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Jordan Weisman looks to the past for  Shadowrun 's return
Jordan Weisman looks to the past for Shadowrun's return
April 20, 2012 | By Eric Caoili

April 20, 2012 | By Eric Caoili
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Veteran game designers have had notable success funding their new game projects in recent months, thanks to Kickstarter. Tim Schafer began the trend after raising $3.3 million on the crowdfunding platform for a new adventure title, and since then it's been difficult to keep track of all the seasoned developers finding success on Kickstarter.

So it's hard to believe FASA/Microsoft veteran Jordan Weisman, the father of beloved series like MechWarrior and Shadowrun, when he tells us he was genuinely surprised that his Kickstarter campaign for a Shadowrun revival picked up the $400,000 it was looking for in a single day.

"I'm a pessimist by nature," he explains to Gamasutra. "You hope your work has had impact on people. You hope that people continue to have fond feelings and appreciate the stuff you've done. But you don't really know. How relevant is it? I teach at University of Washington, and none of those kids have ever heard of any of the games I've ever made."

The lack of interest from any companies to fund a new game for the cyberpunk series -- which has remained dormant since Microsoft's divisive 2007 first-person shooter -- added to Weisman's doubts: "Over the last five years, I've talked to publishers about Shadowrun a bunch, and we just couldn't get off the ground for it.

"We kind of had the same response. Individuals at the company would be like, 'Oh, yeah. I'm such a big fan of that.' But then they'd talk to the marketing company who would be like, 'Well, the Q Score [marketing measurement of popularity and appeal for a property] is like zero, so forget it.' Or the platform restrictions, or whatever it might be. So, if it wasn't for Kickstarter, this thing would not exist."

With $1.2 million in pledges and eight more days left to raise money on Kickstarter, Weisman and his Seattle studio Harebrained Schemes (Crimson: Steam Pirates) will soon begin development on Shadowrun Returns, a PC and tablet turn-based single-player game that promises a return to the series' focus on story interaction and character development.

Returning to Shadowrun's 16-bit classics

Nearly 20 years have passed since Shadowrun's video games last delivered on those core values with Beam Software's SNES RPG and BlueSky Software's Sega Genesis release, both cult classics and completely different titles (while Group SNE released a Sega CD game that never released outside Japan, an unofficial fan translation is underway).


Roaming around the open world of Shadowrun for Genesis

Those games dropped users into a dark, urban dystopia that was unlike anything else on consoles at the time, filled with shamans, hackers, megacorporations, vampires, cybernetically enhanced street samurai, and all sorts of guns for hire. Though they were limited adaptations of the pen-and-paper RPG Weisman helped create in 1989, the games captivated players nonetheless thanks to clever writing and their ability to capture the franchise's grimy setting.

The news of a Shadowrun revival that revisits the series' roots is especially exciting for fans of those old titles, as neither of the games have seen a re-release for modern consoles. But that's not due to a lack of trying on Weisman's part; he points out that rights transfers and the closures of those games' developers have made re-releasing them difficult.

"It's a matter of tracking them down," he says. "We've actually been trying to track down the [Data East / Beam Sotware] SNES title because we would love to be able to in some way offer that to the fans. We'll see where that goes, but I certainly don't want to make any promises about it because we need to find out who owns it at this point.

"But we're working on it. I think it is just, so far, lost in that change of title. And then there will be finding ways of being able to adapt it. So, there's some hurdles there, which I think is why it hasn't happened so far. We're trying to see if we can figure that out. But again, it's complete pie in the sky."

For now, Harebrained Schemes promises to deliver a special Shadowrun Returns mission that ties together the stories of the SNES and Genesis games, provided that the Kickstarter campaign eventually reaches more than $1.5 million in pledges.

Modernizing Shadowrun's vision of the future

This new project is meant to be more than just a return for the series; it's a return to the ideas that the last Shadowrun game abandoned. Weisman feels that the Xbox 360 and Windows title, which was developed as an online-only first-person shooter instead of a single-player RPG, took way too many liberties with the story and mythology of the universe.

Weisman's goal with Shadowrun Returns is to capture the essence of the old video games, which managed to communicate the property's setting despite their graphical and audio limitations. At the same time, he wants to infuse into the project what the industry has learned about game design during the last 20 years, while also adapting the game to how our world has changed.


A promise from Shadowrun (SNES) that's gone unfulfilled for 19 years

"Going back and thinking about how we treat the world, to maintain its edge but yet stay true to the original vision from years ago, is going to be a fun challenge," he says. "The interesting part about getting really old is that you can look back at the stuff you wrote as science fiction and realize that it's come to pass."

