When I chatted with Warren Spector back in February, he'd just announced plans to join development house OtherSide Entertainment to make System Shock 3, the next game in one of the most influential role-playing series of the past two decades. His first job, he said at the time, would be to start hiring his team.
Six months on, he's announced the first few hires, all of whom have a long pedigree in development. They include Arturo Pulecio (Dark Age of Camelot, Warhammer Online) who started work last month and got straight down to creating concept artwork for the game.
OtherSide released two pieces of art to Polygon, including Pulecio's image for the game's artificial intelligence super-villain Shodan, as well as an image by illustration agency Massive Black (further below) of Citadel Station, which was the setting for the original game.
Last week, I spoke to Spector again to find out what I could about the game, which is likely a few years away from release. He gave up some basic information about the story, including details of returning characters that will probably be welcomed by fans of the sci-fi action series.
First things first, Spector talked about how Shodan will definitely be a big part of System Shock 3.
"Shodan is the heart and soul of System Shock games," he said. "That's the beauty of System Shock 3; nobody else has Shodan. She'll be at the center of the game, but I also want to put her through some changes.
"Arturo has been working on our version of Shodan, which is going to be interesting and different from what people expect. I expect it will infuriate some people but definitely get people talking."
"Shodan is the heart and soul of System Shock games."
Shodan — her name is an acronym of Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network — was the central antagonist in the first two System Shock games. Originally created to service a space station, she is tasked with deleting incriminating files. The player in the original game is a hacker who removes her ethics constraints. This turns out to be a bad move.
Over the course of the two games, Shodan reveals herself to be skilled in manipulating systems and people. Her goal is to annihilate the human race. She taunts and mocks the player. Even in defeat, she finds a way to survive.
"In System Shock 3 I want to explore Shodan's motivations," said Spector. "In the first two games her plan was to destroy humanity because, with the removal of her ethical constraints by the hacker in the first game, she's going insane. But we never explained why she wants to destroy humanity. So we're going to be exploring the idea of a super intelligence and what would motivate a super intelligent AI."
At the end of the second game, Shodan downloads herself into a human woman called Rebecca Siddons, leaving a cliffhanger. This will be the starting point of System Shock 3.
"We are going to be picking up all of the loose threads of System Shock 2. Rebecca Siddons is going to appear in this game, for sure," he said.
Spector pointed out that there are six survivors from the previous games. Their stories will all be addressed in System Shock 3 as well. Among the NPCs, there's Shodan and Siddons as well as her colleague, Tommy Suarez. The story will also include Rebecca Lansing, who was the player's human guide in the first game.
Also, the game will feature the two previous protagonists: the hacker from the original game, and the soldier from System Shock 2.
"We're going to tell their story," said Spector. "There are a lot of questions that went unanswered in those first two games and we have an obligation to fans to fill in the blanks. For new players I think that will pull them into a compelling narrative."
The story will also delve into the history of Edward Diego, a key character in the first game who persuades the player to hack into Shodan.
The original System Shock takes place in the year 2072, while System Shock 2 takes place 42 years later in 2114, also the year in which the new game picks up the story.
Spector said he wants to create a game that addresses today's concerns and that draws upon modern technological advances to make predictions about the future: "I like to base everything in reality and extrapolate from there. We want to be able to look at where we are today and ask where we might be a hundred years from now."
Like the original, the game will feature virtual spaces as well as real world locations, as the player tackles Shodan on her own cyber turf.
"There's been a lot more research into UI and super intelligence in recent years. That will find itself in System Shock 3," he said. "We understand hacking a lot better than we used to and it will be presented in a completely different way than it was presented in the earlier games.
"Back when we made System Shock, cyberpunk was still at its height in terms of popularity and cultural significance and it was a big inspiration. Nowadays, cyberpunk is a little less current. I've learned over the years that it's foolish to try to convince people to become interested in something they don't care about, so we're finding things that people are interested in today."
The original games are still going to serve as a central inspiration. Spector played them both recently.
"As I was playing them, I emailed people who worked on the original games," he said. "I would say, 'oh my god, this game is so hard' and the response I would get back would be '1994.' Then I'd say, 'this thing is so big' and the response was '1994.' And then I'd say, the UI in this game is terrible, what were we thinking?' and the response would be '1994.' So it was an eye-opening experience just in terms of how far games have come since then.
"Even so, Shodan was still a compelling character. And we were empowering players in the way we asked them to construct the story themselves. There were some wonderful aspects that we want to keep in System Shock 3, but not the UI!"
I asked Spector if, given that he worked on the first game but not the second, he feels a closer affinity to one than the other?
"I like and respect the second one but it was significantly different from the first," he replied. "I'm constantly struggling with how much we adhere to the tenets of the first one and how much do we adhere to the tenets of the second one. The second game was a much more traditional role-playing game than the first one. It's a mental struggle for me about which direction I want to go in. I will admit that."
In the meantime, he's pulling together the rest of his Austin, Texas-based team. As well as Pulecio, his new hires include tech director Jason Hughes (Wing Commander, Epic Mickey) and design director Sheldon Pacotti (Deus Ex, America's Army).
He wants the team to bring back the spirit of System Shock and the aspects that made it so influential to later game developers:
"20 years ago we were building open-ended, solve-it-yourself kind of games. We used to look at each other and say 'why isn't everyone making games like this?' Now, many more people are making games like that, so of course it's harder to stand out. You have to innovate and I'm confident that we will. We're following in the footsteps of the people who followed in our footsteps. We've got some surprises for people."