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Q&A: Learning from Shadowrun Returns' Kickstarter success Exclusive
Q&A: Learning from  Shadowrun Returns ' Kickstarter success
July 29, 2013 | By Kris Graft




If youíre not familiar with the name Jordan Weisman, youíre likely familiar with his work.

Weisman is co-creator of game franchises such as BattleTech, Heroclix and Shadowrun. A serial entrepreneur with a love for designing games of both the digital and pen-and-paper variety, Weisman has founded companies including FASA Interactive, WizKids, 42 Entertainment, Smith & Tinker, Harebrained Schemes and others.

On July 25, Weisman and Harebrained Schemes launched Shadowrun Returns, a Kickstarter RPG that launched as a $400,000 campaign, but ended up at $1.8 million. Weisman said over email that this was the highest-pressure game project of his entire career. But working directly with fans has also made it rewarding.

The Kickstarter campaign hit its $400,000 goal in its first day, then hit $1.8 million in the end. How did you spend that extra money, and how did your studio reconfigure and adjust to accommodate that extra funding? If a campaign gets excess funding, how should a game developer handle that?

Jordan K. Weisman: It was an amazing and very emotional experience during the Kickstarter campaign as the fans opened not only their wallets, but their hearts, writing really touching emails and posts about how the various versions of the game had impacted their lives.

As the backer funding climbed, so did our expectations, and the audienceís expectations for the title. So while the scale of the topline funding went up by almost a factor of five, the expectations went up even higher. I mention ďtoplineĒ in regards to the money raised, because what most backers -- and many crowdfunded studios -- donít really think about is the difference between the money raised and the resulting development budget.

In our case the deductions were: Kickstarter and Amazon's share, Microsoftís royalty, the production cost of all the physical rewards (books, t-shirts, boxes, dog tags, etc.), and the cost of picking, packing and shipping all those rewards. When you add all that up it represents over 35 percent of the money raised.

At the time of the Kickstarter campaign, the total studio headcount was only 10 people, which would have been fine for the much more modest Shadowrun game that the $400,000 represented, but nowhere near what the team needed to execute the expanded vision. Over the last year we have grown the studio to a total of 35 people, including full-time employees, interns and contractors.

Building a team is alchemy. You may convince yourself itís a science, but itís really magic. And having to scale a team to over three times its original size while under a very tight timeline and budget was a real high wire act which I would not recommend doing if you can avoid it. Mitch [Gitelman] and I have been running studios for decades and so we should have known better then to attempt it -- but with the quality and dedication of our team members and some luck we pulled it off.

It was a little over a year between the end of the campaign and your launch. That seems...quite efficient, despite a minor delay. What's your advice to independent studios who are working towards a deadline for a crowdfunded game?

JKW: In the scale of video game development, our budget was very small and we felt that while our backers were amazing, their patience would not be infinite, so for both reasons we knew we needed to move quickly. We embraced a very agile development methodology which really worked due to the extremely collaborative nature of our studio.

We had some pretty solid, larger design goals established, things like capturing the essence of the pen-and-paper mechanics, player character creation with a high diversity of character archetypes, team based tactical combat, and most importantly powerful [user-generated content tools. But the thousands of decisions needed to realize those goals were mostly worked out in real time over short sprints and with high iteration to allow us to attempt something, and then quickly rev it until it worked the way we wanted it to.

This process means that scope is constantly changing, most often downward, but not always, as the team constantly identifies things that were not considered previously, or that need to be reconceived. The biggest example of that is how we approached the Matrix. We felt that we did not have the budget to ďdo the Matrix right,Ē so had early on decided on an abstract mini-game to represent the Matrix and we communicated this to our backers. But after several attempts at that abstract mini-game had failed we finally bit the bullet and implemented a real Matrix experience.

What do you feel were the key components to your campaign's success?

JKW: For the best chance of large scale success in crowdfunding: First design a time machine, travel back in time to create a game that becomes very popular, then return the present and have the fans of the original fund a new version.

In other words it is the one case in the industry where being old is a benefit. Of course, that only applies to the multi-million dollar category, and even then there are some examples to the contrary.

In addition to, -- or in lieu of -- being old, I think that the key elements of a successful crowdfunding campaign are:

1) Present a clear and compelling vision for what you want to create. This is likely going to require investment on your part in order to be able to show people what you are talking about -- both how it looks and how it plays/works.

2) Establish your teamís credibility for executing the vision. Beyond your previous credits and experience, itís important that the potential backers get to know you and your team -- after all that is who they are betting to deliver.

3) Do your project planning so you know what is going to cost to execute that vision.

4) Do your homework so you know the costs of production and picking, packing and shipping for the rewards you intend to offer.

5) Promote your project in target communities before you launch the crowdfunding campaign.

6) Over-communicate to your audience.

7) Say thank you personally to as many backers as you can.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you see crowdfunders make?

JKW: The three biggest mistakes I see crowdfunders make are:

1) A presentation that doesnít clearly communicate the vision and/or doesnít give the audience a connection to them as people.

