Back in June of 2016, Nightdive Studios announced a Kickstarter funding drive to develop a remake of System Shock, one of the fathers of the immersive simulation genre. Nightdive had already made a name for itself with the successful release of System Shock: Enhanced Edition nine months earlier. The Kickstarter drive included a pre-alpha demo of the planned project made in Unity. Nightdive even acknowledged the risks of game development.
"We understand that game development is difficult, and a numbers of risks are involved," said Nightdive Studio on the Risk section of the original funding drive. "Games are very expensive to make. We've worked on several big-budget games and have senior developers onboard to help budget the project properly.
"One of the biggest risks with any project is the completion timeline," the studio added. "Early on in a project, estimates are far less accurate than later. Fortunately, we're starting this campaign at the 25% mark in development, so our estimates are more accurate than usual. Still, game development can be unpredictable at certain stages, and we understand that."
A studio with some trust, a host of veteran developers, a proof-of-concept demo, and an understanding of what made the original great. It looked like a System Shock reboot was well on its way towards the planned December 2017 release date, if not a few months later. The funding goal was $900,000, but the Kickstarter drive closed at $1.3 million. Everything looked like it was going to work out.
Today, Nightdive Studios put the entire System Shock reboot on hiatus. Nightdive CEO Stephen Kick said that the studio wasn't ending the project, but also declined to give a potential date for the resumption of development. The System Shock reboot is floating in the void until Nightdive has the funding to finish it.
According to Kick, the game began to fall prey to something called scope creep in development: instead of working on a straightforward reboot, the team had a bunch of ideas for new systems and mechanics. And the dreams eclipsed the reality.
"The vision began to change. We moved from a remaster to a completely new game. We shifted engines from Unity to Unreal, a choice that we don't regret and one that has worked out for us," said Kick. "With the switch we began envisioning doing more, but straying from the core concepts of the original title. As our concept grew and as our team changed, so did the scope of what we were doing and with that the budget for the game. As the budget grew, we began a long series of conversations with potential publishing partners. The more that we worked on the game, the more that we wanted to do, and the further we got from the original concepts that made System Shock so great."
This isn't a new problem. It's actually a pretty common one. Game development is hard and unpredictable. If there's one boon of Kickstarter, it's that the service has shown gamers how hard development can be. Despite their many issues, major publishers exist for a reason. They're there to provide resources and ensure a project is moving forward within budget and on schedule. With Kickstarter game development though, the backers are the funding and the only oversight is the developer itself.
To pull that off takes proper project management, an understanding of your studio's capabilities, and a smart handling of your budget. At its best, Kickstarter has been single-handedly responsible for the revival of the PC CRPG. InXile Entertainment has used Kickstarter to help develop and release Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera. The Kickstartered Bard's Tale IV is a bit behind schedule, and InXile moved to The Fig crowdfunding for Wasteland 3. Larian Studios used Kickstarter crowdfunding for the excellent Divinity: Original Sin and Divinity: Original Sin 2. Obsidian Entertainment used the service to fund the first Pillars of Eternity. Gears for Breakfast brought in a modest $296,360 and ended up releasing the charming A Hat in Time.
But the graveyard of Kickstarter failures is broad and deep. Playdek and Yatsumi Matsuno promised a grand strategy experience in the style of Matsuno's earlier work on Final Fantasy Tactics under the moniker Unsung Story. The drive reached $660,000 in 2014, but Playdek paused development on the game two years later and decided to bail completely on the game last year. Project Phoenix raised $1 million to make its own strategy experience, but the folks behind the project eventually released an entirely different game after burning through the budget.
Even the projects that get released don't always turn out well. Double Fine's Broken Age received $3.3 million in funding, but experienced its own scope creep and delays. Comcept promised a Mega Man revival with Mighty No. 9, netting over $4 million, but the final product was less than great. Star Citizen raised $2 million from its Kickstarter in 2012 and millions more through its own site, but we have no clue if the game will ever fully see the light of day.
For the projects that completely stall out or die, that backer money is gone. It's given for the promise of something grand and amazing, but again... game development is hard. Developers want to give players the latest mechanics and features, but implementing them takes resources, if the ideas will work at all. Sometimes developers dream bigger than reality permits. When it comes to Kickstarter, the results of that reality or lack thereof land on you, the backer.
That's why publishers exist, because they have the resources and the leverage to drive development. It's also why they're risk averse; if losing your $20-30 to a failed Kickstarter makes you angry, imagine losing millions. I don't think major publishers are complete winners or always do the right thing, but when they don't, at least it's not my money on the table. (Not that I really back Kickstarters given that I cover games for a living.)
I love Kickstarter for the genres it's revived and the experiences that it has brought to life. I love the idea of crowdfunding, bringing together creative ideas with pent up demand. But it's hard not to see all of the failures, broken dreams, and false promises. It's hard not be a little disappointed about the entire thing. I hope Nightdive Studios does eventually finish its System Shock reboot, but since it's a Kickstarter project, I'm not holding my breath. Instead, I still have some hope that System Shock 3, coming from the folks at Otherside Entertainment, will offer the experience players are looking for from the series.