Today, Good Old Games announce that they will finally, and exclusively, be selling a digital download version of System Shock 2. It will be available tomorrow. I envy those who can now play for the first time, but there is no longer an excuse not to indulge in yet another playthrough of one of the finest and most frightening games ever made. I spoke to Stephen Kick of Night Dive, who secured the rights and worked on the release, and Guillaume Rambourg at GOG.com. How did all of this come about and what is System Shock 2's place in gaming, past, present and future?
RPS: The story of the System Shock rights and trademark has frustrated people for years. As I understand it – and I may well be wrong – Looking Glass retained the rights while EA held the trademark. When Looking Glass ceased to be, the rights passed to Meadowbrook Insurance Group and without both, the series cannot be revived. What negotiations, with any parties involved, have taken place in order to secure digital distribution rights?
Stephen Kick (Night Dive): The rights are still held in a very complicated tangle and going into all of it makes for very dry reading. The short version is that negotiations began in October of last year. I pitched the rights-holder with the focus being on the digital distribution of System Shock 2 and--as much to my surprise as anyone's, possibly--here we are today.
Guillaume Rambourg (GOG.com): We, of course, have been working on getting System Shock 2 on GOG.com more or less since we started operations, and we were absolutely thrilled when Stephen contacted us from Night Dive indicating that he was able to secure these rights.
RPS: System Shock 2 has been one of the most requested games on GOG since GOG came into existence – how much effort has been going into securing rights and for how long?
Kick: It’s been a very lengthy process that’s required a great deal of patience and research. Before negotiations began I had very little experience in the realm of business so the idea of starting a development studio and potentially working with the System Shock license was incredibly daunting. It’s been a dream of mine for a long time, but to be honest I never imagined I’d see the day. I had just replayed the game while travelling through Guatemala on my netbook, and found myself completely immersed in the story and lost in the atmosphere.
I didn’t expect the game to hold up after all this time, but I found myself more engaged than I had been with any game for as long as I can remember. I really started to wonder why the game was no longer available and it lead me on a search for old interviews, articles, videos, forum posts, or anything else I could find relating to the game. I even contacted members of the original development team to get their side of the story. What I discovered was a mystery that needed to be solved. Knowing that gamers may never have the chance to play such an incredible game fueled my desire to make it happen.
Rambourg: We have contacted lots of publishers, developers and lawyers over the past 4-5 years - mostly industry veterans actually - to better understand the big legal puzzle behind this game and identify who owns the trademark, the IP, the code, distribution rights and so forth. We got lots of answers, sometimes aiming at the same direction, sometimes pointing in conflicting ones. You know the drill: one step forward, two steps back. It was a real investigation a la Tex Murphy. A very tough case, definitely, but we never lost hope.
And actually the unexpected occurred: one day Stephen contacted us and informed us he secured the rights for digital distribution of System Shock 2! He had heard of GOG and our popular community wish list--which allows our users to request games and site features they want to see on GOG--and the fact that over 34,000 users had voted that they wanted to see SS2 released on GOG made Stephen wanna join forces with us to make the release happen.
We could scarcely believe that our wishes had finally been answered, and after the usual legal checking of bona-fides on our end, we entered a deal with Stephen and there we are, talking to RPS about the digital return of one of the best PC games of all times. That’s a great day for everybody at GOG--and for all PC Gamers out there too!
RPS: You have updated the Night Dive website to read: “System Shock franchise to resurface with GOG/Steam release”. What is your involvement in the release and is the digital version an update, with high-res textures etc, or a straight re-release?
Kick: Night Dive Studios secured the license to distribute the game, and made the initial modifications to allow the game to run on most current operating systems.
Rambourg: There are some user-made mods out there which do phenomenal work on the game's stability, but none of them were quite perfect, so we took the game to our expert techninjas to analyse and swat the remaining bugs. It was some work to get it done, but as this is a game that we've wanted to release for four-plus years, it was also definitely a labour of love.
Kick: This release is the original version in all its glory. Fans will be able to apply the mods they know and love, and hopefully we may see some new mods from the community in the future.
Rambourg: We definitely hope that having a legal source for this ground-breaking game will spur more interest from the community.
RPS: What other work are Night Dive involved in? I hadn't heard of the studio before now and the website doesn't give much away.
Kick: We are currently developing an original IP, and unfortunately I can’t say much more than that. We are a team comprised of veteran developers with a passion for gaming, and we hope you’ll enjoy what we have in store. We’re also always on the lookout for old games to bring back for new gamers to appreciate.
RPS: Can you go into any detail on the difficulty of ensuring the game works on modern PCs? It has been a common reason for people to keep old machines running.
Rambourg: As we mentioned, there are a number of community-made efforts that help a lot with stability on newer systems; they've pointed the way for us, and the game runs pretty much flawlessly on Windows XP, Vista, 7, and 8. Our most recent build has gone through all of our test team PCs without a hitch, and the game is definitely polished up and ready for its time in the limelight again.
RPS: Will there be any extras included with the GOG download? Soundtracks and the like?
Rambourg: Yes, indeed. With the help of Stephen, we've pulled out all of the stops to make this a virtual collector's edition. In addition to the soundtrack, the GOG.com version of the game will have concept art, maps of the Von Braun, a interview with Ken Levine, the first pitch document, and much more.
Kick: It’s going to be a fantastic archive of System Shock 2 assets.
RPS: Although Bioshock is in some ways a spiritual successor to System Shock and its sequel, they are very different. Shock 2 is much more RPG-like, with a full inventory and skill progression paths. Do you think the weight of demand is partly because there hasn’t been anything quite like it since?
