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A year of my life, now in (online) stores again
Thanks to londo for pointing me to the news that, after a dozen years, System Shock 2 has been re-released. It's now available as a digital download, for the modest price of $9.99, apparently running on all modern versions of Windows. (It has been demanded for many years, but the rights wound up in horrible legal limbo -- it's a little astonishing somebody finally managed to cut all the red tape.)

Boy, does this bring back memories. Shock was by *far* the most gruelling software project I've ever dealt with -- the game industry is slightly insane to begin with, and adding multiplayer to a single-player engine (which was my focus in the job -- I wrote most of the multiplayer code) is a downright dumb idea in retrospect. I spent over a year on the project, including the final four months *after* the game went gold, when it was just me and the testers working 70-hour weeks, trying to get multiplayer properly debugged. (It turns out that debugging multiplayer takes about four times the effort of single-player, but we didn't realize that until it was much too late.)

By coincidence, alexx_kay just posted a pointer to this article about Jon Chey, one of the lead engineers of the game, which includes this picture of the SS2 development team, with me sitting in the front row:

It was a looney project, but a good group to do it with, a mix of folks from Irrational and Looking Glass.

Anway, the game is a thing of beauty, and the ego-boo is remarkable. Even after all these years, one perk of winter for me is wearing my Looking Glass Studios crew jacket, which still gets random people coming up to me and telling me how much they liked the game. If you like good horror stories -- not so much about gore as about suspense and terrifying backstory -- it would be worth your while to check it out. The graphics are crude by modern standards, but it is still the gold standard for storytelling in computer games...

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I should really get around to playing the System Shock games. This might be what makes me do it. :D

Note that SS1 is still unavailable, AFAIK. But that's not a huge problem: SS2 stands on its own as a story reasonably well. (I believe a lot more people have played SS2 than SS1.)

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If you do play it, I recommend using a good sound setup. Sound was the pride and joy of the Dark Engine, which underlies both SS2 and Thief. Sound was treated as part of the physics engine, and the game plays fair: what you hear is what the AIs hear, so sound is important when you need to sneak around critters. It was by far the most advanced sound engine of its time; I don't know if anybody since has done it as well. (It's a lot of work for very subtle buck.)

You almost *can't* play Thief without headphones -- the sound is 3D, subtle, and crucial for gameplay, since you need to be listening both for oncoming guards and your own footsteps. A good deal of the tension in Thief comes from the "crap -- did somebody hear that?". (Notably, the game's tutorial spends a lot of time on "This is what walking sounds like. This is running. This is a wooden floor; this is carpet.")

It's not as essential in SS2 (the game mechanics don't depend on it to the same degree), but it's still relevant, especially if you're playing a less combat-monster character class. And in general, the soundtrack plays into the general creepitude of the game. If you like the full experience, headphones are worthwhile...

I just want to re-emphasize what J said. The sound is also a huge part of the horror. Not just technically, but very good writing and acting, even of the incidental AIVO.

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Huh -- hadn't realized you had interacted with Buzzpad. I assume this was in the first office, before I joined the company? (Actually, I don't know where the first office was...)

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Oh, definitely. While Trenza (the company I went to straight after LG) is my standard example of "doomed bubble company", complete with Aeron chairs and complete lack of consensus what we were building, Buzzpad (which I joined after Trenza imploded) is my example of "the one that should have worked". Tightly managed at all levels, strong focus, and a brilliant technology stack from bottom to top:

-- A low-level peer-to-peer database engine, on which was built:
-- An extraordinarily deep Windows library that let us hook into Microsoft's products, on which was built:
-- A co-browsing system that let two people truly share a browsing session (which *still* hasn't been matched by anyone), on which was built:
-- A business plan to use this for customer service on high-value sites (initial target being mortgage applications).

It was also the company where I picked up my passion for Agile Development. Buzzpad was in many ways the reaction to LG -- most of us were LG refugees, and shared a mantra of "never again". (LG was a great place, but project management wasn't its forte.)

We'd started playing with Extreme Programming in the latter days of LG, when the concept was still *very* new. Right around when I joined Buzzpad -- around when the company moved to Wellesley -- Tom decided to start exploring XP more seriously. We gradually added the disciplines of XP, one at a time, feeling out how they worked and seeing how they synergized. By the end, we were doing most of XP, and it was by *far* the most smoothly-run project I'd ever been involved with.

(Elsethread, I remarked on being startled about the news that Tom Leonard's been laid off from Valve. Buzzpad's the main reason why: more than any other job, it formed my idea of how you do software engineering *right*, and Tom was a central part of that.)

Anyway, by any measure Buzzpad *should* have succeeded, and would have done so if miserable timing hadn't derailed us at the last minute. I was all set to wind up with *quite* a good payoff, when the nuclear winter suddenly derailed everything. I still mourn the company and the tech: more than any other project I've been on, this one deserved to succeed. It's my lesson that, even if you do *everything* right, bad luck can still screw you over...

I'd forgotten about that! Quite delightful...

Is it first person? If not, I may have this be my V-day present to myself.

It is, I'm afraid. Very much so: the player's avatar doesn't even work the same way in the physics engine as the other creatures. You get motion sickness from first-person games?

Yes, unfortunately. There are all sorts of cool games I'd love to play, but only very old and clunky fp engines seem to work to keep me from getting motion sick.

Sadness, but yes, this one probably won't be your cup of tea, then...

GOG.com is (1) amazing and (2) very dangerous to my credit card. :-)

Yeah -- I set up one of those services that notifies me when my LinkedIn contacts are in the news, and it sent me that an hour or two ago.

I confess, I'm startled: Tom's one of the best engineers I've ever worked with (indeed, one of my major influences, both in programming and project management), one of those people I really never expect to see laid off from anything. I'm very curious about what happened...

In case you didn't see it, here's a nice article from Rock Paper Shotgun about acquiring the rights to release it on GOG as well as the changes in the GOG version


Hah, I didn't see that this was your lead link. Nevermind! :)

I get simulator sick, so I'll never be able to play through this or Thief (and I knew a lot of Theif folks). I still have memories of one of my undergrad advisees doing a couple of all-night playthroughs of SS2. He did it to reward himself after long periods of stress, I seem to recall. Went on to become an artillery officer.

He thought the fact that he knew people who knew people from Looking Glass was totally cool.

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