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Out of all the news that came out of this year's bumper GDC, there was one story that stood out to me personally: Nightdive being acquired by Atari.
As a person of a certain age, I am very fond of Nightdive. They have made a plethora of excellent remasters of 1990s video games. These include famous names such as Quake, Doom, and Turok, and some lesser-known gems, such as Powerslave and Shadow-Man.
Nightdive's track record isn't flawless, but it gets things right most of the time, and I was a little concerned to hear it had hitched itself to Atari. The iconic games brand isn't exactly held in high regard today. In recent years, it's mostly been in the headlines for blockchain and Web3 initiatives, or for hotels. It has scaled back a lot of that stuff now, but it has a reputation for constantly shifting its strategy and not actually releasing anything significant.
"My initial response was: 'Oh really, Atari?'," admits Evelyn Mansell, who is one of the leads on Nightdive's upcoming System Shock remake.
"I am a lot more comfortable with it now. Everything that Wade [Rosen, Atari CEO] and Atari have said so far has been on the money. I am not worried about it."
"There is this misconception that we've chained ourselves to a sinking ship, but it couldn't be further from the truth"Stephen Kick, Nightdive
Nightdive CEO Stephen Kick adds: "Wade is fresh blood in the Atari vein. And he brings with him an unparalleled knowledge and love for classic games, which is rarely seen in the industry. It's going to sound cliché, but he gets it. He understands why Atari was so important to so many people, and he understands what he needs to do to elevate it back up to that level that it previously enjoyed.
"There is this misconception when this acquisition [happened] that we had basically chained ourselves to a sinking ship, but it couldn't be further from the truth. They're on the rise here again, and we wanted to be a part of that. Wade is the X factor here and we are going to see some amazing things come from this company. It is overdue."
Rosen has worked with Nightdive for a while as an outside investor, helping the company acquire IP and expand its team.
"After he had become the Atari CEO, and started changing the underlying foundation of Atari towards something more game-centric... that's when we became interested in joining forces. We wanted to help them reach that prominence of being the name when it comes to retro games, remasters and that type of thing. It was a perfect fit for us."
Kick says that the deal doesn't change what Nightdive will be working on. They've not been brought in purely to resurrect old Atari IP.
"We are going to work on the things that interest us... Shooters, mostly, from the 1990s and early 2000s. It's not going to limit who we work with, either. Part of what we had to do was go to all the licensors and partners that we work with, to let them know ahead of time about the acquisition. And everyone was just very enthusiastic and supportive."
Nightdive has some big partners, such as Bethesda, but it also works on some much smaller projects, too. Kick likes to pick up obscure titles, dust them off, and introduce them to a new audience. Last year's Powerslave: Exhumed is a remaster of a largely forgotten Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation game, for example. Now with a big parent company involved, does that mean an end to these more unusual releases?
"Definitely not," Kick responds emphatically. "We have some announcements coming up, actually... I wish I could share them with you, but that will put that question to rest. There's a bunch of really obscure 1990s FPS games that we are working on, which will surprise a lot of people. One in particular that will make people go 'what the hell is that?' [laughs]."
Nightdive is evolving beyond its role as a remaster specialist. Its next game, out later this month, is a remake of the classic System Shock. The game has gone through a few iterations, and it's been a painful journey for the team, but the project is now in its very final stages. Remakes are a different skill to a remaster, and Kick says the success of System Shock will determine whether it keeps investing in this area.
"We spent considerable time on System Shock, and with it came a high cost that's put Nightdive in a difficult situation"Stephen Kick, Nightdive
"The Atari acquisition doesn't have anything to do with our overall course," Kick explains. "What will determine that, more than anything, will be the success of System Shock. We spent a considerable amount of time developing this game, and with it came a high cost that has put Nightdive in a difficult situation over the last couple of years. Depending on how well that does, will determine whether we decided to do another remake on this scale.
"That isn't to say that if we're going to do another one that it would take just as long, or it would cost as much. I think we've learned a lot, and we've worked hard on vetting our personnel and making sure they're the right people for the job moving forward. Say, hypothetically, we were to do another one... it would take probably a quarter of the time of what we spent on System Shock. And hopefully a quarter of the budget.
Mansell adds: "It was our first big game project, so there was a big learning process on the tech side... finding pipelines and best practices and all that stuff. We will definitely take that foundation onto whatever we do next, whether it's a big remake or a smaller update of an older game.... or our own IP. It depends what Steve wants to do."
Kick adds: "It's not really up to me anymore. There are a lot of people that will have a voice in what we do next, especially with the Shock team finishing up."
Even if the team does decide to focus on remasters after System Shock, that doesn't mean the company is scaling back its ambitions. One of the big reasons behind the decision to sell to Atari is the possibility of attracting bigger partners, and different games, than it could as an independent. Despite its critical success, there are still projects that Nightdive misses out on. In fact, the company publicly admitted its pitch to develop a GoldenEye remaster was rejected.
"Sometimes, with a larger company like Nintendo, you need to get your foot in the door on the development side," Kick says. "And typically you'd start with something much smaller than, say, GoldenEye. We worked really hard to pull together a compelling pitch for Nintendo and Microsoft with GoldenEye. There were some contractual obligations, I believe, that prevented them from going that route."
Often the reason why Nightdive can't do a project is due to financial restrictions, or licensing complexity. And Kick says that's something Atari can help with.
"We now have the financial backing to spread our wings, so to speak, and realise the full potential of what Nightdive can do," he says. "And that's the most exciting thing for us, because as good as our games have been, there is always room to make them better. Especially with the types of games that we tackle.
"There are some famous games from our history that have just been prohibitive for a number of reasons, whether that's been licensing complexity or financial that will hopefully be cleared up. Maybe we will finally see No One Lives Forever as a result of this, that's my hope. It would be a dream come true, not only for us, but any one of the fans who have been following Nightdive for this long."
Kick says that Atari will continue to make funds available to Nightdive so it can expand the team, and thus take on more projects.
"Maybe we will finally see [a remaster of] No One Lives Forever as a result of this, that's my hope"Stephen Kick, Nightdive
"That was one of our primary goals, to keep growing the team. As we have done our Quakes and Dooms... we have become the go-to when it comes to remasters of this type, and it's nice not to have to go out and sell Nightdive anymore. The work is coming to us, which is what we've always wanted. But with that comes the pressure of… how do we take on all these projects? Atari is going to play an integral role in building up our teams and making sure we have the personnel to do as many as we can."
Any concerns I had about Nightdive's new home before this interview were largely gone by the end. Mansell talks positively about the early reception from backers to System Shock, calling it a "huge morale boost for the team". And Kick clearly has no intention of stopping what Nightdive has been doing all along.
"The advantageous part of our business model is that there are always games that are going to need that remastering treatment, or are going to need to be remade... because time is linear," he concludes. "When we started up, Resident Evil 4 was only a couple of years old, and now we've had a number of remasters and a remake. There is work to be done."
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