says:

          I’m still sad about That Which Sleeps.

    3. MadTinkerer says:

      I used to think this way, then I backed over a hundred Kickstarter projects. I’ve just gotten used to the idea that a decent percentage of what I back will never see the light of day and you just can’t be absolutely certain ahead of time what will work out and what won’t.

      A loose rule of thumb seems to be: If it’s from a famous developer who has experience making this kind of game at a big budget studio, it’s actually far less likely to succeed than a small passion project from a developer with hobby experience but no professional experience. By a lot. The biggest failures seem to happen to developers who have never worked with a small budget, but it can also happen to developers who have forgotten how to work with small budgets.

      But then sometimes you get what was promised, or even something fantastic beyond the original promises. Even if the dev was used to big budgets! IMO, the crazy successes compensate for the crazy failures. The more different projects you back, the better chance you have of getting something good from someone. Giving some money to incompetent jackasses is just the price that needs to be paid to obtain priceless wonders from competent creators.

      1. guy says:

        I get nervous when I see devs adding stretch goals involving new features; I tend to take that as a sign they’re getting over-excited by their early successes and probably aren’t costing the new goals very carefully.

        1. Lars says:

          That is sometimes the case and sometimes not. For example King Art games had always gameplay features in their kickstarter campaigns stretch goals. (Multiplayer now for Iron Harvest)
          Until now that worked out because: They wanted to create the game that way, anyway. With the kickstarter money they decrease the influence of a publisher. For Iron Harvest that could mean lesser or DLC-maps or only one against all battles and no team up options.

          On the other hand: feature creep is a serious problem to a lot of kickstarter creations. Still waiting for my Super Dungeon Legends board game, I backed 3 years ago.

          1. guy says:

            I’m not worried if they have more features in the starting stretch goals. It’s when they hit all their initial stretch goals and start adding more features in new ones that I worry.

      2. John says:

        I can’t even begin to imagine how much it would bother me if I were following the development of a game and the developers already had my money. As it is, if developers do something I don’t like then the worst that can happen is that I am filled with disappointment. But if I’d already spent money (be it through a pre-order, Kickstarter, Early Access, or whatever) then I could be filled with not only disappointment but also regret and maybe a little shame at having ignored my own better judgement.

        Obviously, this is all highly personal. I’m glad Kickstarter exists, as I own and like several Kickstarted games. I’m just not the type who’s comfortable spending money on anything less than the finished product.

    4. Sleeping Dragon says:

      Wait, they’re making another Rebel Galaxy, or as I like to call it “Broadsides in Spaaaaace!”? I’m… intrigued…

      1. Redrock says:

        Yeah, but it’s not broadsides in space anymore. They changed it to a more standard all-axis movement a la Freelancer.

      2. John says:

        No, this game is very clearly inspired by Wing Commander: Privateer. It looks and plays just like Privateer; the ship cockpits, the pilot communications, the anti-technology enemy faction, and the sound bites that play when you’re about to land on a station are all very Privateer-inspired. I loved Privateer at the time, but the graphics and flight model have aged very badly. The new game looks lovely and seems to have a lot of character.

        Shame about the lack of Linux support. I believe it’s an OpenGL game rather than DirectX, though, so it might work with Wine. I guess we’ll see.

        1. Sleeping Dragon says:

          Well that’s not awful by any means but still… broadsides in space… awwww…

  6. Gargamel Le Noir says:

    Well let’s hope their suits are out of stupid ideas for now and will let the devs and artists do their job until we get the damned game.

    1. Echo Tango says:

      You’re assuming the devs and artists don’t have any stupid ideas. ;)

      1. BlueHorus says:

        And sometimes the problem is that the studio is so small you don’t have a Suit to intefere/hold the devs in check…

        1. Hector says:

          To clarify what Echo Tango and Blue Horus are saying, the issue here is that the developers and artists got eyes way too big for their dinner plate and nearly destroyed the company. Nightdive is a very small group and doesn’t have any “suits” calling the shots.

  7. Marr says:

    Meanwhile, their System Shock: Enhanced Edition quietly pushed out a Source engine update in September that makes it a playable, widescreen WASD + mouselook game on current hardware. Citadel lives.

    1. Echo Tango says:

      Hah! :D

  8. Redrock says:

    Cue the “Still Alive” song from Portal.

    1. BlueHorus says:

      Didn’t we do that last time?

  9. ElementalAlchemist says:

    As far as actual asset production goes, there’s really no less work being done here than in the top tier AAA stuff. They are still modelling a high poly, baking out maps, texturing it in something like Substance Painter. Where they are cutting corners, so to speak, is probably on the programming side of things. Like one of those last videos they showed off before they shut down with the barrels and dismemberment and so forth.

  10. Jabberwok says:

    I’ve realized that I prefer not to follow these projects that I’m interested in, so that I can be pleasantly surprised when I hear about their release or progress secondhand, rather than disappointed when they don’t pan out.

  11. 0451fan0451 says:

    PSA to anyone who is interested in playing System Shock right now. The enhanced edition that was released not too long ago has been updated into a full on source port that looks and plays better than it ever has before.

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