Interview: Jordan Weisman of Harebrained Schemes (Shadowrun Returns)
Shadowrun has been around since its inception back in 1989. A fantasy world set in a dystopian, cyber-punk future where humans, orcs, elves, trolls, dwarves and many other sub-species co-exist. Cyber-netics, magic, mega-corporations and cyber-crimes are all part of the norm, setting a perfect playground in which many have spent countless hours immersed in the hundreds, upon hundreds of various media for more than two decades.
The man responsible for bringing this imagined world to life is Jordan Weisman, an American game designer, author and entrepreneur who looks set to bring the Shadowrun to the forefront yet again. Along with his talented team at Harebrained Schemes, the studio were able to amass a record amount of funding through Kickstarter to produce Shadowrun Returns, a sequel twenty-years in the making.
Jordan was gracious enough to set aside some time out of his busy work schedule to chat with us on the Shadowrun franchise; and the evolution of the brand over the many years, his feelings on Kickstarter and its after effects, as well as what fans can expect in Shadowrun Returns. He’s very open and candid when talking about what is very much his livelihood, so take a moment and plunge into the world of Jordan Weisman and Shadowrun.
Hangie: The first thing I wanted to touch on was the Shadowrun franchise as a whole. I know it’s taken a few years to get it up and running for the sequel (Shadowrun Returns). For people that don’t know what Shadowrun is, are you able to give us a bit of a background on it.
Jordan: Sure, so Shadowrun was originally created as a pen and paper role-playing game twenty-three years ago which I published at FASA, a company I started in 1980. It was a unique kind of mix of fantasy and cyber-punk that used the concept of the Mayan calendar and the projected “end of the world” as the rationale for how magic ebbs flows from the Earth, which is what I projected the fifty-two year long cycle to be about. It came out as a pen and paper RPG and at this point, almost one hundred novels, hundred of game supplements, action figures and many, many things later.
Along the line soon after release; because it became popular very quickly in the RPG circles, there was an SNES and Sega Genesis computer RPGs that were done under license which members of my team helped work on, and myself; and those were critically very well received, and then it laid dorment for awhile.
When I started FASA Interactive, we started working on a Shadowrun game that never really saw the light of day. When Microsoft acquired the company, that project got put on hold and then years later Microsoft did; what started out to be a big RPG with a lot of first-person shooter components, and ended up just a first-person shooter, and that brings us up to today.
Hangie: Touching on the SNES version of Shadowrun. That for me is probably the defining Shadowrun experience in terms of putting together a video game component that’s cyber-punk, very RPG, but very different for its time.
Now you worked with Beam (Software) and Data East to get that game out there and even though at the time it didn’t sell as well as you’d imagine, over the last say, twenty years; it’s been one of those games that’s kind of stuck around and people of my generation still remember fondly of this rare gem that sits in the Super Nintendo archives. Did you ever imagine it that would be sticking around, even twenty years on?
Jordan: Well you know when you make games; I guess it’s true when you make any kind of entertainment or art, you never really know what the lasting impact is going to be. You hope it touches people and inspires them in creative ways but you don’t ever really know. We had a great time working on the game. The Beam guys, they were based there in Melbourne (Australia) and I enjoyed going there and meeting with them; and working with them. They were really good guys, they really knew their business. Together, we reach some really cool ideas and I think they were a little ahead of their time and certainly as you said, very favourably looked back upon, so yeah… it’s a high bar that we’re attempting to hit with this (Shadowrun Returns) all these years later; to take the same kind of inspiration and update it to modern capabilities of PC and tablets, and do that on what is a pretty small budget.
Hangie: With Shadowrun on SNES, it had a very unique dialogue driven type of narrative where you collected keywords and that progressed the story along. How did that idea come about? I mean, at the time there wasn’t really that type of idea behind RPGs.
Jordan: It’s true, that was really innovative and unfortunately my memory isn’t good enough to remember where the idea originated. It was very unique and it’s something we want to build on now. I think one of the great parts about it was it made you feel very involved in the conversations. The down-side was; as you got very late into the game, if you were a completionist, you felt you had to click on every keyword to hear, just in case they might know something about it which can get kind of tedious towards the end. We’re trying to address that and take the keyword system concept one step further allowing you to interact with it in a more unique way. But as you say, it was very innovative and hopefully something we can build upon.
You know, a Shadowrun title coming out after so many years and then, when it turned out to be a first person shooter, it was a bit of a letdown. Was that the same type of feeling you had, or were you kind of, “at least it’s still a Shadowrun title”?
