The Lost History of System Shock


Posted May 30, 2011 - By Guest Writer

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The Lost History of System Shock

Every once in a while, someone asks Ken Levine whether System Shock 3 will ever be made. It’s a valid question, given System Shock’s status as an influential classic that vanished after a single sequel. Levine’s answers may vary slightly, but the idea is always the same: The rights to the franchise are up in the air, and the studio Levine co-founded, Irrational Games, is quite happy working on System Shock's spiritual successor, BioShock, for 2K Games. In other words, don't get your hopes up anytime soon.

Levine may be right, but the full story of System Shock is more complicated than he and other developers let on. The copyright has changed hands. Trademark was applied for and abandoned. And I've learned that the rights to the franchise are available for acquisition at this very instant.

With so many modern shooters using ideas that System Shock introduced, the time is right for the series to make a comeback and earn some mainstream glory. Let’s take a detailed look at what it would take for System Shock 3 to happen.

Why System Shock Mattered

First-person shooters were a lot different in the mid-1990s than they are now. That was the Doom era, when you'd sprint around a maze of intertwining corridors, fumbling for the exit while blasting any bad guy that got in your way. It was a simple formula for fun, and most games didn't bother to deviate.

System Shock was an exception. Released in 1994, the game gave players a free floating mouse cursor with the ability to select inventory items and interact with objects. Even the heads-up-display was unconventional, occupying half the screen with vital information. You weren't just some grunt with a gun, either. You had to strategize, choosing an appropriate arsenal of weapons and upgrading your character with attachable hardware and biological augmentations. Modern shooters like Mass Effect, Fallout 3 and Borderlands borrow the RPG mold that System Shock helped create.

The Lost History of System Shock

When System Shock 2 launched in 1999, it expanded on the RPG-shooter concept with a choice of three character types, but more importantly, the series transformed from cyberpunk adventure to high-tech survival horror. The first game's pulsing soundtrack gave way to the ambient groans of an abandoned starship. Audio logs reconstructed the tale of a crew overrun by hideous monsters. And of course, there was SHODAN, the rogue AI that turns up on countless "greatest video game villain" top 10 lists. At every turn, she mocks the protagonist for his insignificance, but only after deceiving him into carrying out her own nefarious objectives. At a time when shooters relied on simple goals -- kill the enemy, get out alive -- System Shock treated plot as yet another mold to be cracked.

System Shock was only a moderate success, selling 170,000 copies over its lifetime according to Gamespot, and the second game was no blockbuster either. Through the years, however, gamers have begun to understand System Shock's significance, which might explain why people keep talking about it. "I’d imagine if the game was still available commercially, it’ll still be selling at this point," Levine told Rock Paper Shotgun in 2008.

So why can’t you buy the System Shock games through download services like Steam or Good Old Games, where it’s one of the most requested titles? And why hasn't anyone rebooted the series or created another sequel?

The answer is where things get messy.

EA's System Shock Story

In 2006, a trio of rumors hinted that Electronic Arts was making System Shock 3. First came a trademark application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Then came a couple of unconfirmed reports in Shacknews and PC Gamer U.K., with the latter publication reporting that EA’s Redwood Shores studio was handling development.

But even if EA wanted to publish another System Shock, the company didn't have the rights to do so. Back when the original game was made, producer Warren Spector negotiated a deal in which EA got the trademark to the series, while the developers at Looking Glass Studios kept the rights. To create another System Shock game, you need both. "My thinking was it would force us to be married so it never would be that either party should be able to say we own that, we’re making the next game, screw you," Spector told the San Jose Mercury News last November.

The Lost History of System Shock

In hindsight, the deal only jeopardized System Shock’s future. Looking Glass Studios closed in 2000, a year after System Shock 2's release, and the copyright to the series went into the hands of an insurance company. That left EA with only the System Shock name, but no actual development rights.

In 2007, the System Shock trademark went dead, abandoned by EA. The Redwood Shores studio went on to develop Dead Space, a game with some uncanny similarities to System Shock -- upgradeable attributes, scattered audio logs and a desolate space station overrun by monsters -- but no conclusive evidence that the two games are related.

Exactly what happened on EA’s end remains a mystery. The publisher never confirmed whether it was working on System Shock 3, and declined to comment for this story.

System Shock 3: A New Hope

As Spector had mentioned, an insurance company got the rights to System Shock after Looking Glass Studios shut down. I tracked down the insurer, Star Insurance Company, a subsidiary of Michigan-based Meadowbrook Insurance Group, Inc., and confirmed that the rights are available for sale.

George Borkowski, an outside counsel for Meadowbrook, said the company would consider selling the rights to a game publisher or developer. "The idea would be to enter into some kind of arrangement where the game would be developed and that Meadowbrook would be compensated,” he said.

It sounds to me like Meadowbrook wants a game company to share sales revenue, but Borkowski wouldn't talk about financial details. He did say that there have been inquiries about the rights, but elaborated no further.

The Lost History of System Shock

Even with development rights, EA's prior trademark could be an issue for potential buyers. Michael Cavaretta, an attorney who deals with trademarks and copyrights in the video game industry, believes a publisher wouldn't be able to create another System Shock without EA's blessing. Oddly enough, there are no records of EA applying for the System Shock trademark through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office until 2005, but EA likely has common law rights as a prior publisher, and could still revive its trademark from the dead, Cavaretta said. That could cause trouble for a publisher looking to bring back the series.

“You'd probably get a rejection from the Patent and Trademark Office, and you'd probably have to demonstrate that the mark had been permanently abandoned or that you've gotten consent from the original applicant," Cavaretta said.

In other words, the future of System Shock is still quite dubious. One dream scenario: 2K Games buys the rights from Meadowbrook, and sets BioShock 4 in deep space, with SHODAN as the surprise antagonist. It would be System Shock minus the trademark, and it would be wonderful. You heard it here first.


Jared Newman fills the void between G4 features by blogging for Time, Technologizer and PCWorld. Say hello on Twitter and Facebook.



The Lost History of System Shock


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