It’s been almost 20 years since Shadowrun’s unique fusion of cyberpunk and fantasy had itself a proper digital incarnation (we’ll pretend the 2007 shooter never happened), but with Shadowrun Returns, creator Jordan Weisman personally saw to it that fans got what they wanted. We sat down with him to chat about what it was like to release one of Kickstarter’s first gaming successes.
EGM: Can you tell me a little about the project’s inception, its start leading up to the Kickstarter, during, and, of course, after?
Jordan Weisman: We had been wanting to do Shadowrun for a long time. I had tried to pitch a kind of larger-scale game with publishers unsuccessfully, due to the restrictions on the license and publishers not wanting to take up property that another publisher owns. So it was kind of laying dormant, because we knew it was out of the scope of what we could do ourselves—at the time the studio was Mitch and I and eight other people, and we were totally just bootstraps. We didn’t have any kind of significant development budget available, so it was laying over dormant until we saw Tim [Schafer’s] success and said, “Alright, let’s go give it a shot.”
We had developed this level editor for Crimson: Steam Pirates, which we thought could be extended to Shadowrun, and we thought we could eventually release that editor so that people could create their own content, their own stories and adventures in Shadowrun. And the top-down view would make that simple because, you know, developing 3D levels is beyond most people. But the top-down nature would make that accessible. So that’s what we went out and talked about, and the response was so overwhelming that the budget went up to almost five times the original budget. We ended up with a lot more money than we thought we were going to have, and so the scope of the game grew dramatically. So did people’s expectations. People’s expectations grew higher than the budget allowed, and that was kind of a continual thing for us, to try and manage those expectations, because—by videogame standards—the end budget is still very modest.
EGM: So, I have to ask: Is Shadowrun Returns in any way a response to the 2007 shooter Microsoft put out?
Weisman: This is the kind of game I’ve always wanted to make, for sure. What made Shadowrun interesting, to me, in terms of gameplay, was the way that you worked on multiple planes of existence at the same time. The idea of physical combat, magical combat, Matrix combat all happening and having to rely on each to be successful. That’s what I wanted to make sure that we got out of the tactical combat of the game.
I wasn’t involved at all in the 2007 shooter. I mean, what they built there is actually a really good game, and a lot of the stuff that they built in, from a first-person-shooter perspective, has gone on to be cornerstones of what Halo became and even some of what’s taking place in Bungie’s Destiny, because that’s where [former FASA Stuido head] Mitch Gitelman’s team went off to. Like I said, the game itself was a great game. It just wasn’t a Shadowrun game.
EGM: I found Returns challenging to review, because I wasn’t sure if I was reviewing the campaign or its potential from user-generated campaigns. Is that something that the fans clamored for?
Weisman: It’s something we thought was very important from the beginning, because from the pen-and-paper origins of Shadowrun, it’s a collaborative storytelling experience. The power of that is that you can tell your own stories with your friends, and we thought if we could capture some of that in what we’re doing in the electronic version, we’d have something more powerful than just those stories we’re telling. We never viewed The Dead Man’s Switch as the story of Shadowrun Returns—we simply view it as the first story. Obviously, we put a lot of effort into trying to make a good campaign and to tell a good story there—but that’s all built on top of what’s obviously the largest effort, which is creating a platform that the audience could use to tell their own stories and that we could use in the future to tell stories. Everything we release is more building blocks for people to build their stuff out of.
About Jordan: Jordan Weisman founded FASA in 1980, where he created the original Shadowrun. In 1998, he became creative director at Microsoft’s game division and oversaw the launch of Halo. He formed Harebrained Schemes, an independent studio, in 2011.
EGM: Was there anything specific you put into the campaign that’s a direct response to what fans really wanted to see?