Jordan: Well, I left Microsoft many years earlier and so was not involved in the decision-making of it. The sad part to me was, there was a lot of really solid game design work in there, some very innovative takes on a first-person shooter, it just isn’t really Shadowrun material. If you divorced it from Shadowrun itself, I think it has a lot of really interesting and unique gameplay.
Part of what happened was when the project first started, it was intended to be a big story driven RPG with a dynamic kind of first-person shooter afterwards, so I’ve been told. But then that whole front part got cut and all that was left was the shooter. The authors on the game kind of didn’t pay enough attention to the Shadowrun cannon, to make it feel connected to you know, Shadowrun which is kind of a shame. I think if they put that game out underneath it’s own name (different name) as opposed to Shadowrun, it would have been very well received.
Hangie: When you were considering a sequel for Shadowrun, I know you pushed for a top-down isometric design. When that wasn’t taking any shape or form, and knowing that the publishers weren’t so keen on a top-down kind of game, were you thinking about other areas? Not first-person shooting, but not from that original Shadowrun design.
Jordan: Not for the game we wanted to make. (For) one, if we were funded by a publisher, it was going to be a smaller scale project and two, for the kind of very story centric game we wanted to create, that top down… initially it was a straight top-down; and then we shifted to an isometric that gave us the ability and intimacy into the world and kept the production budgets at a scale that was feasible for us.
Hangie: This relates more to the special edition of Shadowrun Returns that you announced in Kickstarter. The USB dog tag idea, I thought that was kind an interesting concept having the game in that kind of design and packaged in that way. Is this something that the team came up with, or was this something between you and Mitch (Gitelman)?
Jordan: Umm.. actually it came about during the Kickstarter campaign when fans were looking for something more physical for the delivery of the game and we wanted to do something more unique so I started trolling around and found a manufacturer who could make those for us and I thought, “that would be very Shadowrun-ny and very different”, so that was what we went with. The response to it was really wonderful.
Hangie: I had a read around about people’s opinions on the Kickstarter (campaign). You get a lot of fans like myself who read Kickstarter but don’t necessarily back a lot of Kickstarter projects. There were a lot of people who, when they heard about Shadowrun Returns; it was the one project that they backed. Knowing you have such a huge fan base, umm… how come it took twenty years?
Jordan: *laughs* Well it’s interesting because the Kickstarter thing was an emotionally overwhelming for me because I tend to live in my own little bubble making games and I’ve been doing it now for almost thirty-three years; and you don’t really realise the impact that you have, like we were talking about on the SNES. You kind of make things and you go on and make the next thing and you don’t realise sometimes the impact that it has on people.
Kickstarter was the first kind of venue that allowed us to talk to the fans directly in the sense of, “can you help us make this?” I mean, obviously I’ve been going to conventions for a very long time and you’d meet fans there but in small numbers. It’s very different here in this forum where all of a sudden there are forty-thousand fans, and they are all talking about their experiences of Shadowrun and putting out a lot of financial support and a lot of emotional support, and it was quite overwhelming.
Hangie: One of the aspects that fans talk about constantly in terms of Shadowrun itself, the one thing which a lot of people just love about the game was the music, the SNES version; the Sega version. Umm.. getting Marshall Parker (SNES composer) and Sam Powell (Sega composer) involved. What was that like? How did that happen?
Jordan: Well that again, I think is one of the things we liked about this process; was the fans were able to express some of the things that had the biggest impact on them and the music was clearly one of them. So, you know hearing that; we turned around and said, “Well, lets see if we can find those guys!” and we tracked them down and both of them were excited to work on the new version, so it all came together very quickly, but it was a direct response to the fan’s passion about the music.
Hangie: With the release of Shadowrun Returns coming to tablets and PCs, did you consider a digital release on Xbox LIVE or PlayStation Network?
Jordan: Umm… no, not really for us. The primary reason being that the user interface requirements of those platforms are so different than the PC or the tablets that it just would be a very different game to have to design around – being able to use a console controller, a PC, or mouse, or a touch-screen. Mouse; touch-screen, we were comfortable to be able to design for those two but it’s just so much bigger deal to design yet again for the console. Number one; and number two, the budget only goes so far.
Hangie: The original Shadowrun had the controller input and you could kind of move your cursor around to shoot at things, and now with this one; with Shadowrun Returns you’ve said this is going to be turn-based. So, will that be, you know; you take a shot, then they take a shot type of situation? Will you still have that kind of free flowing; you know, I want to put my cursor on this person here or will it just be tile-based type where you click on a tile?