Kick: SS2 had an innovative design that formed the foundation for many modern games while seamlessly blending the best of both the FPS and RPG genre. No other developer has been able to replicate that sweet spot, and I think that’s really special.
Rambourg: It's a game that appeals to the hardcore PC gaming fan; while it has more accessible controls than many early shooters, the gameplay is tough, but plenty rewarding for someone who has the skill to bull their way through - or the cunning to figure out clever ways around.
Kick: Bioshock was definitely more approachable for console gamers, and I think if they had made the game as challenging as System Shock it would have alienated that market. It’s difficult to keep everyone happy these days when the success of a game is determined by units sold or a Metacritic score. Ultimately, I hope that introducing SS2 to new gamers will inspire them to expect more from their gaming experiences.
Rambourg: After playing something as tense and thought-provoking as System Shock 2, I think "World War 2 FPS #37" doesn't feel quite as satisfying an endeavour. I'd love it if this encouraged fans to ask for more robust gameplay from their developers!
RPS: I regularly cite Shock 2 as the most frightening game I’ve ever played but I haven’t revisited it for almost a decade and worry that age may have diluted the atmosphere. Is that an unfounded worry?
Rambourg: The best horror games work not because of what they show, but because of what they hint at. Imagination is scarier than anything you can show, and every byte of this game is filled with dark hints that pull at your imagination. The testers who've made sure this game runs on modern OSes have assured me that the spooky audio logs are just as affecting now as they were a decade ago.
Kick: H.P. Lovecraft once said that, "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." I have a feeling this idea played a large role in how SS2 was designed. SS2 doesn’t rely on cheap scare tactics like creatures jumping from vents or enemies spawning behind you. The fear and atmosphere stems from the cryptic and frightening audio logs you discover that subtly reveal the horrific tragedy that has befallen the Von Braun. The sparse resources and non-regenerating health create a tension that fill you with dread, and the rapidly decaying state of the ship and your mind elevate the terror to a whole new level. I’d recommend playing the game alone in the dark with a good headset for the full experience.
Rambourg: But only if you're not prone to heart problems!
RPS: Along with the Thief games, Shock 2 perfectly fits my definition of a ‘good old game’. It comes from a time when first-person games seemed to be exploring new environments and methods of interacting with the world, something that appears to be on the rise again, with such as Dishonored and Human Revolution going some way toward reviving the tradition. But how important a part of PC gaming history do you reckon Shock 2 is?
Kick: Like I mentioned before I think SS2 laid the foundation for future games that blend genres. What I really loved with SS2 that Deus Ex and Dishonored exercised was the decision not to include a full multiplayer component. Personally, if I play a game I want it to be one or the other. The expectation of including a multiplayer component to a single player centric game is completely unrealistic and sometimes I feel it’s just an excuse to add another feature on the back of the box. It may seem obvious, but you’re essentially asking your studio to develop two games simultaneously which often comes with sacrificing the quality of both the single player and the multiplayer. Overall you end up with a mediocre experience. All three of these games remedy the lack of multiplayer with an experience you can enjoy multiple times, each time in a completely new way. SS2 has three distinct classes with dramatically different play styles that are challenging and fun to master all their own.
Rambourg: System Shock 2 is the culmination of the innovation that the developers brought to the FPS genre starting with Ultima Underworld. The FPS genre got its first blowout success with Doom in 1993, so this is 6 years later and someone is creating something that--in many ways--bears almost no resemblance to the game that put FPS gaming on the map. And it's brilliant! It's a touchstone that you see referenced in many ways in games from Metal Gear Solid to Mass Effect. And Deus Ex and Bioshock, of course. The storytelling, the way that immerses you through a variety of channels - even the focus on tension, isolation, fear. It all takes you to a place that the first person perspective is uniquely suited to, but does so in a manner very different than Doom or Quake.
RPS: SHODAN and GlaDOS construct rival deathtraps. Which is the most deadly?
Kick: The fact that SHODAN can create and alter reality to her will is pretty terrifying. Especially since she’s totally insane. GlaDOS was trapped inside a potato battery by Wheatley, a lesser artificial intelligence. So I’m going to have to go with SHODAN!
RPS: Now that System Shock 2 is secured, what will replace it as GOG’s most demanded game?
Rambourg: Actually, our community wish list shows we have quite a bunch of LucasArts’ titles to sign next and we will do our best to satisfy our gamers. Heck, we just signed SS2 after all, so impossible is nothing for GOG! If you guys want to support us, make sure to vote in our community wishlist so that we can give more weight to all our ongoing and upcoming business talks. It worked for SS2, so it can work for other titles. I know that some people may think that voting in the wishlist doesn't accomplish anything. I'm here to tell you it does. It gives us ammo to sign publishers and sometimes - like with Stephen and Night Dive - even opens the door for opportunity when we need it most!
RPS: GOG had a Colonization screenshot with a colony called System Shock 2 – tease, coincidence or promise? Loom was on there too!
Rambourg: At the time, we didn't know that we'd be releasing System Shock 2, no. It was more like an Easter egg (or cry for our prayers to get heard!) because we have constantly been asked--for the last four years--when we will release System Shock 2. Perhaps I should tell our team to post more screenshots like that and maybe we'll have the good fortune to sign the remaining top games from our wishlist!
System Shock 2 will be available at GOG.com tomorrow from 11:00 AM GMT, for $9.99.