2) They donít know enough about how much it cost them to develop their game. Recently I have seen potential backers not backing projects because they didnít think that the project was asking for enough money to really do what they said they were going to do and this undercut the backersí belief in the teamís credibility. And if the team was unlucky enough to get the money they asked for then they and their backers are really screwed -- unless the team can find the additional funds needed to finish the game.

3) They didnít do their homework on the costs of producing or fulfilling their rewards and thus end up with a lot less money for producing their game.

What's next for Shadowrun Returns, and how will this direct relationship with your audience play into that? In other words, Kickstarter opened the discussion with your audience, how will you continue that discussion?

JKW: The direct involvement with our backers and fans has been wonderful -- and made Shadowrun Returns the highest pressure game I have ever worked on. When you are working with an investorís money or a publisherís money, there is always pressure to produce a great game, but you know that your game is part of a portfolio and that the investor or publisher knows that most of the portfolio will either not ship at all or not do well and that will be made up for the part of the portfolio that does a extremely well.

A crowdfunding backer is not playing a portfolio -- they are backing your game because youíve inspired about that game. They are betting on you and only you to not let them down -- and you have to take that responsibility very seriously.

There is no such thing as free money and this is true of crowdfunding as well. Beyond all the costs discussed above there is the very real cost of maintaining a dynamic and positive relationship with your backers throughout your development and after the release of your game. This relationship is worth investing in because you get great feedback about the decisions you are making during development, not just after ship as the case is normally Ė and because they can provide much needed morale boosts as you slave away making your game for them.

As for whatís next for Shadowrun Returns, the majority of the team is working on the Berlin campaign, which was a stretch goal of the original Kickstarter campaign, as well as the Linux port and some localizations.

We have also announced a new Kickstarter campaign that will launch in September for a new game called Golem Arcana. This new game is a tabletop board game that uses a stylus we invented to allow a mobile app to directly interface with the gameís board and figures. Being that I come from tabletop games having founded FASA and Wizkids, Iím really excited about Golem Arcana and to see how the crowdfunding audience responds to funding the creation of not only a new game universe, but a whole new way to play games. Golem Arcana is a bit of a left-turn after Shadowrun Returns, but after all we did call the company Harebrained Schemes.


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Comments


Sjors Jansen
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Thanks for the Q&A! From what I can see Shadowrun returns was a very well executed project so any info is very much appreciated.
There's still tons of questions of course, and I definitely hope to see a full postmortem someday.

I'm wondering if the conversation system turned out to be what you wanted to achieve. I can imagine time and pressure to get results getting in the way of wanting to mold ideas for instance. And I'm not sure if crowdfunding is actually a good tool to really give freedom to creativity. I guess we'll have to wait and see how broken age turns out.
What I also find very interesting is how different groups of people expect different things from a project. You would have to assume developers (and some default understanding of the process) are in the minority right?

There were some issues on this project of course but I think Harebrain adapted quickly and overdelivered in other aspects, compensated efficiently. Remaining levelheaded, which probably comes with the being grizzled. A very slick run indeed. Fitting.

Matthew Mouras
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I've been a fan of Mr. Weisman's work since I was in 6th grade and took up BattleTech as my first tabletop game. Long nights playing the pen and paper Shadowrun followed shortly after. Thanks much for this interview. I was a backer of Shadowrun Returns and I'm pleased with the game that resulted. Looking forward to the community getting to work on some new content.

Golem Arcana looks interesting. I was initially impressed by the integration of digital device, stylus, and board game, but after thinking about it, I'm not so sure. A large part of the fun for me in tabletop games is the bookkeeping aspect. It was how you spent a good portion of your time when playing BattleTech, so I blame Weisman himself for my interest there! Another one of the things I look forward to when playing a tabletop game is throwing heaps of dice and digging through the pile for hits. Sure you'll still have a tactile element with Golem Arcana's system, but I would personally miss the dice.

Of course three of the other big draws for tabletop games are the miniatures, rules system, and social interaction. Those will certainly all still be present in Golem Arcana. I'll be interested to see here more about the system and how the game looks on the table before jumping into the Kickstarter.

Maria Jayne
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Pleased to see a high profile kickstarter funded project out the door. Not only release but be successful and well received by gaming press and players alike.

We need more of these, because eventually someone will fail hard and when they do, we need the successes to remind us they can and do happen. Because I imagine when one of the high profile kickstarters fails to deliver, we'll hear about it from everyone.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I'm a big fan of both Battletech and Shadowrun, having played both when they came out (dating myself here). I really like it when the "old masters" step out of the shadows and start putting new games into the digital space because they come from an era when games had to stand on the merits of their design. They had to be fun, since it was only that fun that kept people playing them. No compulsion loops, no neuroscience lures, no suspicious marketing, no whale funding. People bought these games because they liked them and once they did they could play whenever they wanted, wherever they wanted, without having to weigh their desire to play vs. the cost.