Jordan: No, we’re going to put a fairly large amount of tactical options for the player. It is turn-based and we did that intentionally because we wanted to be able to have that enormous depth of tactical so you know, when you choose a gun, you can not only select what kind of gun you want to use but what firing mode. Is it in single-shot or is it in burst, or is it in full-auto?
You know, are you taking an aim shot or suppression fire, or snap shot? Those are the kind of options we’re trying to make readily accessible, and that obviously is very deep detail and that requires a turn-based kind of nature. Yes, you will be able to specifically click which target you’re looking at and choose targets. Cover, obviously will be a big consideration in your tactical environment.
Hangie: It sounds more towards your sort of table-top design where you know, you’re kind of rolling a dice (I meant die) and deciding which way you walk or who you want to target and things like that. Is that the kind of approach you’re going with?
Jordan: Well it’s very inspired by the table-top and then, tries to take the depth of the table-top and if you will, the accessibility of the SNES or Sega Genesis versions, and find a happy medium between those.
Hangie: Did you consider, well I don’t know if I should be saying this but I played the Super Nintendo version and loved it, and then many years later on the emulated versions of it on other consoles because it’s one of those games where you need to experience it again. Once the Super Nintendo memory banks starts to give way, you start trying to find alternative avenues to play the game. One of the ways in which I found was really good was being able to play a portable version of it. Did you ever consider portable consoles?
Jordan: Our view is the smartphones are basically as good as any portable console we can get to so, that’s why right now we’re determined to make it work on the tablets which are reasonably portable if you will. We’re not convinced we can bring it on to phones. We think it might be too small of a form factor but we’ll look at it and try; and see, but right now we’re designing around PC, Mac and tablets.
Hangie: I’ve had a chance to look at some of the artwork, the concept art and even some of the renders in terms of what the layout and the game (Shadowrun Returns) will actually look like when it’s completed. Are you able to give us some more detail on what’s been happening since the last time you revealed it? I think that was a week or two ago.
Jordan: Yeah.. no, not much new to go to press with since then. Yesterday we published a kind of little video from all the questions and talk we had at PAX, so that has a little more information in it, but nothing new that we’re ready to go to press with yet. We’ll do another update later in the fall.
Hangie: One of the things you touched on was about the day and night setting. It’s not going to be a dynamic thing but will it actually impact in terms of storyline; like, whether you choose a day or a night to visit a locale?
Jordan: Yeah, that’s one of the tools we want to build in there for Game Masters so they can construct an environment as a day; or a night and then make it available for the player to potentially have both options, or if they want to build less content, they can just determine that you have to go here at night; or you have to go here in the day.
Hangie: Going back on the Kickstarter campaign, now Kickstarer’s been around for a little while and I read that you were a bit reluctant to go down (that road) with Kickstarter. If Kickstarter hadn’t been successful, was there another option you were considering, or was this going to be the last ditch (effort)?
Jordan: For this scale of project, this pretty much was the only option that existed. We had kind of taken ‘the thing’ of the table until Tim (Schafer) had showed that Kickstarter was viable, I had taken the concept off the table. So without it, we wouldn’t have been able to do it.
Hangie: There’s a few other big titles that you’ve had in the past. I mean, Shadowrun’s one of them. MechWarrior is probably another one; and Crimson Skies. They both have their own established fan bases too. Were you looking to do something similar with MechWarrior?
Jordan: Well, we don’t have the rights for MechWarrior so we can’t do that. It’s certainly a universe I love and love to play in. I’ve been working with the guys at Piranha (Games) on the MechWarrior Online, and really been enjoying collaborating with them on that but in terms of Harebrained Schemes, at the moment we don’t have any capability to do anything in the MechWarrior or Crimson Skies universe.
Hangie: That’s a bit of a shame.
Jordan: Yeah..well you know, one can always hope.
Hangie: The other thing that was quite successful was Shadowrun Online. It’s probably not as widely known as Shadowrun Returns. Tell us a little bit about that.
Jordan: Well, Smith & Tinker had licensed Cliffhanger Productions to do a browser-based MMO style game and that license is a couple of years old at this point when that deal was originally done. So, Jan (Wagner) and I had talked many times via Skype, trying to support each other as best we can. His game is set twenty years after our game. It’s going to be set in the 2070 timeframe and it’s a very different playstyle of game then what we’re doing but I think it’s great to be offer Shadowrun fans a lot of different ways to immerse themselves in the world of Shadowrun.