Weisman: Absolutely. This crowd-funded process has been unique and really exciting, because it does start that dialogue with the players at inception rather than after you’re all done. And that ongoing dialogue with them really informed a lot of things. For instance, the ability to generate characters. A single character, by nature, automatically means that we can open up the campaign in less-linear format, but the audience made it clear they really wanted to be able to create characters in a wide section of the archetypes that are available in Shadowrun.
Similarly, the Matrix [as a virtual-reality data space] was an interesting one, because we knew that was something of high importance for them. We felt from the beginning that we weren’t going to be able to support the Matrix in a really robust way. We tried building a couple of minigames, and they just weren’t cutting it, so we went back to the well and pushed to build in a more robust Matrix experience. But that was something that we had to go back and find the funds and time to do.
EGM: As a Kickstarter-funded project, was it ever at all nerve-racking or stressful to develop the game?
Weisman: This is the most stressful game I’ve ever made, and I’ve been making games for almost 35 years now. I think that’s because of that dialogue and connection with players all the way through [the process]. The fans who backed us were people who had an emotional connection with this property. It did create a huge amount of stress—stress that helped the product—but stress. At the same point, as a thing that helps our company survive to make more games or more Shadowrun, we knew that it had to be something that reached beyond those 30,000 backers.
Are there any aspects to Shadowrun Returns that you insisted on incorporating?
Weisman: I think, for us, the combination of the turn-based and tactical [combat] and the free-roaming and story section—or the legwork section as it’s called when you’re out investigating—we thought was the right mix for Shadowrun. The turn-based combat gives the ability to do thoughtful interweaving of the different types of archetypes so that they can really play [to] the strengths of how you work magic and combat together, how you’re able to get into the Matrix and interweave that with the physical world combat, and so on.
In the same vein, is there anything that didn’t make it into the game that you were really trying to get in or really couldn’t quite get right?
Weisman: Many things. Probably the one that’s the biggest is our save game strategy—that’s something we’ve taken some hits for. As we looked at what we were trying to do, the power and the trigger system could create very, very sophisticated behaviors, but it also meant that the state engine was really disseminated. And so the ability to do instant saves was going to be really, really hard if we wanted to put all that power in the hands of the player—all the level generators and our own internal level generators as well. It’s not that it’s an unconquerable problem, it’s just an unconquerable problem within the time and budget that we had to do both. We chose to go with the content creation power, not the instant saves. Certainly we knew that was a very tough choice at the time, and I still thought we would have made it—giving the power of the creation—but I think we could’ve done a better job of informing people about how the save game works, because the game doesn’t even tell you. It’s a rude surprise.
EGM: There came a point in the game when I realized it was getting rapidly harder than the first few stages. Is that jump in difficulty scale and the absence of communication to the player intentional? I’m not a tabletop role-playing gamer myself, but some of my workmates are, and they inform me that this level of difficulty is common. Is that something that you wanted to replicate within Shadowrun Returns?
Weisman: This is one of the challenges of having so many different archetypes. Depending on how different people play different archetypes, some people view the campaign as being very easy and some view it as being very difficult. We had to find a balance that was exactly even across all of them. But yeah, we did want the game to go through a ramp of difficulty. We were trying to make sure that we gave the player the tools to meet that difficulty as it occurred. Maybe, as you said, for people who weren’t as familiar with the mileau the communication wasn’t sufficient enough to give them a heads up about it. That’s certainly something we’ll pay attention to and try to correct more. But I think your goal in a game is to challenge a player enough to make them think that their victory is something they feel is an accomplishment, but not make it such that the frustration level is one that they stop playing. It’s a hard edge to walk down, and you’re lucky when you get it right.
EGM: Are there any interesting secrets or nods or Easter eggs tucked away in the game?
Weisman: There are three tribute characters that we gave major roles to, people who had passed away—fans whose family members or friends made us aware of them and their devotion to the game during the Kickstarter or after. We tried to write characters that did them some homage. And sitting at the bar is the ghost of me, but you only see him if you’re a backer. I tell stories about different parts of the Shadowrun creation, hand out a couple of extra grenades, and things like that.