He adds, "I mean, the whole concept of creating the game for an Android tablet in addition to PC and Mac is to realize is that back when I [wrote the Shadowrun pen and paper game], these devices were science fiction, right? They were so much science fiction, that even my science fiction didn't include them. I wasn't projecting that far.

"Do we leave the anachronisms in there? There isn't any WiFi in the original setting; everything had to be physically jacked in.... We have a lot of situations like that. I mean, we projected part of the edge that Shadowrun had in the beginning is really how people are getting tattoos and piercings. That was going to be so out there. Well, that's so not out there. That's today, now."

Shadowrun's other return

In addition to the PC and tablet game, another developer, German firm Cliffhanger Productions (Jagged Alliance Online), is working on its own game after licensing the property with Shadowrun Online. It's a free-to-play browser game that Weisman says will focus on multiplayer player-versus-player and scenario-based maps.

"They're approaching the game and the universe in a slightly different way," he notes. Weisman adds that while Shadowrun Online is a bigger budget title due to its online multiplayer infrastructure, Harebrained will focus its smaller resources on Shadowrun Returns story, and helping players tell their own stories with a level editor.

"We're spending our money in different places, and I think it will result in a different game," Weisman adds. "I think you'll have a Venn diagram of players who overlap a lot, and there are going to be players who prefer one style of the universe versus another." He's also working with Cliffhanger to see if they can connect their projects' storylines and potentially their assets.


Cliffhanger's Shadowrun Online, releasing with an open beta in early 2013

Addressing worries that one return for Shadowrun will dilute the impact of the other, Weisman says, "I think the products we're offering are different enough that we're not concerned about that. And there's also going to be several months between the release of our games as well. I don't think we'll see a lot of marketing confusion about it."

Cyberpunk vs World War II

Even though the franchise has shipped four video games, released several editions of its pen-and-paper game's core rulebooks, and published dozens of novels, Weisman hasn't yet grown tired of the series yet, and still feels compelled to revisit the world to tell new stories.

"I'm patting myself on the back, but it's a great venue to tell stories in," says the developer. "Because of the diversity of the characters, and the world itself is a character. It holds up kind of moral complexities. ... I think from a gameplay standpoint, the diversity of play pattern is so large.

"It's unlike, let's say, World War II or some setting where you've got a relatively narrow bandwidth with how different your characters behave, how differently they see the world. In Shadowrun, you kind of have this conflict of four realities all laid on top of each other. That's really powerful from a game standpoint and a story standpoint. That's what keeps drawing me back."


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Comments


Jeremy Reaban
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"I teach at University of Washington, and none of those kids have ever heard of any of the games I've ever made."

That's one of the funny things about his work - much of it really shines bright for 5-6 years, then sort of just fades away. Shadowrun was one of the hottest RPGs in the early 90s, then FASA went out of business and SR ended up being produced by a German company and as near as I can tell, people just stopped playing it.

Mage Knight started a whole genre - collectible plastic miniatures. That was huge for a few years, then died almost as quickly.

I guess Battletech is his most endearing creation, but I'm not really sure if that is around anymore.

Ryan Marshall
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The early 90s was like twenty years ago. Most current college students weren't yet old enough to form memories, if they were even alive.

Even for someone like me, born in 83, cyberpunk was on the way out when I first picked up a Shadowrun book. The game has managed to hang in the periphery of pop culture for so long by virtue of being the most popular license in the genre, but it's hard to not feel that it's kind of dated.

I mean, how long has it been since Japan has been in a position to threaten a take-over of the world economy? One of the best parts of Shadowrun setting backstory was that it maintained plausibility with only one major alien space bat in the future, but that bat will be in the past by the time this game comes out.

I guess that's kind of a tangent to your still-perfectly-valid point. I feel old.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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The whole history of Shadowrun's IP ownership is really sad. I remember when Microsoft eventually got the rights, I wrote them a passionated email begging them to not waste that IP and make an RPG of it (I was young and optimistic). A few years later that shooter came and I lost all hope. But there is a new hope...

Kevin Maloney
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I for one am epically pumped about this project. Shadowrun has been my favorite IP for many years now. Its film noir + high tech + high fantasy + heist movie all stuffed in a blender that is set on awesome. Its a great platform for setting up dungeon crawl like experiences with an incredible trunk of possibilities. I also enjoy how different the classes are and how each class has their own time in the sun where the fate of the run rests on them. Can't wait.