Now those days may be mostly gone, but the skill sets that people like Weisman bring to interactive media can still inspire a generation of developers that are mostly being fed "dark side" design methodology. This also allows them to appeal directly to consumers in a transparent way, which is another thing they are desperately seeking.

I've been playing the game, and am enjoying it a lot. It doesn't give me my multiplayer fix (either table top or digital) but at the same time it does not bring all of the "fun pain" that companies keep trying to serve me in those environments. Perhaps if the game does well enough Weisman will consider making the MMO plunge in the future with a Shadowrun MMO.

Sjors Jansen
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Ehm... http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1964352341/shadowrun-online

Matthew Mouras
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"Fun pain" is a succinct and descriptive oxymoron. It immediately brought a number of mechanics to mind when I read it. I love it.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Roger Dickey, a (former?) Zynga designer, came up with that term so I can't take credit for it.

Sjors: My day just got even brighter!

Adam Bishop
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Shadowrun Returns has a lot of rough edges that betray its limited budget, but I'm having a ton of fun with it so far. It captures the mood of the Shadowrun pen & paper game very well. I think the main lesson to be learned from what these guys did is the importance of properly scoping. They were able to set reasonable goals, prune what didn't seem necessary or fit within the budget, and as a result got a coherent product out the door in a reasonable amount of time. This is the first Kickstarter that I've backed to actually release a final product, and it definitely has me feeling pretty good about the whole process.

Matthew Mouras
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Agreed.

I've heard some folks who aren't pleased with the length of the campaign. I'll happily take what was delivered in the campaign if it's the result of them diverting some resources to completing the editor. I've only spent a handful of hours with it, but it looks robust enough to do what I would want to do with it. I think they were smart to focus on the community aspect of the game.

Kyle Redd
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Am I alone in thinking that $1.2 million isn't exactly "low budget" for a computer game? I got the opposite impression from Shadowrun as you and most others have - the game feels rather cheap considering the amount of money they had to work with, not just in the bare bones presentation but also the lack of gameplay variety and the short, linear campaign.

I assume a large portion of the funding went towards the editor. But even considering that, it seems that smaller developers have turned out far more impressive RPGs with only a fraction of Shadowrun's budget - including recent efforts like Inquisitor, Driftmoon, and Underrail.

Jess Groennebech
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You can compare it to e.g. The Witcher here(estimates) :

http://en.thewitcher.com/forum/index.php?/topic/35033-development
-cost-for-the-witcher-games/

The Witcher taken as an example because it's also from an "indie".

Adam Bishop
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Since when is 10-12 hours short? Most of the $60 games released these days barely hit that length.

As for the other three games you mention, none was made in one year by a company that had to pay full time staff in the United States (along with taxes, licensing fees, etc.) They also don't look nearly as polished graphically as Shadowrun, and good artists cost a lot of money. I can't comment on their gameplay as I've not played any of them.

Scott Berfield
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Let's see. Rent on a studio space for 12 months. Salaries and benefits for staff for 12 months. Internet service, phones, electricity, computers and software, etc...These are not hobbyists making a game for fun in the back room of Mom's house. $1.2M is very low to get anything even halfway polished out the door.

Vyacheslav Gonakhchyan
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I'm very surprised that Harebrained managed to execute the plan so well. Kudos to Weisman and team.
I completed the game and it's very good narrative experience. I'm liking the editor - I think it's very good and intuitive. It took 30 minutes to get into it. I'm somewhat dissapointed with some lacking features and hope they will extend functionality to support scene state. Right now scene is stateless in Shadowrun and loose it's state(variable values) after you walk out of the scene. I.e. if there is something lying on the floor - it will be lost; if there is some conversation with state - it will be lost. That's a deal breaker for me. Harebrained, if you extend functionality of editor to support this, I will try to make something on this engine.

Cordero W
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"Success."

Unfortunately, this also shows the limitations of Kickstarter. Shadowrun didn't feel like a complete game. In fact, it felt more like a beta version of a normal CRPG. My problem with Kickstarter games and the devs is that they let money dictate their course. It lacks the feel of truly making a game out of your garage funding no one but yourself and those who choose to work with you with promise that you'll get profits after the game is complete. The game could use a lot more gameplay polish than graphics, as I felt the combat was not strategic and the interaction with the NPCs were subpar. I've played old games like Ultima and Wizardry, and for some reason Shadowrun just didn't have that kind of narrative to get me going. I suppose this is suppose to capture the Shadowrun audience, but the fact that they opted for a mobile-friendly UI says accessibility was their purpose.

It works as a Kickstarter project that has been released among the few that have, but in terms of being a video game, it could have been better.

Michael Mullins
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It does. But it also shows what happens when a team recognizes and executes within scope. Also, I perceive the scope as being differently directed than you did. I perceived the Seattle 'Run campaign as an extended demonstration. The bit selling point was always the the editor and assets. People may have heard "SHADOWRUN RETURNS toolkit" rather than "Shadowrun Returns TOOLKIT" which is unfortunate.

On that measure I think they really delivered.

Ken Nakai
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Good advice regarding budgets and costs, including time (packing/shipping rewards).

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