Hangie: Is Shadowrun Returns, based on the current schedule and the work that’s been involved so far… is it still on track for release?
Jordan: The original date that was in the Kickstarter was based on the much smaller, $400,000 project. After things went crazy, we specifically said that schedule doesn’t hold any more. *laughs*
Jordan: We haven’t yet announced an updated release schedule but you know, there are multiple phases of development, just like there are multiple phases of grief. *laughs*
Jordan: We’re past the first phase which is the unbridled enthusiasm, and past the second phase, “Oh my god we’re totally f**ked”.
Jordan: And we’re into the third phase which is, “Ok. We have a lot of work to do”.
Hangie: *laughs* I know you had the target of $400,000 initially. What kind of things did you just plan in terms of $400,000? What was $400,000 going to do in terms of Shadowrun Returns?
Jordan: The biggest difference is it was going to be a straight top-down view; which is both from an engineering, and from an art standpoint a much, much simplier thing to do than the isometric view, so that was one part of it. Two, it was a simplier conversation engine approach and obviously the editor that we were going to give people, a much simplier editor than the one we’re making now; to be able to handle all the isometric view. So all that kind of stuff just mushroomed in complexity.
Hangie: Because I’ve noticed when I’ve watched some of the interviews with you and Mitch (Gitelman), you’re quite the dreamer and very optimistic in terms of what you can achieve and Mitch is always the one, he’s more the realist. “This is what we can do”, “this is the kind of resources we have”, so…did he (Mitch) set the boundary for $400,000 or you just, let’s go crazy. Let’s keep going!
Jordan: Well, we did an initial design sketch and budget before we launched the Kickstarter so we had an idea what we wanted to make and a sense what we could make based upon the other games we had made already. But yes, our dynamic is that total “Frick and Frack” and I think that’s important in a relationship, that you get both sides. If all of us were crazy dreamers like me, we could walk ourselves right off the edge of the planet.
Hangie: Going back to what you said just now with the top-down view, what were fans reactions to the top-down view? Were they still pushing for isometric, or were they fine with top-down and just wanted a Shadowrun game, a sequel.
Jordan: Well it was interesting. All the initial funding came in as we had said it was a top-down. Part of it which is interesting, as we got into it further, people viewed that phase differently. To some people, top-down meant isometric.
Jordan: And then as the funding enabled that, well then, we’re going to make that what we’re doing, because we’d love to go there. It’s what we would have dreamed to have done.
Hangie: Well I guess top-down, when I was thinking top-down; I was thinking isometric as well so, maybe top-down is more like a board game type of top-down.
Jordan: Yeah, like we did in Crimson: Steam Pirates which is a straight top-down view, right?
Jordan: As opposed to an isometric. We used the same top-down view in Strikefleet Omega, because it is a much less expensive way of rendering the world, you know.
Hangie: Regardless, I’m glad to have a sequel to continue the story on. I mean for me, playing the SNES version so many times over the last twenty years, trying to get more information out of the game and just, really enjoying the experience. Even the more I play it and I know what’s going to happen, it’s still one of those games I’d probably rate as one of my top five favourite games of all time.
Jordan: WOW! That’s a huge compliment to the guys at Beam and I appreciate that. I don’t know if we’ll get there *laughs*, because that’s a high bar but we’ll try very hard.
Hangie: Thank you, that’s fantastic. Did you have any closing comments for the fans, or people that have been following Shadowrun really closely?
Jordan: Well, a GIANT THANK YOU! It’s just enormously gratifying and the amount of support we’ve gotten and continue to get from the community really keeps us going in these long days, and long nights. We’re a small team but we’re really dedicated to try and do the best possible game we can in this universe and we’re overjoyed to have the opportunity to do so.
Hangie: Thank you for your time today. I know you’re probably very busy working away.
Jordan: Well we are Hang, but thank you for your time today. We appreciate it and look forward to staying in touch as the game develops.
Thanks again to Jordan Weisman for talking with us, given his tight work schedule and PAX commitments. We wish Jordan and the rest of the team at Harebrained Schemes all the best with their project and I personally look forward to the opportunity to play a proper Shadowrun title once more.
Head over to the official Shadowrun Returns homepage to keep up-to-date with the latest news and progress on the game. If you didn’t get a chance to back Shadowrun Returns during the Kickstarter campaign, it isn’t too late to get your fill of Shadowrun. You’ll still have an opportunity to purchase the game when it launches. Shadowrun Returns is still currently in development with a 2013 release date.