Kyle Redd
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I'm hopeful for Shadowrun Returns most of all, though it's disheartening that the team is already talking about timed-exclusive, day-one DLC. I would have hoped that a purely fan-funded venture would not need to take that road, especially so early in the process.

Don Moman
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A timed exclusive mission (i.e. will be available to everyone eventually), which is designed specifically as a "thank-you" to backers is significantly different than "Day-One DLC" *especially* Day-One DLC of the eeeevil ME3 sort. There's no need to go around trying to stir up controversy where none exists.

Ryan Marshall
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They talked about it once as a reward for backers, and the immediate fan response was negative so they decided to scrap it. As far as I recall, they decided to reward backers by releasing the super DLC early for backers, but then for other people after a few months, no extra charges either way.

At least, that's what I got out of it.

Kyle Redd
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@Don

I didn't say or even imply it was DLC of the "eeeevil ME3 sort." Please don't put words into my mouth, pretending I'm describing something I'm not.

@Ryan

The thing is though, virtually all of the backers who commented on the DLC when it was announced said they thought it was a bad idea and asked for the content to be available to everyone. The primary reasoning is that when you've got a Kickstarter project that has taken in far more funding than the team or anyone else ever expected, there shouldn't be any need to already start worrying about post-release content, and certainly not on splitting said content up so that certain people get to play it and others don't.

Basically, as in the Double Fine and Wasteland projects, a primary motivation for a lot of the backers (including me) is to return to the days of making a single purchase of a *complete* game, where you don't have to worry about entering codes or setting up another account to get the remaining 5% of a game because the initial product is only 95% complete.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Michael Joseph
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""We kind of had the same response. Individuals at the company would be like, 'Oh, yeah. I'm such a big fan of that.' But then they'd talk to the marketing company who would be like, 'Well, the Q Score [marketing measurement of popularity and appeal for a property] is like zero, so forget it.'"
--

Maybe some day big publishers will realize that it is their own neglect of what they consider "niche" markets that is allowing so many indies a path to success.

That would mean abandoning the modern MBA way of thinking and returning to an era where some products are goodwill generating products that strengthen their brand even if those products are not direct profit generating ones.

Umbrella game publishers need bigger umbrellas.

This has to come from the top down... it's too scary a sell for most underlings.

Jacob Germany
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This. Short-term thinking and planning has lead to many, many IPs, even generic types of IPs (like games based on movies and movies based on games) to lose their brand appeal, which is far more important than production sources believe.

Sure, you may scam some short-term profits, but you diminish your future profits unless you deliver quality. Eventually, people realize that Brand Y always underdelivers.

Josh Jones
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I have always wanted to design for this IP. It was one of the reasons I went in to the game industry. I always had the dream of one day someone would put out a project and I would rush my resume off. So hopefully one day that will happen. Its a great IP and hope it moves forward to inspire another generation of dreamers. It just has so much potential to be a great series.

Paul Boyle
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I wonder if we'll see anyone do a new, modern take on the tabletop RPG. I haven't see much interesting come out of that space in a while.

David Holmin
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I love the SNES Shadowrun, and the line from that very screenshot had me waiting for the sequel for many years as a kid. It's wonderful that the series will be revived as a CRPG.

"Do we leave the anachronisms in there? There isn't any WiFi in the original setting; everything had to be physically jacked in"

I'd prefer if that was left in. Maybe it's because my introduction to the setting was the SNES game, but I always got a kinda "retro futuristic" vibe from Shadowrun. The way Deckers had cyberdecks "in keyboard format", big and clumsy, etc. I love that. It's a nice break from the usual clean and tidy sci-fi.

Sarah Johnson-Bliss
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I'm guessing some of you aren't aware of 4th edition Shadowrun, published by Catalyst Game Labs. (http://www.shadowrun4.com/)
The "anachronisms" such as having to jack in have been modernized. Essentially deckers become sort of a hybrid techno-wizard if they're in an area where the Matrix is broadcast (and near useless outside those areas). Also, the 4th edition table top RPG has been pretty strong of late. At conventions (such as Gencon and Origins) you'll see maybe a half dozen games taking place at any given time slot. It's no D&D, but it's really strong.

You just have to know where to look. ;)

As for the CRPG version, yes please!

David Holmin
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I prefer deckers to 4th ed hackers. :) Cyberdeck is cooler than small wireless gadgets. Those we have IRL, today.


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