How Nightdive Studios wove Quake II nostalgia into playable gold
It’s been more than a decade since Stephen and Alix Kick founded a studio based solely around the desire to breathe new life into forgotten video games.
Nightdive Studios’ founding title, System Shock 2, was focused on getting the game to run on then-modern machinery, and fixing a few bugs. But its success on GOG.com convinced the two that the studio and its work had legs.
Since that 2012 rerelease, the studio has worked with the likes of Acclaim Studios, Apogee Software, LucasArts, and Westwood Studios to not just get their classics up and running but, increasingly, to update the look of the game, introduce new elements, and improve how it runs.
Earlier this year, Nightdive Studios delivered a glorious enhanced version of Quake II, packing in a massively upgraded take on the 1997 classic – it can now run at 4K resolution with 120FPS. It also includes the full campaign, all previously released expansions and multiplayer maps, the Nintendo 64 version of the game and an entirely new single-player expansion that features 28 levels and a new Deathmatch map.
And it’s the studio’s second bite at the Quake apple. Nightdive Studios also remastered the original game.
“Quake was the first title where we had the opportunity to revisit the original 3D models,” said Nightdive Studios CEO Stephen Kick. “Our artists worked closely with id Software so that the original vision of the enemies, weapons, and pickups were retained while adding just enough extra detail to give the game a much-needed facelift.
“Quake II allowed us to hone that craftsmanship while presenting the new challenge of recreating the cinematics from scratch. Quake II and its add-on packs is a much bigger game, and thanks to our experience working on the original Quake, the Nightdive team was more than up for the task.”
In approaching their work on Quake II, the folks at Nightdive worked with id Software and Kevin Cloud, one of the original designers of the game. Mike Rubits, senior programmer at id Software, said the key to remastering a beloved video game is to make sure the remaster or recreation looks and plays like how players remembered it, not how it actually was.
“This is something I first noticed myself in Ocarina of Time 3D for the 3DS,” he said. “It had been many years since I played the original, and when I saw the remake, my initial impression was ‘this is great, this looks like the original game!’ How very wrong I was, because over the years you forget about the blurry terrain, and how low polygon the original models were. Instead, you remember being in the middle of a new world for the first time, and all the locations and the cast of strange and interesting characters. They faithfully represented what the game was without the compromises, and it still looks fantastic today.
“Ideally, unless you've played through the original game recently, or are doing side by side comparisons, people should generally not notice a change. This is often really hard in practice because it makes you feel like you're doing work that nobody will notice. However, it will be subconsciously felt, and it will absolutely improve the player's overall enjoyment.”
The biggest challenge the team faced, said Larry Kuperman, director of business development at Nightdive Studios, was avoiding feature creep, or the desire to keep adding more and more things to the enhanced version of the game.
“We love these games as much as the other (I say “other” because we’re also huge fans!) fans do.” he said. “There is always a temptation to add just one more thing, to put one's own signature on a title. You have to be true to the game.”
It was, Kuperman said, Kevin Cloud who helped the studio start with a very clear vision of what the project should be and stay focused on that vision.
Despite not falling victim to the alluring power of adding too much to this release, the studio still packed in a lot of fun surprises. Perhaps at the top of that list is the inclusion of a brand-new expansion for the 25-year-old game.
The Call of the Machine expansion was designed by Bethesda studio MachineGames, the studio which in 2014 breathed new life into the Wolfenstein franchise with a series of masterful shooters.
MachineGames released a new episode for the Quake enhanced version by Nightdive Studios in 2021. So it made sense to get in touch with them again for Quake II.
Rubits said that where the work done by MachineGames on the original Quake was the product of a bit of serendipity, MachineGames was involved on Quake II from the start.
“They had tech and gameplay requests that we were able to fulfill before they created all their levels,” he said. “Other than that, we basically just got out of their way and let them create whatever they wanted with no restrictions besides ‘we need to finish the game before QuakeCon’.
“I think you can easily see this in the end result: ‘Take back the Moon’ is a mission objective that has strong MachineGames energy that you'd see in Wolfenstein. It plays differently than the other episodes, something that you can only achieve with decades of hindsight and experience in FPS level design that simply could not exist back then.”
The enhanced version of Quake II arrives at a time when it seems that retro shooters and boomer shooters are having a bit of a moment. Games like Dusk, Amid Evil, and Kvark are all tapping into a fanbase voracious for new content.
Rubits said he doesn’t see this as a trend, but a more cyclical sign that fans of this sort of game have always been out there. The difference now, he said, is that digital distribution has opened up the long tail of selling games, allowing publishers to see that demand, and help indies find their fanbase.
“The other main driver of this comeback is the steady improvement of engines and tools,” he said. “A decade ago, you saw a resurgence of 2D platformers, as indie gaming started to mature out of the PC freeware scene of the 2000s. Now, making a shooter is within reach for a small team.
“By no means was the original Quake II built with a big team; id Software was maybe a dozen or so people at the time, but it required people who were at the bleeding edge and top of their craft to pull off. Now, freely available engines like Unreal Engine have gotten quite good at making 3D games. Add to that YouTubers covering retro shooters who bring in an entirely new audience of people who may not have even been alive when Quake II was first released. There are more people playing and modding DOOM and Quake today than there were when they were new.
“These improvements can even be seen in our release of Quake II. In 1997, it took the team about 18 months to ship on one platform, PC. In 2023 it took about the same time, however we are now available on 6 platforms, and one unit in Call of the Machine probably contains roughly as many polygons as every map in the original game put together.”
Looking back now, ten years since the founding of Nightdive Studios, co-founder Stephen Kick says he’s happy with how the work the studio does has evolved.
“Originally our main goal was to create an easy way for people to play their favorite games again, and we utilized emulation from programs like DosBox to make that happen,” Kick said. “But, as the titles we worked on relied on more complex methods, we built a team and a custom engine to handle our needs. From there the question posed was, ‘The game runs great, but what else can we do?’ Our KEX engine allowed us to enhance classic games by implementing new rendering solutions to enable widescreen support, faster frame rates, and additional platform support.
“We no longer catered just to the PC audience; we could port these classics to new consoles as well. Now we take a look at every aspect of the game, all the way down to the original textures and sprites, and our team of talented artists recreates the art of the game the way you remember it looking. Nightdive has gone from re-releasing classics to launching full-featured remasters oftentimes with additional, never-before seen content.”
For id Software’s Mike Rubits the work Nightdive does taps into more than just the old code of once cutting-edge classics.
“I was 6-years-old when DOOM came out, 9-years-old when Quake came out, and 10-years-old when Quake II came out,” he said. “The fact that I am not only still playing these games today, but also having the opportunity to contribute to their legacy alongside id original Kevin Cloud who worked on all these games originally, is just an incredibly humbling experience to reflect upon. Being able to release Quake II in front of a live QuakeCon audience was such a great experience to be a part of.”
You can purchase Quake II on Epic Games Store now.